Tag Archives: scepticism

Derren Brown, confirmation bias and the need for religious education

On the evening of Friday 16th of November, Channel 4 aired the 2nd of a 2-part programme entitled “Fear and Faith” which was hosted by one of Britain’s foremost entertainers, Derren Brown. In the first part of the programme, Derren explored the placebo effect, giving various different groups of people a very well-crafted placebo to “cure” their different complaints, though the programme predominantly focused on those who had certain fears, such a woman who was trying to make a career in theatre but who was afraid of singing in public, a man who was so afraid of heights he had difficulty walking over a bridge which safely carried road traffic across it every day and a man who was very shy, fearing new social interactions, especially conflict.

In this 2nd part, Derren looked at the idea of “God” being the ultimate placebo. Rather than recount a blow-by-blow account of the programme, I’d recommend you try and find it online to watch again or wait for a repeat. What I found most interesting was the reactions on Twitter. I was following the #FearAndFaith hashtag and making a few posts myself (apologies to anyone who follows me and thought I was spamming).

The climax of the programme, which was being built up to, was trying to give an atheist a “conversion experience”. Much of the response on Twitter echoed the idea of @evertoniandy when they wrote:

Derren Brown was brilliant. Fascinatingly interesting. Turns out God is probably imaginary. Who knew? #fearandfaith #atheism

What is particularly interesting about this is the phenomenon of confirmation bias. The programme didn’t really examine religious belief at all. It focused on the idea of an emotional experience. This is something Charles Foster looked at in his book, Wired For God. Yet the conclusions that were made by the viewers far outstretched what could reasonably be made from the evidence presented. There is an earnest desire among some atheists to disprove the existence of any kind of god, so what happens is that anything which vaguely hints in that direction is taken as a confirmation of their own (lack of) belief.

Having spotted the sleight of hand that the programme creators were using, I posted the following message on Twitter:

#FearAndFaith Interesting to explore the emotional aspect of belief. Is Derren going to explore rational bases of belief too?

This prompted as response from an account called Godless Spellchecker, a fairly relentless account (it averages 60 posts per day) which has around 16,000 followers.

@GSpellchecker
“@TheAlethiophile #FearAndFaith Is Derren going to explore rational bases of belief too?” + They don’t make 10 second TV shows.

Because I was quoted rather than having a straight response, this prompted a flurry of other replies which I transcribe for you below:

@cheesymondo
@TheAlethiophile Taking all scientific reasons behind it.

@martarama
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile I’d have thought there wasn’t enough to put into such a tv show….

@DanielWalker319
@GSpellchecker @TheAlethiophile He already has. Fear and it helped us get laid.

@stuhowling
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile Haha brilliant. Another brilliant put down from GS

@glenn37smyth
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile LOL

@ogoffan
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile 10 seconds – must include an advert break then.

@JosianeGrignon
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile lol I just choked on my candy

While the Godless Spellchecker account may believe it made it a witty response, what it really did was betray an underlying problem with some modern critiques of religion. It presupposed, without evidence, that there cannot be a rational basis for faith. Indeed, the last decade or so, led by the New Atheists, has seen an increasing use of language whereby atheist is made synonymous with rationalist. Yet I have come across many atheists who could not reasonably be called rational, given their views on atheism are based very much on an emotional level, prejudiced and hateful of anything resembling what they perceive as ‘religious’. Equally, the increasingly tiresome canard of ‘science v religion’ betrays the fact that there are a great many scientists who hold “religious” beliefs and many “religious” people hold no objections to scientific ideas or the evidence or proof which uphold them.

Sticking to christianity, I know some people who believe for primarily emotional reasons, maybe based on an experience such as that which Derren attempted to recreate. Yet many I know, myself included, believe for much more rational reasons. For me, while the existence of God is vitally important, it’s not the most helpful way to approach a critical examination of christianity. Rather, the historical basis of christianity has to be the first thing examined. In other words, looking at the person of Jesus. For Islam, one would need to examine the life of Muhammad. On these subjects, there is much to be examined, evidence to be pored over and ideas to be discussed.

What is most concerning is the belief, in the teeth of the evidence opposing it, that there is no rational basis for belief. It demonstrates a very clear lack of education on matters relating to faith/belief/religion, however you want to word it. While some of this may be the result of poor religious education in the state system, I don’t think all responsibility can be taken away from the church. As christians, we have a duty to explain clearly what we believe. If people’s religious education is sourced from the naysayers then the view the public will get will be grossly skewed, a distortion of what christians believe. Hectoring the close-minded is not the answer; engaging with the open-minded is. The question then is, how to do this faithfully, rationally and with all due respect for those who hold different views from ours?