Tricking Our Religious Minds

At 19 years-old I hitchhiked from Europe to India with no money in my pockets.  I still have fond memories of those who shared food with me on the trip and of those who taught me magic tricks which I used to earn money via gambling or entertainment.

To this day, I have several regular tricks that I still use that get even adults to actually believing I can move things with mental energy, make objects pass through solid bone or shatter pencils with Qi-strengthened paper. I am amazed at people’s gullibility.

Watching how magic worked on people was one of the many influences that moved me out of my Christianity as I began to see through my own gullibility and self-deception. A major human quality that supports deceptive magic is that people often want to believe and if you can make them happy with the magic, they are willing to suspend doubt.  During my Christian days, many of us tricked ourselves and we all agreed not to talk about it because we didn’t want to ruin the magic show.

Teller, of Penn & Teller, is an accomplished magician and in this recent excellent Smithsonian article he shares with us some of the many cognitive tricks that he exploits to make his magic work.

  • Exploit pattern recognition
  • Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth
  • It’s hard to think critically if you’re laughing
  • Keep the trickery outside the frame
  • To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks
  • Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself
  • If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely

Read the article for details if they are not intuitively obvious.  Then take a stab at my questions:

Questions for Readers:

  • How do you see this sort of deceptive magic working in Christianity, Buddhism or your worldview? Give an example from this list.
  • Have you done entertainment magic? Do you have other examples of cognitive tricks?

PS:  In a coming post, I will discuss Acupuncture and Magic.  HT to Cris, an anthropologist and brilliant writer, who did  a fine post on Magic and pointed me to Teller’s article.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

31 responses to “Tricking Our Religious Minds

  1. Ben

    Well transubstantiation is the first thing that popped into my mind. Speaking in tongues is another. But in general the whole church service is rigged around creating an emotional response. Abra-Kadabra

    Here is what I find interesting and where my thoughts dwell of late. I still love watching magic. And there are aspects of church that I still enjoy. Do I believe that either experience is real? No, but when viewed as metaphor, it still resonates.

    Great post! I am going to chew on this for awhile.

  2. Hi!

    “How do you see this sort of deceptive magic working in Christianity, Buddhism or your worldview? Give an example from this list.”

    This deceptive magic you describe is well done. I think, all humans are vulnerable to deception (both from outside and inside themselves). And, I think all World views play on this, atheism as well. Underneath it all, the better search is not for whether or not there’s deception at all, this is already a given (see above); but rather, we should ask “what is the truth?”

  3. exrelayman

    Let me preface this comment by seeking forgiveness for any typos that may occur in it. I am handicapped by trying to type and wipe egg off my face at the same time. I fulminated a few posts ago about the query ‘what pisses you off about atheists’. lol, being new here, I didn’t conceptualize that an atheist was posing this question, and also that I had focused on that, and not the same question about theists. Still having eggs on keyboard problem. Thanks for giving me the space to reprimand myself.

    As to the post itself, nice to hear from Teller, as Penn pretty much disgusts me.

    As to which of the cognitive tricks I see Christianity using, it is briefer if I indicate which I don’t see it using: pattern recognition, and misdirection through humor (as has been noted, the Bible and Jesus are singularly lacking in humor). Another cognitive trick – peer pressure – is also brought into play.
    It has 3 aspects: everyone else is buying it, must be something wrong with me to be the dissenting one, don’t want to incur disapproval of the group, don’t want to be the one spoiling things for everyone else.

    I have not done magic, but also I don’t have great desire to know how the trick was done, I prefer to ‘buy it’ for the entertainment value. Knowing there is a trick that I don’t perceive is part of the fun.

  4. Jessica

    I used to use it to grab attention and motivate students while teaching math to elementary school children. You’d be amazed how eager they were to learn multiplication tables when it seemed to have a magical element.

  5. I think the pattern recognition thing plays heavily into the answering of prayers. And, of course, that also plays into the lie that you tell yourself you believe.

    For trickery outside the frame, what comes to mind is that the mechanics of Jesus playing the role of mediator is vaguely presented, at best, and what Heaven will actually be like is also quite unknown and undiscoverable while living.

  6. Buddhism has its share of “magic and miracles”, which presumably rely on stage magic tricks plus people’s wish to believe.

    More interesting to me is to wonder whether some of these same factors are involved in getting people to buy into abstract Buddhist concepts. Is anatman + rebirth an instance of “to fool the mind, combine at least two tricks”? Is all the tantric folderol “making the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth”? Is karma “the lie you tell yourself”?

  7. How very coincidental. This is on my list of topics to write about. Just an hour ago I was doing some research on magic an illusion—with religion as a final destination. Now I have another trail to follow. Meanwhile, I give some thought to your questions.

    For your second question: I’ve never done entertainment magic. Now I wonder why.

  8. I use magic, like Jessica, as a teacher in kindergarten. Magic does grab the attention of the class. I usually perform “tricks” the kids can do themselves, such as holding both my hands before me with index fingers extended, and slamming the right hand into the left while putting up two fingers on the on the left hand and making my right hand into a fist, the illusion being a finger traveled from my right to my left hand.

    My covert message is that magic is nothing but illusion.

  9. So many of Teller’s magic strategies fit Christian apologetics to a T. Anyone who has read Christian apologetics will understand the rhetorical devices and distractions they use to justify fundamentalist Christianity.

  10. @ Ben :
    Well, if a clear liquid turned into a red one as the priest touched it, “transubstantiation” would count as magic. But they are just asking the believer to use their imagination there.

    But “speaking in tongues” is a bit of magic by getting informants into the audience. I use to speak in tongues, did you?

    @ Neurovantage :
    I agree, deception is pervasive — thus we have slowly developed many methods under the rubric of “science” to act as checks on self-deception and subjective reporting.

    @ exrelayman :
    Yeah, I was wondering where you were coming from. Now I see. No worry. My language has often pissed off other atheists. I imagine it will continue to.

    In medicine I piss off both the orthodox and the alternatives — you can’t win! Smile.

    I liked your point about humor — though I have seen some new hip preachers start using it — mega-churches love it.

    Peer pressure is a great technique — I use it in “stage magic” — I focus on those with believing eyes and amplify their response to convince the skeptics.

    @ Jessica & Dan Gurney :
    Magic is wonderful and a great teaching tool — I agree!

    @ The Wise Fool :
    The pattern recognition trick with prayers is powerful! I agree.

    @ David Chapman :
    Thanx much for the Buddhist examples. “Tantric folderol” was a great phrase — I had to look up “folderol”. Indeed all the initiations and the empowerments and commitment to the teacher set up a powerful magical effect.

    Two tricks at once: karma and rebirth — great effect there too.

    @ Paul :
    It wasn’t “coincidental”, the great Amida Buddha is speaking to use both through the Buddha Mind. I am kidding. 🙂
    I look forward to your post.

    @ Ahab :

  11. So now you’re free of gullibility and self deception? Wow. This is an incredibly arrogant and tribal post.

  12. @ Luke,
    You’ve had a bad day, it seems. Where did I declare myself free of gullibility and self-deception. You will have to check out the acupuncture posts coming in a while.

  13. “Watching how magic worked on people was one of the many influences that moved me out of my Christianity as I began to see through my own gullibility and self-deception…. During my Christian days, many of us tricked ourselves and we all agreed not to talk about it because we didn’t want to ruin the magic show.”

    -So congratulations, you’re free! And no, not a bad day, just calling you on your hypocrisy.

  14. @ Luke,
    Can’t tell what you are saying here Luke.
    Sounds like: “Yep, I see, you did accuse yourself of self-deception too. So I guess here you are not being hypocritical. But I still what to call you a hypocrite.”
    Correct me if I am wrong.

  15. Absolutely wrong. You accused yourself of self-deception only while you were a Christian. No word if you still think you’re self-deceiving. Thus I read you as saying “I was deluded and magical in my thinking, but then grew out of it and came to atheism and now I’m a free-thinker.”

    I take it that’s not what you meant.

  16. @ Luke,
    Ah, I get you now.

    “I once was blind but now I see.” is a Christian saying. I guess there are some people who feel they have never been hugely blind and have kept their same beliefs throughout life. Either they are self-deceived or they are lucky bastards.

    But let’s assume that we are all deceived about lots of things to various degrees. But leaving those aside, let’s consider deception by whole systems of thought- WSDs (whole system deceptions).

    Here are a few positions I could see people taking about WSD. How would you state your position?

    (a) I have never had wsd

    (b) I have had wsd

    (c) WSD is a useful concept and taking a position on the issue makes the positions clearer.

    (d) Since we all have self-deception, we should not talk about WSD. Anyone who accuses another person of WSD is a hypocrite

    Hopefully you can see how these questions might be helpful.

  17. I do think these questions are extremely helpful, however; I’m not here to state my position, I’m about finding yours. Once I have clarity on where you are coming from, I’ll be happy to go down that rabbit trail.

    I am reading this post as B) I have had WSD when I was Christian, now I don’t.

  18. OK, if it helps you to call it a rabbit trail that is fine. But it looks like it may be helpful.

    Since you see me as saying:

    I have had WSD when I was Christian, now I don’t.

    Can you imagine me accurately re-wording that as:

    I have had Christian WSD but now I don’t have that particular WSD.

    (1) Is it wrong to label something you yourself embraced as a WSD? Is it not helpful?

    (2) Is it not useful to know when we deceive ourselves?

    (3) Is it not possible to escape deceptions while still having others?

    It seems to me (and I may be wrong — I am checking in), you are calling for a relativistic post-modernism where we can’t call anything mistaken. We shouldn’t even work on finding out what is mistaken — it is a meaningless endevour.

  19. I am Po-Mo but not in that sense. I have a problem with labeling a whole group of people as WSD without nuance. What particular Christian WSD did you have?

    The bigger question is “Can one be Christian and NOT have WSD?” If the answer is no, then we have a tribal problem. If the answer is “Yes, but it’s harder because there’s more to support with that faith/worldview adds to WSD” then I’m on board. I am inclined to say, given our history, that the “yes” is your particular stance, but I want to be clear.

  20. @ Luke
    You jumped into this thread and called me ‘arrogant’.
    I am trying to illustrate that I (Sabio) realized he was fooling himself in his Christianity and that I (Sabio) left my delusion.

    You seemed to jumped unnecessarily to the conclusions that:

    (1) Sabio accused all aspects of every Christian’s Christianity as delusional. [yet I have written against this several times]

    (2) Sabio claimed that just because he jumped out of his own Christian delusion that he was now totally delusion free.

    Instead, Sabio meant to say:
    “When I was a Christian, I realized I was deluding myself of things — like an invisible friend talking to myself, and of magical healing miracles.”

    It was that and seeing through the bizarre theology I had embraced which had everyone but Christians burning for eternity that was part of the reason I left my Christianity.

    So, as to what you do, I won’t guess. I can’t guess if any delusions fill your flavor of Christianity. But what I did was largely deluded and seeing through magic and how the human mind is easily tricked helped me see through my own delusion whether you think I was deluded or not.

    Does that clarify?

  21. “You jumped into this thread and called me ‘arrogant’.”
    -No, I called you arrogant and tribal. It would be easy to state that theists are “God Deluded” and atheist aren’t and thus “free-thinking” and inherently better. Immune to magic thinking. I read now that is not what you are saying, even though you write in the 3rd person. I was deluded, and now I see. Thanks for sticking it out and clarifying.

    My personal position (to go down this trail now, as before I felt it would distract my own thinking in this thread) is F) We all have self-deception and the only way to find it is to be in community and talking to others whose WSD differs from your own.

    Truth is not relative (or relativistic as you thought I was stating), it’s relational. How I relate to you, how you relate to others, how we relate in the light of science, etc., matters greatly. It is here where the truth lies; not in concepts, models, and theories but in lived experience.

  22. You will note, Luke, that I never talk about “Truth” (capital “T”) — I find it unproductive. If you and I were trying to find the right strength of rope to pull a car out of a ditch, we could work on “truth”(small “t”) for that. So aphorisms like “Truth is Relational” are impossible for me to understand. They seem more like banners than ideas with content. We speak different languages. Po-Mo folks always make difficult reading to me.

  23. The capital T for truth is only there because it starts the sentence. Sorry for any confusion that the grammar caused.

  24. @Luke, so based on what you said:

    “It is here where the truth lies; not in concepts, models, and theories but in lived experience.”

    Are you saying that theories like evolution can be challenged by Creationism if that’s what people believe? Just trying to understand your point.

  25. @ Luke,
    I won’t get into it with you here. But I would guess that we use the word “truth” or “Truth” very differently at times. And I think amelie is going for some of those fuzzy differences. I think of it in real practical terms. Not as a deep, vibrant entity.

  26. Amelie/Sabio: I am more pragmatic in terms of truth claims. That’s really what’s at the core of Po-Mo thinking: what matters is what works from getting a car out of a ditch to looking at the fossil and geological record.

    So in terms of empirical claims, a wench and pulley system beats two dudes pushing and cursing every day of the week. Same with evolution vs creationism.

    Now on the moral level, things get much more murky, but that’s a subject for another time (I touched on it on the monkey trial post).

  27. @Luke – I apologize I can’t look at that link tonight, but I will tomorrow. Sounds intriguing. As to your analogy – so is evolution the two guys cursing or the wench and pulley? I assume the latter?

  28. Evolution = wench and pulley.

  29. Cristero

    You are not freethinker, you are dogmatic. The same fool as before. Christianity can not be worry to lost such a fool, that is talking such a nonsences.

  30. Devastating argument, Cristero. I can feel the brilliance behind your words and now see the errors of my ways. What a fool I am indeed.

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