THE obituaries of James Randi, the American magician and skeptic (in this instance the American spelling is justified), got me thinking about the nature of religion.
Randi was not a public figure here in the way that he was in the United States, but he was an extremely gifted showman and an implacable enemy — rather in the Dawkins mode — of Christianity, and of all forms of supernaturalism.
He started off as an imitator of Houdini. As the admiring (and beautifully written) obituary in The New York Times had it, “Mr. Randi began his career in the late 1940s as an illusionist and escape artist. On one occasion he extricated himself from a straitjacket while dangling upside down over Niagara Falls; on another, after almost an hour, from within a vast block of ice (‘a cinch,’ he later said); and on a third from still another straitjacket, this one suspended over Broadway, where he hung, as The New York Herald Tribune reported, like ‘a great dead tuna’.”
His interest in professional magic started at 12; his real career, as a “disillusionist”, also started in his teens: “At 15, young Randall got his first taste of debunking and its discontents. Hearing of a local preacher who professed to read minds, he attended a service. He saw immediately that the preacher was using a time-honored mentalists’ trick, called the ‘one ahead’, in which a performer appears to divine the contents of sealed envelopes that he has previously opened and read.
“When Randall stood up and exposed the fraud, congregants called the police; he spent several hours in jail before his father came to collect him. It was the first time he became attuned to people’s astonishing willingness to be deceived.”
In 1976, Randi became one of the founders of the organised “Skeptical” movement, along with Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. This was one of the currents that fed into the later “New Atheist” movement. Just as Dawkins took the central puzzle of evolution to be the question “How can people be so unselfish?”, the Skeptical movement took the central question of religion to be “How can people be so stupid?” (In time, this question was rephrased, so that the driving question of the organised atheist movement became “Why are other people so stupid?”).
There is an important difference, though: once you clear up the meaning of “selfish”, evolutionary biology provides a clear answer to the first question. Randi’s debunkings — like Dawkins’s writing on religion — don’t begin to answer the second one.
THERE were two classic YouTube clips referred to in Randi’s obituaries. The first is hilarious. When the conjuror Uri Geller appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, in 1973, he had promised to show that he could bend spoons and forks using only the power of his mind. Carson himself had been an amateur magician since his teenage years, and he did not believe a word of it.
Advised by his friend Randi, he made sure that neither Geller nor any of his entourage had any contact before the show with the spoons on which he was supposed to demonstrate his powers. Two things happened as a result: Geller was completely unable to produce any effects on live television, which you might expect if he were a fraud.
But those people who believed in him were not discouraged at all. They thought that the failure of his powers merely proved that they must be genuine, since they could not be summoned at will, as if they were governed by the laws of science.
THE second shows Randi’s merciless and well-deserved exposure of a Charismatic Evangelical, Peter Popoff, whose speciality was the supernatural discernment of illness in his congregation, and its consequent healing. The climax of Randi’s film of the event was horrifying: Popoff telling an elderly woman that she had stomach cancer, shouting his order to the devil to “Back off!” as he laid hands on her and she collapsed, apparently “slain in the Spirit”, and yelling “Hallelujah” over her on the ground.
“Do you think your cancers are gone now?” the cameraman asks the victim afterwards. “Yes”, she replies. “God never lies.” Then, overlaid on the performance footage, we heard the radio signal that Popoff was getting through an earpiece from his wife in the audience. “Hello, Petey, can you hear me? Because if you can’t, we’re in trouble. . .”
Elizabeth Popoff had been reading the prayer cards left by visitors, and from them learned the hopes and fears, and — so useful for later fund-raising — the names and addresses of the people he called up from the audience. She also offered wifely advice for the healing ministry into his earphone: “Keep your hands off those tits — I’m watching you!”
Con men speak about “the larceny in the blood”: the greed for some impossible gain which makes their victims believe. But is wanting a cure for your cancer really larceny? It is a story that shows how much we lost when the bleak realism of the Prayer Book disappeared from our culture.