Life & Soul

Heretic of the week: Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle (Wikimedia)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was a physician and writer, renowned for creating the immortal detective Sherlock Holmes. Less well known is his religious journey, which took him from Catholicism to some very odd places. Born in Edinburgh to a Catholic family (his father was English of Irish descent; his mother was a native of Ireland), his father’s alcoholism shadowed family life, and the senior Doyle would die in an asylum.

Wealthy uncles arranged for Arthur to be sent to Stonyhurst, the elite Jesuit public school; he had unpleasant memories of the place. He was then sent for the 1874-75 school year to the Stella Matutina school – likewise Jesuit – in Austria. From there he returned home to study at the University of Edinburgh medical school, graduating in 1881. He lost his faith soon after he was no longer under the influence of his mother.

In 1882, as his medical practice floundered, Doyle began fiction writing in earnest. Four years later – basing his creation on Joseph Bell, a professor under whom he had studied – he introduced Holmes to the world.

But while Holmes shared Bell’s profound scientific scepticism, Doyle most assuredly did not. In 1887, he became a Freemason and started on his own course of psychical research, investigating hauntings and séances – and coming away very much convinced. By 1893 he was a spiritualist, joining the Society of Psychical Research and later the Ghost Club – breaking with both later because of their refusal to accept spiritualism and their condemnation of certain mediums as frauds.

After World War I he became a missionary for his new creed, defended numerous spurious mediums, and broke with Harry Houdini over the issue. Doyle defended in particular the Cottingley Fairies, an egregious fraud involving faked photos of “fairies”.