The Magical Moral Mystery

by Andy Bannister

When I was thirteen years old, one of my favourite hobbies was conjuring. Every Saturday morning, I would faithfully trek across London to attend classes at Davenports Magic Shop, an Aladdin’s cave of a place which was all the more wondrous for being located in an underground mall deep below Charing Cross. There I learnt how to baffle people with card tricks, make money disappear,[1] and pull rabbits from hats.[2]

Of all the tricks I mastered, my favourite was the shell game. One of the oldest tricks known to magicians, its premise is simple: behold, three small wooden cups. Beneath one is placed a small ball. The cups are shuffled and some innocent bystander asked to guess where the ball is. No matter where they guess, their answer turns out to be wrong: the magician always wins.

For all of its audience-entertaining potential, the shell game is just a trick, merely an illusion. The ball was always somewhere, namely wherever the magician put it. Try as you might, you couldn’t actually entirely dispose of it: however cunningly you palmed it up a sleeve, stuffed it under a rabbit, or hid it in an assistant’s nose, you were always stuck with it: the ball still existed. Some things you simply cannot get rid of—the best you can do is to distract people and hope they don’t notice the bulge in your sleeve.

The same problem applies to metaphysical versions of the shell game. I was reminded of this when a contemporary magician, Penn Jillette, one half of the popular comedy double act, Penn and Teller, said this during an interview:

The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine.[3]

Jillette is a well known atheist and his statement is an attempt to claim that it is the non-religious who have the moral high ground, atheists who are better people. Why? Because they’re good for the sake of goodness, unlike those terrible theists who are basically sexually rapacious psychopaths, only refraining from rape or murder because they believe that God is constantly watching them like a heavenly policeman. So, whom would you rather trust: the friendly atheist magician with the lovely smile, or the theist who is longing to start a land war in Asia and go pillaging and raping, only holding back because they’re afraid their Sky Daddy is watching them?

To give Jillette his credit, this is a clever piece of rhetoric. It’s punchy, it’s witty, it’s memorable, it’s tweetable, but it’s also a trick

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The Magical Moral Mystery | Andy Bannister