In circles of the secular community it is common to hear the passionate argument that “they” [persons with religious beliefs] are “delusional” and or/have a mental illness. I’ve already described why religious belief is not a mental illness and we will cover in this article why delusion isn’t an accurate description of all religious beliefs in all people. The term “delusion” can be very murky so we will focus on the medical conceptualization of delusion.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders says “Delusions are fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence […] Delusions are deemed bizarre if they are clearly implausible and not understandable to same-culture peers and do not derive from ordinary life experiences. […]” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). The distinction between a delusion and a strongly held idea is sometimes difficult to make and depends in part on the degree of conviction with which the belief is held despite clear or reasonable contradictory evidence regarding its veracity. Although religious beliefs may be false, they are certainly commonly held beliefs in our culture. Additionally, it is vital to note how a delusion is only a delusion if there is sufficient evidence to prove otherwise. Since we cannot know for certain that there is no God, it seems intellectually dishonest to try to categorize such belief as a delusion.
Another case against the idea that religious beliefs are delusions can be found in critical evaluation of how religious concepts are experienced and explained in specific circumstances. Psychiatrists are often asked to evaluate patients on an emergency basis when governments are concerned that an individual might be dangerous to themselves or others because of mental illness. Patients with belief systems not tied to underlying problems with their neurobiology (i.e. delusional disorders) often say about hearing voices – “that’s just part of my religion… I don’t really hear a voice… it’s like, my conscience; you know… my own voice…” when faced with possibly being hospitalized against their will. People who have genuine delusions will swear to the bitter end that they can use a chip in their brain to communicate with aliens or will go on believing John Lennon intends to marry them decades after he has been killed. Thus, there seems to be a clear distinction in delusions (actual breaks from reality) and willfully having a belief in a higher power. Those beliefs possibly offer some form of comfort to the believer. They are otherwise culturally bound, may lead to improved odds for tribal acceptance and thus health, welfare, and increased odds for reproduction.
I wrote this article with psychiatrist Herbert Harman MD. He completed medical school at The University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA and psychiatric residency training at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (part of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) in Pittsburgh, PA. He has spent the past ten years practicing psychiatry including four years as an active duty military psychiatrist and combat stress consultant as well as three years dedicated to conducting emergency psychiatric evaluations in the civilian world. He has recently moved to Oregon and enjoys dedicating time to supporting secular values and preserving a plural society.