Atheism and magic: Penn, Teller, Orson Welles and school tests

Penn & Teller (stage ‘magicians’) are atheists. They use their art as an attack on mystical belief. Orson Welles (stage, cinema, radio, TV, ‘magician’) was religious (even superstitious – of the moon) but did not allow this to intrude into his art.

All share an iconoclastic purpose – they look for innovative ways to express their magic, and by doing so to make transparent the trickery involved. They were/are all into artifice, but challenge their audiences to see it. As Teller once expressed it, their performances present “cognitive challenges”, which is to say, they stimulate the audience to think actively. For P&T, their friend David Blane is of an opposing camp in that he seeks to induce awe and metaphysical astonishment in his audiences – passive admiration, the end of thought. P&T refute ‘magic’ and encourage people to find the rational explanation for what they see (and don’t see). Here lies the atheistic intent. They show you how the trick is performed, how the illusion is created – and then perform it and astonish you again – this time solely with the dexterity involved:

Orson Welles – the same. He spent many years studying ‘magic’, but just 3 hours, by his own account, learning the basics of film-making (from the great Gregg Toland, his Director of Cinematography on Citizen Kane). There is no trickery in his movies, and though we may ask occasionally, ‘how did he do THAT?!’ we know that there is a pretty straightforward, if concealed, answer. Welles works with his audience to create the illusion.

Like P&T, Orson Welles was persistent in talking and giving interviews about his art, revealing his techniques, constantly downplaying his expertise and insisting that his own ignorance and shortcomings were his greatest assets. His experience in theatre taught him that all performance is a collaboration with an audience, and the lifelessness of the cinema screen presented a special challenge to recreate and enliven that partnership.  The opening scenes of Othello (which reveals the whole plot: and of A Touch of Evil (the famous, soaring single take that lasts almost 5 minutes: are designed to impress, but not to create wonderment. The audience is expected to admire the skill – but to do so they have to see it. There is, of course, willing suspension of disbelief – part of the collaborative act of creativity – but there is no intention to pull the wool over the eyes. When, in Othello, fewer than 50 extras were filmed with camera angles to create the impression of a teeming population of soldiers is obvious to the eye, but we accept the ‘cognitive challenge’ of joining with Welles to fashion the illusion.

Why this concern with making the art and the artifice transparent?

Because the Enlightenment is still not complete. Our belief in metaphysics and our superstitions persist. We are still locked into Isaac Newton’s world, pursuing scientific rationality by day, and practising alchemy by night, trying to turn lead into gold. We live a paradox, always vulnerable to sliding back into belief in the supernatural. David Blane and Dynamo thrive on pre-Enlightenment forms of ignorance and wonder, the willingness to yield up our judgement and independence to a higher authority.

It is paradox that partly lies behind Orson Welle’s iconoclasm. The weakness of the king-figure (Citizen Kane, Amberson, Othello, MacBeth, Henry Vth, Hank Quinlan) whose light is always dimmed by their dark side. Welles confuses us as to which side of the line lies good and evil. Indeed, his Othello was based on the theory of ‘the perverse marriage’ – Othello and Iago welded together as the same person – potent/impotent, as honest/conniving, transparent/strategic, light/dark. One and the same person – a Steppenwolfe. The confusion is not intended to put us off the scent of the truth of the performance, but to represent the human condition – to make it transparent.


My own art is my educational and political research. Here, too, we confront questions of transparency or wonderment. Many of my colleagues opt for arcane methods to produce their insights, methods that command some degree of mysticism and awe. I was once told in a parent/teacher evening at Elliot’s school that the results of a certain test indicated such-and-such. The teacher presenting said that there was no need to explain how the test worked since we would not understand it – it was a matter for experts.

For me, this makes the test invalid. I have the ethical right to know the mechanisms by which my son is classified as bright, slow, worthy or otherwise – and to appeal them. That teacher had bought completely into the myth of expertise, yielded up their crtical judgement – accepted the technical technocratic narrative. Developers of tests like that are more like David Blane than Penn & Teller.

Social and educational researchers, school and hospital inspectors, auditors and all those professionals whose job it is to put life and work under scrutiny – all have the obligation to engage with our judgement and not to stupefy us. This means that the methods they use have to be accessible and visible, available for discussion and amendment, ready for appeal. They should rest for their authority on that same performer/audience partnership so doggedly sought by Welles, and not on awe and wonder. If parents cannot understand how a test works then it should not be used. If a respondent is not understanding of the purposes and mechanics of a survey or a focus group, then they should refuse to participate. If professional practitioners – teachers, policy officers, nurses, social workers – do not have the right to be represented in their own terms and to appeal to methods and aims of inspection then they, too, should be free not to participate.


In Miller’s play, The Crucible (a representation of The Witches of Salem with more than an echo of McCarthyism in the USA) Judge Danforth is challenged over the draconian punishments he is contemplating against alleged witches. He proclaims: “as God have not empowered me like Joshua to stop this sun from rising, so I cannot withhold from them the perfection of their punishment”. It is the ‘perfection’ of the method that protects it from appeal. The perfection of the trick that insists on wonder. The ‘perfection’ of expert authority that claims privilege. Expertise is part of our democracy, and so it should be flawed.