What I found especially interesting about the debate was the Bishop’s approach. He deliberately eschewed argument and appealed instead to personal experience – an experience relating to what he called “the meaning of life”.
I’ve seen this done before, but the Bishop was particularly good at it. He started with jokes, but then gradually began to speak more softly and with feeling. In our quietest moments, he said, each one of us – yes, even a cynical atheist – is aware, deep down, of a light. It’s an awareness of something fundamentally good, of a yearning to be something better than we are. This something is... Jesus. Sombre nodding from the Christian Union contingent. When the Bishop sat down, there was moment of quiet, reflective calm before the applause broke out.
How do you respond to that? Get all logical and sceptical on him, and you come across as a coarse bully, someone insensitive to one of the deepest insights available to humanity, an insight that, yes, even a cynic like me has, though I might try to deny it.
Well, here’s what I said. How could I have done better?
I started by pointing out something surely undeniable – that religion has a quite extraordinary ability to get even very smart, well-educated people to believe ridiculous things. Sixty years ago, the view that the entire universe is just six thousand years old was the view of a tiny band of religious crackpots. It’s now held by some 100 million Americans. Some of these people, I pointed out, are much smarter than anyone in this room. Many are college educated. Yet religion has the power to convince them not just the universe is six thousand years old, but also that this is good science. Wow!
How does religion manage this amazing feat? There are lots of factors. One is the subtle arts of psychological manipulation. Anyone who has seen Derren Brown’s TV show will know that, with the right techniques, it’s possible to shift people’s beliefs in some very weird directions. Funnily enough, religion has developed many of these same techniques. It’s had thousands of years to refine them. It is very, very good at applying them.
One of the psychological mechanisms it takes advantage of is the power of suggestion.
A while ago I did some research into UFOs for a children’s critical thinking book I’m writing (publishers, please get in touch). I came across a very interesting story involving a strange light seen over a nuclear power station being built in the U.S. back in 1976. The light appeared night after night. The local police had witnessed it. One said, “it was about half the size of the moon, and it just hung there over the plant.” Another policeman described the object as “twenty times” the size of a plane that happened to fly past. Even a local magistrate described something fiery, rectangular, and “about the size of a football field” hanging over the power station.
Two reporters went down to join the growing, excited audience and see the mysterious light for themselves. Sure enough it appeared. The journalists decided to approach in their car, but as they drove towards it the light receded. Eventually they gave up the chase, stopped, and got out of the car. The photographer pulled out his telephoto lens, took a closer look and said, “Yep, that’s Venus alright”.
Suggest to people that a light is an enormous fiery object, and, in many cases, that's what they'll see. UFOlogy provides many amazing examples of the phenomenon.
Just like the Bishop, many religious folk will take me gently by the hand, look deep into my eyes and say, in a calm, steady voice, “Stephen, in your quietest moments you’re aware of something, aren’t you? You might try to deny it, but you know there’s something down there, at the bottom of your soul, don’t you? It’s a light, isn’t it? A small, still light. Can you see it there, glimmering? Look closer... Closer still… See…? Can you see what it is yet…? It’s Jesus, isn’t it?” And as I stare more and more closely, the recognition finally breaks over me: “Oh my gosh! Yes… yes…. it really is Jesus!”
Or is it Venus?