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I’m a believer

In our increasingly secular society, many religious people feel their voices are not heard. So here,

After four centuries of breathtaking scientific progress, many wonder why intelligent people would still feel the need to believe in God. Andrew Zak Williams decided to find out. Over the course of several months, he corresponded with dozens of scientists and other public figures, quizzing them on the reasons for their faith. Here is a selection of the responses.

Cherie Blair, barrister
It's been a journey from my upbringing to an understanding of something that my head cannot explain but my heart knows to be true.

Jeremy Vine, broadcaster
There is a subjective reason and an objective reason. The subjective reason is that I find consolation in my faith. The objective reason is that the story of the gospels has stood the test of time and Christ comes across as a totally captivating figure.

In moments of weariness or cynicism, I tell myself I only believe because my parents did; and the Christian faith poses more questions than it answers.

But I still return to believing, as if that is more natural than not doing so.

Richard Swinburne, emeritus professor of philosophy, University of Oxford
To suppose that there is a God explains why there is a physical universe at all; why there are the scientific laws there are; why animals and then human beings have evolved; why human beings have the opportunity to mould their character and those of their fellow humans for good or ill and to change the environment in which we live; why we have the well-authenticated account of Christ's life, death and resurrection; why throughout the centuries millions of people (other than ourselves) have had the apparent experience of being in touch with and guided by God; and so much else.
In fact, the hypothesis of the existence of God makes sense of the whole of our experience and it does so better than any other explanation that can be put forward, and that is the grounds for believing it to be true.

Peter Hitchens, journalist
I believe in God because I choose to do so. I believe in the Christian faith because I prefer to do so. The existence of God offers an explanation of many of the mysteries of the universe - es­pecially "Why is there something rather than nothing?" and the questions which follow from that. It requires our lives to have a purpose, and our actions to be measurable against a higher standard than their immediate, observable effect. Having chosen belief in a God over unbelief, I find the Christian gospels more per­suasive and the Christian moral system more powerful than any other religious belief.

I was, it is true, brought up as a Christian, but ceased to be one for many years. When I returned to belief I could have chosen any, but did not.

Jonathan Aitken, former politician
I believe in God because I have searched for Him and found Him in the crucible of brokenness. Some years ago I went through an all-too-well-publicised drama of defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy and jail. In the course of that saga I discovered a loving God who answers prayers, forgives and redeems.

James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool
One word: Jesus. All that you imagine God would be, He is. His life and His love are compelling, His wisdom convincing.

Richard Chartres, Bishop of London
I believe in God because He has both revealed and hidden Himself in so many different ways: in the created world, the Holy Bible, the man Jesus Christ; in the Church and men and women of God through the ages; in human relationships, in culture and beauty, life and death, pain and suffering; in immortal longings, in my faltering prayers and relationship with Him. There is nothing conclusive to force me into believing, but everything sug­gestive, and constantly drawing me on into the love of Christ and to "cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt".

David Alton, Lib Dem peer
The notion that humanity and the cosmos are an accident has always seemed implausible. A world littered with examples of complex genius - from developments in quantum theory to regenerative medicine - points us towards genius more perfect and more unfathomable than ourselves. The powerful combination of faith and reason led me as a child to believe in God.

Unsurprisingly, as I matured into manhood, that belief has not been immune against the usual catalogue of failure, sadness and grief; and belief has certainly not camouflaged the horrors of situations I have seen first hand in places such as Congo and Sudan. Paradoxically, it has been where suffering has been most acute that I have also seen the greatest faith.

By contrast, the more we own or have, the more difficulty we seem to have in seeing and encountering the Divine.

Professor Stephen R L Clark, philosopher
I believe in God because the alternatives are worse. Not believing in God would mean that we have no good reason to think that creatures such as us human beings (accidentally generated in a world without any overall purpose) have any capacity - still less any duty - to discover what the world is like.

Denying that "God exists" while still maintaining a belief in the power of reason is, in my view, ridiculous.My belief is that we need to add both that God is at least possibly incarnate among us, and that the better description of God (with all possible caveats about the difficulty of speaking about the infinite source of all being and value) is as something like a society. In other words, the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, and of the trinity, have the philosophical edge. And once those doctrines are included, it is possible to see that other parts of that tradition are important.

Nick Spencer, director of Theos, the public theology think tank
I would say I find Christianity (rather than just belief in God) the most intellectually and emotionally satisfying explanation for being.

Stephen Green, director of the fundamentalist pressure group Christian Voice
I came to faith in God through seeing the ducks on a pond in People's Park, Grimsby. It struck me that they were all doing a similar job, but had different plumage. Why was that? Why did the coot have a white beak and the moorhen a red one? Being a hard-nosed engineer, I needed an explanation that worked and the evolutionary model seemed too far-fetched and needful of too much faith!

I mean, what could possibly be the evolutionary purpose of the bars on the hen mallard's wings, which can only be seen when she flies? Or the tuft on the head of the tufted duck?

So I was drawn logically to see them as designed like that. I suppose I believed in an intelligent designer long before the idea became fashionable. So, that left me as a sort of a deist. But God gradually became more personal to me and I was drawn against all my adolescent atheist beliefs deeper and deeper into faith in Jesus Christ.

Douglas Hedley, reader in metaphysics, Clare College, Cambridge
Do values such as truth, beauty and goodness emerge out of a contingent and meaningless substrate? Or do these values reflect a transcendent domain from which this world has emerged? I incline to the latter, and this is a major reason for my belief in God.

Paul Davies, quantum physicist
I am not comfortable answering the question "Why do you believe in God?" because you haven't defined "God". In any case, as a scientist,
I prefer not to deal in "belief" but rather in the usefulness of concepts. I am sure I don't believe in any sort of god with which most readers of your article would identify.

I do, however, assume (along with all scientists) that there is a rational and intelligible scheme of things that we uncover through scientific investigation. I am uncomfortable even being linked with "a god" because of the vast baggage that this term implies (a being with a mind, able to act on matter within time, making decisions, etc).

Professor Derek Burke, biochemist and former president of Christians in Science
There are several reasons why I believe in God. First of all, as a scientist who has been privileged to live in a time of amazing scientific discoveries (I received my PhD in 1953, the year Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA), I have been overwhelmed by wonder at the order and intricacy of the world around us. It is like peeling skins off an onion: every time you peel off a layer, there is another one underneath, equally marvellously intricate. Surely this could not have arisen by chance? Then my belief is strengthened by reading the New Testament especially, with the accounts of that amazing person, Jesus, His teaching, His compassion, His analysis of the human condition, but above all by His resurrection. Third, I'm deeply impressed by the many Christians whom I have met who have lived often difficult lives with compassion and love. They are an inspiration to me.

Peter J Bussey, particle physicist
God is the ultimate explanation, and this includes the explanation for the existence of physical reality, for laws of nature and everything. Let me at this point deal with a commonly encountered "problem" with the existence of God, one that Richard Dawkins and others have employed.
It goes that if God is the ultimate cause or the ultimate explanation, what then is the cause of God, or the explanation for God? My reply
is that, even in our own world, it is improper to repeat the same investigatory question an indefinite number of times. For example, we ask, "Who designed St Paul's Cathedral?" and receive the reply: "Sir Christopher Wren." But, "No help whatever," objects the sceptic, "because, in that case, who then designed Sir Christopher Wren?" To this, our response will now be that it is an inappropriate question and anyone except a Martian would know that. Different questions will be relevant now.

So, likewise, it is very unlikely that we know the appropriate questions, if any, to ask about God, who is presumably outside time, and is the source of the selfsame rationality that we presume to employ to understand the universe and to frame questions about God.
What should perhaps be underlined is that, in the absence of total proof, belief in God will be to some extent a matter of choice.

Reverend Professor Michael Reiss, bioethicist and Anglican priest
At the age of 18 or 19, a religious way of understanding the world began increasingly to make sense. It did not involve in any way abandoning the scientific way. If you like, it's a larger way of understanding our relationship with the rest of the world, our position in nature and all those standard questions to do with why we are here, if there is life after death, and so on. That was reinforced by good teaching, prayer and regular reading of scripture.

Peter Richmond, theoretical physicist
Today most people reject the supernatural but there can be no doubt that the teachings of Jesus are still relevant. And here I would differentiate these from some of the preaching of authoritarian churches, which has no doubt been the source of much that could be considered to be evil over the years. Even today, we see conflict in places such as Africa or the Middle East - killings made in the name of religion, for example. As Christians, we recognise these for what they are - evil acts perpetrated by the misguided. At a more domestic level, the marginalisation of women in the Church is another example that should be exposed for what it is: sheer prejudice by the present incumbents of the Church hierarchy. But as Christians, we can choose to make our case to change things as we try to follow the social teachings of Jesus. Compared to pagan idols, Jesus offered hope, comfort and inspiration, values that are as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago.

David Myers, professor of psychology, Hope College, Michigan
[Our] spirituality, rooted in the developing biblical wisdom and in a faith tradition that crosses the centuries, helps make sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, opens us to the transcendent, connects us in supportive communities, provides a mandate for morality and selflessness and offers hope in the face of adversity and death.

Kenneth Miller, professor of biology, Brown University
I regard scientific rationality as the key to understanding the material basis of our existence as well as our history as a species. That's the reason why I have fought so hard against the "creationists" and those who advocate "intelligent design". They deny science and oppose scientific rationality, and I regard their ideas as a threat to a society such as ours that has been so hospitable to the scientific enterprise.

There are, however, certain questions that science cannot answer - not because we haven't figured them out yet (there are lots of those), but because they are not scientific questions at all. As the Greek philosophers used to ask, what is the good life? What is the nature of good and evil? What is the purpose to existence? My friend Richard Dawkins would ask, in response, why we should think that such questions are even important. But to most of us, I would respond, these are the most important questions of all.

What I can tell you is that the world I see, including the world I know about from science, makes more sense to me in the light of a spiritual understanding of existence and the hypo­thesis of God. Specifically, I see a moral polarity to life, a sense that "good" and "evil" are actual qualities, not social constructions, and that choosing the good life (as the Greeks meant it) is the central question of existence. Given that, the hypothesis of God conforms to what I know about the material world from science and gives that world a depth of meaning that I would find impossible without it.

Now, I certainly do not "know" that the spirit is real in the sense that you and I can agree on the evidence that DNA is real and that it is the chemical basis of genetic information. There is, after all, a reason religious belief is called "faith", and not "certainty". But it is a faith that fits, a faith that is congruent with science, and even provides a reason why science works and is of such value - because science explores that rationality of existence, a rationality that itself derives from the source of that existence.

In any case, I am happy to confess that I am a believer, and that for me, the Christian faith is the one that resonates. What I do not claim is that my religious belief, or anyone's, can meet a scientific test.

Nick Brewin, molecular biologist
A crucial component of the question depends on the definition of "God". As a scientist, the "God" that I believe in is not the same God(s) that I used to believe in. It is not the same God that my wife believes in; nor is it the same God that my six-year-old granddaughter believes in; nor is it the God that my brain-damaged and physically disabled brother believes in. Each person has their own concept of what gives value and purpose to their life. This concept of "God" is based on a combination of direct and indirect experience.

Humankind has become Godlike, in the sense that it has acquired the power to store and manipulate information. Language, books, computers and DNA genomics provide just a few illustrations of the amazing range of technologies at our fingertips. Was this all merely chance? Or should we try to make sense of the signs and wonders that are embedded in a "revealed religion"?

Perhaps by returning to the "faith" position of children or disabled adults, scientists can extend their own appreciation of the value and purpose of individual human existence. Science and religion are mutually complementary.

Hugh Ross, astrophysicist and astronomer
Astronomy fascinates me. I started serious study of the universe when I was seven. By the age of 16, I could see that Big Bang cosmology offered the best explanation for the history of the universe, and because the Big Bang implies a cosmic beginning, it would require a cosmic beginner. It seemed reasonable that a creator of such awesome capacities would speak clearly and consistently if He spoke at all. So I spent two years perusing the holy books of the world's religions to test for these characteristics. I found only one such book. The Bible stood apart: not only did it provide hundreds of "fact" statements that could be tested for accuracy, it also anticipated - thousands of years in advance - what scientists would later discover, such as the fundamental features of Big Bang cosmology.

My observation that the Bible's multiple creation narratives accurately describe hundreds of details discovered much later, and that it consistently places them in the scientifically correct sequence, convinced me all the more that the Bible must be the supernaturally inspired word of God. Discoveries in astronomy first alerted me to the existence of God, and to this day the Bible's power to anticipate scientific discoveries and predict sociopolitical events ranks as a major reason for my belief in the God of the Bible. Despite my secular upbringing, I cannot ignore the compelling evidence emerging from research into the origin of the universe, the anthropic principle, the origin of life and the origin of humanity. Theaccumulating evidence continues to point compellingly towards the God of the Bible.

Steve Fuller, philosopher/professor of sociology, University of Warwick
I am a product of a Jesuit education (before university), and my formal academic training is in history and philosophy of science, which is the field credited with showing the tight links between science and religion. While I have never been an avid churchgoer, I am strongly moved by the liberatory vision of Jesus promoted by left-wing Christians.

I take seriously the idea that we are created in the image and likeness of God, and that we may come to exercise the sorts of powers that are associated with divinity. In this regard, I am sympathetic to the dissenting, anticlerical schools of Christianity - especially Unitarianism, deism and transcendentalism, idealism and humanism. I believe that it is this general position that has informed the progressive scientific spirit.

People such as Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens like to think of themselves as promoting a progressive view of humanity, but I really do not see how Darwinism allows that at all, given its species-egalitarian view of nature (that is, humans are just one more species - no more privileged than the rest of them). As I see it, the New Atheists live a schizoid existence, where they clearly want to privilege humanity but have no metaphysical basis for doing so.

Michael J Behe, scientific advocate of intelligent design
Two primary reasons: 1) that anything exists; and 2) that we human beings can comprehend and reason. I think both of those point to God.

Denis Alexander, director, Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge
I believe in the existence of a personal God. Viewing the universe as a creation renders it more coherent than viewing its existence as without cause. It is the intelligibility of the world that requires explanation.

Second, I am intellectually persuaded by the historical life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, that He is indeed the
Son of God. Jesus is most readily explicable by understanding Him as the Son of God. Third, having been a Christian for more than five decades, I have experienced God through Christ over this period in worship, answered prayer and through His love. These experiences are more coherent based on the assumption that God does exist.

Mike Hulme, professor of climate change, University of East Anglia
There are many reasons - lines of evidence, if you will - all of which weave together to point me in a certain direction (much as a scientist or a jury might do before reaching a considered judgement), which we call a belief.

[I believe] because there is non-trivial historical evidence that a person called Jesus of Naza­reth rose from the dead 2,000 years ago, and
it just so happens that He predicted that He would . . . I believe because of the testimony of billions of believers, just a few of whom are known to me and in whom I trust (and hence trust their testimony).

I believe because of my ineradicable sense that certain things I see and hear about in the world warrant the non-arbitrary categories of "good" or "evil". I believe because I have not discovered a better explanation of beauty, truth and love than that they emerge in a world created - willed into being - by a God who personifies beauty, truth and love.

Andrew Zak Williams has written for the Humanist and Skeptic. His email address is: andrewbelief@gmail.com

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special

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“I thought al-Qaeda was recruiting me”: can we spot when terrorism is a delusion?

If there’s one thing more controversial than the idea of a link between terrorism and religion, it’s a link between terrorism and mental health.

Amr isn’t sure when he started “acting weird”. It was 2007, and he was a “know-it-all” teenager in his first year of university, with romantic ideas about intellectuals. He smoked weed every day, tried magic mushrooms, and listened to a lot of classic rock.

“I was sending really strange texts and emails to a few people,” he recalls, ten years on. “They were like, ‘Oh, he must be stoned, must be high’.” Although Amr is a British citizen, of Syrian-Palestinian heritage, he grew up in Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, where his family still lived when he moved to London to start university. One grandmother in Hounslow aside, he was alone.

“All the Eighties and Nineties rock music that I liked, which was probably all written in drug-addled states,  they shared these metaphors – keys, doors, getting to the other side,” he says. “It started to build up. I believed there was this secret and by taking acid, shrooms, you would unlock an ability to access this other side.”

The rock metaphor soon spiralled into a full-blown conviction that there was a parallel world, called Three – the mobile network Amr was on at the time. “In this other world, we’re telepathic, and essentially this telepathy unaided doesn’t have a long range. But what Three does is it acts as a mobile phone carrier for the normal world and then in the world of Three you can use it to extend the range of your telepathic abilities.”

If Amr’s fantastical world sounds very Noughties, then it just got a bit more so. He began to hear messages, from a very Noughties villain. “It was a kind of Osama bin Laden figure” with a “radical Islamist look – old army fatigues, a big beard, a Kalashnikov.” In other words, “the bogey man”.

***

If there’s one thing more controversial than the idea of a link between terrorism and religion, it’s the link between terrorism and mental health. In September 2016, three psychiatrists warned in the British Medical Journal that linking terrorism with mental illness fuelled stigma. In the Independent, Will Gore warned against “creating a kind of homogenised bogeyman figure – a religious fundamentalist afflicted by mental illness”.

Counter to this is the complaint that mental health is too often used to excuse right-wing terrorism. This attitude is not restricted to the dusty corners of the right, as became apparent after the conviction of Thomas Mair, who attended far-right rallies before murdering the pro-refugee MP Jo Cox. Louise Mensch, the former Tory MP, suggested Mair’s trial was unfair because his mental health did not feature. BBC veteran broadcaster John Humphrys said: “It slightly muddies the water, doesn’t it, when we talk about that as terrorism?”

Counter-terrorism officials, though, remain extremely interested in mental health and its relationship to both Islamist and right-wing extremism. Under the Prevent programme, NHS staff are encouraged to refer individuals they believe to be at risk of extremism, by assessing factors including mental and psychological health problems. In October 2016, Prevent piloted a scheme where psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health nurses were recruited to work directly alongside its officers.

The initiative began after Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Trust looked at individuals referred for radicalisation, and found up to half exhibited “a broad range of mental health and psychological difficulties”. This applied across different ideologies “including Islamist and far-right extremism”. 

***

“There is something physical about being psychotic,” Amr says. “Your mind is racing at a million miles an hour, you’re sleepless. Maybe the first irrational thinking began by trying to explain that.”

Amr today is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, who works in the same department as Richard Dawkins, the celebrated atheist and author of The God Delusion. I meet him in a grand, carpeted room for academics at St Hilda’s College that looks on to expansive gardens.

Although Amr grew up in religious countries, he decided he was an atheist when he was still an adolescent. He believes his religious delusions began as a kind of skewed logic. “No one will believe something as irrational as a hallucination without a certain amount of reasoning,” he says.

Amr describes his hallucinations as close to reality, rather than dreams. His delusions centred on his mobile phone. “I was hearing messages as clear as you can hear my voice,” he says in the hush of the common room. “It sounds like audio. It sounds as if somebody was in the room, but they’re not physically there and it’s not your voice.” Terror group al-Qaeda was in fact only one of the shadowy recruiters he believed was calling – the others were the CIA, and the Israeli secret service Mossad. The only person he saw in the room was Princess Diana.

At one point, inspired by Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, which imagines an alternative Christian history, Amr began to think he was Jesus. “In The Da Vinci Code, the main character is the descendant of Jesus and basically I replaced her with me. It all made sense because I was Palestinian.”

Amr’s sceptical view of religion extends to challenging the idea there is a firm line between faith and delusion. “How many people say I spoke to God last night?” he asks. “George Bush did it on national television. He said God told him to invade Iraq and nobody batted an eye.”

***

Delusions have been recorded for centuries, but the subject matter of the delusion seems to change over time. A 2013 New Yorker article chronicled the rise of a delusion concerning the film The Truman Show, in which a man realises he is actually the star of a reality TV programme. Noting the ubiquity of phone cameras and the rise of social media, the writer, Andrew Marantz, said: “In the 15 years since The Truman Show was released, its premise has increasingly come to seem nonbizarre.”

According to a 2007 paper in the World Culture Psychiatry Research Review, “Paranoid-hallucinatory Syndromes in Schizophrenia”, different cultures have different delusions. While hallucinations in Christian countries might include the belief the individual was a god, this was unheard of among Pakistani patients. Lithuanian and Polish patients, on the other hand, were most likely to feel apocalyptic guilt. In the UK, a study of old medical case notes found that religious delusions were more common in the 19th century than today.

“There are changes,” says Andrew Sims, a veteran psychiatrist and the author of Is Faith Delusion? “I remember talking to a friend of mine about the moon landing. It was two to three weeks later and he said ‘I have already had a patient who believes he has landed on the moon.’”

Sims, though, argues that the difference between a religious delusion and faith is clear. “We would make the distinction between the content of the delusion and the form of the delusion.

“The form of the delusion is the delusion. The content is usually something highly significant in that person’s life. We get delusions of religion, we get delusions of people believing they’re being stolen from.”

So what about Christians who claim to hear voices? “If a lot of other people in the religious community have the same sort of experience, and he is saying he is hearing these voices, not an outside voice but an inside voice in his head about what he should be doing, that is more likely to be a religious belief.”

Delusions also do not tend to be shared. “In the old days you might find two patients who believed they were the Virgin Mary,” says Sims. “But if Mrs Jones believes she was the Virgin Mary she would not believe Mrs Brown was.”

The distinct characteristics of delusions may be apparent to psychiatrists, but in the wider world, they can be missed. In 2015, Alan Pean, a black Houston student with a history of delusions, tried to drive himself to hospital for psychiatric help, but crashed his car, and was taken to the emergency room instead. His father, a doctor, tried to alert staff to the fact his son was not just physically, but also mentally disturbed. But when Pean refused to follow the nurse’s orders, rather than referring him for psychiatric help, she called security. After an altercation, a police officer shot Pean in his hospital room. Pean, who survived, told the radio programme This American Life he believed the officer had not seen him for what he was – mentally ill – but assumed he was an “angry black guy”.

***

One day during his delusionary period, Amr went to Hyde Park and ended up at Speaker’s Corner. Using his Palestinian background, he managed to talk his way on to an Islamist soap box.

“I remember getting up and saying ‘I’m not with them, I don’t believe in God by the way.’” Then he went “into an inarticulate rant about Palestine and Israel, maybe got one half-arsed round of applause”.

The stint at Speaker’s Corner was just the start of Amr’s delusions driving his actions in the real world. As they got more intense, he spent several days wandering around London, performing invented rituals.

In one, he lined up his shoes in a park and ran around it barefoot. He sought out zebra crossings, which he believed were connected to the alternate world, and tried to mimic the way The Beatles had walked across the one at Abbey Road. He even slept under a bridge. Much of this was designed to stop the telepathic signals reaching him. “I didn’t want the voices,” he says. “I remember trying to resist them.”

Eventually, worried he would give in to al-Qaeda, Amr decided to turn himself in to the police. He showed up at a station on a Sunday, and tried to hand in his passport to a sleepy receptionist. “I suppose what I was trying to do, retrospectively, was transfer agency away from me because I felt so helpless,” he says. The receptionist, though, handed it back. “He said ‘I understand, come back tomorrow, it’s a Sunday,’” Amr recalls. “Which baffles me to this day.”

Rebuffed, Amr retreated to his room in university halls. He lit candles, stripped naked and began mixing Islamic prayer and meditation. “I went into some weird, intense, solitary moment where I was almost seduced.”

Still unable to rid himself of the voices, he went down to the foyer. There were only two other people there – an Egyptian receptionist, and a woman in a hijab in a glass-walled computer room. “I thought, ‘Aha, they must be the conduits',” Amr says. “I walked over to the computer room, and screamed through the glass at the woman. When the receptionist noticed, I went over to him and screamed for several minutes straight.”

***

The relationship between mental health and terrorism has been scrutinised by Emily Corner and Paul Gill, two crime scientists from University College London. In a 2017 article, they described this relationship as “far more complex than typically presented”. Lone wolf terrorists were more likely to have a diagnosed disorder than the general population, but were also 13.5 times more likely to have one than group-based terrorists. Of 76 individuals involved in attacks between 2014 and 2016, a history of psychological instability was noted in 21, or more than a quarter.

In another analysis of individual referrals, Corner and Gill found just 10 per cent of those with psychosis were religiously inspired, compared to 15 per cent who had right-wing beliefs and 32 per cent who held a single-issue ideology. 

Corner dismissed the idea of a causal link between mental illness and terrorism – “we have been very clear that mental health doesn’t cause violence” – and the paper she co-authored criticises sensationalist media reporting of “mentalhadists”.

Nevertheless, she notes there have been a number of cases where intervention could have pre-empted an incident: “They were making violent statements, and the reason they went on to act violently was because they didn’t get help.”

The Prevent programme is often criticised for its blunt approach – including from medics who fear it is damaging patient-doctor relations. But Corner, who has interviewed a number of Prevent practitioners, praises it for helping to identify those in need of medical attention.

It is ironic, perhaps, that mental health services could be protected in the name of counter-terrorism, when elsewhere they are in line for NHS budget cuts.

Corner is keen to see all mental health services improved, with more emphasis on the early stages of identifying problems: “When you go through the NHS, unless you’re actually unwell at that stage, booking an appointment for care takes months and months and months.”

***

After Amr finished screaming, the stunned receptionist called the university dean, who sent him to hospital. He received anti-psychotic medication and was eventually released into the care of his parents. The delusions did not vanish immediately. “Even after I was released I still believed a few things,” he says. He still heard voices. “I eventually joined the CIA because they promised to help with my exams.”

This particular belief helped him to re-join university – “They gave me the answers while I was taking my exams, but the condition was you had to stop talking about the theories.”

Eventually, only Princess Diana was left, whom he considered a guardian. “She would appear crouched on lamp posts.” Then, even she disappeared.

Ten years on, Amr has not experienced delusions again. He feels lucky that he received treatment in time, and wonders how the media would have reported it if his delusions had driven him to do something newsworthy.

“Let’s go to this alternate world, headline, British Muslim – because that’s what I’m going to be, never mind I stopped believing in God at age 12 – from an Arab background who grew up in the Middle East, politically outspoken and opinionated. Was seen in Hyde Park Corner shouting about Palestine, Israel. Has emails of all sorts of opinions, acted weird for several weeks.” He pauses. “If I ran into a crowded space shouted Allahu Akbar…”

He also wonders if he would receive the same medical support today. “With funding cuts to all these services, what we’re ultimately doing is relying on band aids. Entire communities or groups of vulnerable people are barely kept in check.”

***

“Most people may be intuitively inclined to attribute the willingness to carry out suicide attacks to the offenders’ individual traits,” writes the psychologist and terrorism expert Ariel Merari in his book Driven to Death. “This intuition presumably reflects the notion that there must be something psychologically wrong with, or at least peculiar about, young, physically healthy people who kill themselves willingly.”

Mental health does not explain terrorism, even lone wolf attacks. But mentally ill people watch the news like everyone else. Those experiencing psychotic episodes in 2017 may well have delusions about Islamic State, just as in 2007 an atheist student could have them about al-Qaeda.

The academics I spoke to felt the British police were well-trained in the distinction between a delusion and a genuine ideological motive. As armed police become more common on the streets, this training will be even more important.

Wider society, intentionally or unintentionally, still often blurs the two. On 5 December 2015, Muhiddin Mire, a 30-year-old British Somali man, ran into London’s Leytonstone Tube station with a knife. As he attempted to murder the musician Lyle Zimmerman, he was heard shouting: “This is for Syria.” When Mire was arrested, police found images of Isis on his phone. The incident was initially reported as a terrorist attack.

At Mire’s trial, though, two psychiatrists described how Mire had been previously hospitalised for psychosis, and about a year before the attack had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and given anti-psychotic medication, which he was believed to have stopped taking.

Mire was also reported to have visited a local mosque, where he asked to be exorcised of “spirits”. He believed he was being followed, and that Tony Blair was his guardian angel. Mire’s brother told Channel 4 that in August 2015, four months before the attack, “he started calling me up and saying odd things. Not radical…saying he’s seeing demons and stuff.” He called the local authorities and the police to try to get his brother help, but did not succeed.  

Mire’s sentencing illustrates the difficulties society still has distinguishing illness from ideology. He was found guilty of attempted murder, rather than terrorism, and sentenced to life in a psychiatric hospital, rather than a prison. Nevertheless, during the sentencing, Judge Nicholas Hilliard QC said while he accepted the man was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia at the time of the offence, his "brazen" actions were "an attempt to kill an innocent member of the public for ideological reasons". The Daily Mail called him a “jihadi attacker” in its headline on the story.

Six months after Mire’s trial, the newly-elected US president Donald Trump released a list of “terror attacks” he claimed had not been reported by the European press. The Leytonstone stabbing was one of them.

Zimmerman, the victim of the attack, had a different view. “I was very clear in my mind within a day or so of the attack that it was just a mental health tragedy,” he said at the time. “This guy had had a really profound history of mental illness and his family had been trying to get him help.”

If you're affected by any of the mental health issues mentioned in this piece you can call the Mind helpline on 0300 123 3393.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special