In a comment discussion last month, we touched on the question of whether religion could ever be considered a mental disorder. This is a common idea among atheists, sometimes expressed as a joke, or sometimes claimed seriously. I am not mentally ill, so I would defer to other people to explain why it is wrong to compare religion and mental illness even as a joke. Here I will ignore the jokes and consider only the serious question: Why isn’t religion a mental disorder?
A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’ s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress or disability in social, occupational or other important activities. An expectable or culturally approved response to a common stressor or loss, such as the death of a loved one, is not a mental disorder. Socially deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) and conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are not mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict results from a dysfunction in the individual, as described above. [emphasis mine]
There you go. Religious behavior isn’t a mental disorder because the DSM-5, an authoritative document, says so. However, you could be forgiven for not taking the DSM’s word for it. Let’s dig deeper.
Look at what else has been excluded from mental disorders: socially deviant sexual behavior. This exclusion arises from a famous controversy, which led to the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in the DSM in 1973. And until 1987, homosexuality remained as a mental disorder (“Sexual Orientation Disturbance” and later “Ego-dystonic Homosexuality”) as long as the patient was distressed about their orientation. The architect of these decisions was psychiatrist Robert Spitzer. I believe that Spitzer himself offers the best insight into the definition of mental disorders.