Dutch Magician Tommy Wonder provides an interesting insight into the nature of religion in Volume I of his The Books of Wonder (1996).
He gives advice to magicians on what to do when a spectator discovers—or beliefs to discover—the secret to a magic routine:
“I’ve frequently wondered why people sometimes come up with painfully silly solutions and don’t stop to realize it. If they would give the matter more thought they would quickly see that their solution couldn’t possibly work. I believe their reasoning runs something like this: The moment a spectator sees a magical effect that he [sic] doesn’t understand, he is confronted with a problem, a problem that stands square in front of him like a granite boulder … Now if the spectator contrives some solution, in a way he has enabled himself to move the problem. He can roll this boulder out of his way, so that he is no longer confronted by it. The problem seems to be solved … his mind throws a big party. He’s solved the problem!”
This observation from the every day practice of a professional magician shows an interesting psychological mechanism at work. Somebody is presented with a seemingly unsolvable problem, which creates a conflict in the mind. As soon as a solution is presented, no matter how improbable, the conflict seems to disappear. Wonder continues:
“Because his mind is dancing and celebrating its victory, it never stops to realize that it only moved the problem … it still exists in another place.”
The psychological mechanism at work is a process of cognitive dissonance. When a magician makes a ball disappear, there are two observations which seem to have no causal relationship—the ball is there and the ball is gone. It is the job of the magician to hide the actual cause—this causeless event is the magical effect. Humans are inclined to remove any tension between dissonant observations, even if this means inventing miraculous connections.
Cognitive dissonance is often used as an explanation for the emergence of religion in pre-scientific cultures. The idea being that ancient people experienced a cognitive dissonance in their experience of natural occurrences, such as the daily disappearance and re-appearance of the sun. The explanations created to relieve the tension is what we now know as religion. This is, however, only a partial explanation. Although much of religion is provides explanations for the way the world is, for those who follow it religion is also a vehicle to provide meaning to life, something that cannot be provided by science.
Does all cognitive dissonance need to be resolved? Why can we not live with the tension of not knowing—accepting that there are questions for which we do not have an answer, or for which there even might not be an answer? Tommy Wonder touches on this when he argues that magicians should aim to defuse the cognitive dissonance experienced by the spectator, creating suspension of disbelief and giving rise to a feeling that magic really exists—even if it is only for a fleeting moment, as our rational mind quickly takes over, trying to resolve the dissonance.
Catholicsm and paganism have a lot in common. Some evidence from Portugal.
For hundreds of years Catholics converted tribal people from all over the globe to Christianity. This conversion was often combined with violence and conquest in a zealous quest to drive out the “false gods” of paganism.
But Catholicism itself is more like a pagan religion than it wishes to admit. During Eucharist, believers eat the actual body of Christ — not symbolic, but the real flesh as dictated by Papal dogma. This is pure magic and no different to the tribal rituals they once abolished. In Lisbon I got caught up in a large procession, Corpo de Deus, where this miracle was celebrated.
Another fine example of catholic paganism in Faro is the Capela dos Ossos, the chapel of the bones. An alter built from the bones of monks as a reminder of the temporal nature of our existence.
If anything all this makes Catholic religion a lot more interesting than the austerity in Protestant churches. The ability of Catholicism to incorporate ancient local customs has been its secret to success over the world.
Last Sunday Australia’s first saint was canonised by Pope Benedictus in Rome. Mary MacKillop, now called Saint Mary of the Cross was undoubtedly a very good person who deserves to honoured, that is not what this post is about.
On one of the many news segments covering this event, an Australian devotee was asked to give an impression of the ceremony and called it “magical”. Looking at the ceremony, which was the culmination of decades of lobbying and religious bureaucracy, there was indeed a lot of magic going on.
The process of becoming a saint is a protracted and political process whereby the ‘fan club’ of a certain religious person puts forward the case for canonisation. The candidate gradually moves from the status of Servant of God, to Venerable through to Blessed and when all conditions have been met. a Saint.
One of the most remarkable hurdles to be taken is the declaration of Non Cultus. The declaration of Non Cultus entails that the candidate has not inspired heretical worship in the form of a cult. This is a nice example of a Catholic contradiction. Sainthood is the pinnacle of worship in the form of a cult. In some instances this even includes a exhumation of the body to collect relics, i.e. body parts of the candidate for sainthood. In the case of MacKillop her grave was left in peace.
Interesting aspect of her canonisation was the handing over of a red-gum wooden cross with strands of Mary’s hair, which is the only relic of the brand new saint. Relics are the most interesting aspect of Catholicism as they form a direct link between the current times and the heathen religions of our ancestors.
The canonisation of Mary certainly a magical event, not in the sense that is was beautiful or inspiring, but as wonderfully occult ceremonial magic. Relics, canonisations and many other esoteric aspects of the Catholic church are fascinating. These aspects of Catholicism are the reason that you never see Protestant preachers saving the day in horror movies—you can’t kill a demon with words, only Catholic religion has held on to the pagan vestiges required to manipulate the spiritual world. The Catholic church basically ignores warnings in the Bible against magic and practices beautiful occult rituals. This is great because they thus preserve our primordial heritage into the 21th century.
Yesterday I took part in a pagan ritual. No, I did not dance naked around a camp fire or undertake an invocation of ancient gods. The heathen ritual I took part in was a contemporary university graduation to receive my MBA degree.
The pomp and circumstance of the academic dress and procession seem to be innocent reminders of ancient traditions to add gravitas to the moment of graduation. The ritualistic aspects of the ceremony and the continuous doffing of the at the chancellor are, however, all part of an elaborate pagan ceremony.
One particular moment, the conferring of the degree, can only be described as magical. Not magic in the sense that the ceremony has an ethereal atmosphere, but magic in the literal sense of the word. The conferring of the degree is in its very essence a mystical moment.
All graduands were standing and the Chancellor conferred the degree upon us. Even though she did not use any incantations nor did she invoke any occult forces, the conferring of the degrees is a moment of magic. It is only from that point forward that I could by right call myself a Master in Business Administration. Even those who decided not to attend the ceremony did not escape the magic powers of the Chancellor, as also they had their degrees conferred upon them by the power invested in her.
It seems rather strange that a rational organisation such as a university uses archaic and irrational practices to finalise several years of intense rational work. Although the purpose of academic education is to hone rational thinking skills, the process is concluded in an irrational moment.
Although it might not be sensed by contemporary graduands as being just that, there is no significant difference between the conferring of the degree and the activities of a witch doctor or priest bestowing a blessing.
Given the fact that the vast majority of graduands chose to attend the ceremony, rather than being provided with their degree through the mail, shows that no matter how rational we think we are, we all require a magical and non-rational moments.
The two and a half day gathering of magicians and magic enthusiasts at the Adelaide Magic Convention started with a Close-Up show. It quickly became clear that this would be a weekend of card tricks, more card tricks and even some more card tricks.
Magicians have a love-hate relationship with cards; well I have anyway. There are often complaints about the amount of card tricks during conventions and magic meetings, but everybody always gravitates back to them. Playing cards are the piano in the orchestra of magical props. A deck of cards is a piano with 52 keys that can be used to achieve every single effect in the arsenal of the modern conjurer. No other prop is so versatile. However, a lot of card magic is pretty boring because the performer forgets to place the props and the adventures they have into any context. Never ask a magician how magic is performed, but make sure to ask why those four aces keep assembling.
The day ended early because the lecture by Laurie Kelly lecture was cancelled and I decided to have an early night in preparation of the big day on Saturday. The day began with the close-up competition. My personal favourite was Simon Taylor’s session. He was able to place his material in a suitable context, creating interest and also showing some good skill. The main reason I like his work is because we share an interest into adding an intellectual perspective to magic without losing sight of the entertainment aspect.
The first lecture for the day was by American Geoff Williams. I was delighted by his presentation and am working on incorporating some of his ideas in my close-up work. He is, as he puts it himself, no great inventor of magic but works on improvements of known routines. I like his offbeat style, calling a trick I Hate David Copperfield, is a great way to attract attention to what is basically a reworked classic that performed many years ago. Unfortunately, however, he was not able to delight at his performance in the Gala Show later that night.
In the afternoon there were six performers battling it out in the stage competition. Joel Howlett presented his wholesome manipulation act. He ignores the trend towards Derren Brown, David Blaine and Chris Angel type material and follows in the footsteps of Cardini and Fred Kaps. Magicians appreciate this type of material because they respect the amount of skill involved. Almost every magician has at some stage practised front- and back-palming cards, but not many (including myself) have the guts to perform this type of material because it is so hard.
A lifelong passion
21 Card Trick
Magicians work extremely hard to hide half of their performance from the audience. Some of the most demanding actions take place while the attention of the spectator is diverted away from the action. However, some really good magic can be performed that barely requires any complicated sleight of hand. One of my favourite card routines I perform at the moment is a souped-up version of the 21-Card Trick. This classic is the first card trick that many people learn and magicians usually loathe as not being deceptive enough. But, the amended version I use requires almost no sleight of hand and get greats reactions when I perform it. Why spend time learning second dealing, Faro shuffles and other complicated stuff when people can be amazed by the simplest tricks, using nothing but a good script.
I also met an anthropology student with an interest in theatrical magic. We discussed the possibility of writing an ethnology of magic world. To an outsider, a meeting of magicians sounds like a very strange thing indeed. Magicians have their own rituals (initiations and the broken wand ceremony springs to mind) and their own rules of behaviour, specially regarding secrecy.
Second lecture for the day was by English children’s entertainer Terry Herbert. He first showed his well known children’s act, for which a small group of kids was invited. After his performance he talked about his ideas on entertaining children. It was great to hear somebody with decades of experience talk.
I bought his DVD on performing magic for children under five. It is quite difficult to do this because to a child under the age of five everything is magic. Their minds have not yet been conditioned to know that certain things are impossible. A simple game of peekaboo is a magical event for a baby. Most illusions created by magicians are cognitive illusions, i.e. the brain gets tricked into assigning wrong causal relationships to what the eye perceives. But, the brain needs to be trained first to understand what normal causal relationships are and that takes a few years.
Day two ended with a Gala Dinner with performances from four magicians. The two highlights of the Gala Dinner were a Belgian contact juggler who creates visual magic with with perspex balls and Raymond Crow’s famous hand shadows show. It became apparent to me that both in performances magic is created without using deception. This is interesting to note because as I wrote above, magicians hide most of the effort that is required to create illusions, while in these two cases, all the effort is shown in full view.
Geoff Williams spoke in his lecture about the fact that magicians are basically liars. Ricky Jay was recently interviewed about lying and mentions Jerry Andrus, a magician who never lied in his performances. When he said: “I will place this card in the middle of the deck” than this was always a true statement. In almost all magic, lying is a regular occurrence. But when creating magic without deception there is no need to lie and no need to hide most of the work required to create the magic.
The last day started with a church service. This is the first convention I have attended where a Church Service was on offer on Sunday morning. None of the attendants I spoke to took up the offer so I wonder how many people attended. Those who have read more of my blog know my a-religious stance. But come to think of it, there are very close links to magic and religion and anthropologists still have a hard time distinguishing one from he other. Magic and religion share the same origins – nevertheless I gave the church service a miss.
My last session for this convention was the Paul O’Neill lecture about the marketing of magic. When he started to explain in detail how to create a website, I left the room and made my way to the airport to catch our flight back to Melbourne.
In an earlier Twitter post I wrote that the convention was not so inspiring. Well, maybe not from a magical technical point of view, but I guess the above post shows that magic never fails to inspire. To share some of the wonders I experienced when watching Raymond Crow, here is a Youtube video of his hand shadows.
What do modern magicians and traditional shamans have in common?
Earlier this month, I attended the Centenary Convention of the Australian Society of Magicians. This convention has reignited my passion for performing magic, albeit in a different direction.
The amazing Jeff McBride used the phrase “from shaman to showman” several times during his performances and lecture. The shaman, or medicine man, used to perform a central function in prehistoric and primal cultures and incorporated the philosopher, healer and entertainer. In contemporary culture, these functions have, however, been separated and the philosopher, healer and entertainer are different people and the magician usually only functions as the entertainer, working for children, performing close-up in restaurants or more traditional stage acts.1
Performing magic can be a powerful experience for the spectator as well as the magician and is, in McBride’s words, a “mood altering device”. Experiencing well crafted magic releases positive chemicals in the brain and magic becomes, following Eugene Burger, a way of transcending the human condition, even if it is only for a fleeting moment. In this way the magician becomes a healer.
The magician becomes philosopher by providing meaningful context to the magical experience. The philosophy expressed by performing magic is not about providing a solution to the life’s problems. In magical thinking the world is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be experienced. By providing the spectator with a sense of mystery, magicians can integrate the philosopher back into their performances.
Kirby, E. T. (1974). The shamanistic origins of popular entertainments. The Drama Review: TDR, 18(1), 5–15. ↩
The first episode of Torchwood has finally aired on Australia television! This contemporary Doctor Who spin-off is more than just another way to cash in on the popular science fiction series. Torchwood is more violent and daring than the series that spawned it, but underneath the sex and violence the stories deal with philosophical issues, some of which deserve exploration beyond the screen narrative.
The Torchwood team has a metallic gauntlet by which they can revive the dead for a short period. Several people are killed by the same method and knife. When John Tucker, one of the victims, is revived, Jack Harkness asks him:
What was it like when you died? … Nothing, I saw nothing. Oh my God, there is nothing.
John is clearly disturbed by this prospect, specially because he knows that he will die again soon. The idea of total blackness and nothing seems to scare him profoundly.
This fear of nothingness is a fascinating aspect of the human condition. When analysing the problem it is clear that this fear is not rational because when there is nothing, there is also no threat. A state of not-being is not something to fear because it is not rational (not justified) to fear something that does not exist. So why are people not content with a prospect of an absolute end to life?
Leo Tolstoy thought that if there was no life after death, then life would be meaningless. This approach is, however, not satisfactory because it relocates the problem of whether there is meaning to a life after death. If there is life after death, then what is the meaning of that life? Is there a life after life-after-death to provide meaning? Ad infinitum …
The Epicureans did not agree with this line of thought and were right in arguing that death is inconsequential to the question whether life has meaning or not. Although death may be final and could make all our efforts futile from a perspective of eternity, we can only judge life from the internal perspective. The idea that death only removes meaning is forced upon us when we look upon life from the eternal perspective.
We can, however, not view life from an external perspective, because we are bound by our internal point of view. Any attempt to take an external perspective, such as religion, can not provide a final answer to the quest for a meaning of life.
The meaning of life is embedded in life itself and we should not hope, nor fear for anything after death.
I have been reading Richard Dawkins‘ book, The God Delusion. Although I largely agree with his atheist point of view, I think he stretches his argument a bit too far as he does not seem to acknowledge that there is a limit to what we can achieve with reason, a horizon across which rational thinking can not take us.
His view can be summarised by Wittgenstein’s famous proposition: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. Dawkins places the limits of knowledge at the limits of reason. His view of religion, which lies largely outside the limits of reason, is directly derived to this assumption. I would, however, like to argue that the limits of knowledge are not formed by the limits of reason.
One of his arguments is that there is a negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence, e.g. the higher the IQ, the less likely somebody is religious. This seems to give the impression that religious people are generally less smart than atheists, thereby labelling most of the world population as dumb.
The reason for this correlation is, however, that measurement of IQ is totally biased towards rational thinking. Tendencies towards religion or spirituality in general are not part of an IQ test. This does not explain the correlation, but shows the limitations of comparing religiosity and intelligence.
Religion should be considered as a Vehicle for Meaning. Rational thinking can not provide us with meaning to life and religion is for a lot of people a way to deal with the vacuum.
Religion is not my preferred way if providing meaning to life; I choose an existentialist point of view—flying in a metaphysical hot air balloon. This attitude is, however, only possible after deep and complex rational thinking. Most people do, however, not have the energy or capability to live this way and religion is an ‘easy’ way out.
Dawkins does not seem to consider the provision of an answer to meaning to life questions. He places a very high burden on the rational abilities of people. The creation versus evolution question is an example of this.
Dawkins might reply that this is all very well, but the provision of truth has primacy over providing meaning. This is philosophically very slippery ground. Science is based on presuppositions, as much as religion is. Science is only confirmed by its own rules, it is a self fulfilling prophecy—the same can be said for religion.
I think truth is not important, if absolute truth does exists, we will not be able to find it. Knowledge is more important than truth and knowledge is nothing more than that which is able to provide the outcomes we desire. Both religion and science are very capable of doing this.
This photo arrived in my mailbox with the subject line: “FW: Someone’s going to hell for this!!!“.
I found this statement a bit strong because, I figured that if God is by definition a perfect being and we are made is his or her image, then God would most certainly have a great sense of humour. He would be rolling on the floor with laughter when receiving this photo in his mailbox!
There is, however, not much in the Bible – or any other religious book for that matter, which would indicate that God, the gods, or whichever way you might swing, has a sense of humour. One story in the Bible that comes in mind though is the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11), were Jesus provided the booze when they ran out of wine.
“… and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine.”
Jesus and his disciples were invited for this wedding and it only seems logical that they were drinking and dancing. Following the text, it seems that they already had been drinking when the wine ran out. I love this passage because it shows how human Jesus was — and in a roundabout way that he had a sense of humour.
Therefore, in my humble theological opinion I do not believe that the guys in this photo will go to hell because they have a great sense of humour which will be appreciated by whichever divine being looks upon them.
A new church has emerged, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
The battle between evolutionists and creationists is still waging strongly. Evolutionists are propagating “Intelligent Design“—the idea that “certain features of the universe and living things exhibit characteristics of a product resulting from an intelligent cause or agent”.
However, the fact that organisms function so well and that nature is very efficient proves the reverse. The perfection and balance we perceive in nature is actually evidence of the fact that living things could not have been designed.
Following the Intelligent Design argument through to its Judeo-Christian roots, we are all created in the image of God. Mankind has, however, never been able to design anything that works as well as living organisms.
Some might argue that we are but imperfect reflections of God’s image and that this is the reason that designing anything is always a process of “trial and (t)error”. God, as a perfect being, would have designed the universe as it is now in only six days. The idea of God as a perfect being has been proposed many times to prove that a god actually exists. It has always struck me as a strange concept. Defining a being as perfect is an enquiry limiting rhetorical move. There is no empirical evidence or rational argument that leads to the idea that God is a perfect being—it can only be presumed.
The fact that the universe and living organisms work they way they do is in fact evidence of evolution. Nature has perfected its original “design” through billions of years of trial and error.
Flying Spaghetti Monster
A vastly superior theory to Judeo-Christian creationism is offered by the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Proponents of this brand-new religion assert that an invisible and undetectable Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe, starting with a mountain, trees and a midget. All evidence pointing towards evolution was intentionally planted by this being. ‘Pastafarians’, as they call themselves, make some of the same basic philosophical mistakes as Christians.
However, the Spaghetti Monster theory is superior to Christianity because there is no dogma that we are created in the image of the monster—as can be clearly seen in the illustration.
If anyone wants or needs to believe that the world was created, rather than evolved, the Flying Spaghetti Monster offers a great alternative to established religions.