Claiming “Religion Is A Mental Illness” Conflicts With Psychological Science

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As someone (who was) studying the psychology of religious belief for my PhD, it is disheartening when I see atheists wrongly compare religious belief to mental illness. This myth is perpetuated when public figures like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins use their large platforms to state that religious belief is a “neurological disorder” and “hereditary mental illness.” I do not dispute that people have done heinous things in the name of religion. An argument can even be made that negative aspects of religious belief can exacerbate or play a role in mental illness as well. For example, believing in a religion which instills shame could lead to depression. However, it is still wrong to produce a sweeping generalization like “religion is a mental illness” for a few key reasons.

First off, mental disorders are by definition maladaptive. Simply believing in a higher power is not inherently maladaptive.  There are actually many studies which reveal positive health benefits including how religious belief can lift the mood of elderly cancer patients (Fehring et al, 1997). Additionally, believing in a higher power may increase a propensity to help others (Saroglou et al, 2005). Now, whether these prosocial benefits are actually due to religious belief or a positive community which surrounds the believers is another question (see Galen, 2012 for a critical review). However, when one makes a sweeping statement like “religion is mental illness” they have to include all parts of religion. Even if we constrain “religious belief” as meaning the personal belief in a higher power it still can reduce anxiety (Inzlicht et al, 2009; Kay et al, 2010) and is probably a natural byproduct of our psychology.

The idea that religious belief is a byproduct of our cognition is widely accepted in the scientific community. Religious belief can do a great job of fulfilling some of our natural and adaptive social needs. For example, having a personal relationship with God can satisfy some of our inherent attachment needs (Kirkpatrick, 2005). Religious belief also fits nicely into aspects of our psychology which automatically create meaning and agency as psychologist Jesse Bering explains in his book The Belief Instinct (2012). These kinds of cognitive processes may be adaptive for social situations, but they also provide a cognitive foundation for religious belief. Robert McCauley is another psychologist who argues that religion is a cognitive byproduct. In his book Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not (2013), McCauley discusses how religion taps into our mental faculties which are cognitively natural and allow for us to adapt to our environment.

Thus, science does suggest that religious belief is a natural part of our psychology. However, some may still take issue with the bad things that happen in the name in religion. Well, an important question to ask is if such harm is caused by the religious belief itself OR the adherence to dogma and authoritarianism strongly entrenched within organized religion? Yes, organized religion may provide an excuse for evil behavior, but authoritarianism and dogma cause the actual problems. There are many people who manage to believe in a higher power, but do not feel the need to impose such beliefs onto others.

For example, I believe that dark chocolate tastes good and is better than milk chocolate. Is that belief a mental illness? No. However, let’s say I get a group of followers who think those who like milk chocolate will burn in hell forever and we should treat them poorly now because of it. What if someone in our group secretly likes milk chocolate and feels an immense sense of shame from it which leads to depression? Is the simple belief that dark chocolate is better the cause of those bad things? Indirectly, you could say so. However, ANY belief system or group can fall prey to dogmatism and authoritarianism. So perhaps it isn’t the religious belief that is the actual “illness” but the authoritarianism and dogmatism that organized religion inculcates.

Finally, all humans believe things without evidence. These beliefs are sometimes irrational (such as thinking we are more skilled than we really are), but they often help us navigate through and cope with life. Having legitimate hallucinations and believing there may be life after death are very different things.

Now some atheists could still argue that religious belief may not be a certifiable mental illness, but surely it could be considered a delusion. Fortunately, we again have science to provide us with insight. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders says that a delusion is a “false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Yes, religious belief may be false, but it is certainly a commonly held belief in our culture. Additionally, it is vital to note how a delusion is only a delusion if there is sufficient evidence to prove otherwise. Does anyone have concrete proof that a God does not exist? I go into further detail about why religion is not a clinical delusion in this article. 

Finally, by saying “religion is a mental illness” we marginalize those with actual mental illness and alienate potential religious allies. Surely we can dissect the issues with religious belief (dogmatism and authoritarianism) in ways that do not put down those dealing with mental disorders. Not only is it a poor comparison because religious belief is cognitively natural, but it’s also harmful. Thus, religion is not a mental illness and we can definitely make better arguments against the problematic aspects of organized religion.

If you’re interested in the more of the science of religious belief, I go into more detail at this talk I did at the Atheist Alliance of America Conference in 2015. If you want to here what other scientists think, Sincere Kirabo interviewed over 30 scientists of religious belief on this question! 

This article originally appeared in Secular Nation and JT Eberhard’s blog in 2014. I reposted it here with permission as the science is still relevant. I may do a full update eventually though.

PS: I now have a Patreon if you’d like to support my writing and podcasting.

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