Religion vs. Mental Illness, A Bit More Concisely This Time

Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist and blogger at the Religion News Service, asked me to comment on why atheists should stop calling religion a mental illness for a piece he published today. I ended up giving him a way longer comment than he necessarily wanted or needed (#bloggerproblems), so I thought I’d publish the full thing I sent him since it’s nevertheless a way more concise explanation of my views than my huge post on this was.

Equating religion with mental illness is harmful for a number of reasons. First of all, when done to make fun of or put down religion, it also puts down by association people struggling with problems like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or schizophrenia. People with these serious mental illnesses already face plenty of stigma and discrimination, so derogatory remarks about how religious people are “all crazy” or “belong in a mental institution” are harmful.

Second, this comparison ignores the fact that religion and mental illness are different psychological processes. Religion largely stems from cognitive processes that are essentially adaptive, such as looking for patterns, believing in things that are comforting, and getting joy out of connecting with others and feeling like a part of something larger than oneself. Mental illnesses, by contrast, are fundamentallymaladaptive. People who cannot leave the house without having a panic attack, who feel a compulsion to wash their hands hundreds of times a day, or who are convinced that everyone hates them and they are better off dead, are experiencing symptoms that interfere with their ability to go about their lives. Except in extreme cases, religion does not operate this way. It is important to point out when religious beliefs and observances reach a level at which people cannot function normally, but we do the secular movement no favors by focusing on these instances to the exclusion of the vast majority of religious people who are healthy, happy, productive members of our society.

Third, calling religion a mental illness keeps us from asking serious questions about what actually does attract people to religion. Often, it’s the sense of community, the support available to people who are struggling financially or emotionally, the quick way to make friends, and the opportunity to mark important life occasions such as births, marriages, and deaths using traditions that feel meaningful. Although some of us are trying, atheists are still not that great at providing these types of communities. Many refuse to even acknowledge that most people value–even need–such communities. Calling religion a mental illness is a convenient way to avoid thinking about what we could actually be doing to make the secular community more welcoming and inclusive, and what sorts of resources we are lacking that people can find in religious communities.

Finally, claiming that religion is a mental illness obscures the fact that we all–yes, atheists too–regularly engage in irrational thinking. Religion is a type of irrational thinking, but it is not the only type; introductory psychology textbooks catalog dozens of biases, fallacies, and other ways in which our minds trick us. While it’s impossible to become entirely free of cognitive bias, we can become more free of it by learning to notice it. If thinking irrationally is a mental illness, then we are all mentally ill, and the term loses its meaning. As a survivor of mental illness myself and as someone who plans to work as a therapist, I think we should save that term for situations in which people are truly suffering and having trouble going about their lives.

Don’t forget to go read Chris’s piece!

And incidentally, I’ve been quoted by journalists a bunch of times and it has almost always come out sounding weird and out of context and not like what I meant at all. Chris avoided this issue entirely and even let me see a draft of the piece to make sure he wasn’t misrepresenting what I said or getting anything wrong. If he ever asks you for a quote, say yes!

Comments

  1. Pieter B, FCD says

    Well said. Thank you. I make common cause with believers all the time; if we want to get things done, it’s beyond foolish to reject like-minded people by demanding theological purity.

  2. rapiddominance says

    As a christian who suffers depression, I’ve encountered that saying, “Religion is a mental illness” frequently enough (as well as various other equivalences of the statement). I think that such rhetoric actually hurts the people who need help the most–whether that help should come from caring people within the religious community or from secular humanists.

    Although some of us are trying, atheists are still not that great at providing these types of communities

    I think that atheists like yourself are more productive at this than you realize. You build community by genuinely caring about others, which I sense that you do. From the little I’ve seen of Chris Stedman, he also strikes me as someone that religious folks might call, “A Good Samaritan”. Personally, if given a choice between love and religion (in cases where the two are mutually exclusive), I’ll take love every time.

    By the way, I’ve read your “huge post” before and I thought it was awesome! Thank you for your sensitivity and primary focus on human wellness..

    Take care,

    Scott Morgan

    .

  3. Bishop Savan says

    On equating Religion to Mental Illness – um… sorry, but you don’t see Atheists running about screaming about how science is poison just because it disagrees with their most recent incarnation of the Atheist Manifesto (no such document exists) yet when a Christian, Jew, or Muslim does it with their bible, it’s totally acceptible to bash science.

    You would lock up that Atheist and throw away the key.

    Fact – the dictionary definition of Faith and Delusion are identical.

    As for “different psychological processes” this is a failure of research – the chemical and electrical reactions had by the brain during Religious experiences are identical to the chemical and elecctrical reactions had by a schitzophrenic during the height of their delusions. This has been observed multiples of times. Also mimics chemically induced insanity rather nicely (meaning the ingestion of LSD or other psychoactive stimuli).

    Lastly – to counter your 3rd point – Religion isn’t something that “calls” to someone else – it’s an indoctrination processes forced on the individual from an early age that resembles Stockholm Syndrome almost identically.

    As for irrational thinking – yea. Everyone does that. What’s your point? At least an Atheists irrational thinking doesn’t lead to the stripping of rights from women, children, homosexuals, people who aren’t .

    So… your article is invalid. Religion is a publicly prescribed, regionally traceable, forced mass delusion driven by the human mind’s desire to survive. You hit them at a young age – trick them into thinking they’re innately flawed for something they never did, tell them that if they don’t atone for being human that they’re going to suffer death and torture for the rest of eternity, and have them begging for forgiveness for the rest of their natural lives just because they haven’t been taught any differently. You’re telling children this. Without God in the picture – it’s psychological abuse, but if you add God, then all of the sudden everything is okay…

    What’s irrational to me is how you can put these words to document without doing enough research to cover your argument… Just sayin.

    • says

      you don’t see Atheists running about screaming about how science is poison just because it disagrees with their most recent incarnation of the Atheist Manifesto [...] You would lock up that Atheist and throw away the key.

      as vindictively pleasant a thought it is, no we don’t actually get to lock up climate change deniers who scream that it’s all a conspiracy theory because it disagrees with their irrational beliefs.

      Fact – the dictionary definition of Faith and Delusion are identical.

      fun fact: this isn’t actually true.

      At least an Atheists irrational thinking doesn’t lead to the stripping of rights from women, children, homosexuals, people who aren’t

      ORLY. Did Karl Rove & friends suddenly change their mind on these positions?

    • Jacob Schmidt says

      Lastly – to counter your 3rd point – Religion isn’t something that “calls” to someone else – it’s an indoctrination processes[1] forced on the individual from an early age that resembles Stockholm Syndrome almost identically.[2]

      1) So not a delusion produced from mental illness, then.

      2) Do you… do you have any idea what you’re writing about? (No; the answer to that question is no.)

    • smrnda says

      Religion may be bad thinking, but much bad thinking is not mental illness. Things like confirmation bias may be psychological or cognitive problems, but they aren’t ‘mental illness.’

  4. says

    I disagree.

    1: Religious beliefs are textbook delusions.

    2: Delusions, by definition, are a type of mental illness, or can be a symptom of mental illness.

    3: Religious belief, therefore, is a mental illness.

    Believers really would be much happier if they’d just admit they’re sick, and seek real treatment for it instead of gathering with their co-delusionists and reinforcing their beliefs.

    (And I should note that I say this as a person with multiple diagnoses.)

    • queequack says

      No.

      You could plausibly argue that religion is a cognitive bias on a large scale. In fact, I’d probably agree. Is it a delusion? I suppose if you’re a middle-class American with access to a college education, it might seem that way.

      But also, a “delusion” is not a mental illness; as you’ve said, it can be a symptom of a wide variety of disorders. Or, if you want to really reach so you can have an EXPLOSIVE title for your shitty sensationalist book, you could define it as an isolated and idiosyncratic irrational belief that is not symptomatic of any larger disorder.

      Personally I feel as though calling religion a “delusion” broadens the word to the point of meaninglessness. I can sort of follow the logic, but if that’s the case, then most of us are “deluded”, because most of us have some sort of irrational belief on par with religious faith.

      • queequack says

        I just realized other people already responded to this and basically are saying what I said. I don’t like to dogpile. WMD-Kitty, I just think things are more complicated than that.

    • rapiddominance says

      WMDKitty, this is a personal question so if you don’t answer I’ll know its none of my business and drop it..
      Were you ever religious?

      • says

        Yep. And I was delusional to believe in the first place. All that means is that this delusional condition known as “religion” is curable with a hefty dose of science, education, and reality.

        • rapiddominance says

          Thank you for answering.
          As you know, the answer to one question leads to many other questions, but I don’t want to pester you or take up too much of this thread. Hopefully we’ll talk again.
          Once again, thanks.

          Scott

    • says

      I disagree, by this argument climate denial, libertarianism, sexism, all forms of woo belief and me thinking that whenever I watch Andy Murray play tennis on the TV he starts to lose so I should turn the TV off are “mental illness” … All of them are beliefs gained by pattern recognition, magical thinking and fundamentally being a flawed machine with LOTS of cognitive biases. Religion is no different, apart from the massive cultural and peer pressure that will oil the wheels of cognitive bias.

      Although living in the UK I find the vast majority of christians don’t actually believe most of the stuff they are “supposed” to believe or have examined or thought much about the reasons why they even accept the fuzzy god they believe in exists. It’s more of a accepted fact that they have been taught to believe as true, like pi r squared is the area of a circle. Most people who believe that to be true don’t know why it is true or can derive it. Luckily in that case they are justified, but are they justified in believing things are true without knowing why? We have to and the vast majority of what we believe is an act of accepting some other persons authority, very little can be known absolutely and derived from first principles ourselves. I think that is also why so many people accept a god exists, because lots of people say it is the case. They don’t examine the derivation of that belief and accept it with a few hundred thousand (million?) others.

  5. Cuttlefish says

    WMDKitty–Survivor

    1: Religious beliefs are textbook delusions… if and only if you have access to the information that shows that they are false. The trick is, many of us live in a culture where (until recently especially so, and even today in an internet age, where sufficient control is held over your access) a curious and skeptical child, asking all the right questions of the trusted adults and authority figures, may well find the answers provided support a religious world view–indeed, if you yourself had access only to that information, the only reasonable conclusions would be religious. Delusions require a context. The same behavior that is acceptable in one situation is inappropriate in another.

    2: Delusions are a symptom; they are a necessary, but not sufficient, part of several different diagnoses. “Delusions of persecution” may be noted in a clinical diagnosis; the behavior which leads to this diagnosis, though, may actually be evidence of, say, a history of bullying. Sometimes, everybody actually *is* out to get you. Clinical diagnoses are based on constellations of symptoms, and even so there are times when one doctor would diagnose and another would not, or one would diagnose schizophrenia and another major affective disorder. This is a very real limitation of psychiatric diagnosis, and works no better as a given in a syllogism.

    3: Given that neither given is a given, “therefore” is not justified.

    ***

    I have, quite recently, seen an argument calling atheism a mental disorder; the writer cited several allegedly accurate clinical reasons. They noted correlations between atheism and depression… of course there is a history of correlations between religion and delusional thought. Neither of these (assuming for the moment that both are true) lead to any sort of conclusion that either atheism or religious belief *are* mental illnesses. Reality is more complex than that.

    • rapiddominance says

      “Delusions of persecution” may be noted in a clinical diagnosis; the behavior which leads to this diagnosis, though, may actually be evidence of, say, a history of bullying. Sometimes, everybody actually *is* out to get you.

      Could this be related to the subconscious? In other words, even though the person feeling persecuted isn’t willing to admit their own offenses, his/her inner mind says, “You’ve really pissed a lot of people off, so you better watch out!!!”

      I ask because I’ve experienced paranoia before, and it FELT like it was linked to my own negative behaviors towards others. Plus, I’ve always spent a lot of time by myself, so that probably didn’t help things.

      Scott

  6. Shatterface says

    Delusion and mental illness aren’t the same thing. If you believe something despite conclusive evidence to the contrary you are suffering a delusion: you might otherwise be entirely rational but you are still deluded.

    That may be a belief in the supernatural, that your loved ones are imposters or that you can still feel your severed limb.

    Delusions may be symptoms of mental illness but they are neither a sufficient nor necessary condition.

  7. queequack says

    WOW, I just read some of the responses to Stedman’s cogent and reasonable post. As if I needed another reason to hate the online atheist circlejerk (sorry, “movement”).

    • queequack says

      There are a few people in Stedman’s comments insisting that “mentally ill” isn’t an insult, and they are really just so concerned for the crazy nutjob psycho religious people.

      To which I say: give me a break. Of course it’s true that “mentally ill” is not a slur- in a neutral context, it’s a diagnosis, or an objective description, or similar. But I see no reason to grant that it’s primarily used in a neutral context in these sort of discussions.

      Mostly, the comparison seems to take the form of sarcastic comments about how religious people need to “get help” or “seek treatment”, and it doesn’t take a rhetorical genius to see that such comments are not actually made out of concern. They’re venomous jabs, and they only work under the implicit assumption that to be mentally ill is to be in a state of degradation. Sometimes, the comparison may be employed for the shock value of equating a prestigious, venerable institution (ie, religion) with something so self-evidently undesirable. Which I’m not saying mental illness is a good thing (you’ll never hear me say that), but it’s still predicated on delegitimizing the religious by classifying them as mentally ill (and, the logic follows, thus not credible).

      There are other reasons not to refer to religion as a mental illness, which Stedman discusses as well. But to say that “mentally ill” is not an insult is disingenuous. It is if you make it so.

      • says

        These people are literally that asshole everyone hated on the elementary school playground who stuck his finger a centimeter away from your face and was like “I’M NOT TOUCHIN YOU, I’M NOT TOUCHIN YOU”

        Now I know who those assholes grow up to be.

  8. says

    What is really bad about this “religion is mental illness” is that, together with religious reverence itself, it actually prevents religious people with mental illnesses from getting help.
    If you think that all religious people are mentally ill you’re not going to pay attention to the person who is actually mentally ill, same as respect for religion and worship mean that the average religious person of that group doesn’t notice that something is off either.
    Because talk to Napoleon and everybody notices that something is wrong, talk to angels and you’re a godly person.
    But if you cannot differenciate between the person believing that angels are somewhere out there and the person who thinks that angels talk to them in person, you’re not helping either.

    • shari says

      What you said Right there.

      I am religious (poorly, but a believer, for context).

      Getting a good therapist/support group for divorce, abuse, depression, financial problems is a prime focus of our church – the leaders recognize here are wayyyyy too many curveballs to handle safely if you don’t get the help you need.

      Classifying the whole congregation as ‘ill’ would make it a little tough to round up the right resources for the people who really need it. The support groups usually have someone on staff that has the training to spot problems that require therapy/rehab/interventions. I just think that if you classify all ‘religious’ like me as mentally ill, you disrespect the truly ill, and the terminology loses meaning.

      Miri, thanks for this post and the discussion you foster. I wish you luck with the group you are all starting, you’ve identified a real need, and a real place to do good for people who don’t have a network at the ready. Your views are valuable and I am glad you share them.

  9. gecko says

    I disagree that mental illness stems from cognitive processes that are fundamentally maladaptive. Depression and anxiety stem from processes that have very reasonable evolutionary purposes – anxiety is useful at a moderate level, models of depression such as sickness behavior and learned helplessness both make logical sense. They only become maladaptive when taken to the levels experienced in mental illness.

    This is actually similar to the process of religion, however religion could not be classified as a mental illness simply because it is culturally sanctioned behavior, which violates the criteria for mental illnesses. Religion also does not cause significant disability or distress to the people who practice it, which is another criteria that must be met to be classified as a mental illness.

    I think people just don’t realize the difference between having a mental illness and experiencing mental phenomena that are symptoms of mental illness. Most everyone has experienced various cognitive distortions, hallucinations, etc. but that doesn’t mean you have a mental illness, it just means you have a working brain. You only have a mental illness when it significantly affects you’re ability to function or causes you significant distress.

  10. smrnda says

    I thought I would comment, since I have actually had hallucinations and delusions. Nothing could have reasoned me out of them since even when events happened that should have made it clear the delusion was false, the delusions would just change, and on top of that I actually had visual, auditory and tactile hallucinations. The only thing that made them go away was medication and a few adjustments to my sleep-wake cycle.

    Something about delusions, they tend to be made from whatever things you think about or know about. My delusions centered on an AI from the future calling me on my cell phone and telling me what to do. Makes sense, given my education and occupation.

    I suspect very, very few religious people are actually delusional, most can probably be explained through the usual psychological biases. There may be some mentally ill people who are being made worse by religion – when I think of religions where people say that GOD SPEAKS DIRECTLY TO ME or such, or that believe very firmly in demonic possession or other such things, I can’t imagine a worse place for a person prone to delusions to go.

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