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Derren Brown and Richard Coles discuss whether Christianity or atheism is the path to happiness

Their discussion is the third episode of The Big Conversation, a unique online video series from the Unbelievable? faith debate show. The two well-known media figures address the increase in people in the West who identify as 'nones' (having no religious commitments) and where they can find meaning. Derren Brown draws on his recent book Happy: Why more or less everything is absolutely fine to promote a Stoic approach to finding contentment while Rev Richard Coles draws on his own conversion experience of "meeting the resurrected Christ" as a "life changing" moment.

Brown, who requested Coles as his discussion partner having met each other before, has seen his own journey of faith go in the opposite direction to the TV Vicar. The illusionist lost his Christian faith as a young adult and became an atheist following his entry into the world of magic performance. In contrast Richard Coles, after a successful and hedonistic pop star career in the 1980s, converted from atheism to Christianity through a profound religious experience which led to him becoming an Anglican priest.

Their conversation reflects these opposing positions. When asked by host Justin Brierley if he had an existential crisis after abandoning his Christian faith as a young man, Derren Brown says, "I had one moment waking up feeling down, and had that moment of realising that I don't have that objective yardstick anymore of a little voice going 'it doesn't matter if you're feeling down, you are loved objectively and irrespective of how you feel'. And had a moment of going, 'oh, so my psychological robustness is sort of up to me now'."

Meanwhile Rev Richard Coles shares his story saying, "I went into [church] as a sceptical, critical spectator and came out a participant. I had a moment of conversion which was decisive and powerful". Describing how this led to his vocation to priesthood he says, "If you look at a video of me in the 1980s there's obviously a vicar struggling to get out!"

The most persuasive thing about Christianity for me is not the niceness. It's the nastiness, it's the toughness.

As they continue to debate meaning, fulfilment and happiness, Rev Coles returns to the theme that Christianity isn't about "happiness", emphasising that Christianity is not a self-help philosophy, and spirituality isn't about adding another accomplishment to your life. Rather he argues that Christian faith involves being reminded of just how broken we all are saying, "The most persuasive thing about Christianity for me is not the niceness. It's the nastiness, it's the toughness. It's the realisation of the very narrow limits of your own competence, fitness and ability."

Responding to Rev Coles' story of meeting the resurrected Christ, Brown says he isn't interested in explaining away such experiences but says that they are part of a psychological search for meaning. He says, "What's interesting is the richness and the truth, if you like, of something that makes us connect with that thing that is outside of ourselves. I can't put a name on that or call it God. I think it is a psychological experience, but I think it's the most important and valuable one we have".

Rev Richard Coles also describes a funny but poignant moment recently when given a task by the Diocese to create a strap line for his church. After some consideration he wanted it to say, "The Church - Welcoming losers since nought". However, he says it was vetoed by his superiors. "They didn't like the world 'losers' unfortunately, which is bad because I think if anyone should be ok with the notion of losers it should be the church".

Derren Brown is an illusionist and mentalist, famous for his TV and stage shows. He's also an author of books such as Tricks of the Mind, which both reveal his love of stagecraft and psychology and tell the story of how he lost his faith in Christianity as a young adult. His latest book Happy: Why more or less everything is absolutely fine brings the wisdom of Greek stoic philosophy to bear on how to lead a content, fulfilled and meaningful life.

Rev Richard Coles is a priest in the Church of England and a well-known media figure on radio and TV. He also had a highly successfully (and often wild) pop career as part of The Communards. He's told the story of his Christian conversion in books such as Fathomless Riches and Bringing in the Sheaves. He argues that following Christ won't necessarily bring happiness, but has personally found it to be the path to ultimate meaning.

The Big Conversation is a unique video series from Premier Christian Radio's popular faith debate show Unbelievable? Hosted by Justin Brierley, The Big Conversation explores science, faith, philosophy and what it means to be human. Other episodes feature high-profile thinkers across the Christian and atheist community such as Steven Pinker, Jordan B Peterson, Susan Blackmore, Daniel Dennett, Keith Ward, Peter Singer and John Lennox. For videos, commentary and the programme schedule visit:

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