Will Storr is a novelist and awarding winning journalist. His features are regulars in many broadsheet newspapers and magazines around the world. Both his first novel ‘The Hunger and Howling of Killian Lone’ and his latest non-fiction book ‘The Heretics’ were released earlier in 2013. Will is also a contributing editor of Esquire magazine.
I was an altar boy because you got a Mars bar at Christmas.
On becoming intrigued by irrational beliefs
I’ve always been fascinated with people who believe kinda crazy things and it goes right back to my earliest days of journalism as a staff writer on Loaded magazine when I’d hang around with kind of suicide cults and all this stuff and I kind of dug into that a bit with [my new book] ‘The Heretics’ and I think it’s to do with my father, who was always quite a scary, quite a scary character in my childhood. And he was a working class guy from Keighley who got a scholarship to Oxford University, so incredibly intelligent. I kinda failed miserably at school and he was always just, you know, this academic kind of God. He used to teach Latin at school and he’s also a rabid – rabid, that’s a bit rude, but he’s a rabid Catholic. You know, he’s devoted his life to Catholic education, when he retired he literally got a certificate signed by the Pope thanking him for all his good work.
And growing up I was an altar boy, slightly against my will, actually, I was an altar boy because you got a Mars bar at Christmas, that’s why I was an altar boy! And, um, but never believed in God, never even believed in as far as I can remember in Father Christmas and always had this really weird kind of disconnect. How can this incredibly intelligent man, a man who I always considered to be way more intelligent than me, literally believe in heaven, the afterlife, that the devil was a real thing kind of running around influencing us. And growing up I, you know, I went through that whole thing in my teenage years and my twenties of being furious about religion, being angry about it and then as you get older you actually, for me anyway, the anger subsides and you want to sincerely find out, how is it that otherwise intelligent people can come to believe these completely irrational things?
On the difficulties of spending time with irrational people
I think the most exhausting was when I spent seven days on holiday with David Irving the right wing historian, you have to be very careful what you say about David Irving, who for a period was a Holocaust denier, not anymore, but on that trip – he does these annually, these trips to historically important sites from The Second World War, you spend $2500 and you go on holiday with him. But it was him and it was also the people that were also on the holiday who were kind of virulent racists and because I didn’t want them to know I was a left leaning journalist who was about to marry a mixed race woman I, you know, I had to go along there and basically pretend to be a racist. And I found that uncomfortable, obviously, in fact, almost immediately uncomfortable, um, and I found David Irving a really difficult personality to be around as did the neo-nazi holidayers that had paid to be on there with him, and that was big surprise to me. I mean, day one they all hero worship this man and gradually he alienated every single one of them. By the end of it, everybody hated David Irving! It was quite extraordinary, but I think that was the most difficult experience.
People feel as if I’ve let science denialists kind of get away with it in a way. So, and it’s partly my fault for calling my book ‘The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science.’ I think just in the context of where we are at the moment in this kind of culture, people go to this book expecting this kind of narrative where I’m just going along, meeting crazy people and going, ‘You’re crazy and here’s the reason why’, attempting to kind of humiliate them in that Paxman, Today programme kind of style. And I haven’t done that. And I haven’t done that quite deliberately because I tend to think that’s kind of dull, it’s been done, it’s a dead end, an intellectual dead end. ‘You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, I’m great’, I mean, you know, I find that really tedious. Because what I wanted to do was, I’m not interested in whether they’re right or wrong particularly, that’s not the point of the book. The point is, ‘How they come upon these beliefs’. And one chapter that drew criticism was the one with Lord Christopher Monckton who is the famous climate change denier, a big hit with the Tea Party movement in the US and, you know, to interview him I just sat down with him and I just said, ‘I want you to tell me your story. Who are your heroes? Who are your villains? What’s your struggle?’ And you know, out popped this incredibly, for me, incredibly fascinating narrative about how this conspiracy between letting politicians and the scientific establishment to kind of basically take over the world and climate change was this way they were doing it of introducing a one world government. And to me that’s, and that shows that, that shows his world view and that shows he’ll never change his mind and why he thinks that any evidence that shows that climate change, man made climate change is real and damaging, to him it’s going to be impossible to believe because he sees himself as this hero character battling the forces of evil. To me that goes far deeper into the truth of the matter than sitting there with all these facts and going, ‘You’re wrong about this, you’re wrong about that’, which is what most people do, you know, I wanted to go much deeper into that.
The other way I got criticised was because I wanted to apply the same levels of scepticism to people who are in the kind of skeptical atheist movement because it seemed to me that confirmation bias, ah, the makes sense stopping rule, all these ways in which we have of coming upon irrational beliefs, we’re all susceptible to them. We all have human brains which are all susceptible to the same flaws and if that’s true it means that people in the skeptical atheist movement are just as susceptible to those beliefs as anybody else. I mean the specific, I suppose the most dramatic example is the idea, this kind of ionisation of James Randi, who’s a big hero, who did some great work in the 60’s debunking people but, I mean, for a long time people on the kind of paranormal side of things had been saying that he’s a liar and he’s a fraud and he lies about them routinely and that he’s a bully and so I thought, okay, let’s find out if this is true. I spent a long time digging into their accusations and kind of ended up with a confrontation between me and James Randi in which he admitted, ‘Yes. I’ve lied. I have lied’. And the fact that, the very fact that, um, the skeptical atheist movement can raise this man to the level of hero and leader, to me is extraordinary in a way, but then also not because it just shows that they’re as susceptible to confirmation bias as anybody else. Any evidence that there is that this guy has lied, that he exaggerates, that he’s a bully, that he’s not open minded at all, I mean, in all his years of skepticism he couldn’t think of one instance in which he’d changed his mind due to the evidence, I mean, I think this is incredible. The fact that the skeptical movement can shove away all this over evidence just means that they’re, not better or worse than any of us, it just means they’re the same as all of us. That we’re all in the same boat, we’re all biased, we’re all prejudiced and I just think that’s kind of a message of, I mean, fluffy but, togetherness really! No-ones up there, no-one’s down there, we’re all, you know, we’re all born with these human brains. Some of us are, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of the people in the skeptical atheist movement are white, middle class because they’re lucky enough to be born into those families, to have those kinds of educations.
I remember saying to my mum, years ago when I was a kid, you know, ‘If you were born in Bangladesh you wouldn’t be a Catholic’, and she was like, ‘YES I WOULD’ and you know, I wonder if James Randi had been born in a little village in Bangladesh whether he’d have ever ended up being this great kind of rationalist, skeptical, doubter of everything?
I’m very honest in my 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.