Is the American Psychiatric Association Pandering to Religious Sensibilities? Can Religious Belief Be Described As Delusional?
Pre-amble to this posting: The contents of this posting will no doubt be offensive to some, perhaps many. I assure all that it is not my intent to cause such offense, but it is going to happen. Please view this as what it was intended to be: a dispassionate presentation of my views—views that I am willing to discuss openly. (PLEASE SCROLL TO END OF ARTICLE TO VIEW ERRATUM BEFORE READING ARTICLE. THANK YOU)
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, International Version (DSM-IV) is the standard handbook of psychological disorders used by mental health professionals around the world. It is pretty much the Bible or the Qur’an of mental health disorders. Lets see how it defines delusion:
Delusion: A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone 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 (e.g., It is not an article of religious faith) (American Psychiatric Association 1995; p783).
Does this constitute political pandering, a reasonable psychological and cultural analysis, or perhaps a bit of A and a bit of B? Continue reading below the fold.
I’m inclined to believe that it is merely the result of reasonable psychological and cultural analysis. After all, most religious people are perfectly functional in all others spheres of consideration. Secondly, it is well-known that the normal human mind, particularly the normal young human mind, can quite readily come to believe in supernatural ideas—God, gods, witches, spirits, demons, etc.—based on a natural proclivity to infer agency to explain unexplained phenomena. As Pascal Boyer, one of the leading scholars on the Psychology and Anthropology of religious belief and author of “Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought” has presented evidence for, humans seem to have an overdeveloped inclination to infer agency, or the existence of other minds. Over history—and even today in some places—humans have explained the existence of illness, thunder, bad luck and good luck as being the handiwork of witches, Thor and his mighty hammer, demons and benevolent ancestral spirits.
Given that most religious people are as reasonable as nonreligious people in all other areas of consideration (though, I conjecture that they probably are more likely to believe in things like ghosts than nontheists), that the normal human mind can easily come to believe in spiritual claims, and that it is a fact that most people do have beliefs in the supernatural, there does seem to be a valid psychological and cultural basis for this definition. Moreover, most—and hopefully all–mental health professionals would readily diagnose delusion if a person claimed to such things as being spoken to by God or having seen floating spirits.
However, I would also argue that such religious belief does actually constitute delusion based on irrationality and in some cases, hallucinations. After all, after thousands of years no one has put forth a compelling argument for any particular supernatural being, or for a supernatural being in general, that is able to stand up to critical evidence-based analysis. Secondly, much of the initial explanatory value of supernatural beliefs has been eroded over the centuries. Gods have been postulated to make sense of such things as illness, thunder, rain, the movement of the sun, the origin of species, morality, and so forth. Each of these domains have been neatly captured and rationally addressed in the natural sciences. The God of everything has been reduced to the God of the gaps, and the gaps are constantly getting smaller in size and fewer in number. Have scientists and philosophers explained everything? No, and I doubt they ever will. But the rational fallback position is not “God did it”, it’s simply “I dunno”.
Thirdly, there have been thousands of hypothesized gods in the history of humanity—and the number grows even larger if you count other supernatural beliefs like spirits, demons and ghosts—that are associated with different descriptions, moral and behavioural codes, and so forth. They cannot all be right. At the very least, all believers except one subset is at minimum partially deluded, or as I suspect, completely off base. But if all groups but one are actually wrong, and there are fervent believers in all camps, and there are multiple camps who provide arguments that are as strong as their cultural competitors, then how do we know which is correct? And if the evidence is weak, and we have historical and contemporary evidence that people clearly can sincerely hold delusional beliefs, then couldn’t we honestly and reasonably assert that in general, people of religious faith are holding delusional beliefs? Some might say that they might all be catching incomplete slices of the whole pie that is the true God. Maybe. But then does it really make sense to follow any particular religious tradition under the assumption that it has come from God, rather than following what seems to be good advice based on its content rather than its author from a variety of religious and secular perspectives?
Lastly, I’ll briefly consider experiences of God. Some religious people have had personal experiences that they attribute to God. Some have had dreams of God. Some have had waking experiences in which they have felt the presence or heard the voice of the Holy Spirit. While I’ll be the first to admit that such experiences can no doubt be very compelling—especially when one considers this in light of the fact that many many others have had similar experiences. However, such experiences really aren’t that surprising. The idea of a God is deeply entrenched in our culture. God is cited in national anthems, Charters, common expressions, and well, just about everywhere to some degree or other. Given the prevalence of this meme—i.e., culturally transmitted idea—and what is believed about it—that the hypothesized being is all-powerful, all-knowing, has a personal interest in each of us, is the arbiter of morality, reward and punishment—it is not at all surprising that many of us will have God crop up in dreams from time to time. I mean, I’ve had plenty of dreams in which some of the characters were people that I don’t recall ever having seen while awake and some of the settings were places to which I have never been. If my mind can create these characters and settings, it does not seem like a great leap to suggest that it could create a cultural heavyweight like God.
Next, lets consider waking experiences. First, hallucinations. Lets begin by acknowledging that many people have hallucinations of things other than Gods, such as spirits, dead relatives, voices, etc. Some have these experiences regularly, some very irregularly. If one can hallucinate a spirit, a dead relative, or familiar or unfamiliar voices, why wouldn’t they be able to hallucinate an experience with a culturally-enshrined superpower? Secondly, lets consider experiences felt during worship. In church some people report feelings of a loss of sense of self, a feeling that one is a part of something bigger than themselves, or a direct connection with God—like they are being embraced in a warm hug from the heavenly father. These sorts of experiences are not unique to Church, Synagogue, Mosque, or Temple-goers. Similar experiences are reported by secular meditators and those taking in part in impassioned political rallies, rock concerts, and other large emotionally-loaded mob-based activities in which many people, particularly strangers, come together to share in something of deep common interest. The loss of the sense of self, feelings of connectedness with others and the whole of reality, and the like are experiences that can be achieved in a number of secular and religious settings, and are generally described as being very positive and often life-changing. Experiences such as those cultivated in meditation can and should be sought, as they can truly add to the quality of one’s life, the development of wisdom, and self-efficacy. And they can be sought without having to subscribe to any supernatural beliefs. I’ve personally been engaged in meditation for a little while and I recommend it strongly.
In the coming days I will be posting a brief analysis on a Cognitive Science paper arguing that religious belief can justifiably be described as delusional. As this is a contentious matter that does pull the heart strings of many, I of course, do welcome criticism and alternative perspectives. Moreover, once more, I assure everyone that it is not my intention to deliberately offend anyone—I am merely expressing my beliefs, and am willing to discuss them. Thanks for reading.
1. In discussing whether religion is delusional, apart from the APA DSM-IV definition, I was using my own personal definition of delusion, not that of the APA. I neglected to make this clear. The personal definition that I was using had as its minimum criteria for delusion that a person believe something on insufficient evidence; there need not be incontrovertible evidence against the believed item, similar to how one would be viewed as irrational if they believed that Martians in space controlled their thoughts even though no one has ever disproved this.
2. When I originally set out writing this article, the intent was simply to consider whether the APA’s definition of delusion includes straight-forward pandering to religious people and groups. Once I got into the writing, though, I got into the issue of whether or not religious belief actually is delusional–as you’ll come to find out, I do presently believe that it is. Had I been in the mind frame of writing a paper on this far more loaded topic, I probably would have chosen a slightly more tactful title. The reason for this is honestly not so much that I think that people should never be able to doubt the validity of religious belief as I have here in a straight-forward manner, quite to the contrary. However, given that this blog is intended to be about more than just religion and secularism, but also about Cognitive Science, Wisdom, and other areas of interest, I’m not really looking to turn off people that are interested in these other areas. I have every intention of speaking my mind about religion and other issues, and I’m not going to restrain myself from making good dispassionate rational arguments, but I do not intend to be unnecessarily offensive. I will necessarily be offensive by the nature of the content and people’s personal investment in it, but I will make effort to minimize unnecessary provocation.