Why is Religion an Excuse for Criminal Behavior?

I’m not feeling very sympathetic toward any religion at the moment.

Here’s an awful story for you:

Members of One Mind Ministries… denied a 16-month-old boy food and water because he did not say “Amen” at mealtimes. After he died, they prayed over his body for days, expecting a resurrection, then packed it into a suitcase with mothballs. They left it in a shed in Philadelphia, where it remained for a year before detectives found it last spring.

The boy’s mother, Ria Ramkissoon, agreed to plead guilty to “child abuse resulting in death” instead of murder… with one catch (you know the prosecutors felt safe with this one):

Ramkissoon, 22, has agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge on one condition: The charges against her must be dropped if her son, Javon Thompson, is resurrected.

Here’s where it gets even stranger.

Psychiatrists who evaluated Ramkissoon at the request of a judge concluded that she was not criminally insane. Her attorney, Steven Silverman, said the doctors found that her beliefs were indistinguishable from religious beliefs, in part because they were shared by those around her.

She wasn’t delusional, because she was following a religion,” Silverman said, describing the findings of the doctors’ psychiatric evaluation.

Some people may ask: Why are those things mutually exclusive, especially in this case?

She chose to follow her beliefs and didn’t suffer from any actual mental illness or disorder. Because of that, she should face a harsher sentence.

Her attorney is arguing she wasn’t acting on her own free will:

Silverman said he and prosecutors think Ramkissoon was brainwashed and should have been found not criminally responsible; prosecutors declined to comment. Although an inability to think critically can be a sign of brainwashing, experts said, the line between that and some religious beliefs can be difficult to discern.

“At times there can be an overlap between extreme religious conviction and delusion,” said Robert Jay Lifton, a cult expert and psychiatrist who lectures at Harvard Medical School. “It’s a difficult area for psychiatry and the legal system.”

Lost in all this is the fact that an innocent child died because his family harbored absurd religious beliefs. It’s not the first time that’s happened and it won’t be the last.

As if the rest of it wasn’t enough, here’s one last excerpt from Dan Morse‘s article:

The body was placed on a mattress in a back room, and Queen Antoinette told her followers that God would “raise Javon from the dead,” according to the charging documents.

Javon’s body remained there for at least a week, police said. Eventually, it was wrapped in a blanket and placed in a suitcase. Queen Antoinette burned the mattress and Javon’s clothes, police said, and the room was washed down with bleach.

The group came to believe there had been no resurrection because someone among them was not a true believer, according to an attorney for one of the other defendants, Marcus Cobbs. With that person no longer part of the group, they headed north out of Baltimore with the suitcase, believing Javon could be raised at a future date, according to Cobbs’s attorney, Maureen Rowland.

I don’t think any religious person is about to defend their actions. But at what point are their beliefs considered absurd? Is it because they allowed a child to die? Is it because they believed he would be resurrected? Is it because they tried to cover this all up?

Where’s the line between “regular” religious beliefs and the beliefs of this cult? What’s acceptable and what’s not?

  • http://www.sheeptoshawl.com writerdd

    Although an inability to think critically can be a sign of brainwashing, experts said, the line between that and some religious beliefs can be difficult to discern.

    There is no line. It’s the same thing.

  • Nixxy

    hahahaha ha ha haaaaa…. That’s just…so…ugh. I really don’t know what to say…it’s just, doesn’t anyone make that easy connection? They’re so close, and yet they don’t see it! Hell, some people should be able to at least see that “extreme religious conviction” and “delusion” are the same thing, right?

  • Efogoto

    A line between this cult’s beliefs and which “regular” religious beliefs? Buddhism, deism, theism, polytheism? If you meant Christianity, did you meant the holy rollers or the Catholics, the fundamentalists or the liberals? The difference between a “cult” and a “religion” is based on the opinion of the observer, not on some qualifying virtue of what is believed by the group. It’s most easily seen as delusional when the observer doesn’t have faith in the tenets of that religion.

    What is acceptable is pragmatically whatever the society you’re living in will let you get away with. Your best hope in a theocratic society is that the most cruel punishments are no longer enforced.

  • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com/ IasonOuabache

    The charges against her must be dropped if her son, Javon Thompson, is resurrected.

    Am I a bad person for laughing at that part?

  • Sarah

    I think the fact that they tried to cover up the crime, by hiding the body and by washing the room down with bleach speaks volumes. They bloody well knew that what they did was wrong. Now they’re hiding behind bloody religion in order to protect themselves.
    I’m ashamed to be a member of the same species as the men who think mom should get off lightly because of her religious belief. If anything religious nuts should be held MORE accountable for their actions and be punished more harshly. After all, they’re morally superior to the rest of us aren’t they?

  • nomadz

    Insane, insane, insane people.
    I refuse to believe I share the same genetic material as these people. We obviously do not belong to the same species.

  • Pseudonym

    There are also people in the United States who would let people die for the belief that universal health care is wrong, or that social welfare is wrong.

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  • http://www.scheinerlaw.com houston criminal attorney

    Those people are insane!

  • Todd

    As absurd as this case is, the psychiatrist was trapped. If we accept that that religious belief of the mother was extreme delusion, and yet recognize that it adhered to the cultural standards from which she came, then it doesn’t take long for a really nasty chain of reasoning to lead one to the conclusion that religious belief is clinical psychosis.

    Believing in things despite all evidence to the contrary is delusion. Talking to those things, as in prayer, is psychosis. How else do you look at it, when you start with a case like this. At the risk of resorting to a slippery slope, I believe the psychiatrist had no choice but prevent an avalanche of reasoning.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    This is another reason why I don’t think that religious beliefs qualify as “delusions”. Unlike delusional people, religious people should be held responsible for their own reactions, with few exceptions.

  • Michelle

    It is delusion to expect a miracle because you asked for it. Religions that practice self-denial are one thing, but to practice other-people denial is too far. You cannot force your beliefs on others any more than you can force your beliefs on God. (Which is what they were trying to do.)

    This is where the law should draw the line.

  • Aj

    There’s no difference between religious belief and other delusions in terms of reliability or justification. Religion: false beliefs not supported by reason or evidence, appearances of religious creatures and dead people, and believing that someone is controlling everything. How else are you going to describe that other than delusions, hallucination, and paranoia?

    Politically, it’s problematic so it’s understandable that they’d define religion out of mental illness. It’s becoming apparant that people are throwing the word “extremism” around in a meaningless way when talking about religion.

    When they talk about community, are they saying that these delusions suddenly stop being delusions when enough people believe them? That two people with the same beliefs aren’t classified the same depending on who is around them. Thus the first person, or few people, to start a religion are mentally ill but if it grows they aren’t.

  • http://www.twitter.com/thenewatheist BK

    @writerdd – Sure there is a line – religion and delusion are just both on the same side of it, much to the consternation of both the religious and delusional :-)

  • beijingrrl

    I may ruffle a few feathers here, but I’ve always thought it gets messy when you start looking at people’s mental states who commit violent crimes. If someone hurt one of my kids and I killed them, I could probably claim temporary insanity, but I wouldn’t be insane. I’d be very aware of what I was doing and why.

    Are we going to have a new loophole – criminally religious?

  • nomadz

    Truly insane people invent their own delusion and built their own, private definition of reality, which is usually impossible to understand for anyone without a psychiatrist degree.

    Religious people suffer from delusions that aren’t even their own – they just accept other people’s delusions because “the majority defines reality”. Although it is delusion from a scientific point of view (belief in non existing beings), it is closer to brain-washing propaganda (fascism, stalinism, scientology…) than to a real mental disease.

    But at least, a real psychotic lunatic has the merit of having imagination.

  • http://hotyogaguide.com/blog Tai

    What a sad story. I would call this a group delusion with dogma invented by someone unbalanced. Unfortunately, the types of ‘religious’ groups that believe such things are full of uneducated people who are taught not to think or question.

    I guess it is like Nazi Germany was, if you grown up thinking something criminal is right for whatever reason (delusion) then you lose your free will and stop thinking for yourself.

    The leaders of groups like this should also be charged criminally for inciting this sort of criminal behavior. It doesn’t matter what they think, it is a crime to neglect a child to the point where their life is in danger. Surely a death that results should require a very harsh penalty for the whole group.

  • http://www.noonespecial.ca/cacophony Tao Jones

    When I read the OP, I took it rather differently…

    This person wasn’t insane, just incredibly stupid for believing such nonsense. The court’s actions could be perceived as the mother receiving punishment for her stupidity.

    So wouldn’t this mean that “insanity” is not a valid defense from those who committed crimes because of their religious beliefs? Isn’t that a good thing?

  • http://www.otmatheist.com hoverFrog

    Clearly this woman and her cohorts are delusional in holding the beliefs that led to the child’s death and in believing in a resurrection. Religion has provided them with the excuse\reason to believe in these delusions. After all, according to their beliefs and supported by society, a man has already risen from the dead. Prior to that he made other people, very dead people, rise from the dead. They have a precedent, sick as that is.

  • Miko

    Delusion and religious belief are legally distinct as a matter of definition. According to the DSM-IV, a delusion is

    A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture.

    If a belief is common in a culture, it is by definition not a delusion.

    The problem with diagnosing mental illness is that if one isn’t careful, it’s liable to say more about the diagnoser than the diagnosed. (Carl Sagan gives a good discussion of this in The Demon Haunted World, in specific reference to repressed “memories” of childhood abuse and “facilitated communication” with autistic children.) Currently, most mental illness is diagnosed based on symptoms, which runs the danger of predominant cultural biases mislabeling certain behaviors as signs of mental illness (homosexuality being the biggest example historically and female hypoactive sexual desire being the current hot-button issue). Hopefully we’ll move more towards a physical diagnosis (chemical imbalance, etc.) in the future, but we’re really not there yet.

  • Shane

    “She wasn’t delusional, because she was following a religion,”

    And now I’m suing you for the bodily injury I received when my irony meter exploded.

    Of course, she is probably perfectly sane. If you grow up around people who all treat leprechauns and fairies as completely real and serious business, you will too. We probably all grew up thinking Pluto was a planet–boy are our collective faces red now.

  • llewelly

    If a belief is common in a culture, it is by definition not a delusion.

    For about 15 years, the evidence that global warming is real, caused by humans, and dangerous, has been strong.
    Yet the belief that global is not real, not dangerous, or not caused by humans is so common in our culture that so far, almost nothing has been done.
    Now the world faces the prospect of very dangerous global warming because of our collective failure to recognize reality. Reality doesn’t care how many popularity contests anyone wins.

    The popularity-based approach to defining delusion is extremely dangerous.

  • http://headdibs.blogspot.com/2008/11/three-facets-of-foolishness.html James

    This should demonstrate that all religions are NOT the same.

  • Brooks

    The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture.

    Even most fundies would hopefully condemn actions like these, but even most bible-believing Christians believe that God literally commanded Abraham to murder his son as a test of his faith. Even though an angel stopped him at the last minute, God still praised Abraham for being willing to murder his own son because God told him to and the whole foundation of all three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are based on this action of child abuse.

    Why is it delusional for a mother to murder their own child because God commanded them to but it’s not delusional for people to believe it was moral for Abraham to do the same action just because in Abraham’s case, they claimed God really did command him to do this for real? But you know if God really did exist and God really did command this woman to do this to her child, they would be the first to praise her for her actions. What makes believing in a religion that holds an action of child abuse as its very foundation less delusional than this mother’s case just because it’s a popular belief? Even if this belief that God commanded an act of child abuse in the bible days doesn’t count as delusional, those Christians who hold such stories as being divinely inspired and literal truths are still responsible for enabling such actions to occur through their praising of immorality like God commanding people to murder innocent children. If the people in this article don’t see the connection here, they’ve obviously never read the Old Testament.

  • David D.G.

    Todd wrote:

    As absurd as this case is, the psychiatrist was trapped. If we accept that that religious belief of the mother was extreme delusion, and yet recognize that it adhered to the cultural standards from which she came, then it doesn’t take long for a really nasty chain of reasoning to lead one to the conclusion that religious belief is clinical psychosis.

    Believing in things despite all evidence to the contrary is delusion. Talking to those things, as in prayer, is psychosis. How else do you look at it, when you start with a case like this. At the risk of resorting to a slippery slope, I believe the psychiatrist had no choice but prevent an avalanche of reasoning.

    “Religious belief is clinical psychosis.” If that’s where the logic leads, then that’s where it leads. Personally, I think it is absolutely correct, whether arrived at by “revelation” (i.e., organic illness) or by indoctrination (i.e., brainwashing).

    The only good reason I can see for any psychologist to avoid that conclusion in this instance is to avoid clouding the issue of the woman’s fitness to stand trial; the larger issue is legitimate, but it is beyond the scope of this legal matter.

    ~David D.G.

  • Kyle

    I’ve said it before, but…the only way to fight this insanity is to give your time and/or money to excellent organizations such as this one:

    http://www.childrenshealthcare.org/

    They fight this fight every day (as crazy as it seems to have to do it at all, of course). But all the more reason to fight, I suppose.

  • http://www.shadowmanor.com/blog/ Cobwebs

    It’s the “The group came to believe there had been no resurrection because someone among them was not a true believer” line that really blows me away. That’s just the most perfect excuse ever: “Something I said didn’t come true? That’s because YOU didn’t believe hard enough. All your fault.”

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  • wakerobin

    Heck, I know some kooks who think a glass of wine is changed into Christ’s blood. AND THEN THEY DRINK IT!!


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