Stop Calling Religion a Mental Illness

Stop Calling Religion a Mental Illness February 26, 2014

Chris Stedman has a column in which he lists five reasons atheists should not call religion a mental illness. He quotes quite a bit from FTB’s own Miri Mogilevsky and I agree with both of them and I wish that people would stop saying this.

It seems clear to me that religion isn’t a form of mental illness, and that calling it one reflects a shallow understanding of both mental illness and religion—or, worse still, a knowing attempt to use mental illness as an insult…

“Religion and mental illness are different psychological processes,” said atheist and mental health advocate Miri Mogilevsky in a recent email exchange. “[Religious beliefs may] stem from cognitive processes that are essentially adaptive, such as looking for patterns and feeling like a part of something larger than oneself.”

In The Belief Instinct, Jesse Bering also argues that religious belief is adaptive. Mental illnesses, on the other hand, clearly reflect maladaptive processes.

“People who cannot leave the house without having a panic attack or who feel a compulsion to wash their hands hundreds of times a day are experiencing symptoms that interfere with their ability to go about their lives,” Mogilevsky said. “Except in extreme cases, religion does not operate this way.”

Simply put: You may find religious beliefs irrational, but that doesn’t mean they’re a manifestation of mental illness.

Exactly right. There are undoubtedly people with mental illness among the religious, as there are among any group of people, but to claim that religion itself is a form of mental illness is absurd, insulting (to them and to those who actually do struggle with mental illness) and counter-productive. I’ve tried really hard to remove words like “crazy” and insane” from my writing because people I care about who suffer from mental illness have told me that it marginalizes and stigmatizes them, but this is something even worse than that. When I used those words in the past, I used them to describe specific people spouting irrational ideas. To claim that religion itself is a mental illness and therefore all religious people are mentally ill is considerably worse, I think.

There’s much more to Chris’ article and it’s all worth reading. So is Miri’s long post on the subject from December. And if you’re one of those who goes around flippantly claiming that religion is a mental illness, please stop.


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