Religion is mental?

Over at Chris Stedman’s blog, he posted 5 reasons why atheists shouldn’t call religious people mentally ill:

1. Even if well-intended, the equation fails

2. Mental illness is not an insult

3. Religion is often associated with wellbeing

4. This parallel distracts us from trying to understand and learn from religion

5. Atheists and theists share in the challenges of being human

One might challenge some of these, but overall it wasn’t bad. I think that it is simply true that religion is not mental illness, any more than any other contrary to fact belief that is common in a population (like their child is the smartest and most beautiful child) is ipso facto mental illness. But of course, critics gonna critique. This reply by Bruce Long was first in the queue:

Sorry, but you simply have not succeeded at arguing the first point. The clinical diagnosis of schizophrenia and various other psychoses involves a number of salient factors and symptoms that if demonstrated to hold indicate psychopathology. These include delusions of reference (being referred to by or referring to people or conscious beings that do not exist), auditory and visual hallucinations (including the belief in witnessing miracles and heaing the voices of a god or gods in some way), and general paranoia: including being concerned about being watched or believing one is being watched often. Especially if a person believes they are always being watched.

One of the interesting things about schizoaffective disorders is that they are the overstimulation of what ordinary folk also think. We all think we are, or might be being watched. Schizoaffectives think they are being watched when they cannot possibly be (they are in a closed room with no cameras, etc.). Somewhere between the “norm” and the “schizoid” lies religious beliefs, and they in turn range across that entire spectrum. If my mother’s voice constantly nags me to tidy up, is that a schizoaffective disorder? According to this false dichotomy, it would be.

What is interesting about this first paragraph is that it sets up the rest of the fallacies in the reply. Some people hold that God speaks to them daily, and so they are delusory; therefore all people who believe in gods are delusory. Especially if they believe they are always being watched.

But some studies show that morality is generally primed by the thought that one is subject to discovery if one cheats on the norms. A deity who watches always is different only in degree from the fear of those who enforce social norms in the ordinary way. So why declare that the use of a moral fiction is better than the use of a theological fiction? Is it that, surprise, surprise, we have already defined religious belief to be something abnormal? Superstitious? Irrational? Not us?

All of these symptoms are present in faithist commitments to unreal and fictional divine beings believed in as real. Adult persons that refer to and take themselves to be the objects of attention of non-existent persons – no matter what the nature of the putative person – are ill.

“Faithist”? Ah, here is that old rhetorical framing, ad hominem. Anybody who does not agree with the writer is a faithist, somebody who has faith in faith, no matter that nobody who is not religious and yet defends the rights of the religious in a secular society even held that faith, in itself, is a good. The term comes from Sam Harris, I think, but I have heard Dawkins use it, and seen others use it. It is a great way to denigrate your opposition without having to attend to the actual issues, you know, in reasoned argument. Or perhaps Long thinks that faith communities have faith in faith, which might be a bit like saying that football teams have faith in football (when in fact what they do is play that game).

But notice the subtler slipperiness: these symptoms are present in faith communities, so therefore all members of the faith community are ill. There is no doubt that some people have a religious mania that can be taken as a mental illness. But there are members of every community who exhibit such symptoms (from the law of distribution of variation, something I just made up to label populational structure). Can we now say that scientific institutions are mental illnesses? What about if their pathological examples hold to science in a mentally unwell fashion? Again, the presumption here is that religion is mental illness, begging the question.

Adults that hold the paranoid belief that they are part of some worldwide historical conspiracy by supernatural beings to dominate their lives and the lives of everyone else – and to bring about an end to history: are ill.

Sure, if they hold it as a paranoid belief. But is the belief necessarily paranoid? Consider the reaction to communism among the McCarthy generation. Consider the reaction to crony plutocracy among the left. The beings they are afraid of are superhuman in their capacity to corrupt the proper society. It is just like the claim that the world is run by angels and demons, only with less brimstone. Now consider that both claims have panned out in part: communists did have embedded agents in the west, and plutocrats like the Koch brothers and Murdoch are corrupting society. Perhaps the belief that there are supernatural agents is a mistake rather than an illness. Is everyone who accepts a mistake mentally ill? That is reaching.

Adults that speak into space and believe that they are referring to some real individual or individuals (supernatural persons in this case) are ill, especially when they claim that those persons are as real as you or I, but simply in a different way. The same goes for those that claim to be receiving some kind of divine inspiration or internal voice from one of these being or a spirit of some kind. In any other circumstances – all other conditions held constant – such would all be symptoms of psychosis and a paranoid delusion at best.

There is no excuse available for faithism or religionism on the basis of cultural norms. Many times in history mankind has made the most progress by overthrowing the greatest and most widely and dearly held assumptions which turned out to be broadly unhealthy. The black plague was caused because people were convinced that cats were creatures somehow influenced by some kind devil personality. We do not think that if many people truly believed in batman or the flying spaghetti monster as real beings – that they could refer to and be heard by and listen to internally – that they would be trustworthy rational beings whose cognitive faculties could be properly relied upon. That the fictional characters are different makes no difference.

I talk to my dead friends, not because I believe they are listening, but because it is a pattern of behaviour that comforts me, as it was acquired when I was developing and those friends were there. Is that illness? Obviously not. But suppose I flip a simple neurological switch so that I think they are still in some fashion real. If that illness? I cannot see how this might have to be true. People have done obeisance to ancestors, for example, because those ancestors were once actual authority figures, and to do it maintains family and social cohesion. Is that mental illness? Of course it is not.

What Long does here, and let me make it clear that he stands in for a class of respondents on this topic, is point out that delusion can sometimes be paranoid delusion, which is true. But then he concludes that if some delusion is paranoid delusion, then all delusion is paranoid delusion (and since religion is sometimes paranoid, all religion is paranoid). I would hope the logical error is obvious. If A then B does not imply if B then A. It’s the most basic of all logical fallacies.

Another question raised here is whether one can be mentally healthy and hold some form of paranoid delusion. That is, can one not only be mistaken but mistaken in a fashion that is mentally deficient, and yet not be mentally ill? I think, given the multiple variables involved in a human psyche, that some slight or occasional delusions do not a deluded person make. It is not all-or-nothing. So there is also a black-and-white fallacy here.

And yes – there are many faithists – and numbers do not make any difference to the fact of the appropriate diagnosis. It does not follow from something being a cultural norm that it is healthy or beneficial to individuals or to society.

Nor does it follow that if some instances of it are pathological, that all are. And there is some good reason to adopt Stedman’s number 3 thesis: religion can be associated with well being. In fact it is likely that if a social institution (we are talking sociology not the content of religion) survives for any length of time and flourishes, that it is adaptive to local social conditions, or at the very least not maladaptive. Of course, this is not something one can stipulate a priori: you have to actually do some field work. And the field work tends to show that religion does give comfort and stability in many cases. Given the nature of the argument above – that some religious people are mentally ill therefore religion is a form of mental illness – we can equally argue that if some religious beliefs offer comfort and aid well being that religion is a form of social well being. Each argument is equally valid (or invalid).

The argument that religion and faithism does some good is vastly flawed. Acid and disease will do some good if applied under the right circumstances the right way (vaccination). There is plenty of evidence that the benefits of faith in terms of any confidence and peace of mind are equally available to the sceptic and non-believer who chooses to approach the facts with the right attitude. The claim that people need faith in religious icons and supernatural entities is habitually based propaganda (and there re many other motivations, but none of them truly about benefitting individuals or societies). It is arguable that every peaceful moment that any religionist has ever experienced could have been secured in a non-religious manner (except for those that thrill to the euphoria of illusion and deception of themselves and others for personal gain, perhaps). More importantly, arguably for every meditative moment, there has been a human sacrifice, a torture, a political sabotage, a hate crime motivated by needless discursive and doctrinal divisions, or someone that has tried to control the outcomes and minds of others with cheap narratives that are epistemically limited. The empathetic scientist (science in the broad sense including the special and to some extent the social) that works hard to figure out what is really going on rather than – well – making shit up – is doing their fellow man the real service.

And every instance of medical achievement could have been done in the absence of medical research, and every instance of political reform could have been done in the absence of democratic activity, etc. This is not a rational way to approach it. Instead of hypotheticals and conditionals, look at the facts, sociologically. The facts are that religion can be both malign and benign, as can any other institution. On the whole, societies that are homogeneous for religion tend to be more stable, and when that homogeneity is disrupted, conflict ensues. I applaud Long’s final sentence here: let us take it seriously and attend to the actual studies.

Faithists and religionists just are sharing in a complex elaborate sophisticated constructed delusion from which they cannot be swayed by any measure of reason and which remains fixed in the face of a complete lack of evidence and in the face of material demonstrations of its vacuity. For some reason because of its grandness of scope (although science is now rapidly revealing that religious affectation embodies a limited imagination) the delusion is accepted. But this is just silly and inconsistent. Grandiose delusions where the individual is empowered by some god proxy in some manner by fiat are delusions that are conventionally pathological and clinically so. The willful dissimulation that is involved in forgetting it is the one that cannot prove the non-existence of something that is behaving questionably is not some pragmatic maneuver for survival: this is the sign of a mind weakened by pathology adopted and induced, and perhaps just acquired. Faithists most certainly are ill, and convinced faithism is an illness of delusions of reference and grandiose relevance, paranoia, the need to control others, and narcissistic imperatives including the belief of affirmation by the powerful deities (or attracting the displeasure of the same – it does not matter). Like many mentally ill persons faithists are practiced at pretending they are well and have the advantage of corporate agreement and safety in numbers to embolden them. They deserve our help and support, but can be harmful and threatening when challenged. Personally I have borne the brunt of the ire of disaffected faithists on many occasions, and they are not pretty when having a religonised psychotic episode. Most marked is their propensity to passive aggression and clandestine (social) or childish (interpersonal) manifestations of disaffectedness and aggression or aversion in response to criticism: doctrine and dogma are usually called into service, or the demonizing of the opponent as a servant of evil (constructive criticism or appeals to reason are often mislabeled as accusatory or an attack).

The degree of projection and clueless introspection here is astounding, and the comments that follow it in full agreement indicate a long standing problem I have had with these sorts of replies. They make others responsible for the failings of the commenter, by assigning to them what the commenter so clearly evidences: arrogance, failure to attend to the research, paranoia, narcissism, etc.

And the insulting of opponents again: we aren’t just people who think religion is okay in a society, we are “faithists” who “wilfully dissimulate” who demonise opponents (he said, as he demonised his opponents). And again the question begging: religion is bad because it is pathological, which is because it is bad.

I will save you the rest of this – we are only about halfway through.

This is quite typical of the kind of attacks upon accommodationists who do not think religion is a mental illness. Such shrill and vituperative attacks are unjustified, especially since the same things are done by those who think atheism is an illness. It’s tit for tat, and not in an evolutionarily stable strategic way. Ultimately, it’s just another form of tribalism. It’s political.

13 thoughts on “Religion is mental?

  1. I’ve known someone who was schizophrenic. And I’ve known some very religious people. It is not at all the same.

    We might casually talk about the very religious as irrational. However, I suspect that they have indeed made what is a rational decision from their viewpoint.


  2. I very much like Neil’s reply above — if you’ve *known* a genuinely schizophrenic person, then you can pretty readily tell the difference between genuine schizophrenia and garden-variety religious belief.

    And while we’re deploying false dichotomies, I have one of my own: if we’re going to get mad when Plantinga says that all atheists are mentally handicapped, then we should probably not say the same thing about all theists.


    1. I agree with Neil and Charles. If you have known people with genuine mental illnesses, and you have known religious enthusiasts, there is very little overlap. Even the DSM doesn’t have a blanket category for religious delusion, and recognises the cultural relativity of what counts as delusional. So I do wonder where the critics get their standard criteria, if it isn’t question begging.


  3. Well you must have heard the saying “Christian is what Christian does”. The mind is used to motivate and make the decision as to what action you are going to take, you decide is the next move the right one so you pray then have faith that your move is the right one when you have assessed all that you know that God would want from your best of ability for the best out come of your action however great or small the task is. The mental failing is that you cannot always determine the out come and that’s when faith kicks in, usually and hopefully that God will make the best of your action.


  4. Naturally we are semi biological robots, and when we let our brains go blindly behind any ideology then we will be fully biological robots.People should be awair to the fact that our brain prefer to do easy tasks, for then it will spend little energy.In this case; the brain is totally “blind” , and totally robot.However; if we make more efforts to dig inside our brains, we will get mor plausible answers for issues of life around us. Actually I live in a region where extreme religious people from 3 religins are here. I see them as totally robots comparing them to normal people. Their stile of all of them is the same:their cloths, there walking, their hats,or pandanas…etc. For these reasons and many other I do regard them as people with mentally desorder.


  5. I quite agree with your main points, but I note that people who may indeed have been clinically insane played key roles in the development of the various existing religions. While no religion works as a social institution if too many of its adherents act on its implications, they do need martyrs, extreme ascetics, and visionaries in order to impress the laity. Suicide cults die out, but Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism certainly owe a great deal to their fanatics. Various anthropologists have suggested that the shaman and prophets of so-called primitive religions are genuine psychotics whose illnesses have been given a social role, but I wonder if any raving witch doctor was ever as out there as Ezekiel.

    The fact that believing in a religion is not a sign of insanity doesn’t mean that insanity may not play an important sociological role in actual religions, and not just in their history—perhaps the decline of the moderate Protestant churches relative to the evangelicals is a result of a shortage of literally crazy believers.


  6. I’m sure I’m by no means the first to do this, but I tend to group those who say they believe in god(s) into a number of different categories, e.g.

    – ‘the liars’ – those who say they are believers, but aren’t (e.g. certain TV evangelists, who are only in it for the money);
    – ‘the defaulters’ – those who haven’t really thought about it, but went along with it due to their upbringing (e.g. most British believers who describe themselves as ‘Christian’, but who only go to church for christenings, weddings and funerals);
    – ‘the wrong’ – those who have really thought about it, and have concluded that there is sufficient evidence to believe (e.g., I presume, the Archbishop of Canterbury);
    – ‘the genuinely deluded’ – those who believe that they have personally seen/spoken with god(s) (e.g. Joan of Arc).

    Personally, I have far more time for ‘the wrong’ than any of the rest. At least they’ve given the matter some thought – so it still might be possible to save them. ‘The defaulters’ are not beyond hope either. It is pointless trying to argue with ‘the genuinely deluded’.


  7. I’m with Jt Eberhard over at Patheos. Calling the religious mentally ill lets them off the hook way too easily.


  8. “The black plague was caused because people were convinced that cats were creatures somehow influenced by some kind devil personality.”

    Wow that one is seriously worth a Google! It leads to some truly creative interpretations of both witchcraft persecution and medical history.


  9. “Various anthropologists have suggested that the shaman and prophets of so-called primitive religions are genuine psychotics whose illnesses have been given a social role.”

    The evidence would seem to point to the fact that ancients may have had very different views with regard to illness than is to be noted in contemporary society.

    People with a range of serious disabilities were both well cared for and archeological evidence indicates they may have been accorded particular respect. That they were viewed as having a closer or intimate contact with the otherworld may explain the status they appear to be accorded, indicated by finds in the archeological record.

    In the early christian tradition I am most familiar with temporary forms of trauma are strongly associated with prophecy but also a strong connection with a complete loss of social status as a result of madness. Loss of reason is connected with a loss of humanity (the mad as unreasonable beings cannot have a relationship with God). Coming closer to the attitudes of the modern world in regard to mental illness.


    1. Their is also a chance these types of narratives, the rise of the ragged man and attitudes towards the destitute may have a relationship with the expansion of urban settlement and higher rates of poverty in Northern Europe.

      The environment required for scientific progress (i.e an urban environment) can be a seriously detrimental environment for the most vulnerable and marginal members of society.

      Members of these groups, poor with low levels of educational achievement also appear to be undergoing a further processes of marginalization by some sections of the scientific community with it stick stick and more stick approach to eduction and science outreach.


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