Answering to a leader called Queen Antoinette, they denied a 16-month-old boy food and water because he did not say "Amen" at mealtimes. After he died, they prayed over his body for days, expecting a resurrection, then packed it into a suitcase with mothballs. They left it in a shed in Philadelphia, where it remained for a year before detectives found it last spring.This was all discovered last year, but it's in the news again because the mother and four other members of 1Mind Ministries are currently being tried for murder. Which raises the question: could they plead insanity?
When this story appeared on Friendly Atheist and Pharyngula, many people were quick to comment on the close relationship between religion and delusion. For example:
Psychiatrists who evaluated Ramkissoon [the mother] at the request of a judge concluded that she was not criminally insane. Her attorney, Steven Silverman, said the doctors found that her beliefs were indistinguishable from religious beliefs, in part because they were shared by those around her.
"She wasn't delusional, because she was following a religion," Silverman said, describing the findings of the doctors' psychiatric evaluation.
"At times there can be an overlap between extreme religious conviction and delusion," said Robert Jay Lifton, a cult expert and psychiatrist who lectures at Harvard Medical School. "It's a difficult area for psychiatry and the legal system."
Believing in things despite all evidence to the contrary is delusion. Talking to those things, as in prayer, is psychosis.I think these people are far too enthusiastic to echo the title of Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, and have missed the point. Let us ponder for a moment the implications of calling religion a delusion, particularly with regards to this story. If religion is a delusion in this context, then people who take actions based on their religious beliefs are legally insane while doing so. Therefore, they can plead "not guilty by reason of insanity". That's quite an unfortunate implication! I think religious people should be held responsible for their religiously motivated actions, don't you?
If we want to avoid this implication, we cannot consider all religion to be delusional, at least not in the legal sense. Of course there may exist some religions which are delusional in the legal sense. For instance, in the case of 1Mind Ministries, it looks like there are a lot of cult-like practices (though "cult" is an imprecise term to use). However, I will leave it to the courts to decide, since obviously I don't have all the relevant information. In any case, it would be hard to argue that 1Mind Ministries is representative of religion, since it has no more than a dozen adult members.
I contend that the statement "Religion is a delusion" is incorrect not only in the legal sense, but also in the psychiatric sense. If religion were a delusion in the psychiatric sense, then that would also have many unfortunate implications. For one thing, why should it be delusional in the psychiatric sense but not the legal sense? For another, wouldn't that imply that religion is better treated through psychiatric methods rather than, say, a cultural movement led by atheists? Doesn't it imply that religious beliefs, however common, are the result of abnormal mental processes (as opposed to normal processes which have gone wrong)? What are we trying to say here?
Of course, most atheists aren't trying to say any of those things. See, it starts like this:
Just look at the definition of delusion. "A mistaken or unfounded opinion or idea". Religious beliefs are mistaken and unfounded, therefore they are delusions. (Yes, in the same sense that I'm delusional when I think I have my pencil in my pocket when I actually left it on my desk.)It is not a single person who says all these things. One person starts with a harmless comparison between religion and delusion. Another person sees the idea and takes it one step further. At every step, the claim is elevated and elevated, becoming more over the top. Richard Dawkins himself stops short of calling religion a psychiatric delusion. However, through innuendo, he has planted the concept in everyone's mind, and many atheists do not stop where Dawkins did.
A delusion is "an erroneous belief that is held in the face of evidence to the contrary". Religious people are constantly ignoring the contrary evidence right in front of them, therefore they are delusional. (But we are assuming that they indeed see lots of contrary evidence and understand it properly. As a student and skeptic, I would never trivialize the process of proper understanding by saying it's easy.)
Religious people see and talk to God. What is that but hallucination? (How do we know that they aren't simply interpreting much more mundane mental processes as communication with or to God? That's what I did when I was Catholic.)
I prefer to not call religion a delusion at all, except in the very weakest sense. It is important to recognize the true source of mistaken beliefs. They are not the result of some abnormal mental process. They are most often the result of a normal mental process which has gone wrong. Critical thinking is not a trivial task, and is not always successful even when executed perfectly. And then there is a large social component to religion. By calling religion a delusion we are at best being sloppy about the cause of religion.
Calling religion a delusion is more shocking than accurate. But just look at the case of Javon Thompson. The reality is shocking enough, without enhancement!