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Posted by on Apr 28, 2007 in power of suggestion, reason, religion, the Jesus light | 32 comments

The Jesus light

Last night I spoke at the Durham University Debating Society. The motion before the house was “This house believes Jesus Christ is the way the truth and the life.” Proposing were philosopher Prof. Richard Swinburne, the Bishop of Edinburgh Brian Smith, and a Seventh Day Adventist Minister called Don.

What I found especially interesting about the debate was the Bishop’s approach. He deliberately eschewed argument and appealed instead to personal experience – an experience relating to what he called “the meaning of life”.

I’ve seen this done before, but the Bishop was particularly good at it. He started with jokes, but then gradually began to speak more softly and with feeling. In our quietest moments, he said, each one of us – yes, even a cynical atheist – is aware, deep down, of a light. It’s an awareness of something fundamentally good, of a yearning to be something better than we are. This something is… Jesus. Sombre nodding from the Christian Union contingent. When the Bishop sat down, there was moment of quiet, reflective calm before the applause broke out.

How do you respond to that? Get all logical and sceptical on him, and you come across as a coarse bully, someone insensitive to one of the deepest insights available to humanity, an insight that, yes, even a cynic like me has, though I might try to deny it.

Well, here’s what I said. How could I have done better?

I started by pointing out something surely undeniable – that religion has a quite extraordinary ability to get even very smart, well-educated people to believe ridiculous things. Sixty years ago, the view that the entire universe is just six thousand years old was the view of a tiny band of religious crackpots. It’s now held by some 100 million Americans. Some of these people, I pointed out, are much smarter than anyone in this room. Many are college educated. Yet religion has the power to convince them not just the universe is six thousand years old, but also that this is good science. Wow!

How does religion manage this amazing feat? There are lots of factors. One is the subtle arts of psychological manipulation. Anyone who has seen Derren Brown’s TV show will know that, with the right techniques, it’s possible to shift people’s beliefs in some very weird directions. Funnily enough, religion has developed many of these same techniques. It’s had thousands of years to refine them. It is very, very good at applying them.

One of the psychological mechanisms it takes advantage of is the power of suggestion.

A while ago I did some research into UFOs for a children’s critical thinking book I’m writing (publishers, please get in touch). I came across a very interesting story involving a strange light seen over a nuclear power station being built in the U.S. back in 1976. The light appeared night after night. The local police had witnessed it. One said, “it was about half the size of the moon, and it just hung there over the plant.” Another policeman described the object as “twenty times” the size of a plane that happened to fly past. Even a local magistrate described something fiery, rectangular, and “about the size of a football field” hanging over the power station.

Two reporters went down to join the growing, excited audience and see the mysterious light for themselves. Sure enough it appeared. The journalists decided to approach in their car, but as they drove towards it the light receded. Eventually they gave up the chase, stopped, and got out of the car. The photographer pulled out his telephoto lens, took a closer look and said, “Yep, that’s Venus alright”.

Suggest to people that a light is an enormous fiery object, and, in many cases, that’s what they’ll see. UFOlogy provides many amazing examples of the phenomenon.

Just like the Bishop, many religious folk will take me gently by the hand, look deep into my eyes and say, in a calm, steady voice, “Stephen, in your quietest moments you’re aware of something, aren’t you? You might try to deny it, but you know there’s something down there, at the bottom of your soul, don’t you? It’s a light, isn’t it? A small, still light. Can you see it there, glimmering? Look closer… Closer still… See…? Can you see what it is yet…? It’s Jesus, isn’t it?” And as I stare more and more closely, the recognition finally breaks over me: “Oh my gosh! Yes… yes…. it really is Jesus!”

Or is it Venus?


  1. I think you were right to highlight how the power of suggestion can mislead people. Though, I’m not sure creationism was the best example to use; if any in the crowd were Young Earth Creationists (a certainty in my country), they would have felt that there were now two things the bad atheist just didn’t like about their good faith. Those who weren’t YEC’s might have thought, “There go the atheists again; they throw out the silly extremist theology along with the love of Jesus. It’s all bad to them in their prejudiced view, just because it’s religion.”Using an example of psychological manipulation and the power of suggestion, that doesn’t involve religion, might be a way to get an audience to let their guard down long enough to listen. Such an example, say, about coercive diet pill advertising, would garner agreement. Then the audience might begin to think of themselves more as a collective Watson to your Holmes, rather than the morally justified opposition.Unfortunately, non-religious explanations of phenomena often can’t be as succinctly and simply packaged as religious ones (which I find to usually be assertions rather than explanations). The bishop had a neat, cut and dried answer to the question of where our innate moral sense comes from. Since you finished the post with the thought that this sense wasn’t quite what we might have thought, I wonder if you went on to present what you thought it actually was? Did you emphasise that it’s a really good thing we have these internal morals, and that, although religion is well intentioned, there’s a better, more universal way of cultivating this inborn sense of ours? This would show the non-religious perspective on this question to be just as positive and moral, yet less divisive, than the one proffered by religion.

  2. i have quite some experiences in the past that it were the speakers’ skills and powers to control the beliefs of the audience in that particular moments… and when i glanced around… seems others were all moved. but very soon after i left the place, what i almost believed while ago very soon got weaken and faded. and until today, i always say to God “sorry so far still you cannot make me believe you are there, although you might have done something very good for others. is that my fault or yours?”

  3. I think belief and science can’t be debated together. You cannot argue with a true believer on anything. They will almost always rationalize their reality around their seemingly hard-wired world view. If you back a true believer into a corner, they will always fall back on personal experience — what they know to be true, because they believe they’ve experienced it. Unfortunately, ignorance by choice, simply to defend a particular reality, cannot be successfully argued, and is ultimately a waste of time. That is, unless your goal is to seed doubt into a ridiculous belief system.

  4. Thanks for all the comments…Hi Steelman – sorry, creationism wasn’t to illustrate the power of suggestion, just the power of religion to make people believe nonsense. The UFO case was supposed to illustrate power of suggestion. I didn’t spell that out enough.Does anyone know of a good book that lists and explains some of these many forms of psychological manipulation?

  5. Hmm. I can definately see why you’d want to avoid seeming insensitive to those present who were religious, so I was wondering if you approached it from a slightly different direction. I was not there so I do not know if you mentioned this, but it might have been worth pointing out that although for some people it might be Jesus, if you’re in a Muslim-dominant culture it would far more likely be Allah, or Brahman in a Hindu culture. Equally, religion does not have the monopoly on optimism concerning humanity or a sense of wonder concerning the universe, as you well know being a philosopher.As for the bias, I think they one you’re looking for here is Confirmation Bias ( article as always, keep up the good work. I enjoy reading it.- Martin Fox

  6. Good one, religion can make people believe some wacky stuff that’s for sure, as those in Londonistan can clearly see.However, I am quite confident as an American stating that there is NO WAY 100 million Americans believe the Universe is only 6,000 years old. Personally, I don’t know one person who believes this.In order to try and stop religion officially however, a tyranny IS required.Keep in mind that more killing has been done by atheist (communist) governments than by religiously free countries’ governments.A good friend is an atheist, I told him I wouldn’t try to change his mind. God can’t be proved or disproved, so let people believe what they want. Unless of course that means killing and enslavement in the name of religion.Politics however, is meant to be debated. But, like many progressives, he views ‘Liberalism’ as sort of a religion. Despite the facts, they will continually believe in the failed policies and dogma of ‘progressivism’ like gospel.He showed this tendency when he said that he wouldn’t try to change my mind towards his more leftist political views.Christians haven’t committed over 8100 religiously inspired terrorist attacks since 9/11. Islamofacist terrorists have however, and someday they will be coming again to a city near you.Don’t worry about the Christians too much, the vast majority are reasonable and don’t want a Christian Government in any form, despite the fact that Western Liberalism comes out of Christianity.We should put most of our energy in this area towards learning more about the Islamic Jihad towards a worldwide caliphate. And educating others about this. Wouldn’t a Taliban Earth in a few hundred years be wonderful?Here are two great sites with lots of relevant information, history and facts: thought -God can not be quantifiedso therefore must not existman can’t measure beyond Spaceso then does it not exist.

  7. “Keep in mind that more killing has been done by atheist (communist) governments than by religiously free countries’ governments.”Firstly, atheism and communism are hardly synonymous – look up christian communism if you do not believe me. Secondly, none of those deaths were because the government was atheist whereas those deaths caused by religion were in the name of religion. “A good friend is an atheist, I told him I wouldn’t try to change his mind. God can’t be proved or disproved, so let people believe what they want. Unless of course that means killing and enslavement in the name of religion.”God cannot be disproved, but neither can the easter bunny, invisible pink unicorn, flying spaghetti monster, et al.

  8. Thanks Uspace. Several polls indicate that something like 2/3rds to a half of Americans believe in a very young Earth – i.e. less than 10,000 years. See for example: U.S. population is nearly 300 million, 100 million young earth creationists might even be an under-estimate. of course, the polls might be unreliable. But there have been several, and the results are fairly consistent.

  9. BTW Uspace, check out the link to “atheism a faith position” on my side bar, and then come back to me on the thought if God’s existence can be neither proved nor dispored, then atheism is no more reasonable/unreasonable than belief in God. Be interested to hear your reponse….all the bestStephen

  10. Hi Martin. Thanks for the comment. I did think about doing what you suggested (point out the light is seen differently depending on your religion) , but also thought that the standard fall back on the other side is to insist all religions share a common, core religious “truth”. The light is Jesus and Allah and Brahman etc.I had already done my 15 minute talk and only had 5 mins to respond to the Bishop etc. so could not say v much.I found it much easier dealing with Swinburne, for whom I have a great deal of respect, because we share a similar set of ground rules for discussion. But the Bishop operated in a different way – he started weaving a spell – and that requires a different sort of response.

  11. I have a slight quibble about the young earth believers – “Some of these people, I pointed out, are much smarter than anyone in this room. Many are college educated.”I’m not sure about that first sentence. I suppose you’re thinking, reasonably enough perhaps, that statistically some of them must be much smarter than anyone in any room, because some in any crowd of 100 million must be; but as a generalization I think it’s dubious anyway. The 100 million aren’t evenly distributed throughout the population, and the criterion by which they’re selected is quite special – so I’m not sure it’s safe to assume that some of them are much smarter than anyone in the room. Or maybe what I mean is just that saying it that way could be misleading. (I suppose I also mean that I think these opinion polls give a misleading impression of what the US is like: that one has to expect that anyone and everyone could be a young earth creationist, that you just never know; but in fact it’s not like that here; YECs are not evenly distributed and many of us don’t know any and don’t expect to trip over them at every turn; on the contrary.) And the college educated thing doesn’t mean what it means in the UK: there are thousands of universities and colleges here; many of them are pretty much high schools, and many others are bible colleges.In short there are a great many fundamentalists here but they are mostly clumped together. Not that you said otherwise – but I think the intelligent and the college educated things, taken together, make YEC sound more normal and pervasive than in fact it is.So far.

  12. Hi Ophelia – yes I do realize most live in “Jesusland”. You won’t find so many at Harvard and Yale.Still, I don’t doubt there some very smart people at Bob Jones (…

  13. Hi Stephen,Yes, that’s it. Jesusland is…elsewhere.It’s interesting that the bishop calls the light ‘Jesus’, given what a mixed bag Jesus is. He says plenty of cruel vindictive things, which Jesus-lovers either ignore or explain away, or sometimes both. I once mentioned the cruelty and vindictiveness to a Christian; first he denied it then when I cited chapter and verse he said ‘Oh he was angry at the Pharisees there.’ Uh…yes…that’s the point. So much for inner lights.

  14. Sorry Barefoot Bum, I meant it was the Bishop, Brian, not the Prof, Swnburne, that cast the spell…

  15. One approach would be to fight fire with fire. Talk about man’s terror of death, longing for a sense of control in the face of the vicissitudes of life, loneliness in the vast black universe, longing for a sense of love and comfort……but Bishop, although of course it’s human and understandable, you know in your heart of hearts, don’t you, that you’re fooling youself….You would have to be a good actor to carry it off well (many Anglcan priests are quite good actors). Bu, done well,t it would be quite telling.

  16. Sigh. I really can read; I went to school and everything… although I pretty much stopped paying attention after I was about 12 or 13.

  17. Stephen,You asked for some book suggestions, so I thought I would offer some. There is a good book by Terence Hines, Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, in which he discusses different paranormal claims and why people believe them. Schick and Vaughn have a good book, How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age, which introduces critical thinking by sifting through different confusions about things like UFO’s. Hope that helps!

  18. My first reaction would have been, “Why Jesus? Why not Buddha”, and pursued the cultural meme approach.My second would have been to say, “It’s interesting that you talk about the perception of a light. After all, we refer to a light – often a tunnel of light – as part of near-death experiences. But we now know that this is a perfectly natural phenomenon; in fact you can induce it for yourself, using the drug ketamine.”Over the centuries, people have attributed to supernatural forces things which we now understand to have perfectly natural explanations. Five hundred years ago, if you had encountered someone who was hallucinating and raving about hearing voices, you would have assumed that they were ‘possessed’ by a demon or similar spirit. Then, you might have followed the injunction of Pope Innocent XIII to torture or kill them. Today you would (I hope!) encourage them to take their schizophrenia medication. “So why should we accept your supernatural explanation of this psychological experience? Particularly an explanation which is so localized in time, space, and culture. And suppose that tomorrow we find a way to turn that particular psychological experience on and off, using psychoactive chemicals. Would you say that we were ‘switching off Jesus?’ I rather doubt it.”

  19. timmo-interesting books. Thanks.Stephen-the UFO story reminded me of the classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, written in 1841.Who won the debate?

  20. What a humane garden of opinions have been assembled here! I’m a wander fron ScienceBlogs so I don’t know if I can post. Nonetheless, ye are a fine assemblage of gentlemen for this old laced-boots-and-kakhi-trousers geologist to meet on the internet. The attack on ‘naturalism’ in science and philosophy is under full attack from Christian and Muslim “believers”. Pray just Google “naturalism” for a big plate of evidence.Ye wouldn’t want yer grandchildren to be subjected to this kind of brain-abuse, would ye?

  21. Chris and timmo – thanks for book advice.Chris: we won the debate, amazingly.I should have said, along with me were Prof Stuart Sim and a student debater called Thomas.

  22. I’d tend to take Geoff’s first reaction. To leap from a feeling to a theory of everything is a completely unwarranted guess.Somebody who grows up in Italy to be a Catholic will interpret such a feeling differently from somebody who grows up in Iran to be a Shi’ite. It is to the credit or detriment of neither that they have happen to have acquired these ready-made narratives for labelling feelings. It is blind luck.And that’s what strong, undoubting faith is really in: not in this god or that one, but in oneself. The core article of such faith is that one’s own guess is right.(Stephen, I don’t know about a list of forms of psychological manipulation, but there’s a list of common cognitive biases here that may be relevant.)

  23. ‘“Stephen, in your quietest moments you’re aware of something, aren’t you? You might try to deny it, but you know there’s something down there, at the bottom of your soul, don’t you?”‘I recently confessed to this feeling, partly in the vain hope that other atheists would say, “Yeah, me too!”, and add weight to the idea that perhaps we all have some vestigial theist bent within us. A spiritual appendix of sorts. But then several other atheists pointed out that they ‘felt’ no such inclination towards a higher power.So the bottom kinda fell out of that argument 🙁

  24. “In our quietest moments, he said, each one of us – yes, even a cynical atheist – is aware, deep down, of a light.I know you are paraphrasing Stephen, but I would have been interested to hear HOW the Bishop knew what what I am aware of during my quiet moments? And indeed how he knows what everyone else is aware of. Surely that is where his arguement falls apart.

  25. I found your article very interesting. I wonder if ‘the power of suggestion’ has any parallels with Bayesian models Perception where, to some extent, we see/hear/touch what we expect to see (as opposed to what is physically present in the world). For example Carl Gegenfurter has shown that we perceptually impose a yellowish colour on a physically grey image of a banana. Prior experience has a powerful input into our perception of the world and if you have been told from a young age that Jesus/the Tooth Fairy/Allah shaped the world, would you be more likely to impose your prior region-inspired version of events/images on your ultimate percept of the world? In other words, to those individuals Venus genuinely would look like some godly apparition…

  26. You won? Well done!Here is what I think you said:”You appear to be suffering an hallucinatory delusion brought on by cultural mass hysteria.”Sounds so much better than what I would have said, “What are you, nuts?”I’ll have to try it the next time the question comes up.Sadly,where I live in rural Canada it comes up regularly.

  27. I think the bishop’s argument was shortcircuited by the overly ambitious heading of the talk. Trying to prove “Jesus is our Saviour” in a philosphical discussion is impossible. However, making a strong – even winning – argument for the existence of God, even a personal God, is a different matter, and that talk about ‘feeling an inner light’ is a very strong argument indeed. We humans have something like a sex-drive towards God: If there were only male men on earth, and they had never seen a woman, they would still be yearning for women. They couldn’t describe them. They wouldn’t exactly know what it is they desire, but they could give you an idea: “Something gentle, beautiful, that you can take in your arms and in your bed, something you can talk to and sleep with..” etc.Well, it’s kind of the same with this other thing we yearn for, called ‘GOD’. And for every yearning there is some kind of satisfaction – that’s just an empirical fact: Hunger, Curiosity, Exhaustion. Every lock has its key. Of course, when I find that key, it might be very different from what I imagined, but I will immediately recognize it, because it quenches the exact thirst I was feeling. Only the dimmest Christians (or Muslims, Buddhists etc.) will fail to admit that when God finally reveals himself to them, they will not be surprised. And the ‘tooth-fairy’ argument would be quite out of place here: Nobody would fall into a state of lifelong depression because his childish fancy for this myth was disappointed. The yearning has to be fundamentally deeper in order to be taken earnestly. The yearning for God is of that nature.

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