In my last article, Drakkonis made an excellent, thought provoking comment about how non-believers (atheists) tend to call religious people delusional.
It’s true. I’ve seen it many times. I do try to stay away from calling someone delusional just because they hold dogmatic religious beliefs, mainly because it’s a medical term and I’m no doctor. I am studying in the social work field, which means I have to take psychology among other things but that doesn’t make me a psychiatrist.
So, I’m going to offer the two viewpoints to you and you can make your own decision. I’m going to attempt to do this in as much of an unbiased manner as I can.
First off, I think the tendency to call religious belief a delusion has become more popular since Richard Dawkins put out his book ‘The God Delusion’. So let’s start there.
In The God Delusion, Dawkins contends that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and that belief in a personal god qualifies as a delusion, which he defines as a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence. He is sympathetic to Robert Pirsig's statement in Lila that "when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion".
So Dawkins contends that because a God almost certainly doesn’t exist, belief in a deity is delusional. But what exactly does delusional mean?
In the psychiatric world it means:
Psychiatry: a belief held in the face of evidence to the contrary, that is resistant to all reason
It also seems that mainstream psychiatry has a hard time distinguishing between delusion and non-delusion. This is taken from the US National Library of Medicine:
In clinical practice, no clear guidelines exist to distinguish between "normal" religious beliefs and "pathological" religious delusions. Historically, psychiatrists such as Freud have suggested that all religious beliefs are delusional, while the current DSM-IV definition of delusion exempts religious doctrine from pathology altogether. From an individual standpoint, a dimensional approach to delusional thinking (emphasizing conviction, preoccupation, and extension rather than content) may be useful in examining what is and is not pathological. When beliefs are shared by others, the idiosyncratic can become normalized. Therefore, recognition of social dynamics and the possibility of entire delusional subcultures is necessary in the assessment of group beliefs. Religious beliefs and delusions alike can arise from neurologic lesions and anomalous experiences, suggesting that at least some religious beliefs can be pathological. Religious beliefs exist outside of the scientific domain; therefore they can be easily labeled delusional from a rational perspective. However, a religious belief's dimensional characteristics, its cultural influences, and its impact on functioning may be more important considerations in clinical practice.
Alright, so let’s hop to the other side of the fence. The next article I read was written by the Professor and Department Head of Psychology, Southeastern Louisiana University. Surely, he must be able to shed some light on this whole debate.
He contends that religion can be pathologically delusional but that it usually isn’t so. He points out that the APA Diagnostic and Statistical Manual leaves out religion completely when it talks about delusion. Here’s what the manual says:
A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith).
He also makes the interesting point that it’s easy for the human species to be religious and much harder for us to maintain a skeptical mindset.
Second, an important finding that has emerged over the past 20 years or so from the cognitive science of religion is that religious thinking builds quite seamlessly on our natural modes of cognition. By evolutionary design, we tend to see the world in terms of intentional, meaningful patterns. Religious thinking simply takes this mode of thought to its very logical conclusion: we're inclined to think the world is an intentionally created, meaningful place because it is. Since religious thinking comes naturally to us, it is actually the skeptical mindset that requires greater effort to consistently maintain. Which leads to an interesting hypothesis: given the relatively greater mental effort required to maintain skeptical beliefs, it should be atheistic thinking, more so than religious thinking, that is prone to slide into pathology.
Given what he’s saying, could it be that atheism could be more delusional than religious thinking?
He ends his article with this:
Religion therefore contains a host of properties that actually militate against pathological delusion: (1) its general notions and practices are not obviously contradicted by evidence, (2) it requires very little mental effort to sustain most religious notions, and (3) it encourages community integration which promotes healthy psychological functioning. Indeed, most empirical studies confirm that religious people tend to be happier and healthier, as well as financially, socially, and interpersonally more successful than their non-religious counterparts -- wholly inconsistent with the religion-as-delusion theory.
All of this, however, should not be taken to mean that religion can never be delusional. David Koresh and Jim Jones are probably good examples of religious leaders whose delusional beliefs about their own self-importance proved disastrous for them and their followers. Likewise, parents whose belief in faith-healing blinds them to the damage they inflict on their children by refusing standard medical care are probably tainted psychologically as well. Religious delusion is out there, but recognizing it requires us to give up the simple-minded broad-brush approach. It was Freud (who thought religion was delusion!) who said that the healthy psyche should be able to do two things: love and work. Good guideposts whenever we are in the precarious posture of judging others' beliefs.
Personally (this is my opinion) I think the word ‘delusional’ should be reserved for someone who has delusions that are dangerous or that inhibit someone from functioning in society. Obviously, this isn’t true in the majority of cases, since we know there are billions of religious people who function just fine in society and aren’t a danger to themselves or others.
As the Professor and Department Head of Psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University said, religion could become delusional in some cases, but that's when it becomes dangerous.
So If I could vote in my own poll (which I don't) I would have to vote 'no'. At least, not in the mainstream sense of religion.
That’s my take, but what’s yours?