From creationists to UFO fanatics, the author talks about the bizarre beliefs he came across while researching his new book.
Your new book, The Heretics, is a journey among the religious fanatics, UFO obsessives and beliefs that appear to defy rational argument. What made you want to want to understand these people?
Both my parents are obviously intelligent – my father went to Oxford. But they’re also Christians. Even as a youngster, I could never understand how these apparently all-powerful humans could believe in heaven and hell. It seemed crazy. But if stupid wasn’t the answer, what was?
Did anyone in particular make you want to weep?
The creationist John Mackay was very frustrating. I had a very vivid experience of how facts just don’t work when you’re debating with someone who has powerful, embedded beliefs. Mackay thinks all gay people are going to hell. He said that I only think there’s evidence that people are born gay because the Devil has misled me. In his mind, any evidence that appears to go against any of his arguments is a trick by Satan. And yet he still considers himself a scientist.
Some of the people you talk to have/believe they have medical conditions that appear to defy science. Did that change your views of medical orthodoxy?
I spent a lot of time with sufferers of Morgellons disease. Many of these people are convinced they are infested with alien worms. The medical establishment says they are delusional. While I agree many are, I think others have been misdiagnosed, with potentially terrible effects for their professional and personal lives. I met a GP, for example, who had all the hallmarks of Morgellons. Because of his job, he was able to get one of his ‘worms’ analysed. It was a tropical rat mite. If he hadn’t been a GP, the chances are he’d have been dismissed as delusional and put on anti-psychotic medication.
What did your investigations teach you about our capacity to believe in what we want to believe?
I was staggered by this. At any given moment, the brain is bombarded by what’s been termed a superabundance of information. And yet it has to present us with a coherent version of the world, often by weaving an easy-to-understand story of our lives, complete with heroes and villains. But stories can have a terrible relationship with truth. We demonise our foes and unfairly elevate those whom we admire, all the while defending our beliefs with often egregiously biased thinking. We’re all vulnerable to this – even the sceptics.
You end up as sceptical of entrenched rationalism as you are of the seemingly mad. Does the truth lie somewhere in between?
The truth lies everywhere. The world is abundant with information. We’re primed to accept the bits that are useful for bolstering our hero narrative and reject the rest. You can spot someone in the grip of this kind of illusion when the story they tell is too perfect. When a Christian insists an atheist cannot have a strong moral compass without God, that’s clearly wrong. And when an atheist refuses to accept that Christianity can bring good as well as harm. That’s wrong, too.
Both people are demonising the other. When the ‘truth’ seems too perfect, beware.