Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Religion as Trickery: Brown (2)

Derren Brown is a performer who ‘combines magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship in order to seemingly predict and control human behaviour’ (website). Behind his performances lie both an atheistic scepticism and a form of suspicion which ask questions about ‘why we believe things’ (Brown, "Messiah"). His study of religion, psychology, magic, hypnosis, psychic ability, spiritualism, and New Age beliefs such as crystal energy and alien abduction leads him to debunk as delusions and deceptions contemporary religious, spiritual, or paranormal beliefs and practices, as well as the ‘mind tricks’ of entertainment, alternative medicine, and other everyday “bad sciences” (Brown, Tricks of the Mind; see also recommended reading list on his website).

His books and TV shows therefore encourage a suspicion of appearances that presupposes the distinctions made by Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche between manifest and latent motives. Brown’s conscious manipulation of human behaviour, including performances in which he converts people to Christianity ‘with a single touch’ ("Messiah"), acts as a mirror to aid reflection upon some of the operative yet unconscious motivations involved in all systems of belief and practice.

What Brown does primarily interests him (and his audiences) not at the transcendent level at which ontological or metaphysical questions are asked about the existence of God or UFOs, the ability of psychics, or the power of crystal energy – but at the immanent level at which historical, sociological and, particularly, psychological questions are asked about how and why we come to believe and do certain things.

Talking to a psychic, there’s the cheap illusion of her psychic ability or his psychic ability that’s questionable, but what to me is more interesting is the human level, the fact that I could sit and listen to a psychic and be so convinced, what that actually says about me and us as people and the way we interact and the way that we do form those patterns, the way that we will see design where there is none, the way that we’ll come to those conclusions, at a purely psychological level is so much more interesting, ’cos that says something about us as humans, which ultimately has to be more powerful and more beautiful than nonsensical guff about the ether. (Brown, in interview with Nigel Warburton, "Magic and Being Human")
The more interesting illusions that Brown suspects are involved in religion – as well as, for example, in cold reading (whereby the reader conveys more details about another person than s/he actually does know) and slight-of-hand entertainment – are not related to degrees of either incredulity or gullibility. He does, however, stress the importance of information. He says, ‘it doesn’t really matter how much you believe in it or [don’t] believe in it;’ instead, it depends on whether you have ‘specific knowledge about specific skills’ that magicians or psychics or religious institutions and practitioners employ (in interview with Nigel Warburton, "Appearance and Reality"). For example, he notes that ‘[r]eligions tend to encourage either high-energy crowd activity or candle-lit monotony to invoke a suggestible state among the congregation.’

As ‘intelligent human beings,’ Brown suggests therefore that ‘we should be prepared to question our beliefs and [to question] the people who encourage us to make life decisions based on the information they give us’ ("Messiah").

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