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Away with the fairies

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

The Heretics Will Storr

Picador, pp.464, £16.99

There have been plenty of books in recent years in which apparently sane hacks go off in search of loonies to poke fun at. While The Heretics looks at first as if it fits neatly into the genre, there turns out to be rather more to it than that. Not that the book doesn’t come richly stocked with people who hold what my mother used to call very unreliable opinions.

They include a regressive hypnotherapist called Vered who once treated someone who believed they’d been a twig in a previous life, and an NHS-funded expert on satanic rituals who insists that satanists regularly stitch babies inside the bellies of dying animals so that they can be ‘reborn’ to Satan. Apparently the satanists — when peckish — also snack on foetuses. ‘Raw or cooked?’ Storr asks her. ‘The foetuses are raw’, she tells him solemnly.

But however keen the provocation, Storr goes easy on the scorn. Instead, he wants to look at belief, and especially at the wobbly, often irrational foundations it’s built on. In many ways heis ideally qualified to do this as he’s built on very wobbly foundations himself. He’s spent years in therapy, is prone to obsessive behaviour, drinks too much and has toyed with committing suicide.

Perhaps it’s not that surprising then that he instinctively leans towards heretics — indeed towards anyone with wires coming out of their heads. Is there not something noble about their defiance of the ordinary?, he wonders. This nobility, though, often turns out to be harder to warm to in the flesh. While he hits it off immediately with John Mackay, the ‘Creationist superstar’, who he meets in a town called Devil in Australia, the two of them subsequently have a big falling-out over whether lesbian nuns go straight to hell — Mackay says yes, Storr has his doubts.

But then doubt, it soon becomes clear, is something that Storr is deeply in love with. As far as he’s concerned, it’s what makes the world a beguilingly mysterious place. Although he doesn’t pooh-pooh empiricism completely, he’s much more in sympathy with someone like Rupert Sheldrake, a former Cambridge don who believes there’s some undiscovered force in the universe that every living being taps into.

In an effort to prove this, Sheldrake conducted a number of experiments with a psychic terrier called Jaytee from Ramsbottom. He found that Jaytee spent around 4 per cent of his time sitting in the window when his owner, Pam, wasn’t coming home, and around 55 per cent of his time there when she was — even though she was still miles away. When a professional sceptic called Professor Richard Wiseman doubted this, Jaytee took understandable umbrage and vomited on his shoes.

There were a number of times reading The Heretics when I was seized by a not-entirely-irrational desire to beat myself over the head with it. It’s a very long book which includes pages and pages of often not-very-interesting discussions with the people Storr interviews — including an epic hair-splitting session with the magician, James Randi. Still, the good news is that it could have been much longer. The transcription of his interview with the historian David Irving, he tells us, ran to more than 28,000 words.

However, there’s also a lot to like and admire. Storr is an unusually engaging writer, especially when it comes to his failings. I suspect most journalists who do a lot of interviews will recognise something of themselves in his admission that ‘the reason I enjoy interviewing people is that I find simple conversation so difficult’. And unlike his competitors in the taking-pot-shots-at-loonies field, he seems to have next-to-no ego. Instead, he really wants to find out why people believe the things they do, and homing in on the outer fringes of belief seems a fair enough way of doing so.

His main argument is that we’re constantly creating false realities for ourselves. As our brains are unable to process any more than a tiny fraction of the information they are bombarded with, so they
distort and fabricate — and in doing so blind us to the way in which we fall into fallacy.

So far, so good. Less plausible, though, is his assertion that we often have no choice about the beliefs we hold. He writes of a homeopath called Gemma Hoefken that, ‘she is no more free to reject her conviction that homeopathy cured her cancer than I am to fall to my knees and flood myself with Jesus’.

This strikes me as twaddle, conveniently taking volition out of the mix and suggesting she’s powerless to resist, whatever wild notions blow through her. It does, however, tell you a lot about Storr himself. Especially about his sense that he’s as much in thrall to his irrationality as he is in love with it — and that his fear that without it, he might howl at the moon even more frequently than he does now.

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