Watching Derren Brown give a lifelong nonbeliever the experience of a religious conversion is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on telly. Natalie was the perfect subject – sweet and engaging, a stem cell scientist (a play on playing God?), huge-eyed and entranced by Derren as he wove together elements of hypnosis, autosuggestion and who knows what else to give her one of the most powerful experiences of her life. Rising to her feet with her eyes brimming, shaking, trembling and sobbing, she whispered 'sorry, sorry' as she was overwhelmed by awe and love.
This was the climactic moment of the two-parter ‘Fear and Faith’, an exploration of the psychology of religious belief and fear/anxiety. Part 1 was Derren meets the Wizard of Oz as people with various fears (heights, social conflict, singing in public) were given the new drug ‘rumyodin’ (being trialled for the first time outside the military) to help them conquer it. With the help of rumyodin, socially timid Bloke A stands up for himself in a pub fight (perhaps inadvisably), vertigo-stricken Bloke B stands on a narrow ledge, you know the sort of thing. This is Derren Brown so it pretty much goes without saying that the drug is just a sugar pill, an anagram of ‘your mind’, and that these people were – ta da! – all conquering their fears themselves, using their own inner resources. You kind of suspect that they all kind of suspect all along; indeed, one of the women who’s been told that it is an intelligence-boosting drug says “look, I’m not stupid, I know it’s probably a placebo”, having effectively been given permission to express this thought. It’s all a little bit self-help. Jolly good fun, sure, but it's Derren Brown. We don't want good: we want mindblowing.
Part 2 is much better from the start. It kicks off with a satanic rite, demonstrating that even among self-proclaimed atheists and skeptics, very few are willing to stab a photograph of their nearest and dearest and pledge their eternal soul to Satan in return for earthly ease. (I have to say I’m with them here. It’s Pascal’s gambit in reverse, and surely not worth it for the lulz.) The rite itself is genuinely disturbing and the prorgamme gets darker from there. People are left in pitch blackness in a crypt and (with the help of a few parting words from Derren) thoroughly freak themselves out, hallucinating faces in front of them and presences behind them. All except for Natalie (the aforementioned stem cell scientist) whose rational brain isn’t going to be fooled so easily.
The rest of the programme is a skilful and engaging tour round the various aspects of religious belief, including a section which seems almost like a quick guide to giving yourself paranoid schizophrenia. Derren tells a woman that she has been selected for his new show, Intervention, that she’ll be secretly filmed at all times, and that his people will be making a series of small interventions in her life at unexpected times, some more obvious than others. Of course within days she’s seeing significance in every dropped coin in the supermarket and re-evaluating her priorities in the light of it. And of course, ta da! There was no secret filming, there were no interventions. Tell someone there’s a meaning,a plan, a secret pattern behind the random stuff of life, and they’ll discern it – or in the case of paranoia, they don't even need to be told. Derren knows that we know this is how it works by now, and some of this (people don’t cheat if they’ve been told there’s a supernatural presence in the room, you can make people think they smell mint), although fun, has the feeling slightly more of an argument being made than of shock memorable TV moments.
The difficulty here is that, if it’s an argument rather than (or as well as), entertainment, it’s got to be rigorous. Early on, Derren is discussing why we might be hard-wired for belief, and gives an argument from evolutionary psychology; drawing on the work of the psychologist Jesse Bering, Derren explains that “most likely” good moral behaviour is desirable because language means bad deeds can be gossiped about, and that the easiest way to ensure moral behaviour is to implement the idea of an all-seeing divine being. Admittedly, framing this argument in under a minute, accompanied by animated gossiping cavemen, may not do it justice; however, it seems to be exactly the type of ‘just so story’ which we should surely resist. It does no good to spend several hours (indeed several years) giving beautiful and unimpeachable demonstrations of skepticism if you then present something equally speculative as “most likely” true.
However, Derren’s conversion of Natalie, which unfolds gradually throughout the programme, leaves you in no doubt of his personal power. Surrounded by candles in a church, in a conversation that’s part confession, part memory, part foreplay, he taps his fingers on the table, playing her like the virtuoso he is. He encourages her to evoke and relive feelings of protection, love, and awe, leaving her at just the right moment with more or less explicit permission to allow all of these feelings to sweep over her and carry her away in a tidal wave of belief. She buries her head in her hands, weeping.
When she comes back to see him at the TV studio a week later, she still looks post-orgasmic, flushed and starry-eyed but riven with conflict. What’s true? What does she believe? Who is she? How has she lived her whole life without God's love - and yet what's left of her life if there is such a thing? Derren’s not-too-gentle explanation, in front of the audience, that he created those feelings in her, leaves her visibly in turmoil as she tries to reconcile this second grand upheaval to her belief system. This is the really incredible stuff Derren (and his team) can pull off, this getting right to the core of people, this quasi-sexual domination, this always sadistic revelling in control and revelation. It’s really very good stuff. More please.