Derren Brown – Fear and Faith (Part 2): religious conversion on tap in episode

Derren Brown and Simon Dinsell, “Derren Brown – Fear and Faith (Part 2)” (2012)

In this second episode of “Fear and Faith”, UK hypnotist / skeptic Derren Brown explores the psychology of religious belief as the ultimate placebo by performing three experiments. The first experiment involves his performance of a supposed Satanic rite before an audience and the second experiment has a number of people sitting for 15 minutes each on their own in a darkened room which they have been told is haunted by spirits. In the third experiment, Brown attempts to give a confirmed atheist, Natalie, a profound religious experience that will convert her to religious belief while they are sitting in a church.

The bulk of the episode is taken up by the third experiment in which Brown attempts to encourage belief in a loving father figure using Pavlovian psychology by tapping his fingers on a table while Natalie recalls warm childhood memories and imagines a perfect parent. He then prods her into believing that the things that have happened in her life, good and bad, are part of a narrative arc created by a benevolent external agent. Finally he plants suggestions into her mind including one in which when she rises to her feet, she will feel overwhelmed with love from an external source; Brown then gets up and leaves her alone. Natalie gets up and is suddenly overcome with awe and feelings of being loved.

This episode is the more enjoyable if no less manipulative of the two in the series. Due to the speed with which the experiments flash past one’s gaze, the creep factor was not so high. Brown demonstrates the apparent ease with which, using psychological techniques, he can at least change Natalie’s attitude from atheism to agnosticism. What is not said is whether Natalie had originally been a very strict materialist atheist or had at some time in her life believed in a vague power or intelligence in and of the universe that directed its creation and the creation of the solar system, Earth and all the life upon it. The conversion might have been more interesting if the audience had known more about the history of Natalie’s beliefs, what she had been brought up to believe as a child, when and how she became a skeptic and an atheist, and if she ever entertained the thought that maybe she might be challenged to change her mind again.

As it is, the episode is fairly innocuous: Brown demonstrates that all humans are psychologically primed to believe that apparent random occurrences happen for a reason and that there may be an external force responsible for them. So powerful is this tendency that even skeptical people like Natalie can be manipulated with methods such as suggestion and association to believe that there is a cosmic force that is watching over them and caring for them. It is just as well that Brown uses “conversion” methods in a caring, nurturing way; if he had used more coercive methods based on manipulating Natalie’s fears and suggesting that all the bad things that have occurred in her life are due to transgressions she had committed as a child or in a previous existence, he might have also converted her to belief in a powerful force and done considerable damage to her as well. Then again, encouraging Natalie to think of a perfect parent and remember warm feelings about her childhood and parents could be potentially damaging also, especially if Brown had started to suggest that she should associate some acts or behaviours with the warm feelings and so prime her to believe that certain criminal activities are not evil or unethical on the basis that they are acceptable to the perfect parent.

The minor experiments that Brown conducts during the course of the episode in which among others he tricks people into smelling peppermint oil where there is none shows that religious belief can be induced even with smells and sounds. This implies that physical sensations play a strong role in priming people to adopt attitudes and emotional moods that encourage belief and worship and suggests that traditional established Christian churches and their counterparts in other religions were clever in emphasising the form of worship and reverence for it rather than reverence for the object of worship to their followers. This might explain the importance of performing rituals in a particular order when for example Muslims perform the hajj or believers in Tibetan Buddhism constantly bow down and touch their heads to the ground while on pilgrimages to temples.

At the end of the show, Brown concludes by asking viewers why they believe in God or Its equivalent and responding that belief in a deity makes people “happy”. What he means by “happiness” is deliberately left obscure: on a certain level, and this is the meaning most people will accept, is that happiness is the peace and satisfaction people gain knowing that they and the world around them are part of a greater design and purpose and that random things happen the way they do because such a pattern actually conforms to this grand tapestry. This belief allows people to believe that bad things happen due to humans not accepting or ignoring this cosmic directive, or that such bad things might be part of a lesson humans must learn so they can rediscover the straight and narrow weave. The problem comes though when disasters or conflicts occur that appear to target the innocent and the blameless in such ways that suggest the cosmic parent doesn’t care about its creations at all; examples of such tragedies include the prevalent of paedophilia among institutions such as the Church, government or others people are taught to trust and respect, or the existence of serial killers and cannibals.

As with previous shows hosted by Brown, this documentary is very slick and smooth (maybe too smooth to the point of brusqueness) in its presentation.


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