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Faith is not a Mental Illness

I’ve been seeing a disturbing tendency among atheists to compare religious belief to mental illness. Sometimes this comparison is made explicit, as in this article. Other times, however, the comparison is more implicit–for instance, when words like “crazy” and “delusional” are used to describe religious people or their beliefs (hi Dawkins).

These comparisons are inaccurate and offensive to both religious people and people with mental illnesses.

First of all, being religious is a choice. Being mentally ill is not. While it’s a bit arguable whether or not faith itself is a choice–I certainly can’t make myself believe in god, but perhaps others can–the existence and success of religious proselytism proves that choice is at least part of the equation. Only a completely ignorant person, on the other hand, would attempt to proselytize mental health (although it obviously does happen).

Regardless of whether or not you can choose to believe in god, you definitely get to choose whether and to what extent you observe a religion (unless you’re a child, but that’s different). People with schizophrenia don’t get to choose which hallucinations they have and how often. People with OCD don’t get to choose their compulsions. People with phobias don’t get to choose which phobias they have or how they manifest themselves.

Second, suggesting that religious people are mentally ill is sanctimonious and offensive. It insinuates that they are incapable of consciously and purposefully choosing to be religious, and that their religious beliefs are just as meaningless as a symptom of mental illness. It reminds me of when I used to bring up concerns with friends who would respond, “Oh, that’s not such a big deal, you just feel that way ’cause you’re depressed.”

As I mentioned, being religious is a choice. For most people, it’s a choice made with one’s own best interests in mind. Comparing that to a schizophrenic delusion is a wee bit condescending.

(Of course, delusions that are religious in nature do exist. Some people with schizophrenia believe that they are possessed by religious spirits of some kind, that they have spoken to god, or that they are the messiah. However, this is vastly different from the way most religious folks experience their faith, and is obviously a symptom of mental illness.)

Although I’m an atheist who kinda sorta wishes religion didn’t exist, the fact is that it does, and I refuse to believe that all of the billions of religious people in the world are just mentally ill. No, they’re onto something. It’s just not something that I’m interested in myself.

Finally, these comparisons trivialize the suffering that people with mental illnesses experience. The distinction between mental health and mental illness is not that mentally healthy people do not believe in supernatural things and mentally ill people do. The difference is that (most) mental illnesses interfere with the person’s functioning and make them feel, well, bad.

Religion, for all its flaws, often does the opposite–it provides people with community, teaches them to behave morally and charitably, and helps them cope with illness, death, and other challenges in life. (A caveat: I’m talking about religion at its best, not at its worst, and these same effects can be found elsewhere.)

So when you imply that the definition of mental illness is believing in things without evidence, you miss a lot about what it’s like to be mentally ill. Namely, you ignore the emotional pain, cognitive distortions, thwarted goals, ruined relationships, physical fatigue, and all the other things that are part of the experience of mental illness.

There are many interesting, intelligent, and non-offensive ways for atheists to argue against destructive religious ideas (for instance, here’s an example I read today). Calling religious people mentally ill is not one of those ways. Let’s put that kind of useless rhetoric back on the shelf where it belongs.


  1. says

    Well, you can try to defend it this way if you choose, but you have not understood how I view religious belief as mental illness. There are millions of high functioning sociopaths everywhere. This tends to make it kind of a norm, but it is still considered an illness or disorder. The want to believe is a wrong way of thinking, not unlike many disorders. Addiction is a disorder, and I think that the same triggers and reward systems are in play for religious people.

    Playing with matches doesn’t make you a pyromaniac, but pyromaniacs play with fire. There is a distinction in what you seem to be portraying and the religious pyromaniacs who are likened to mentally ill people. There are very few black and white situations in life, every thing seems to be part of a spectrum. The Catholics who attend Christmas mass and Easter mass and none other are not like the WBC. A bout of depression does not make you ill. If that depression lasts for decades… well, you might want to see a doctor. Going to Las Vegas and losing $500 does not make you a gambling addict… do it twice a month and perhaps you have a problem.

    I believe that if you think this through you’ll see how folk can make the comparison and why it does not apply to all religious people. Just the same, it does fit the symptoms of many religious folk.

    Look up the symptoms of gambling addiction or any addiction.
    Look up the symptoms of manic depression and other mental illnesses

    “Manic-depression: Alternating moods of abnormal highs (mania) and lows (depression). Called bipolar disorder because of the swings between these opposing poles in mood. A type of depressive disease. Not nearly as prevalent as other forms of depressive disorders. Sometimes the mood switches are dramatic and rapid, but most often they are gradual. Mania often affects thinking, judgment, and social behavior in ways that cause serious problems and embarrassment. For example, unwise business or financial decisions may be made when an individual is in a manic phase. Bipolar disorder is often a chronic recurring condition.

    A mild to moderate level of mania is called hypomania. Hypomania may feel good to the person who experiences it and may even be associated with good functioning and enhanced productivity. Thus even when family and friends learn to recognize the mood swings as possible bipolar disorder, the person may deny that anything is wrong. Without proper treatment, however, hypomania can become severe mania in some people or can switch into depression
    Sometimes, severe episodes of mania or depression include symptoms of psychosis (or psychotic symptoms). Common psychotic symptoms are hallucinations (hearing, seeing, or otherwise sensing the presence of things not actually there) and delusions (false, strongly held beliefs not influenced by logical reasoning or explained by a person’s usual cultural concepts). Psychotic symptoms in bipolar disorder tend to reflect the extreme mood state at the time. For example, delusions of grandiosity, such as believing one is the President or has special powers or wealth, may occur during mania; delusions of guilt or worthlessness, such as believing that one is ruined and penniless or has committed some terrible crime, may appear during depression. People with bipolar disorder who have these symptoms are sometimes incorrectly diagnosed as having schizophrenia, another severe mental illness. Some people with bipolar disorder become suicidal.”

    Now look at top clerics and tell me they are not suffering mental issues?

    • says

      First of all, I’m confused as to your claim that I have not understood how you view religious belief as mental illness. Unless I am mistaken, I have never interacted with you on the internet before, so claiming that I’ve misunderstood you seems irrelevant.

      Second, “addiction” is not a disorder in and of itself. If it were, literally everyone would have a mental disorder, because between all the people who are addicted to alcohol, nicotine, illegal drugs, caffeine, video games, sex, and, arguably, psychiatric medication…well, that’d be everyone. I hope you can see how the entire concept of addiction would become useless if we viewed all addictions as mental disorders.

      Third, I study psychology and am well aware of the symptoms of almost every mental illness in the DSM. I don’t see how this is relevant. I specifically addressed the issue of religious delusions in my post and explained that they have little to do with how ordinary religious people experience belief.

      Fourth, your mention of “top clerics” is likewise irrelevant. I never discussed religious leaders; I merely discussed religious belief in a general sense. Anyway, if you think that all or most religious leaders molest children (or whatever you are referring to), you’re quite mistaken.

    • says

      Certainly, clerics may suffer mental health issues, just as anyone in any occupation may. However, this does not mean that religious belief is a mental illness. The main defining element of mental illness is that it causes some sort of interference with the regular functioning of life. Faith, for the most part, does not.

      You mentioned that a condition can be “kind of a norm, but it is still considered an illness or disorder.” Being able to appear high-functioning does not mean that a person does not have an illness, and no matter how much of a “norm” it may be, if it greatly interferes with their life, it’s a disorder. Also, you said, “The want to believe is a wrong way of thinking, not unlike many disorders.” The issue here is that religious belief, in general, is not necessarily a “wrong” thought pattern. “Wrong” thought patterns are destructive to the individual and others. Religious belief, at its best, is not. That’s certainly not to say that people who are religious don’t do “wrong” things, but the faith itself isn’t “wrong” or, for that matter, right.

      “Addiction is a disorder, and I think that the same triggers and reward systems are in play for religious people.” Yes, triggers and reward systems are in play for everyone. We all have those chemicals in our brains, and, in basically everyone, they serve as reward systems. How well these systems work and what they respond best to may differ, but if you categorize disorders as having triggers and reward systems in the brain, then everyone is ill.

      Also, “a bout of depression does not make you ill” is false. A bout of depression is still depression and can be just as detrimental as decades of it.

    • says

      To diagnose a mental illness, the first and fundamental criteria is that it must either significantly detract from the “sufferer’s” quality of life, or cause them to substantially harm/reduce the quality of life of others (normalized activities, such as harm caused through legitimate – if otherwise unethical business transactions do not count). Most of those high functioning “sociopaths” you refer to are not actually mentally ill, though they might otherwise fit the criteria for sociopathy.

      I believe that if you think this through you’ll see how folk can make the comparison and why it does not apply to all religious people. Just the same, it does fit the symptoms of many religious folk.

      Not really. I am the mentally ill parent of a child with mental illness. I am also now the only parent of ten and four year old boys, because of their mother’s mental illness. Let me make something very clear to you: Mental illness is a terrible thing to have to try to manage. It has made my life very nearly untenable and substantially harmed both of my children. The assertion that someone who is religious is mentally ill completely marginalizes the experience of people who have been seriously harmed by actual mental illness.

      When you play this little game of yours, you are perpetuating crappy stigmas that actually hurt people. Please bloody well stop.

  2. judyt54 says

    All major cultures (and most minor ones) have religion as their core. Community cannot survive without some kind of acceptable group belief, since we are, at best, a group animal with a definite
    “group think” mode. Religion is part of that. Without the support of the community, religion cannot survive very long. Without the support of religion, a community falls apart. A strong cutlure allows room for more than one religion, and more than one kind of belief system, as well as people who believe in none of it.

    So those among us who are atheists need to recognize the importance of the structure they deny, and often condemn. I was raised Catholic but have since moved about as far away from it as is possible. I dislike many things the church does or imposes on its people, but at this point it’s not my problem. Truly.

    And, yeah, there are definitely religious factions that have serious design flaws; Jim Jones comes to mind, mind control cults like Sun Young Moon and Scientology, Christian Science, there are lists as long as your arm. Some of them are run by people seeking to control, or get rich, or get to heaven on the next rocketship. But the general run of the mill religions and all the spin offs they engender are only as strong as the people in them.

    I don’t think they’re crazy, although the more extreme practitioners (does anyone remember Oral Roberts) do make a good case for it sometimes…

    • BlackHumor says

      You’re still conflating “wrong” or “evil” with “crazy”. Not the same thing, not even a little.

      Oral Roberts and his ilk are WRONG and often EVIL but very few of them are actually CRAZY. They all believe certain things for reasons that appear good to them and not because their brains/ minds don’t work properly. That their beliefs are horribly wrong and generally horrible in every other sense is a different question.

      • judyt54 says

        Jim Jones killed people. That guy in texas with the compound killed his followers. they used control tactics to mentally ‘own’ those people. that is evil AND crazy. Most of the tv guys are making great gobs of money off of people who can ill afford it, (and that in itself is evil),

        Any time someone sets themselves up to claim (whether he believes it or not) personal communication with a god, and gets folks to dish out a lot of money, time, and effort, they may not be crazy but they sure are close to evil, since they have a lot of poor people spending money to find a path to God.

        Scientology goes after the rich, and gets em. That is crazy like a fox, and I know from experience they are extremely good at what they do. They dropped me (I
        was curious, not interested) when they found I wasn’t going to give them any money.

        And please read all of that post. Not just the little bit at the end.

        People believe in God because they are terrified of What Comes Next. All that darkness looming up after they die scares the blazes out of them. ( I get scared, too, but only because I KNOW there is no pearly gate there, there is nothing to go to.) And so they make him up. They always have. No harm in that, it gets them through the days more comfortably, and frankly I often wish I could join in with that kind of faith, but it’s gone for me.
        Religion in and of itself isn’t evil, or insane. It’s necessary. What is often evil are the people who use us for their own ends.

  3. says

    Bravo. You’ve nailed it. Mental illness and religion can coexist, but one is not indicative of the other.

    Calling people with any modicum of religious belief mentally ill, delusional, or even irrational is elitist snobbery that closes the doors of debate and tells people that you think you are inherently better than they are — something that could very easily be called megalomania if you thought it was appropriate to deem your opponents damaged.

    • BlackHumor says

      Eh, not the last one. I think religious belief certainly is an indicator of irrationality, even if it doesn’t mean you’re delusional or mentally ill. Being wrong in such an (IMO) obvious way does very much indicate a willingness to disregard evidence, or in other words to be irrational.

      • fliponymous says

        There is not a single person among us who is not irrational to some degree. It’s the human condition. “Irrational” is used as an insult and a euphemism for diminished capacity by too many.

        • Lobby the Lobster says

          (Probably) Everyone is irrational, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is irrational to the same degree or in the same situations and that the situations are the same.

          The only way the word “irrational” makes sense is if you parse it as a relative term, when describing people.

          • says

            And if it’s a relative term, because everyone human is irrational about something, then to use it as an insult, to claim that someone’s particular irrationality makes them inferior to you (as those who like to tout the false equivalency of religion/mental illness to ad hom their debate opponents), is elitist nonsense.

  4. says

    i enjoy the comments below this article as some support what i believe re: the religious and mental illness… the leaders are quite narcissistic ive met a few in my lifetime and the fallowers often have mental weaknesses which lead them to be fallowers so easily… i could say more but i dont think i need to go on about it….i just know what ive observed which lead me to distance myself from both types of people ….and ive been much better off for doin so .

  5. Titfortat says

    Hmm, let me see. You are nuts or your just morally and biologically backwards. Youre right, the second one sounds so much better. ;)
    i think the belief/idea that there is the possibility of a creative force at the root of our existence is plausible. Talking snakes and stuff kind of means you might be stepping out of the reality realm a tad. :)

  6. says

    Yep. Very much agreed.

    I also think it perpetuates the fairly nasty idea that a person with mental illnesses, or other disabilities that affect their mind, is not worth listening to in the same way a neurotypical person is. It seems to me like the point of comparing religious faith to a mental illness is to dismiss religious people: they are mentally ill, so we need not listen to them, take them seriously, etc.

    Except that I think it is wrong to do that to mentally ill people, so even if their assertion were true (i.e., that all people professing religious faith really had some neurochemical difference that made them see or hear things that other people could not), it would still be wrong to use it to assert superiority, or argue that religious people should be barred from participation in public life.

    • Titfortat says

      it would still be wrong to use it to assert superiority, or argue that religious people should be barred from participation in public life.(lindsay)

      Unless of course they want their “faith” to dictate public policy. You know, like stoning an adulterous woman or cutting the hands off a thief. Some belief/faith system’s really are inferior.

  7. Jon Nuelle says

    An excellent take on why it is important to disambiguate (and not conflate) two very different phenomena. Also, commenters who make a fetish of rationality need to understand that they almost always over-estimate their own capacity for rational decision-making. If you don’t agree, read Dan Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” and you will understand why.

  8. Nick says

    Believing in something without any facts to support it is not a sign of mental illness. But believing in something that is contradictory to the facts is. It’s a delusion, and being delusional is a mental illness. So “God exists” is not a delusion. “The world is 6000 years old and evolution didn’t happen” is a delusion. Religion does not cross the line into delusion until it refuses to accept fact in favor of fantasy. Faith cannot contradict fact without being, by definition, a delusion.

  9. MrPeach says

    According to Dictionary.com:

    de·lu·sion·al   [dih-loo-zhuh-nl]
    having false or unrealistic beliefs or opinions: Senators who think they will get agreement on a comprehensive tax bill are delusional.
    Psychiatry . maintaining fixed false beliefs even when confronted with facts, usually as a result of mental illness: He was so delusional and paranoid that he thought everybody was conspiring against him.

    To me it’s quite clear that BOTH definitions apply to religious people to some degree. They believe non-real things fervently, and refuse to accept reality when confronted with it.

  10. says

    It strikes me that you’re taking on a straw man here. Dawkins doesn’t think believers are all mentally ill, just that they are deluded – and delusion is not the same as mental illness, as I’m sure you’d agree (and that I believe he takes pains to point out). Furthermore, the other article you cite merely says that Joseph Smith displayed some signs of mental illness, which is hardly to say that anyone who believes in him must also be mentally ill.

    I’m sure the comparison between religious belief and mental illness is made somewhere, but in the absence of an actual example of it, this piece doesn’t really cut it with me. Having said that I applaud the aims, I’m also very much against lazy and offensive arguments by my fellow atheists, gives us all a bad name.