Saturday, August 23, 2014

Pseudoscience And Ad Hominems: Is Religion a Mental Illness?

Could something so normative be a mental disorder?
I had a polite exchange on Google+ for once, but it quickly turned into something appalling for me, personally. The person who made the comment I was disgusted by has not replied to my rebuttal yet, thus I won't directly link to the thread; however, I can copy/paste their comment here for context:
"Religion is a mental illness (only differences between believers, are the stage on which this mental illness manifests).+(Anon) you should seek professional help, for believing in a non-existent zombie that there is absolutely no proof of it's existence, ever."
I've heard people claim that religion is a mental illness before. I still hate hearing it each time, because it's just ridiculous and unproductive. At the same time, I've never heard any rationale for this belief either, and thus I was just led to believe that it's nothing more than an insult. Apparently though, there are some people who truly believe they have evidence for religion being a mental disorder. Specifically, it seems that the link is between religion and schizophrenia, or is simply consisting of attributing several different symptoms to religious belief and claiming that that qualifies it as a mental disorder. The latter is a grotesque simplification of what diagnosing a mental disorder actually involves, but we'll get to that later. For now, let's address the link between religion and schizophrenia. Just to quantify some claims, let's refer to the Wikipedia page on religion and schizophrenia:
"The relationship between religion and schizophrenia is of particular interest to psychologists because of the similarities between religious experiences and psychotic episodes; religious experiences often involve auditory and/or visual hallucinations, and those with schizophrenia commonly report similar hallucinations, along with a variety of delusions and faulty beliefs. A common report from those with schizophrenia is some type of a religious delusion - that is, they believe they are divine beings, God is talking to them, they are possessed by demons, etc. In a study of patients with schizophrenia that had been previously admitted to a hospital, 24% had religious delusions. This has led some researchers to question whether schizophrenia leads an individual to become more religious, or if intense religiosity leads to schizophrenia."
The prevalence of religious delusions and hallucinations among patients diagnosed with schizophrenia is unequivocal, clearly, but why does this necessitate that religion may be linked causally to schizophrenia, or vice versa? One should expect that in a society where religion has a heavy influence, that hallucinations should involve religion at least some of the time. This doesn't mean that religion is a mental illness; instead, it just means that religion is a common outlet for delusional thoughts and behaviours. The source cited for the 24% figure, Religious delusions in patients admitted to hospital with schizophrenia by Siddle et al. (2002) also states this to be the case, emphasis my own:
"Having a religious belief or having religious delusional belief provides a framework by which people can make sense of negative life experiences. This is said to be helpful to people as it allows them something of a buffer against the depressing effects of uncontrollable life stresses (Park et al. 1990). To summarise, religious beliefs are fairly common and are not pathological. Religious people demonstrate an external attributional bias. A proportion of people will experience psychotic experiences, some of which will involve auditory hallucinations. [...] These religious experiences and delusions may help the person to deal with the negative life events they are faced with."
While Siddle et al. maintains that religious beliefs are not pathological (i.e. not being a result of mental illness or disorder), it's hard to interpret the results of studies suggesting the link between schizophrenia and religious belief because it begs the question: what exactly is a religious delusion? This is a problem because, even as the authors point out, in most studies, the definition of a "religious delusion" is not actually outlined or defined. They do offer an outline of their own, as produced by Sims (1995), which identifies a religious delusion as meeting the following characteristics:

1: Both the observed behaviour and the subjective experience conformed with psychiatric symptoms in that the patient's self-description of the experience was recognisable as having the form of a delusion;

2: There were other recognisable symptoms of mental illness in other areas of the individual's life; other delusions, hallucinations, mood or thought disorder and so on;

3: The lifestyle, behaviour and direction of the personal goals of the individual after the event or after the religious experience were consistent with the natural history of mental disorder rather than with a personally enriching life experience.

Charitably, a religious experience, don't you agree?
This seems to make sense, and I'll refer to it later, but again it begs the question: what is a religious
experience? We could charitably assume that a religious experience is defined as having any reference to God or religious symbolism, but it would only help to suppose what was suggested earlier -- that religious experiences can be said to be a product of one's culture or society, where religion is prevalent. To avoid such a dead end and unconvincing argument, we'll approach the arguments made by the third link I provided at the beginning of this post.

Before we even examine such claims, we have to ask ourselves "what is a mental illness?" Generally, the clinically appropriate term is a "disorder," but illness is still sometimes used. In a broad sense, a mental disorder can be defined as "a mental or behavioral pattern or anomaly that causes either suffering or an impaired ability to function in ordinary life (disability), and which is not developmentally or socially normative." This is according to Wikipedia; however, the DSM-V gives us a different definition of a mental disorder:
"A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual's cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress in social, occupational, or other important activities. An expectable or culturally approved response to a common stressor or loss, such as the death of a loved one, is not a mental disorder. Socially deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) and conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are not mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict results from a dysfunction in the individual, as described above."
It's very clear that by the first definition, religion does not qualify as a mental disorder, as it is a subscription of social norms; however, does religion fit under the DSM-V definition? Let's examine the seven reasons given for why religion is a mental disorder by that group linked to earlier:

1: Hallucinations - the person has invisible friends who (s)he insists are real, and to whom (s)he speaks daily, even though nobody can actually see or hear these friends.

2: Delusions - the patient believes that the invisible friends have magical powers to make them rich, cure cancer, bring about world peace, and will do so eventually if asked.

3: Denial/Inability to learn - though the requests for world peace remain unanswered, even after hundreds of years, the patients persist with the praying behaviour, each time expecting different results.

4: Inability to distinguish fantasy from reality - the beliefs are contingent upon ancient mythology being accepted as historical fact.

5: Paranoia - the belief that anyone who does not share their supernatural concept of reality is "evil," "the devil," "an agent of Satan".

6: Emotional abuse - ­ religious concepts such as sin, hell, cause feelings of guilt, shame, fear, and other types of emotional "baggage" which can scar the psyche for life.

7: Violence - many patients insist that others should share in their delusions, even to the extent of using violence.

As much as I hate him, he's not (very) dysfunctional
It cannot be argued that some, if not all of these symptoms (although crudely characterized) cannot be applied to certain people, both religious and nonreligious; however, the diagnosis of a mental disorder is often reliant on symptomatic clusters. That is, symptoms are grouped together, and the mental disorder is diagnosed if the patient exhibits several or all of the symptoms in the cluster. That being said, it can hardly be suggested that all, or even most religious people experience all or most of the above symptoms. What of the ones that do, however? If someone were just devoutly religious and experienced all or most of the above symptoms, could we classify them as having a mental disorder? Well, it depends on what we're looking at. Let's take the example of "delusions" -- could we take a person's religious delusions and use them as evidence that they show symptoms of a mental disorder? It's informative, now, to look at the previous characteristics of a religious delusion, specifically the last one:

3: The lifestyle, behaviour and direction of the personal goals of the individual after the event or after the religious experience were consistent with the natural history of mental disorder rather than with a personally enriching life experience.

This is consistent with the segment of the DSM-V definition of a mental disorder:

"A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual's cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning."

Just because someone exhibits certain symptoms does not warrant their condition being labelled as a mental disorder; it is only warranted if their symptoms cause disturbance in their lives and prevents them from being autonomously functioning members of society. It cannot be said that the majority, or even a substantial portion of religious people are incapable of functioning in society. If this were the case, we would not have a society to live in; because it is reasonable that if one cannot function in society, they cannot also create a functioning society. Whether we admit to it or not, many cultures and civilizations around the world were created by people who had strong religious convictions. The vast majority of the world is made up of people with religious beliefs. If they were all suffering from a mental disorder, what functionality would the world hold? The answer would be virtually none.

A mental disorder is defined and classified based on whether or not it prevents a person from functioning properly in society, and their behaviour does not exhibit something typical of the society's norms. We cannot work backwards and say that religion is a mental disorder simply for the symptoms that some of its members hold. First, there has to be an overwhelming majority of them that exhibit these symptoms. Then, we have to show that these people cannot function properly in society, or are damaging to themselves and others. Then, we have to show that this lack of functionality is a result of psychological, biological, or developmental dysfunction.

None of the above has been shown for people of religious conviction; therefore, it is simply unfounded to assert that religious people have a mental disorder.

It's important to keep this in mind as we progress towards the future. Surely, some people don't honestly believe that religion can be clinically diagnosable as a mental disorder; some people just use it as an insult. That being said, having a mental disorder is not grounds as an insult. That's just not how it works. At the same time, skeptics, rationalists and atheists need to understand that ad hominem attacks like this are absolutely toxic and detrimental to legitimate discussion over theology and philosophy -- they only obfuscate the issue, and have no productive value. What reason do we have to be so hostile or adamant about something like this? Not only is the claim insulting to people who have mental disorders, but also to professionals who are familiar with how to diagnose such disorders, and last but not least, insulting to the people you're blatantly insulting (obviously).

To people who use this argument from a "clinical" perspective: you're subscribing to pseudoscience, which is much, much worse than simply having religious views, because your views are actually detrimental to honest discourse, and to knowledge.

To people who use this argument from a casual perspective: it's a baseless ad hominem attack and does nothing for anybody.

To both, just stop. It's disgusting.

And to everyone else, thank you very much for reading.

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Siddle, R., Haddock, G., Tarrier, N., & Faragher, E. (2014). Religious delusions in patients admitted to hospital with schizophrenia. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 37 (3), 130-138 DOI: 10.1007/s001270200005

Sims ACP (1995). Symptoms in the mind: an introduction to descriptive psychopathology (3rd ed.). W.B. Saunders, London

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.


  1. I truly find it interesting that people can say other people who are religious have a mental disorder when, as you said, a majority of the world as we know it today was created with religion in mind. It's actually pretentious for these individuals to believe that they somehow hold superiority over the majority by saying, "Well if you believe in some kind of religion, there's something mentally wrong with you. I, on the other hand, do not believe in such things, therefore I'm completely mentally functional."

    If somehow being religious WERE a result of a mental disorder, then these individuals, being the minority, would probably be seen as being dysfunctional in society and every day living, because they would be acting significantly different than what the "norm" would be, if that makes sense. So really, this argument is kind of pathetic no matter how you look at it.

    Another way to examine this is the existence of Santa Claus. To say that millions of children who believe in a fat, white man dressed in a red suit who delivers presents once every year by superhuman speed all have a mental disorder because he doesn't exist would cause an outcry by parents, for sure. However, it would fit the description of "people who believe in something that has no proof of its existence have a mental disorder." But then you think why children believe in Santa to begin with: parents. They simply grow up in a household being taught of the myth of Santa, so could anyone really say all those kids have a mental illness for believing in something taught to them at such a young age? No. Religion is no different. I'm sure that the majority of people that practice their religion today learned it from their own households as they grew and developed. Basically then, to uphold the "religion is a mental illness" argument would be saying that being born into a religious family gives you a mental disorder automatically. I don't know, buuuut that doesn't seem right. Then people are going to try and find the religious-mental-disorder causing gene that is passed down from generation to generation. Hoo boy. I wouldn't be surprised, though.

    Let's also keep in mind that symptoms of mental illness are not the only way people might have said "experiences." In my Literature class in high school, I learned of some writers would had "spiritual experiences" because of good ol' opium. I can see it already; the new argument will be "Religion is a drug!" (eyeroll).

    Haha, sorry for the long comment, but it is really annoying for some holier-than-thou (irony) individuals to think they're qualified enough to classify something like religion as a mental disorder just because they believe they were "clever" enough to become areligious. It's pretty rude and insulting.

    1. Really, the only route of argument they could take now is that the fact that religious people are able to succeed in our societies is because our societies are created by religious people; and that our social norms are based on the norms of a mental disorder. That's not how it works, of course. That would just be a stupid argument; you're right, it would suggest that those of us who do not act in the norm would be mentally dysfunctional. The potential for them to use that argument is still there, though.

      There are already studies trying to find a genetic cause for religious belief; but even if it were the case that our genes cause religious belief, that would not warrant the classification of a mental disorder. I'm an atheist -- I know how it feels to be discriminated against by the religious -- but I absolutely cannot stand the straw grasping that's going on in the atheist community, desperately trying to find a reason for why religious belief denotes some kind of inferiority. It's all too familiar.

      Don't worry about the length of your comment -- I love it when you comment, regardless of the length. You're absolutely right: all of this is nothing short of being pretentious, insulting, and just plain stupid.

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    1. For future reference, questions such as these should be emailed to the author(s) or owner(s) of a website; at least, that's how I prefer it.

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  3. When it comes to sickness, recovering from it does not necessarily mean total recovery from the mental health problem, just like you would recover from any physical ailment.

  4. I very much enjoyed your well written piece on religion and psychopathology. I think your conclusions are sound and well supported. You might benefit from reading R.D. Lang who frequently wrote on this topic and asked similar questions.


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