“No matter how smart or well educated you are, you can be deceived.” James Randi, the world-famous magician, bookends his biographical documentary with this warning.
In An Honest Liar, “The Amazing Randi” reveals what two things drive him in his career as a magician. First, he endeavors to become the best magician he can possibly become. And second, he makes it his life goal to uncover as many cases of dishonest deception as possible. In Randi’s universe, there is good (or ‘benign’) deception and then there is unethical and even, dare one say it, evil deception. Unethical deception is that which is fueled by a desire to transfer another’s money into one’s own pocket.
As the film’s title suggests, there are honest and dishonest liars. Randi lives and walks among the honest liars, because a true magician announces to his or her audience that they are a magician, unlike a sorcerer or con-man. An accomplished magician may gain many fans; a good sorcerer gains many followers. While fans may love a magician for his or her skill at slight of hand and his or her ability to entertain, followers give sorcerers, faith healers and psychics their hopes and hearts. The thievery of emotional currency is as vulgar to Randi as the pilfering of actual cash. For Randi, manipulating people’s emotions to turn a profit is never an option.
The documentary itself is more educational than beautiful, but its core message is one that begs to be heard. The bigger question that is implied in this film is, “Why do we believe what we believe?” Uri Geller, a self-proclaimed psychic whom Randi effectively discredits, argues, “A billion people believe in God, and you can’t touch that.” His argument is that people will believe what they want to believe; even in spite of there being ample evidence that reveals their belief to be false. What both Gellar and Randi fail to acknowledge is that everyone has a bias. Geller is correct in asserting that many people will believe in God even if evidence is brought forth that refutes God’s existence. Basically, when they think they are trying to learn the truth, what they are really doing is seeking bias confirmation. But what Randi fails to realize is that he feverishly seeks bias confirmation as well.
Randi is an Atheist who believes that there is a scientific explanation for everything. If Randi were in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol he would play the part of Ebenezer adamantly asserting that actual ghosts are nothing more than the product of bad digestion.
C.S. Lewis elaborates in his book Miracles:
“If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience” (2).
As a magician, Randi believes that anything that cannot be explained by science is ultimately a trick that he hasn’t figured out yet. Randi is keenly aware of the biases of others, while unfortunately blind to his own.
In a world full of deception, a man schooled in the art of deceit can be a valuable friend. Hopefully, Randi’s worldview might eventually allow room for the honest person of faith. While Randi’s world is filled with wonder, it is ultimately a closed system. As Christians, we believe that a cleft has been opened in the pitiless walls of the world and that God has come through. It is one thing to admit that one is an honest liar; it is another thing to come to terms with the fact that one’s biases functionally limit what one can actually see. True honesty consists of acknowledging this fact and being open to the possibility that one might be wrong. Christians as well as Atheists can only benefit from remembering this truth. Randi is biased to be sure, but has a gentle spirit, one that thankfully appreciates a sense of play and wonder in all things. Much healthy dialogue is to be had by those who are open to the possibility of true magic invading their closed systems at any moment.