Updated 25/11 (third section)
1. And though she feels as if she’s in a play
When I was little, I had an imaginary friend. He used to go with me wherever I went. I used to talk to him inside my head and I knew that he could hear me. And sometimes I’d make wishes, and if I was very lucky he would grant them for me. Then I got a bit older, and I stopped going to church.
- Jimmy Carr
One more religion post, this one inspired by Derren Brown.
On the Fear and Faith programme broadcast last week, Derren Brown induced what he presented as a counterfeit religious experience in an unsuspecting – and unbelieving – volunteer. After talking to her for fifteen minutes in a highly atmospheric church crypt, he left her alone; at this point she felt a sudden urge to stand up and was overwhelmed by a sense of unconditional love, together with the sense that it had been available to her all her life. Some time later, Derren Brown explained how the trick had been worked (with lots of quasi-hypnotic suggestion techniques on his part) and impressed on her that she had done it all herself: the emotion was real, but it was all her own work, with no need to invoke God to explain it.
My immediate reaction was that Derren Brown had completely missed the point of what he was doing. He’d essentially love-bombed this woman, making her feel happy and important; then he’d talked to her about experiences of awe and wonderment, and about the incomprehensible vastness of the universe; then he’d evoked feelings of being cherished, of your life mattering in some absolute sense despite only being an infinitesimal speck within the vastness of the universe. (And then he’d left her alone in a church.) Whatever other NLPish cueing techniques he’d used, just by his manner and his choice of topics he’d steered this woman into feeling ‘religious’ emotions – but they’re emotions which are entirely real, valid and appropriate. You do matter; the universe that surrounds you (in time and space) is vast and incomprehensible; and there’s no better reaction to the massive contradiction between those two facts than a sense of wonder and gladness. So we’ve proved… what?
According to Derren Brown, we’d proved that it was possible to have a religious experience “without God”. Now, Derren Brown was a born-again Christian at one time, so to some extent he knows whereof he speaks, but this strikes me as a bizarre overstatement. For anyone who believes in God, God is in the vastness of the universe, as well as being in that sense of your existence being important and in your reaction to all this. In short, God was there all along. When it comes to the experience of believing in God, on the other hand, that sense of a rush of unconditional love is quite a specific experience; it’s certainly not something believers routinely feel, between one Sunday and the next. What matters in practice is not feeling that God is talking to you, but feeling that you’re trying to talk to God.
Derren Brown (and Jimmy Carr, also an ex-fundamentalist) would probably say that all this openness and doubt and silence is all very well, but it’s not religion as we know it; I could be talking about yoga, or Buddhism at a pinch, but not Christianity. Christianity, surely, is all about knowing that God exists, knowing that God has a plan for you and knowing that God is talking to you from day to day; this is precisely the background faith that Derren Brown’s volunteer didn’t have, which is why we can say that she had her experience ‘without God’.
I don’t know. It strikes me that the knowledge which comes from faith, however certain, is very different from the knowledge that comes from living in the world. Faith is always in dialogue with doubt; if faith-based knowledge was entirely free from doubt it would just be knowledge.
Or is it that simple?
2. And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free
Someone came up to me, and he said to me
I know something that you don’t know.
I was captured by this stance, I gave a second glance
And said “I’ll follow where you go”
- Peter Perrett
This sense of faith as always being accompanied by doubt is what I was getting at in an earlier post about religion. Talking about the idea of religion as a comforter, with particular reference to death, I said
And in any case, just how much comfort can those ‘comforting’ beliefs really be, even if you manage to believe them? I’ve been to a couple of funerals where the continuing existence of the departed was emphasised heavily, and I felt that every restatement was prefixed by a tacit This certainly doesn’t appear to be true, but by God, it’s worth at least trying to believe.
I wonder just how much comfort that comforting knowledge could be – or perhaps what kind of comfort. In the watches of the night, surely the happiest clapper would find it hard to feel any real confidence that God would sort it all out. At my father’s funeral, the vicar told me my father still loved me. I didn’t believe him, but if I had it would just have given me something else for doubt to grapple with. I think what’s healthy and psychologically adaptive about religion is a kind of turning towards something vast and incomprehensible, in a spirit of humility and trust: there’s stuff in our lives that’s beyond understanding, we don’t have to sort it all out, it will be all right. Perhaps explicit religious beliefs – such as the professed belief that my father did still exist, despite all the evidence to the contrary – are a kind of mental exercise: here’s something vitally important to you which absolutely doesn’t make sense, but go with it and it will be all right.
Faith, I think, is always in a dance with doubt. But there are different kinds of dance, and some of them are less healthy than others. Ever since the first of these posts on religion I’ve been thinking I should link to this post; I read it seven years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. The mentality I’m describing goes something like “Something appalling has happened; God let it happen; we can’t understand it but it’ll all make sense some time, and it’ll be all right eventually“. What Justin described in that post is more like “Something appalling has happened; God let it happen; that’s the kind of thing he does, he could do it to us again any time, and we don’t deserve any better“. In other words, instead of opening to grief and bafflement in a spirit of trust, it closes down that grief and makes sense of it – and it makes sense of it by calling it a good thing and bowing down to whatever inflicted it. Doubt is in the dance only to the extent that it’s being emphatically trampled on by faith as it strives for certainty – and since the only things certain in life are loss and death, a God of loss and death is what faith gets pinned on. This is a life-denying, self-abasing, anti-human attitude – and if that was reliably what religion meant, I’d have nothing to do with religion.
Or there’s another form of dance with doubt which can also go under the name of religious belief, although this one takes other forms as well. It doesn’t usually last very long, either; it’s a bit of a young person’s game. I’m thinking of the kind of faith which enacts that doggedly repeated repression of doubt, but in the name of hopeful certainties: as if to say, I would ask questions about eternal life and the Creation and everything, but look – shiny! Everything‘s shiny! The closest I’ve come to this is when I was a novice conspiracy theorist; I fell for the old once you have eliminated the impossible trick over and over again, and found myself clutching some remarkably shiny truths about what was really going on. You can go down quite a rabbit-hole this way, and to be honest it can be quite a trip: the moment that scepticism says Can this be right? It doesn’t fit with how I think the world works, faith counters with Ah, but maybe that’s not really how the world works…, and you’re off again. Believing you’ve tapped into something that’s at once true, comprehensible and important is a heady experience, and letting doubt in on it seems like no fun at all. This kind of faith essentially shouts doubt down, or asks it to wait outside; once the dancing starts properly the faith is liable to collapse.
3. Hold on to that feeling
Sometimes you confuse me with Santa Claus
It’s the big white beard, I suppose
- Elvis Costello
I suppose that combination of true, important and comprehensible is what both these forms of belief share: they both offer truths that make life matter and make it understandable. To put it another way, they both present believers with the contradiction between our belief in our own specialness and the vast indifference of the universe, and they both resolve it. One worldview pictures God as the boss of the world, and from this perspective there is no mystery about why your little life has been trampled on: God did it, because that’s what he does, and he does it because he can. (Besides, who’s to say that you deserved anything better?) The other has God as a Father Christmas figure, with gifts for all the good boys and girls: your life can be as blessed as you feel it should be, and it will be, in the future. Just be good, be patient and don’t stop believing…
It was interesting seeing Derren Brown explaining the characteristics of the religious belief he was going to induce; interesting, as well, seeing how animated he became as he talked about ideas like that of God looking down on each one of us and intervening in our lives. I felt that he, having been a born-again Christian, was harking back to a young person’s religion stocked with shiny, doubt-repressing beliefs: the kind of religion which would interpret the volunteer’s experience by saying yes, that definitely was God’s love you felt, no, it couldn’t have been anything else, yes, that definitely was God actually talking directly to you, absolutely definitely, I wouldn’t consider any other explanation for a moment (and repeat).
If you’re trying to ward off that kind of religious belief, then saying “those are real emotions you’re feeling, but God didn’t produce them” makes a degree of sense – it certainly lets some light in. But if religion is an orientation to the baffling vastness that somehow contains our incomprehensibly significant lives, and if God is a name for that vastness and some people’s experiences of it, then what Derren Brown’s volunteer experienced wasn’t a fake religious experience at all – it was the real thing.
One final analogy, which came to me after I’d read a passage from (bizarrely enough) Derren Brown’s book Tricks of the Mind. Despite (or because of) being an alarmingly proficient hypnotist himself, Derren Brown is very concerned about the ethics of hypnosis, believing that it can do a lot of harm in the hands of untrained or thoughtless users. He argues that it’s essential to talk hypnotic subjects down, so that when they leave they’re in no doubt that they’re no longer hypnotised. You can see his point. A mysterious influence you can’t understand – seemingly preventing you from getting up, lowering your arm, remembering your own name or whatever – is all good fun in a theatre, but it’s not something you’d want cluttering up your mind once you’re back in the real world. What interested me was the comparison which he drew with magic – where, clearly, audiences do experience something they can’t understand and go home without having it explained. Quote:
it seems wrong that the argument that ‘hypnosis isn’t real’ should absolve the hypnotist of all responsibility towards the welfare of his participants. If a hypnotist were able to say to his audience, ‘If you come up, please just play along with everything,’ it might be argued that the subjects should then be responsible themselves. However, given that he is going to manipulate, bully or cajole rather vulnerable people into anything from playing along to really living out what he suggests, and in a way that might be very confusing or unsettling for them, there is a sense in which one should not just immediately decide that he can walk away from any duty of care.
Now perhaps one might argue that according to that logic, a magician should then be held responsible if a participant in a card trick takes the magic way too seriously and loses so much sleep following the performance that he develops an illness. However, this would be a very unusual case, and clearly a reasonable person would not be expected to react in that way. In our hypnosis scenario, though, it is more understandable that a participant might leave the show troubled if handled unprofessionally.
I think what’s troubling about hypnosis, if not handled properly, is that it puts the subject through something which seems entirely real but doesn’t make any sense – and then leaves the subject to try and make sense of it. Magic does something similar, except that it tells the people who experience it, loud and clear, not to worry about making sense of it: it’s just magic. Leaving a hypnotic subject suspecting that she might still be subconsciously under another person’s control – or for that matter leaving her believing that hypnosis has transformed her life for the better – is very much the way those two narrow, doubt-repressing forms of religious belief work. Derren Brown’s scruples about the correct use of hypnosis, as well as being very much to his credit, are of a piece with his opposition to religion, as he sees it. The irony is that the magician – performing the impossible and then saying, You’ve seen what you’ve seen, don’t worry about making sense of it – is creating something much more like what I’d consider a religious experience.