Sunday, January 19, 2014

Religion Is Not a Mental Illness

Is Religion a Mental Illness?


 A few posts back, I wrote:
Mental illness isn't always determined by what is real. It's often determined by what is a cultural norm. So if you believe you can talk to your ancestor's spirits and they talk back to you, that's ok in a culture that promotes such belief. But if you stray too far outside your culture's beliefs, you may be labeled "mentally ill." If you think Jesus hears you and gives you the strength to get through the day, you're fine! But if you think some other cryptic deity or power guides you and gives you power, you may be insane. Of course, I'm not saying that irrationality equals mental illness - otherwise, we'd all be labeled as insane! But it does seem rather ridiculous that two people can have the same exact symptoms or delusions but only one person gets the label.
I've been doing a lot of thinking since I wrote that and I'm ready to revisit this topic. 

First, we need to understand that mental illness is a rather abstract concept. Different diseases and disorders present in many ways so it's almost impossible to pin the term down precisely. What we can say about mental illness, however, is that it's always involuntary and causes distress, disempowerment, disability, or sometimes even death. Nobody gets up in the morning and decides to become mentally ill. Likewise, no one can end a mental illness by simply deciding to be well.

Mentally ill people may often say and do things that seem irrational to others but are perfectly logical to them. For example, if someone sees or hears something that is not there, they may respond logically as if that hallucination were real. We know now that when people hallucinate, their brain is working as if the stimuli were real. So if I were to hear a voice behind me say, "Hey, Tweenky!" then I would respond logically by looking back and saying, "What?" because, to my brain, someone really said that. An onlooker would find it puzzling to say the least.

We often make the mistake of thinking that irrationality is the key to mental illness but, as you can see above, this simply isn't so. Irrationality is something we all share - it's part of the human condition. So we cannot say that an irrational person is mentally ill by virtue of being irrational. That would label us all! So what we need to understand is that most irrationality isn't due to illness - it's due to our brains being very prone to mistakes.

That's where religion comes in. The superstitious and irrational elements of religion are almost always due to errors of thinking rather than organic dysfunction. Certainly, the two may be combined in interesting or dangerous ways but they are largely independent. Most people get their religion from their parents and so they are taught in their earliest years that some magic is real and some magic is not. For example, a typical American Evangelical will teach his child that Jesus is real, he works miracles, he listens to your prayers, and he's coming back. That same parent will also teach his child that fairies, wizards, leprechauns, and such are myths that shouldn't be taken seriously. The fact that most such children grow up believing in Jesus but disregarding the old myths is very telling. The ability to discern the difference shows that the child can reason but is working with faulty information and does not have the tools available to self-correct.

Think of your brain as a computer. If the software you are running is written properly (rationally), then you'll get a desired and useful result. If the software is not written properly (irrationally), then your program will crash. When a program crashes, you can either keep running the program and insist that it works (cognitive dissonance) or you can fix the error and try again (skepticism). But what if the operating system itself is messed up? Then it doesn't matter what state the software is in because the brain isn't communicating correctly with its parts (mental illness).

I don't know if that analogy makes as much sense in writing as it does in my head but I'm trying to say that we must differentiate between a faulty brain and a mistaken brain. This is why religious rituals and behavior, no matter how bizarre to an outsider, cannot rightly be assumed to be functions of mental illness. 


Now I know there are many atheists who claim that religion is a mental illness either in earnest or in jest. I'd like for them to consider that this statement is not helpful to either mentally ill atheists or to mentally able theists. It labels both groups as "other" and "crazy" which tends to drive people away. Certainly, the religious engage in behaviors that are irrational and, let's be honest, downright hilarious. But we can mock that without bringing illness into it. 

Remember, those theists aren't a bunch of nutjobs no matter how silly they may seem to you. They are people who are operating with bad information and they often can't or won't fix the problem. Remember also, that you too (just like me) operate under bad information in other areas. If you want people to help you think more rationally, then you need to be willing to help others do the same.

Also, remember that we mentally ill atheists aren't a bunch of nutjobs either. We are people with an illness that science currently can't fix 100%. And yes, some of us come into the world with both mental illness and indoctrination. We have to work extra hard to fix our software problems. We need your help and support - not your scorn (unintended though it may be).

So no, religion isn't a mental illness. It's a software malfunction and we all can work together to help everybody get their code written better. Some need less help. Others need more. The only real question is are you going to help?