The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Penn & Teller's Bulls***!: Part 1

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Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller are stage magicians. Their act is a mix of comedy, irreverence, and skill. They are also known for exposing quacks, frauds, and claims of the supernatural in the tradition of Harry Houdini and James Randi. In their highly acclaimed and usually entertaining “Bulls***!” program that airs on Showtime, they have ventured into the realm of politics by taking on global warming, gun control, PETA, War on Drugs, gun control, “Safety Hysteria,” recycling, and anything that strikes their fancy.

Their worldview is libertarian and atheistic. According to an article in Wired magazine, Penn has Nevada license plates that are customized to read “ATHEIST” and “GODLESS.” “Sometimes they’ll even sign autographs with ‘There is no God.’” One of their BS episodes takes on the Creation and Intelligent Design movements. In order to set the stage for my critique of their methodology of “exposing” Creationism and Intelligent Design, a little background information will prove to be helpful.

Penn and Teller’s act of attacking frauds who claimed to be supernaturally endowed when in reality they were good at sleight of hand has a long history. Reginald Scot (c. 1538–1599), author of The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), exposed the witch-hunting craze of his time. He also applied his observational skills by explaining how feats of magic that many people believed were displays of the supernatural were accomplished by sleight of hand. “If Pharaoh’s magicians had suddenly made frogs,” Scot argued, “why could they not drive them away again? If they could not hurt the frogs, why should we think that they could make them?… Such things as we are being bewitched to imagine, have no truth at all either in action or essence, beside the bare imagination.”[1] Scot is important because of his claim that demonic magic was a delusion. Witches were not in league with the Devil but rather were deluded persons who needed biblical guidance rather than death and torture.  He spends a great deal of time making the case that only God controls physical elements. We’ll come back to this important point in tomorrow’s article.

In addition to Scot, Thomas Aby produced a series of books on the same topic. Little is known of Aby. His first and most well know work, Candle in the Dark: Or, A Treatise Concerning the Nature of Witches & Witchcraft, published in 1656, was used unsuccessfully by George Burroughs in his defense during the Salem witch trials in 1692. Ady also published A Perfect Discovery of Witches (1661) and The Doctrine of Devils (1676). If the Bible had been followed, there never would have been any witch trials or an inquisition. In the second part of Candle in the Dark, Ady asks the following questions related to the so-called evidence used against “witches” during the height of the European witch craze:

Where is it written in all the Old and New Testaments that a witch is a murderer, or hath power to kill by witchcraft, or to afflict with any disease or infirmity? Where is it written that witches have imps sucking of their bodies? Where is it written that witches have biggs [nipples] for imps to suck on… that the devil setteth privy marks upon witches… that witches can hurt corn or cattle… or can fly in the air… Where do we read of a he-devil or she-devil, called incubus or succubus, that useth generation or copulation?[2]

Modern debunking of claims of the supernatural was standardized by Harry Houdini (Eric Weiss) (1874–1926). There were many in Houdini’s day who believed that Houdini himself used supernatural means to accomplish what he claimed was simple sleight of hand, For example, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writing hand behind the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, was convinced that Houdini was himself a medium and capable of supernatural feats using occult powers. He believed that Houdini could only perform some of his tricks by dematerializing. Houdini objected.

I do claim to free myself from the restraint of fetters and confinement, but positively state that I accomplish my purpose purely by physical, not psychical means. The force necessary to “shoot a bolt within a lock,” is drawn from Houdini the living human being and not a medium. My methods are perfectly natural, resting on natural laws of physics. I do not dematerialize or materialize anything; I simply control and manipulate natural things in a manner perfectly well known to myself, and thoroughly accountable for and adequately understandable (if not duplicable) by any person to whom I may elect to divulge my secrets.[3]

As a skeptic of the paranormal, Houdini should be an example to all of us. Don’t be afraid to question claims of preternatural or supernatural phenomena. If you are ever tempted to believe, investigate, question, and doubt: “The first to plead his case seems just, until another comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17). John tells us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).  Paul writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Col. 2:8). Don’t be fooled either by the materialist (man-centered “philosophy”) or the magician (“empty deception”), both are the “tradition of men.”

Unlike Penn and Teller, Houdini was not an atheist. “I firmly believe in a Supreme Being,” Houdini wrote, “and that there is a hereafter.”[4]

In addition to Scot, Ady, Houdini, James Randi, and Penn and Teller, Christian magicians André Kole and Dan Korem have been relentless in exposing frauds. Kole has written Miracles or Magic?, Mind Games: Exposing Today’s Psychics, Frauds, and False Spiritual Phenomena, and Astrology and Psychic Phenomena. Dan Korem’s Powers: Testing the Psychic and Supernatural and The Fakers, written with Paul Meier, follow a similar methodology. Christians should be familiar with the content and arguments of these books.

So what does any of this have to do with Penn & Teller’s evaluation of Creationism and Intelligent Design? Here are the questions:

  1. Do Penn & Teller apply their investigative skills consistently when it comes to the issue of evolution?
  2. Can magicians, who know that everything they do is a trick, account for the mechanism that is said to make evolution possible?

To be continued. . . .

Footnotes:
[1]
Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft (New York: Dover Publications, 1972), 180. Scot’s work was originally published in 1584, and only 250 copies were reprinted in 1886. It was reprinted once again in Great Britain in 1930. The 1972 Dover edition is the latest reprint, retaining the spelling of the original edition.
[2]
Thomas Ady, A Candle in the Dark: or, A Treatise Concerning the Nature of Witches and Witchcraft: Being Advice to Judges, Sheriffes, Justices of the Peace, and Grand-Jury-men, what to do, before they passe Sentence on such as are Arraigned for their Lives as Witches (London: printed for R[obert] I[bbitson] to be sold by Tho. Newberry at the three Lions in Cornhill by the Exchange, 1656). This work is searchable.
[3]
Quoted in Loraine Boettner, Immortality (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1956), 156. The quotation can also be found in J. C. Cannell, The Secrets of Houdini(1931), 14.
[4] Harry Houdini, A Magician Among the Spirits (New York: Arno Press, [1924] 1972), xiii.

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