Psychotic Reasoning, The Will To Believe, And Religious Interpretations Of The Mentally Ill

Yesterday morning, The Friendly Atheist’s Hemant Mehta analyzed stories of mothers who murdered their babies under religiously interpreted delusions with a critical eye towards the religions which put certain fantasies in their heads.  In reply to criticisms of his making this connection that came from skeptigirl (in this terrific post on psychosis you should read), from numerous really well-informed people you should read in The Friendly Atheist comments section, and from me, Hemant was big enough to take responsibility and qualify his remarks:

I’m getting taken to task for some of the comments below. Some of it is deserved. I don’t know the histories of these murderers, and I don’t know how religious they are and if they go to church on a regular basis.

As some commenters below note, people are told by pastors often that the Devil is real and that God exists and talks to us. We’re taught to admire Abraham because he obeyed God when told to kill his son. He would’ve gone through with it if God had not stopped him. Is that different from what some of these parents are doing? What makes Abraham sane and these women insane?

I shouldn’t say the church is responsible for the deaths in the stories referred to below. Others are right in saying those women were insane, plain and simple, and religion not the problem here.

I am worried, though, that if people are taught to obey a god and fear a devil, and that is mixed with a spark of insanity, bad things could happen. To me, neither is a good thing… but together, it’s a frightening combination.

Thanks to everyone for calling me out on this.

And thanks to Hemant for taking the criticism in stride!

I think his remarks here are an improvement.  What we learn from these episodes is not that religion causes or is otherwise responsible for the psychotic episodes of the clinically insane who would just as likely take crazy cues from films or politics or any other domain of life as they would from religion.  What we do learn are other things.

For one, A.J. Burger has an essay on William James’s famous “The Will To Believe” essay which points out that the formal justification for a right to believe what we wish without sufficient evidence is deeply flawed for not ruling out psychotic judgments like those of these mothers as epistemically impermissable.  Before explaining Burger’s criticism, let me explain the views of James and the views James was himself replying to.  If you are already familiar with Clifford and James feel free to skip down to the section on Burger.  For my criticisms about religious treatments of the mentally ill, see the final section of this post.

W.K. Clifford on the Ethics of Belief

In “The Will To Believe” James challenges W.K. Clifford’s argument that we had an epistemic duty (a duty with respect to beliefs) not to ever believe anything on insufficient evidence.  Clifford used the example of a shipbuilder who does not have sufficient evidence that his ships are still seaworthy, having not adequately inspected them recently enough.  Clifford argues that even if the ships survive their voyages, the shipbuilder is culpable for having sent them out to sea when he lacked sufficient evidence that they were actually safe.   Since for all he knew they might have been unsafe and killed people, he is to blame for taking that risk even if nothing happens to them.  The culpability comes in as soon as one takes such an irresponsible risk, well before actual bad consequences result or not.

Clifford uses this example to argue for a scrupulousness in all matters of belief.  He argues against ever believing anything on insufficient evidence because by doing so, even in seemingly small matters which have no bearings on life and death, we both inculcate for ourselves (and influence in others) irresponsible habits of belief.  Even in small things, and especially in how we train our children, we should pay heed to our duties to believe only when we are adequtely entitled.

William James’s “Will To Believe”

In reply to Clifford call for a strict view of our epistemic duties and our right to believe things for which we do not have adequate evidence, James distinguishes two ways in which we can love the truth.  We can love it by avoiding falsehood and we can love it by not missing out on any truth.  James claims that both to believe a falsehood and to miss out on a truth are equally problematic ways to fail with respect to truth and that there is no reason to think that the one is any worse or better than the other.  In both cases, one is duped.  So, whereas Clifford advocates not getting duped by believing anything false, he still runs the risk of being duped by rejecting the truth in cases where he does not see sufficient evidence for it.  If Clifford genuinely loves truth and is genuinely concerned to not be duped with respect to truth, then he should not be content just to stick to his strict epistemic duties which ensure that he can avoid falsehood, he should also be concerned not to reject truths for whcih there is not sufficient evidence.

The analogy I like to use is the example of suspicion of infidelity.  If you believe your partner may be cheating on you whereas he or she insists that he or she is not, you are stuck with a choice between two ways of risking coming out a fool.  If you dump him or her because you are afraid of being a cuckold and can’t bear the thought that if you trust them and in reality you are being deceived by them, then you run the risk that to avoid being a fool who stays with someone deceiving them you actually are leaving someone who is innocent.  So, you are leaving to avoid the possibility of living with someone making a fool of you and you wind up risking being a fool who leaves a faithful partner.  And if you stay because you don’t want to risk losing someone who may actually be faithful, you run the opposite risk of being a dupe who stays with someone lying to you.  Neither solution makes you foolproof, so to speak.

In such scenarios where evidence is insufficient one way or another, James advises that we may decide what we want to believe since he thinks that it is no inherently worse to believe too much and wind up believing some false things than to believe too little and wind up believing some false things.

James offers three criteria for assessing whether or not we have a situation which permits us to will to believe as we desire.  The choice before us must be between two beliefs which are each “live options” to us—meaning that as far as we personally are concerned either belief could be true.  Believing in Thor or Darth Vader are not live options for any contemporary Westerners so we do not have a right to believe in their existences simply because we want to.  However, for those of us who genuinely think that believing in God or believing that there is no God are both plausible options, these are live options and we are permitted to deliberately to decide to believe the one way as we wish (as long as both beliefs meet the other two criteria as well.)

The other two criteria for when we may will to believe are that the choice to believe or not is forced on us (we must choose one way or the other and the possibility of evading or delaying answering is itself a choice in favor of one option over the other) and the choice concerns a matter of momentous significance.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers key explanations and examples from James of both of these two criteria in action:

In science, James notes, we can afford to await the outcome of investigation before coming to a belief, but other in other cases we are “forced,” in that we must come to some belief even if all the relevant evidence is not in. If I am on a isolated mountain trail, faced with an icy ledge to cross, and do not know whether I can make it, I may be forced to consider the question whether I can or should believe that I can cross the ledge. This question is not only forced, it is “momentous”: if I am wrong I may fall to my death, and if I believe rightly that I can cross the ledge, my holding of the belief may itself contribute to my success. In such a case, James asserts, I have the “right to believe” — precisely because such a belief may help bring about the fact believed in. This is a case “where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming” (WB 25).

A.J. Burger’s Critique of William James

In reply to James in a volume collecting both Clifford’s essay and “The Will To Believe” together, A.J. Burger cites a story from the newspaper in which a couple burned their daughter alive in an oven because they believed she was possessed by the devil.  He used this example not to argue that religion caused the couple to do this but rather to show that, formally speaking, James’s criteria for allowing us to believe as we wish is so loose as not to rule out such a clearly impermissible choice to believe as these pscyhotics’.

James’s conditions of when it is permissible to will to believe do not give us a basis to condemn on rational grounds the couple that cooked a child in an oven believing her to be Lucifer.  They fulfilled all James’s conditons since for them it was a live, momentous, genuine option that the child was Lucifer and that throwing her in the oven would eradicate him.  There should be some higher standard for truth than that the belief seems plausible to the one considering it.  So Burger agrees with Clifford (as I do) that your choice to believe is not just a personal matter in which you choose which way you would prefer to risk being duped, but rather it is a matter of social implications and, so, a moral matter which way you opt to believe and we should therefore defer to believe wherever there is insufficient evidence.

And I think this is a valid argument that does not exploit the mentally ill but rather argues that any criteria for justified belief which does not rule out the beliefs of the mentally ill are not strict enough.

Religious Encouragement, Celebration, And (Literal) Demonization Of The Mentally Ill

Another valid criticism of the religious in this context is that there are long traditions of granting sainthood and attribtuing authority to the delusions of ascetics and mystics who induced their own psychological delusions through practices of isolation, starvation, and other forms of self-torture.  Insofar as religions historically have encouraged and celebrated the psychotic episodes and hallucinations of some of the devout, they should be ashamed of themselves and denounced.

Also insofar as religions have had long histories of misdiagnosing mental illness as demon possession they have done a horrible disservice to the sick and vulnerable.  Such errors are, of course, quite understandable in more ignorant times.   But in the 21st Century it is a unconscionable disgrace wherever the religious traditions continue to perform “exorcisms” and to treat the claims of demon possession in the Bible as accurate assessments of what was happening and not the misdiagnoses of the ancient and supersitious.  Responsible, moderate, scientifically literate 21st Century religious people should clearly encourage people against 1st Century interpretations of epilepsy and other horrifying neurological and psychological problems formerly attributed to “spirits” rather than cling to the supposed authority of the testimonies about demon possession as being “the Word of God.”

Finally, yes, you are right that the horror of these heartbreaking stories of the murder of children should remind us that any book which could ever suggest that a human being be praised for his willingness to slaughter his son as a sacrifice to his God is profoundly immoral and should never be confused for a special revelation of ethical or divine truth.  And, yes, the mindset which accepts such absurdities can possibly be led to comparable atrocities (as Voltaire warns) when malicious leaders encourage people to think in the sorts of barbaric, genocidal, irrationalistic, and cultic ways that people in the Old Testament infamously thought.

So, I think there are valid criticisms of religion which one can make using this story as an example of indisputably awful behavior which is formally similar epistemologically, ethically, and spiritually to key religious texts and religious thinking.  And there is the occasion to remind ourselves that religions have shameful histories of both encouraging and misdiagnosing the mentally ill from which they should earnestly repent.  A woman like the one who occasioned all this discussion in a past era may have been interpreted as genuinely possessed of a demon and were her story recorded in the Bible it would still today be taken as truthfully an instance of that by those who refuse to use their 21st Century understanding when reading the accounts of superstitious 1st Century people.

And comparably sick people would be taken to be prophets speaking for God when they communicated their hallucinations.  That’s an embarrassing but (again) formerly understandable folly of more ignorant human reasoning.   Perpetuating belief in such “prophecy” as having happened before and, worst of all, allegedly continuing today is disgraceful and something religions should be called out on constantly.

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