June 17, 2024

How crazy is religion?

I’ve seen a number of posts and comments suggesting that religion should be treated as a mental illness. There certainly seems to be a strong correlation between religion and insanity. I’ve read a few papers comparing the logical and psychological aptitude of strong believers vs those with little or no faith at all, and the trends there all seem to be in our favor, but not to the point that religion causes the disorder.  I think certain mental disorders can prompt religious beliefs, but that’s a different claim.

I think religion provides a haven to conceal quite a lot of cognitive and psychiatric disorders as well as some social dysfunctions.  But that doesn’t mean religion is a mental illness, regardless how accurate analogies of the God virus might be. I think there are circumstances when religion can be treated as a psychological condition, especially when it is the result of detrimental conditioning, but I wouldn’t confuse that with a psychiatric malady, which (I think) would have to be physiological/chemical.

However someone attending one of the stops of the Unholy Trinity tour has apparently interpreted my presentation there differently than I had intended.

YouTube player

Just for clarification, I did not say that religion was a mental illness. I did say that creationism was a form of religious extremism, which it is; one which discourages rational cognitive functions whenever the subject comes anywhere near certain topic areas.  I also said that creationism is delusional, which it is, because the beliefs are persistent, false, and do not change when the facts contradict them.  I even said that thorough indoctrination of children into religion can permanently impair their ability to grasp and use logic, and that’s true too.

The colloquial definition of sanity is having sound reason, of being able to reason, and to be reasoned with, but creationism, (like many forms of religious extremism) employs apologetics which significantly impede that; it does so deliberately by design. In my speech, I explain a bit of how that is done. If you want to see more of how that is done, look up some of the religiously-motivated “faith-building” exercises promoted for use in homeschooling children of creationist parents. Show me what you find.

19 thoughts on “How crazy is religion?

  1. Some Romanian chick we know made a video about this recently, too, Aron. You should check it out, and let her know what you think 🙂

    See you again soon (TAM?)

    1. Man, I wish I could. I so want to see Bill Nye. But this last trip wiped me out. I can’t afford anything for another few months at least.

      1. I think religion is grest god is good were catholic born and raised it is our only religion tiff and ashton

  2. Religion as a psychiatric delusion always seemed to be the prevailing opinion in my experience on atheist boards, but something always bothered me about that line of reasoning. Over the years I decided that this is because many believers don’t necessarily experience reality any differently, but rather ascribe a narrative to it which, in a sense, we all do. The mind is increasingly being shown through neuroscience and psychology to function as much as a spin doctor as a processor of reality: confabulation in NDAs when the brain fabricates events in between to compensate for the disruption in continuity, split-brain patients giving incorrect reasons for their actions due to input in only one hemisphere, positive illusions employed to maintain healthy self-image through overestimation of one’s abilities and impacts which become even more slanted when one lacks the metacognition to properly self-evaluate, compartmentalization to maintain harmony between incompatible beliefs, fabricated memories produced through coaching, confirmation bias, etc. Even with perfectly healthy cognition we’re all pretty much guaranteed to have our blindspots which are quickly colored in before we can identify them although none as intricate as entire sociocultural systems perpetuated through memes and modified over generations. I tend to think that this is why much of religion is conveniently unfalsifiable: not by design, but the fact that for the most part reality is experienced so similarly between religious and non-religious. The religious person isn’t necessarily in denial of any facts when he declares that God saved his children’s lives in a car crash; he’s applying teleology to an undistorted experience.

    I’m not so sure I can agree that religion would offer cover for many dysfunctions since many emphasize strict conformity, and functioning operates on a much wider scale than the occasional hallucination between prayers; many disorders, especially social, might serve to impede the community aspect which safely insulates the group from the outside and inculcates the accepted line of thought and behavior. This may become hampered by impairments in function which it difficult to self-identify with the group (and even more difficult in the reverse) which is statistically more likely than ones which would establish solidarity in such a specific context especially considering that your typical believer doesn’t come into their faith through a shopping catalog. Still, I’m interested to know how religion ties into functioning. If we took the believers’ claims at face value that life would be meaningless, hopeless, and make no sense without it it could, in a sense, indicate psychological vulnerability through the need to fill a void with an intricate system of ad hoc contrivances. On the other hand, it could just be another component of their adopted narrative.

    1. “”I tend to think that this is why much of religion is conveniently unfalsifiable: not by design, but the fact that for the most part reality is experienced so similarly between religious and non-religious””

      I like that, would you consider also that this is also a result of a type of evolution? over many hundreds of years, believers have been trying out hundreds of possible answers to the gaps…sooner or later, something’s gonna stick.

      I often wonder how much the ego interferes with the other cognitive processes…as in…I’m so smart, that person could never teach me anything. theists live in the “not knowing that they don’t know” and my ego as an atheist lets me believe that I operate in the “knowing that I don’t know” region which gives me the agility to question everything…except myself of course, and maybe Aron

      1. While there is the appropriation of religious traditions and interpretations to changing cultures and theological agendas I’m not sure I’d call it evolution. In the domain of teleology there isn’t really a wrong answer; saying that toleration of homosexuality causes earthquakes is no less valid than saying that lightning is caused by angry Zeus. Such ascriptions to nature are vehicles for cultural values rather than placeholders for scientific facts. In that respect, religion doesn’t need anything to “stick” because a teleological narrative isn’t meant to be subject to scrutiny.

        Even believing that you’re in a better position than the theist can become a trap that leads you to leave certain things unquestioned in your complacency. If our devious and self-serving reasoning were something we could escape as easily as leaving religion we wouldn’t need science.

  3. How crazy is religion?


    At least colloquially speak.

  4. I actually think the video, inadvertently, made a good argument for religion being a mental illness. The claim is that if something is a mental illness it disrupts a persons life. True, but only at at the extremes. Many, increasingly if suspect it is more like lost, people have mental issues. A neighbor has acrophobia, she won’t drive over certain bridges and can’t look out a window above a certain number of floors. It is clearly a mental illness, but it is one she manages. She reroutes around the few bridges that give her problems and avoids looking out those windows. She has acrophobia, a defect in thinking, but she manages and she has a productive and otherwise normal life.

    This shows that a mental illness needn’t be entirely debilitating or disruptive to a normal life.

    On the other side there are certainly examples of people who took religion too far. People who have immersed themselves in religious feeling and beliefs, and what beliefs cause the person to do, or not to do, become disruptive to their lives. One might look a the story of Joan of Arc, the 9/11 hijackers, Fred Phelps and a long list of anti-abortion protesters and bombers to observe people with lives damaged by their religion. Overlooking the cost to the surrounding society.

    I contend that religion is a mental illness. Like most other mental illnesses and chronic diseases at the low end it can be worked around and managed. The problem is that, like other illnesses, you are not in control of how far these things go and at any time you might have an acute attack. An otherwise mild mannered Christian might take up with radicals and join a religious order where normal life is not possible, or join a group willing to use violence to force the world to conform to their standards.

    Religion is a mental illness like the irrational and exaggerated fear of clowns. It is not debilitating or excessively disruptive to a normal life at the small end but if and when it gets to the point of obsessing about blowing up the circus it is a major issue everyone around you.

    Just because most religious people manage their mental illness well enough to hold down a job and function in society is not an indicator that they are not mentally ill, it just means that the illness has not advanced enough to disrupt their lives yet.

  5. I think most of religion can be explained by cognitive biases, and everybody is subject to cognitive biases to some degree, just the religious environment happens to make them worse. Mental illness seems unnecessary when cognitive bias is good enough, particularly given that few believers are actually reporting delusions or hallucinations.

    Some examples – the belief that prayers are answered is clear cognitive bias, where unanswered prayers are ignored or explained away. Believers argue science because of the Dunning Kruger effect. The false consensus bias explains how anti-GLTBQ equality Christians can be convinced that they really represent some ‘silent majority’ rather than a declining demographic.

  6. Religion should be treated as an ideology, no different than communism or fascism. It’s an absolutist belief that seeks to eliminate questioning and eliminate competition for money, power and sex.

  7. I was at the Alb “Unholy Trinity ” event. I think that you made your position clear and I did not get the impression that you equated religion with mental illness. Several of the bloggers here on FtB have made us aware of the insensitivity involve in doing that and I agree with them wholeheartedly. It is also impossible to overlook the similarities between the inability to distinguish fact from fantasy (insanity) and the refusal to distinguish fact from fantasy (religion). In many cases the resulting actions are identical.

  8. Insanity = inability to distinguish fact from fantasy.

    Religion = refusal to distinguish fact from fantasy.

    I loved this line so much I stole it and tweeted it -with huge response by the way. 🙂

  9. That’s the argument from popularity logical fallacy. Can you offer something thats not based on a fallacy?

    Besides, how does 5 billion people( wher’d that #come from?) With tens of thousands different and contradictory beliefs support your position? It is non sequiter.

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