Book review: The Heretics by Will Storr

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WE ARE all storytellers. From the beginning, we have used narrative to make sense of our world. We, alone among animals, can conjure poetry, drama and a moral out of the abyss.

The Heretics by Will Storr

Picador, 395pp, £16.99

Just don’t feel smug about it. Journalist Will Storr, in this book subtitled Adventures with the Enemies of Science, tells a rather gloomy story of his own. Setting off after narratives that are out of whack with what the rest of us are thinking, he concludes that storytelling is not so much a tool for expressing complex truths as a weapon of mass self-deception. 
Nobody – not even Storr the adventurer – is immune to its distorting power. Our trouble is, we tell ourselves stories where we’re the heroes, and then we believe them.

Most 21st-century citizens can see a Genesis creation story for the glorious work of poetry that it is; but John Mackay, who discusses the created world, 6,000-year-old cedar trees and Noah’s flood in Storr’s opening chapter, is fighting for what he sees as the disregarded truth. A star of the Creationist lecture circuit, he has answers for absolutely everything, including why broccoli – which presumably tasted OK before the Fall – fails to tickle his tastebuds today. God created only good things, he tells a packed village hall in Queensland, Australia, and those things were very big, didn’t eat meat, and didn’t die. Even after Eve ate the apple and shared it with Adam and they were expelled from Eden for doing it, men were giants and lived for hundreds of years. Noah, for instance, had metre-long forearms and lived for almost a millennium. People have been getting smaller, and having shorter lifespans, ever since: the opposite of evolution!

Just as Storr’s superior scientific mind starts smirking at all of this, Mackay sets him 
thinking. Recalling the time he debated with Richard Dawkins on evolution, he tells Storr how he challenged atheism’s caped crusader: “This is your faith starting-point versus my faith starting-point.” Does he have something there, Storr wonders? Does everyone see the world through the filter of their own beliefs and prejudices? If so, when do those prejudices start?

Much of what follows is an investigative journalist’s testing of his own belief system – atheistic, pro-science – while he tries to understand how he came to it, how other people have come to theirs, and why trading facts rarely seems to change minds.

He meets UFO hunters who have been abducted by aliens; and then relates the story of Pulitzer prize-winning Harvard Professor John E Mack, whose work with otherwise normal UFO-spotters prompted him to question the automatic dismissal of the phenomenon – a stand that lost him the respect of the entire scientific community.

Storr’s journey takes him on fascinating sidetrips into the workings of science and psychology. So when he attends a week-long pranayama yoga course with celebrity yogi Swami Ramdev, and learns that the only thing his simple breathing exercises apparently can’t cure is Aids, it sets him thinking not just about the power of prejudice, but about the strength of the placebo effect, a subject he goes on to explore in depth. Later, there’s a fascinating chapter on the way brains develop and worldviews are formed.

He explores past-life regression under hypnosis, spends almost a week on silent retreat (until he runs away), meets people who are convinced their bodies are sprouting alien hairs, and tells the tragic story of a young woman who came to believe that her parents had abused her as members of a satanic cult. Less robust constitutions might have cracked under such a punishing immersion schedule but Storr continues with apparent equanimity. His revelations about his own early life don’t make comfortable reading but his candour serves its purpose in helping to unravel the mystery of why we all behave as we do.

There’s an illuminating encounter with celebrity climate change denier and global conspiracy theorist Lord Monckton; then the book gets several shades darker when Storr spends a week undercover with Holocaust denier and Hitler champion David Irving and a group of neo-Nazis. When Storr finally gets to interview Irving, their exchange is gripping.

Despite its flashes of hilarity, Heretics makes sober reading for any well-meaning idealist. Our stories, Storr concludes, are all instruments of prejudice and propaganda.

But then, just when you fear there’s to be no “truth”, no wonder and no myth in Storr’s world, he decides that stories – illusions, all of them – can sometimes work as a power for good. Being a well-meaning idealist myself, I’d have liked to hear a little more about this.