Help Me In My Unbelief

An unbeliever's first steps into a faithless world

Is religion a mental illness?

Confession: I love playing devil’s advocate. I do it with students all the time (and sometimes I just pretend I’m playing devil’s advocate even though I’m arguing from a position I agree with), and it’s good mental exercise. It sharpens my mental acuity and keeps me more reasonable by virtue of trying to see the merits of an opposing position.

What I don’t like, however, is having to defend an idea, institution, or way of thinking from unreasonable attacks, especially from “my side” of the aisle. I do it because I value the truth, but it irritates me to no end when people who should have such a regard for skepticism and rationality seem perfectly willing to discard them for a convenient conclusion.

Take, for instance, a post on Hemant Mehta’s blog about Rick Warren’s son Matthew committing suicide. The post itself is excellent, pointing out the ways in which the Warrens could use this experience to bring better awareness to mental illness within Christianity, something that is desperately, desperately needed, as I can attest from my experiences in conservative Baptist churches where people talked openly about how people who are depressed just don’t have enough faith or must have done something wrong (statements which my mother, who has suffered from clinical depression for almost two decades, wouldn’t let go unchallenged).

So when I saw this comment from “Bubba Tarandfeathered,” I couldn’t resist posting in what turned into a bit of a flame war:

Christians taking care of the mentally ill, now there is a real oxymoron. I work in this industry and I can tell you the christians that I encounter who have family members with mental illness, well lets put it this way the mentally ill family member often seems more sane. It’s the blind attempting to lead the temporarily blinded. Dear god please make your followers less gullible. Oh wait then they wouldn’t believe in you.

To which I immediately responded:

I will never understand this insistence on religion as mental illness. It demeans people with actual mental illnesses as well as people who are religious because of upbringing, social pressure, etc. The fact that you say that you work in “this industry” (by which I assume you mean mental health) is incredibly disheartening, as you should be in a place to see the difference between mental illness and mere misguided belief.

The thread goes on for a bit, with “Bubba” saying that xe’s doing a doctoral thesis on “the similarities of religious practice and behaviorism’s [sic] of patients displaying mood affective disorders” (which of course doesn’t deal with any of my skepticism by providing, you know, evidence) and commenter “TheG” (also claiming to be a mental health professional) adding, perhaps a bit more reasonably:

Also in “the industry” here. I can tell you that the DSM-IV is definitely (and possibly deliberately) hazy on what constitutes the difference between the symptoms of certain mental illnesses and the experiences/beliefs held by religious folk. Talking to people not in the room vs. praying, irrational beliefs despite evidence to the contrary, hearing voices vs. hearing deities, saying words changes physical reality vs. saying prayer changes physical substance… I’m not sure why more people don’t see the very valid comparison.

Are there parallels between some of these things? Possibly, yes. I do think that someone who thinks they hear the literal voice of God is either deluding themselves or suffering from some kind of psychotic break, but I also don’t know how common a belief that even is. (I’ve met lots of wacky religious people while growing up in conservative Baptist churches, and I could probably count the number of people who have made such a claim on just my hands.) Holding irrational beliefs despite evidence to the contrary, however, is not at all a sufficient condition for mental illness; there are a lot of ways in which people can deal with cognitive dissonance other than by accepting the position with the most definitive evidence, and they don’t constitute mental illness.

I also asked on that same comment thread for proponents of this idea to make a clear connection between the two: If religion is a mental disorder, what kind of disorder are we talking about? “Bubba” mentioned “mood affective disorders,” but that category, which includes bipolar disorder and depression, doesn’t actually bear many of the stated similarities with religious practice. It’s not a conclusion borne out of facts or systematic observations; it’s a convenient stereotype based on the idea of a “God delusion” and the ensuing conclusion that religious people are not just deluded but mentally ill. As I said, it trivializes the actual mental disorders that require psychiatric treatment (medication, psychotherapy, DBT, etc.) and ignores that religion is a complex force that cannot be reduced to individual cognitive elements.

Apparently this is a common enough notion that I was able to find a facebook page independently posting a similar image:

Photo from “The ‘A’ Club” facebook page

Fortunately, there were a lot of people (including my buddy Ben) who were pushing back and noting that this claim isn’t one that can be supported by the facts. (Good thing, since the page admin doesn’t apparently know what the burden of proof means and is deleting comments like they’re going to infect the page with rationality or something.)

Part of this, of course, is the bigger question of skepticism among atheists, which is not a universal concept by any means. Part of it is pure tribalism and the impulse to pigeonhole a competing view into the categories of “evil” or “crazy,” ignoring the much more common labels of “misguided” and “simply wrong.” None of it, however, is excusable. We can do better than this, and so those of us who are trying to live up to the ideals of skepticism and rationality have to do our part to push back against these failures of rationality – and, of course, to be willing to listen when others push back against us.

One response to “Is religion a mental illness?

  1. Recovering Agnostic April 11, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    I can see the point of comparison, and it’s a reasonable basis for a joke. Other than that, I’m not in any position to judge sensibly. I don’t like the tone of the comments you quoted at all, but at the same time, I’m struggling to put my finger on exactly why they’re wrong.

    At first, I thought there could be a distinction because religion can be compartmentalised, but I don’t think that really works. The best I can do is that there’s a distinction (or there should be) between believing things that are strange or wrong and having your whole perception of reality distorted, but there are possible responses to that.

    I suppose my bottom line would be that equating anything else to a diagnosed mental illness is a dick move.

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