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Science Book Club Episode 3

None of us are inherently superior to anybody else. 

I begin the book in the obvious place for me which was with a creationist, and this is a guy called John Mackay who’s really influential in the whole international creationist movement.  He’s an Australian guy who considers himself a scientist and he spends a lot of time in Britain talking about creationism in schools, controversially, he’s drawn the ire of Richard Dawkins, unsurprisingly perhaps for doing that.  And I spent some time with him as he tried to prove to me with the methods of science that the Earth is only 6000 years old and that evolution is wrong.  He believes that, ah, Charles Darwin was kind of an agent of the devil and that, you know, he thinks that On the Origin of Species is a kind of satanic rewriting of the Book of Genesis, I mean, but not a stupid man by any stretch of the imagination but, you know, horrifically homophobic.  But I ended up with a kind of grudging respect for him because I at least thought this was a man that had the courage of his convictions, you know, people, many Christians today are kind of modern Christians who are very inclusive and they, you know, very pro gay rights, quite correctly, but he was right, you know, if you’re gonna be a Christian it says completely, it says clearly in the Bible that if a man lies next to another man then that man is going to hell so I kind of had this grudging admiration for his kind of dogged, um, commitment to this black and white fact.  I mean, I think if you’re gonna be a Christian, be a Christian.  This kind of political rewriting of Christianity to kind of suit current laws seems to me slightly dishonest intellectually.

I think there’s a nuance here and I think you’re right to pick it up, is it courageous [the commitment to dogma] is a really good question because I think initially when I met him I did see it was courage but then as I go on in the book I start reading up on psychology and neuroscience and kind of how we come upon our beliefs in the first place and I think the most interesting, one of the most interesting chapters for me was when I looked at politics.  Another mystery I’ve always kind of wondered about was, ‘Why do people’s beliefs tend to coalesce on the left wing and the right wing?’  Why does somebody who may be highly critical of the foreign policy of Israel, might be also ideologically pro funding for buses, you know, it doesn’t make any sense.  Why do these sort of weird disparate beliefs coalesce on the left and on the right and I spoke to a scientist, a psychologist Professor Jonathan Haidt and I read a lot of this neuroscientist called Drew Weston who studied this in great depth over in the US and what they told me was that there’s kind of three parts to the story in how we come to believe what we believe in the first place.  The first one is genetic.  Haidt told me there are around a thousand, they think around a thousand genes that are kind of involved in whether we end up becoming left wing or right wing.  And we’re born with a kind of experienced and expectant brain so when we’re born we kind of have these genetic possibilities, genetic biases and it depends on the culture we’re brought into, the culture within that family, the beliefs of our family will influence us hugely.  As we grow up if we tend to be more right wing then we will have a more right wing family, we’ll tend to absorb right wing media, we’ll tend to have right wing friends who reinforce those beliefs.  So there’s that culture and there’s also obviously personal experience.  It’s a huge factor of, you know, somebody can have, or be born into a right wing family with that particular brain but have some experience, some dramatic experience, or series of experiences which can change their beliefs.  So, I mean, it all goes into that really knotty question of free will, you know, do we have any choice about whether we believe what we believe?  John Mckay, the creationist who was homophobic, what came first, is it his belief?  Did he decide that gay people were evil because he read it in the Bible and decided that God is real so it must be true, or is he born with that kind of brain?  Is he naturally a very fearful individual who is on the extreme right wing of the spectrum and feels emotionally disgusted when he thinks about gay people?  And is he looking to the Bible and to God to justify the beliefs which are already there?  And as I go on on the journey and I find out about this then I conclude, very much, that it’s true, that the latter is true, that those beliefs are there and he’s doing what we all do and that’s looking outwards into the world for stories and narratives that fit onto our beliefs in order to justify those beliefs in order for us to make ourselves feel good about those beliefs.  Nobody wants to feel like they’re evil, you know, he’s not sitting there thinking, rubbing his hands together like the evil genius going, ‘I’m going to spread evil and disorder around the world and cause a genocide against gay people’.  He has those beliefs anyway and it’s crucial to his psychological wellbeing that he feels like that the good guy, the hero in his own story and the way he does that is by saying, ‘Well this is the word of God’.  And he actually said to me, ‘It’s in the Bible.  No further comment is necessary.  If God said it, that’s it, end of discussion’.  That was his position on that.

I’m very honest in the book about my own preconceptions.  I’m very honest in my book about, you know, my emotional responses to the people that I meet, whether I like them or I don’t like them.  An example is Rupert Sheldrake.  Hugely controversial character in that world.  You know, Cambridge biologist, believes that dogs are psychic, you know, really out there stuff, but I really liked him!  He was fascinating, like, this mad old uncle in his upstairs room talking to me about  DNA and it was fascinating and amazing and I left there really rooting for him, and he was saying, ‘James Randi’s a fraud and he’s a liar’, and I really wanted him to be right, and I found that he was right and then you start doubting yourself.  You just start doubting, you start thinking, ‘Oh my God.  Here’s me.  I’m doing confirmation bias’.  I’m just going out there looking for evidence that this guy that I liked on this completely thick, emotional level, was right, so absolutely, you know, is it a coincidence that this lapsed Catholic concluded that Christianity is a kind of a parasite hero narrative?  You know, it’s a valid criticism [of me] and it’s one I just can’t escape.

The most important thing to take away, I think, from ‘The Heretics’ is that idea that we’re all in this together.  That none of us are inherently superior to anybody else.  We’re all susceptible to these kinds of here narratives, we’re all susceptible to these biases.  And I think one of the things that’s always given me pause about the skeptical atheist community is sometimes there’s this tone of bullying, sneering kind of superiority and it’s by no means the whole, I’ve done lots of Skeptics in the Pubs groups and they’re lovely, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, you know, I’ve made this terrible mistake!’  It’s by no means all of them, but I’d like that to go because I think if you know anything about the psychology of belief then you will have a certain amount of humility about how you’ve come across your beliefs and how other people come across their beliefs and this idea that people believe what they believe because they’re kind of stupid or corrupt is, for me, 90% at least wrong.  They’ve just made a mistake.  They’re just fundamentally sound people who’ve made a mistake.  And if you’re really sincere about changing their mind, if you’re really sincere about promoting rationalism, don’t take the piss out of them, don’t badger them, don’t give them little badges with flying pigs on them.  It’s just, all your doing is making yourself feel great about how wonderful you are.  You’re never going to change their mind.  So it’s just that idea of, let’s just be nice to each other and try and understand each other and try and understand how we come upon these beliefs and then we might get somewhere.  

There’s a huge, well I mean specifically the idea of Holocaust denial, and again this quite controversial, but you know, I entered that kind of environment of Holocaust deniers thinking these are fundamentally evil people.  They’re racists.  They like Hitler.  But then when you dig into the psychology of it most of the people on that trip had mums and dads that fought for Germany in the Second World War and these were people who loved their mums and dads and had been raided in this world where their mums and dads were evil, like, the most profoundly evil disgusting people.  One of the guys there, there was a showing of the film Downfall on the last night and he declined to attend because his dad was there in Hitler’s bunker and he found it too upsetting.  So to me, these were people on this sort of mission to kind of absolve their mums and dads from the judgement of history.  I mean, they were wrong.  They’d made a terrible mistake, you know, the Nazis were terribly evil but you could, you leave again with much more understanding and with that you become less angry about it.  You become less angry about these people and that’s the great change that all this work has done for me.  I used to be angry about people who didn’t share my beliefs but I’m not anymore.  If I see somebody who completely disagrees with what I’m saying I get a short little, ‘Grrr’, of anger but then I remember and I think, ‘Well, you know, his reality for him is just as real as my reality is for me’.  It’s not that he hates me, he sincerely thinks that he’s right and I’m completely wrong.  And that feeling of anger when somebody disagrees with you is irrational in itself.  You should’;t feel angry about it, you should feel curious and you should feel engaged but that thing of anger is ego.  It’s that challenge that of ‘You’re not the hero in this story.  I’m the hero in this story’.  That’s what that anger is and I don’t really feel that so much anymore.  And it’s great.