During a recent flying visit to London I was lucky enough to catch a Derren Brown (official site / Wikipedia page) show.  If you haven’t heard of Derren, I would thoroughly recommend finding a DVD and giving it a watch.  He’s essentially a psychological illusionist who uses a combination of psychology, distraction and illusion to create a unique and entertaining show.  He’s a self professed sceptic when it comes to all aspects of the paranormal, including genuine psychic abilities, and does an excellent job of incorporating his scepticism into his shows.

An example he used in the show I attended was that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  The famous author and creator of Sherlock Holmes began believing in paranormal phenomena towards the end of his life.  This included fairies, of which he wrote a book.  Derren gave a demonstration of the techniques used to convince people like Arthur Conan Doyle of the existence of paranormal activities.  I won’t go into the specific example in case you intend on going along to the show, but suffice to say it was impressive and could be convincing.

The whole experience really got me thinking.  Derren gave a very specific demonstration that was framed, even with his introduction which clearly stated he didn’t believe in paranormal activity and that the following was an illusion, in such a way as to make it plausible.  If you wanted to believe it to be true, there wouldn’t be much to stop you.  Now this is entertainment, and as Derren points out, he is always honest in being dishonest.  He tells you something is a lie before going on to demonstrate it as if it was true.

Now I’m a very perceptive, logical, person.  While watching the show I came up with various ways in which the some of the acts could have been successfully performed.  And there were clearly nods throughout the act to those of us in the audience who had this critical hat on.  Veiled hints at how things are done.  The important thing to remember here though is that I went in as a critic and sceptic.  I knew (because Derren himself admits it) that these are tricks and I wanted to know how they were done.  If I hadn’t have gone into the performance with this attitude, it would have been very easy to believe everything he did.  To buy into the performance.

This is the point really.  One of the key differences between Atheists and Non-Atheists is that Atheists almost always have a critical sceptic hat on.  They want to know the how’s and the whys of everything and tend not to take things at face value.  If you’re a Christian, and you read the Bible, you are predisposed to believe everything in there as fact.  You won’t have that critical eye that others have.

So where am I going with this?  It became obvious that throughout the show there are certain actions, scenarios and set ups Derren uses to paint a convincing picture.  It’s all very carefully designed and acted out to create an illusion.  So I found myself wondering how religion uses these same techniques.  What are the illusions religion creates in order to maintain it’s grip over people, and grab new followers?

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting my thoughts on this area.  How certain religions use illusion to trick people, be it subtle or overt.  I’ll be starting off with Christian churches, and how they are designed, architecturally, to be magical places that connect followers to “God”.