Thursday, 27 February 2014

Atheists Shouldn't Call Religion A Mental Illness: Chris Stedman

"Well, you're cray cray!" (source)

Chris Stedman has published a thought-provoking and no doubt controversial post in the Religious News Service.

5 reasons atheists shouldn’t call religion a mental illness
It seems clear to me that religion isn’t a form of mental illness, and that calling it one reflects a shallow understanding of both mental illness and religion—or, worse still, a knowing attempt to use mental illness as an insult.
Go read it, a couple of times. Like me, you could very well get annoyed at it. Now read it again.

I cannot say I agree with all of it, but I am still thinking it over. It's quite thought-provoking.

Anyway, my first reaction -- like most atheists, I think -- was to angrily dismiss all this as some kind of underhanded attempt to shield religion. When I see people behaving in a completely crazy irrational way, my brain often reaches for the C-word. That's just what it is. It's cray, okay?

I also felt like a very solid rhetorical tool was being threatened; that perhaps we were being asked to banish the obvious in some act of political correctness. 

The article referred to a Facebook post by American Atheists president David Silverman, whom I greatly admire. He is talking about a recent horrible act of religiously-motivated criminal negligence by Christian faith-healer parents that left their second child dead.
We must recognize religion as brainwashing. We must recognize the (hyper) religious as mentally damaged. We must take responsibility as a society, because we permit this to happen as a society. 
I completely agree with David and, if I hadn't read Stedman's article, the assignment of mentally damaged to the parents as being somehow inaccurate or even harmful to others with legitimate mental illness would have never even crossed my mind.

I thought about it though. Do mentally ill people out there deserve to be lumped in with people who are so deluded that they believe a magical man in the sky will come down and save their children from illness? Don't they have a hard enough time already without extra stigma?

Now take this excellent point by Sam Harris:
If you think that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes is going to turn them into the body of Elvis Presley, you have lost you mind, but you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you are just a Catholic.
You see, I agree with this and I think it's a powerful demonstration of the sort of blind pass faith and religion get in our society.

Now, I don't think Chris Stedman is saying we should dispose of such arguments. You can take that last argument and substitute been deluded.

It all comes down to how accurate we wish to be when we throw around terms like crazy or mentally ill and I would be the first to admit that I sling these around like a pro. Basically, it means we should always do our best to think before we speak.

I'll cut to the point. I know people who suffer or have suffered with mental illness. I think it's much more common than people realize and I believe there is still a stigma associated with it. Some of these people do not believe in God or religion.

Furthermore, I myself believed in this religion stuff. Was I mentally ill? I would answer no (well at least not for that reason!). I was deluded, brain-washed and indoctrinated.

Now, some strong religious beliefs might cause enough trauma to result in some mental illness - PTSD for example. However, these are not the result of all religious beliefs. They can flow out of religious beliefs.

Don't get me wrong, please. This doesn't get religion off the hook. I still think it's dreadful and virus-like, impedes progress and, when implemented, can cause great harm. I just find myself agreeing with Chris here. It's not a mental illness (although it can trigger mental illness). And faith in particular, when understood as believing something for which there is no evidence, is delusional and can be dangerous, but it is not an illness.

After I thought about this, I came to this compromise when it comes to what I say or write. I will not use terms like mentally ill or mentally damaged unless I really mean it in the clinical sense of the word.

When it comes to terms like crazy or cray cray or insane or nutty or fruit-loops, I think these have enough grounding in colloquial speech that they can be kept. I am not diagnosing someone with a medical condition. I'll have no problem calling inanimate objects these things but will still think twice before using the terms to describe individuals or a group of people. If at all possible, I'll reserve these terms for the beliefs or ideas these people may have - their delusions.

The same goes for terms like lost your mind.  It's not in the same league as armchair diagnosing someone as mentally ill.

I'm not getting all preachy here. This is just for me. It's a little editorial meta.

What did you think of this article?


  1. I don't really know how I feel about this. Does anyone take mental illness as a part of their identity? Or is it a burden that people try to manage/cure?

    Calling a boring party "gay" is easier to call, because it takes something that is integral to many people's identity and using it as a synonym for "bad." But is it insulting to people with cancer to say that religion is "like a cancer in society"? I don't think so, because people don't generally celebrate their cancer. Rather, they fight it, they try to get rid of it. In the same way that people with mental illness try to fight it, or at the very least try to manage it.

    So I don't necessarily think that we should be frowning on the use of "mental illness" as a description of religion because of the risk of harming people with mental illness. It's not, I think, adding to the stigma to say that mental illnesses are not positive, awesome things.

    But on the other hand, I don't think it's accurate, and I'd like us to strive for accuracy when we make open statements (when speaking privately within a small group, such as with friends, then that group dynamic takes precedence over any "political correctness," obviously - so there's room for a distinction between formal and informal speech). The fact is that there *is* a difference between the guy who thinks that his pancakes are actually the body of Elvis and the guy who thinks that his crackers are actually the body of Jesus, and the difference is that the first guy came of his belief all by himself and maintains it despite everyone around him disagreeing. The second guy learned it from his parents (probably) and is reinforced over and over again by his community. That difference is important.

    That doesn't mean that we can't talk about how religion can nurture or reinforce mental illness, or make it very difficult to diagnose mental illness when symptoms are framed in language familiar to dominant religious beliefs. We can even talk about how religion is *like* a mental illness in that its tenets are generated and maintained independently from rational processes. But I do agree with those who have argued that it simply not accurate to just wave our hands dismissively and say "oh, religion is just shared delusion."

    I also think that it's lazy. It's so easy to just call things stupid, or crazy, or gay. That these expressions have so much grounding in colloquial speech is a very good reason to stop using them. As skeptics, we should be trying to think through our thoughts and the language we use to express them, rather than falling back on the easiest linguistic shortcuts. At the very least, we should do this because it's good practice for thinking through bigger assumptions we may be making.

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  5. Bob is delusional, he suffers from delusions which normally aren't harmful, but some people who have the same delusions have been known to neglect their children. Some have even been convinced they are hearing voices commanding them to harm others.

    Bob deserves our sympathy. But there is no reason to show respect for his delusions. And it doesn't harm anyone to recognize the fact that Bob suffers from these delusions.

    And it is important to distinguish Bob from people who don't suffer from these actual delusions, but instead only hope they could one day have them. People who long and even pray that they too could suffer from this illness.

    Those people deserve contempt.

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  8. QuietContemplation4 March 2014 at 11:24

    Very good points. I have been trying to refrain from calling anyone's behavior 'crazy' or from saying 'something is wrong with him/her', because it is stigmatizing to many people. I find most religious beliefs to be nonsensical, but nonsensical does not equate mentally ill. Someone who is mentally ill just can't change their beliefs, and be done with their illness.

    However, I do think a lot of people who are mentally ill do gravitate toward religion in a delusional way, and that is different than just minor magical thinking. Thinking you're Jesus, or that Jesus talks to you, gives you orders, ect... is mental illness, and that person would be just as ill if religion didn't exist as they are with it. Delusional thinking is severe, and pervasive in a person's life, and simply not having a belief in God would not make them suddenly not ill anymore.


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