atheism for lent, day eight: converting an atheist (do you smell the mint?)
DAY EIGHT’s material comes from the show Fear and Faith by illusionist Derren Brown.
As a magician, Brown mixes traditional magic with psychological techniques and the power of persuasion — all to warn people against the power of manipulation and the dangers of groupthink. His personal position is atheist (after having been raised in a Christian denomination), but though he considers belief in God unnecessary, he doesn’t consider it stupid.
In the Fear and Faith episode “How to Convert an Atheist,” Brown’s goal is to give self-proclaimed atheists the experience of conversion.
Initially, he does a fascinating little experiment with his 160-person, predominantly atheist audience: he asks who would be willing to perform a satanic rite that involves dedicating oneself to Satan and stabbing the photo of a loved one. Of these 160 people, only 10 or so even believed that Satan exists. Of the 150ish nonbelievers, only very few were willing to do the experiment.
Brown’s contention is that for evolutionary reasons that once kept us safe, we’re all hardwired to believe in the supernatural — even when we think we don’t.
In the main segment of the show, Brown attempts to give atheistic STEM cell scientist Natalie a “conversion experience.” Through various psychological techniques — establishing rapport, focusing on emotion, establishing a trigger to recall those emotions, bringing the physicality of the emotions to her conscious awareness, and making suggestions — he succeeds. Even after he explains his manipulation to her, encouraging her not to attribute her experience to the supernatural, Natalie maintains that her life has been changed for the better.
Caveat emptor: I know I’m not supposed to agree or disagree with the AfL material, but I have to note here that I’m not convinced Natalie isn’t an actress.
That said, Brown’s point does resonate with me:
“When we think something is true, we will look for anything that will confirm it to us. We’ll look for patterns in randomness. …We fall prey to seeing things that aren’t there.”
My caveat aside, the episode is definitely unsettling. I’d like to think that if I were in the audience, or if I were a Natalie (and a sincere one), I couldn’t be manipulated like that. I’d like to think that I’m honest in my responses, that I act in accordance with reality and not wishful thinking.
I’d like to believe that about myself. But I know full well that those people in Brown’s audience believe the same about themselves. And the majority of them proved as malleable as the proverbial putty. Even to the point of subconsciously improving their behavior after hearing the suggestion that there might be a ghost in the room.
And here we think Casper can’t scare anybody except little kids.
The episode is also disturbing because it makes me wonder how many times over the years I’ve already been manipulated like this. How many conversations have I had in which the other person was subtly programming my emotional response? What have people gotten me to think or gotten me to do that I otherwise wouldn’t have thought or done?
“Ideological structures are often sustained by appealing to people’s hopes and fears while simultaneously excluding or downplaying critical thinking, the exploration of alternative positions, or insight into how beliefs are formed.”–Peter Rollins
In my years of “sharing Christ” in my capacity as a missionary…how many times did I subconsciously influence others into belief?
This stuff is messed up, y’all.
For the record, if you watch the episode: I did not smell the mint. Make of that what you will. 😉