A delightfully witty book review appeared in yesterday’s newspaper introducing Penn Jillette’s book God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales. Having just learned of the book I’ve not yet read it, but I am intrigued. Penn Jillette is best known as the talking portion of the magic-debunking duo Penn and Teller. Having forged a career of exposing false claims to the supernatural mystique of stage magic, Penn and Teller delight in bucking the orthodoxy of the guild and showing that anyone clever enough can fool many people into believing what they know can’t be true. They are exploiting, of course, a phenomenon that neuroscientists have been exploring for a number of years: human brains retain belief even in the face of disproving evidence. Many religious believers call it “faith.” According to Hank Gallo, author of the review, Jillette uses his book to endorse atheism as the only real option for a thinking person. The book is generally categorized as humor.
Although Bill Maher’s Religulous makes many good points from a similar perspective, one of the haunting realities poised for religious specialists is almost a chiaroscuro with excessive contrast. It takes no special training to be a religious specialist. That is hard news to hear for those of us who’ve spent over a decade of our lives and thousands of dollars learning the trade. Comedians and others who are famous will impact far more people than this little blog ever will. Rick Perry can call together thousands to pray to pave his way to the White House. Maher and Jillette can poke fun at religious yokels and scholars will sit at their desks ignoring the crude efforts of those who have no training. There is no doubt, however, as to which will reach a wider audience.
Harry Houdini famously debunked spiritualists in his day. Like Penn and Teller, he was a stage magician who recognized that people could be easily fooled. He was able to expose mediums that scientists and academics of his day failed to uncover. It seems that those with access to the most basic of human desires—the will to believe—gain credibility more readily than an erudite yet obtuse specialist with several odd initials after his or her name and several obscure books to his or her credit. Those in the media have direct access to the mind of the public. If the tent is big enough the whole town will show up for the circus. The truth may be out there, but the minds of the public are won over by those who entertain, not those who bury themselves in dusty tomes and seldom see the light of day. The fact is people want to believe. Until a better alternative is offered, we might prepare ourselves for a long round of Texas Hold’em and a Tea Party or two.