One of the most interesting interviews I’ve done in recent years was for a feature-length documentary that has now appeared and available for viewing (e.g., Amazon Prime) called “The Search – Manufacturing Belief.” It was the brainchild of Patrick Payne, who also produced and directed it. This is how it is described on the Documentary Channel:
Juxtaposing reason with mythology, philosophy with religion, and science with mysticism, filmmaker Patrick Payne interviews thought leaders from across this spectrum to build a penetrating, provocative and personal inquiry into the question of awe, objective truth and trust in the 21st Century.
I thought it might be worthwhile to have a kind of personal introduction to the film, and so I asked Patrick to provide us with some insight into how it came into being and what it’s about.
Patrick is on the blog and he will be able to respond to any questions or comments you have. Here is what he has to say:
The Search – Manufacturing Belief
An exploration of the spiritual experience
and the origins of belief.
“The Search – Manufacturing Belief,” a feature documentary I directed and produced, was released on VOD on June 16, 2020. It is the culmination of more than forty years of exploring the “spiritual experience” and the profound and perplexing questions I’ve grappled with during my search, all prompted by my experience at a weekend Christian retreat when I was seventeen. The documentary reconstructs this experience, interspersed with interviews with leading science and secularist thinkers, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Bart Ehrman, Dacher Keltner, Anil Seth and others. Brian Janssen provides analysis and historical origins of the Cursillo movement. Mary Payne, my mother, offers our personal experiences with Catholicism.
The story all started at an unforgettable event at my Catholic high school in 1975. I was recruited to attend a religious weekend retreat called “The Search.” I was in grade 12. For generations my family was Catholic. The organizers made the unusual claim that by the end of the weekend event most people would experience “a real encounter with the Holy Spirit.” Having been raised in a traditional religious culture this claim was truly extraordinary. This could be the validation, the proof I had longed for since childhood, that my belief in God was justified and the bible really was true.
The film begins with a re-enactment of the inciting events at my high school in 1975 that led up to my personal epiphany. That weekend, as it turns out, was a roller coaster ride of well-orchestrated and carefully programmed events.
The next section of the film examines the historical origins of the Christian retreat weekend phenomenon with context from Brian Janssen PhD and Presbyterian Minister in Hospers, Iowa. The Search of the 1970’s was rooted in the Cursillo movement that emerged from the Catholic pilgrimages in Spain in the 1940’s. By the 1950’s and 60’s the weekend retreat program had expanded around the world. It was modified and adapted to the modern generation and had branched into virtually all sectarian and denominational Christian groups using a variety of monikers like “Tres Dias”, “Road to Emmaus” and many more. “The Search”, as it was called in the 70’s was focused on Catholic high school students and young people, especially teenagers. Youth were considered open-minded and searching for meaning and answers to the big questions of life. High school students are particularly susceptible to these programs and were easily recruited. By 2020, millions of people had participated in religious retreat programs worldwide. In 2015, I decided to attend another Cursillo weekend retreat in the USA. I wanted to experience the program again first hand. I was astonished to see that very little had changed since the 1970’s. Unexpectedly, even though I had anticipated the sequence of events to come, the retreat left me physically exhausted and psychologically shattered.
Following a summation of the origins and methods used in the retreat program, the documentary examines the latest research into mind control techniques, revealing that my experience in the 1970’s and again 40 years later in 2015 was anything but haphazard or accidental. These programs and practices are now well understood by neuroscientists and psychologists as powerful manipulation techniques. They are used in extreme circumstances by military regimes for thought reform and reprogramming. Of course, the weekend retreat at my high school in Calgary, or later at the Cursillo, was not as brutal or coercive as the North Korean torture or the military brainwashing techniques of the fifties. Yet, the resemblance was nonetheless remarkable and surprisingly very effective.
The documentary examines the following mind control techniques that have been defined by renowned psychologists Margaret Singer “Cults in our Midst” (1996) and Kathleen Taylor in her 2004 book “Brainwashing.”
The film examines and explains the six primary techniques systematically utilized in these weekend retreat programs namely:
Isolation – Control – Uncertainty – Repetition – Emotion – Group Dynamics
The film certainly does not infer that the Cursillo organizers cynically or maliciously deploy these brainwashing techniques. The weekend planners simply and naively carry out these programs by following the official Cursillo handbook. It lays out the process in well-defined detail. However, the repercussions and outcomes of these powerful psychological techniques are truly extraordinary. By the end of the weekend most people experience a kind of catharsis or overwhelming awe experience. It works. Participants with underlying mental instability could certainly find themselves in a precarious situation. From my experience, virtually everyone had an intense emotional response and at least half of the participants were mentally overwhelmed. This emotion is best characterized as a sense of cathartic surrender, a unique manufactured sense of awe.
Next, the film explores the unique human phenomenon of awe. Dacher Keltner and Sam Harris discuss how awe is a complex emotional reaction. It is often a result of physical and mental exhaustion and may include an unusual combination of fear, bewilderment, surprise, relief, joy, confusion and astonishment. It may also include powerful spontaneous feelings of warmth, love, connection, peace and tranquility. Although awe is a relatively uncommon occurrence in daily life, most people claim to have experienced this emotion. We may spontaneously experience it when gazing up at the stars in the vast universe, or at the birth of a child, when listening to music, at a concert, or dancing or in the serenity of nature. These vivid experiences are as varied as the humans who encounter them. But why and how do humans experience awe? Is it genetic? Is awe an evolutionary adaption or determined by one’s cultural or religious origins? The film also examines the origins of mankind’s most sacred texts with world-renowned biblical scholar Bart Ehrman. Is awe an inscrutable psychological state or some kind of mystical, spiritual phenomenon?
It’s easy to see how this sudden inexplicable, cathartic experience could be interpreted as a “spiritual experience.” It is certainly unlike any other sensation we commonly encounter. Because it is so often a sudden, overwhelming transcendent, emotional occurrence most people interpret the feeling as a type of “supernatural” event. It may seem like a profoundly meaningful encounter with the mysterious. In most cases this mystical or sacred connection relates directly to an individuals particular spiritual upbringing and beliefs. This is a reasonable association because these correlations have already been drawn and integrated in a religious context. If one cannot comprehend this phenomenon, it appears to be connected to the supernatural, inexplicable, inscrutable mystery of life or consciousness itself.
Finally, the film explores of the intrinsic connection between awe, spirituality and consciousness. Consciousness as defined by Anil Seth, Neuroscientist, is that ineffable experience we are all very familiar with but very rarely examine. It is how we comprehend and ultimately make sense of our life experiences and existence itself. It is, by its very nature, the subjective point of view created by a complex alchemy of biology, psychology, evolution, neurochemistry, behaviour, instinct and many other components. Comprehending consciousness is perhaps the most profound mystery currently facing humanity. It is not surprising that people refer to our consciousness as the soul, the “Elan Vitale,” or the life force. Many ascribe all manner of supernatural or magical attributes to what neuroscience refers to as consciousness and for millennia humans have assigned supernatural attributes to anything that was incomprehensible. Religion is essentially the resolution to this intellectual tension.
As science continues to inexorably decipher the complexity of the universe and unravel the origins of life itself, it seems entirely possible that the enigma of consciousness will be completely understood at some point in the not too distant future. Brash proclamations like “mankind will never understand consciousness”, or “the soul is sacred and may only be examined by God” (“non-overlapping magisteria” – as per Stephen Jay Gould), may be eviscerated by the relentless march of human curiosity and scientific progress. When and if we do ultimately understand consciousness, it may be lamentable, distressing or disturbing to some and perhaps liberating to others. Regardless, it may occur within our own lifetime. Will we be left to ponder the meaning of life or redefine our place in the universe?
The Search-Manufacturing Belief recognizes that, most importantly, it is our personal relationships and the quest for truth that brings the most satisfaction in life. The personalities in the film, including Richard Dawkins, relate their private moments of awe and transcendence in their work and personal lives. My goal is making this documentary was to find common ground between believers, sceptics and people simply searching for philosophical and spiritual answers. I hope you have a chance to watch it, and if you do let me know how I did.