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!