Asking Richard Wade About Whether Believers Are Literally Deluded

In seven previous posts, I have discussed with the Friendly Atheist’s advice columnist Richard Wade the origins of his “Ask Richard” column, the nature of family conflicts over atheismthe problems with forming one’s identity based on one’s beliefs (or non-beliefs)how atheists should respond to the possibly religious dimensions of Alcoholics Anonymousthe ethics of advising people to lie about their atheism out of concern for their material or physical security, whether atheists have responsibilities to both confront and to replace religions,  whether it is a good idea for non-believers and believers to avoid marrying each other, and whether or not it is psychologically accurate to call believers in God deluded.  Below, in the final portion of our discussion, the topic turns to the accuracy and shrewdness of calling belief in God a delusion.

Daniel Fincke: How do you feel about Dawkins calling “God” a delusion and other language of atheists that treats religious belief as a psychological problem—even only “metaphorically”. Do you think it’s accurate? Is it fair? What has been your experience with the interaction between mental health and religiosity?

Richard Wade: There’s what you mean by a word, there’s what a dictionary says a word means, and then there’s what that word means to your audience.

In the strictest sense, a delusion is a false belief, a conviction of the reality of something that is indeed not real. So in the narrowest sense of the word, if I believe there is one more cookie in the cookie jar, but the jar is actually empty, that could be called a delusion. If I believe that a herd of purple flying elephants is headed right for my house, and the skies are actually elephant-free, that also could be called a delusion. In the case of the cookie, most people would use the word “mistake” rather than “delusion,” while in regards to the purple flying elephants, most people would use the word “delusion” rather than “mistake.”

One of the main criteria for defining mental health vs. mental disorder is to see the effects that a person’s thought processes and behaviors have on two important things in their lives, their ability to love and their ability to work.

So if a quirky thing attracts the attention of other people, but it does not rise to a level of severity where it interferes with making and keeping personal relationships, or the ability to do one’s livelihood, then it is just a quirk, an eccentricity, an idiosyncrasy,  rather than a mental disorder.

Dawkins lays out a pretty convincing case that religion very much interferes with the ability of some individuals “to love and to work,” and the ability of whole societies to do the same.  Regarding the ability to love, he spells out many examples of dysfunctional relationships between individuals, between sectarian groups, and between whole regions in very unloving conflicts arising from religious beliefs.  Regarding the ability to work, consider that the world becomes more and more dependent on good, solid science every day.  Faith thinking discourages rational thinking,  and religious dogmas drag at society’s ability to understand, to accept and to support science, so religious beliefs definitely hurt our ability to make our livelihood as a civilization.

So I think that he has a good argument for calling it a delusion not just from the narrow dictionary sense, but from a psychological meaning as well.  However there’s the way a word is heard by your audience.

Religious people will take umbrage at their belief in a god being called a delusion not only because they think they’re right, but also because they as individuals think that they’re doing just fine, with nothing interfering with their ability to love or to work.  Their anger is probably at least in part about the connotation. They feel that the word “delusion” lumps them together with lunatics who play with their feces and need to be kept in locked facilities, lest they act on their delusions that they can fly off the rooftop, or they are the appointed executioner of some evil person. Even given that anger, I think Dawkins’ use of the word in his book was a good idea because it certainly gets people’s attention. “The God Mistake” just wouldn’t have that much punch.

As a counselor, I’ve worked with some very religious people, and I’ve worked with some very crazy people. Only rarely did I ever encounter someone who was both, and I never saw a link where one trait was a cause of the other, or where one exacerbated the other. What the religiosity and the craziness did was to color each other, or to give each other a flavor.

There was a recent incident at Virginia Tech where during a discussion at the “Ask an Atheist” table, a young man drew a cross on the back of his hand and asked others to stab him in his hand with a pen, saying something about proving that God exists. They refused, and he ended up stabbing himself several times with the pen. Eventually he was arrested and he was further violent with the police.

Several atheists commenting on blogs about this were quick to draw a causal connection between his apparent religiosity and his bizarre and self-destructive behavior, equating religion in general with severe and dangerous mental disorders. I think that is an ignorant connection to make, and an unworthy argument to attempt by exploiting this young man’s personal suffering.

It will take a psychiatric examination to know, but on the surface it looks like the young man has a serious disorder, perhaps schizophrenia. It often shows up when people are in their early twenties. In my opinion, it’s very unlikely that his religious beliefs have any causal relationship with his disorder. His religion did not “make” him go crazy, and it probably did not make it any worse, either. He would probably still be having trouble with bizarre thought processes and impulse control problems at this time in his life if he was previously an atheist or any other category about religion.

When people start to psychologically decompensate, they very often draw upon the ideas, stories, images, and terminology of whatever things were important in their upbringing in an attempt to express their confused thoughts and emotions. Those things aren’t the cause of the mental disorder, they’re just the vocabulary with which it is expressed. The religiosity and the craziness color each other, flavor each other.

So I think that in a broad civilization-wide view, god beliefs and religions are “delusions” in the psychological sense because they do harm to our ability to have better relationships with each other as individuals, as cultural groups, and as nations, and they do handicap our efforts to use science to better secure our livelihood as a civilization. As I’ve often said, nothing divides people from themselves or from each other as quickly, deeply and permanently as does religion. This is easy to demonstrate. Just say that statement to a believer, and then ask them to look at their own feelings about you. Chances are they will be feeling very divided from you, not just in disagreement with you.

However, I don’t think it is a good idea  to draw that comparison on a more personal level, as in the kind of mental illnesses we see in troubled individuals.  It’s not really accurate, and it’s also not a successful tactic. It won’t convince religious people to give up their beliefs. It’s only going to galvanize them against the more broad use of the analogy.

Read all the previous 7 parts of the interview, in which I ask Richard about:

The Origins of the “Ask Richard” Column

Anger In Families Divided Over Religion

Atheism and Religions As Bases For Identities

How Atheists Should Respond to Alcoholics Anonymous, and How Personal Values Influence Professional Therapy

The Ethics of Lying To Stay In A Protective Closet

How Atheists Should Confront And Replace Religions

Whether Believers and Non-Believers Should Avoid Marrying Each Other

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    Basically agree with all that. I just wanted to call your attention to this in regards to your Wade’s comments about the relationship between religious delusions and serious mental illness. It basically backs up his experiential observations — with the exception that, contra Wade, the data suggests that those with psychotic delusions are in fact more likely to be religious, but it does strongly support Wade in terms of the causality of that relationship, i.e. religious delusion does not seem to have the ability to blossom into full-blown mental illness. Rather, it seems that the onset of psychotic delusions can manifest itself in a religious form in some patients.

    Which may be what happened with the pen-stabbing guy, based on comments from friends and family in the follow-up to the incident. I do just want to point out that, at least from my encounters, it seemed the majority of even the staunchest atheists in the atheiblogosphere understood well that religion was not the root cause of the man’s mental illness or even the incident itself, even if it did happen to function as the immediate catalyst of the particular incident. It was an unfortunate minority which wanted to falsely blame religion for that frightening encounter (especially when religion can be rightly blamed for so many other things!)

  • Tisha Irwin

    This was a fantastic set of interviews. Great questions and thought provoking answers!

  • Tim

    Great job with this series of interviews Dan – I really enjoyed them!!


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