Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Religion is not delusion

In recent news, there is the story of Javon Thompson, a sixteen month old boy who was murdered by his mother and other members of 1Mind Ministries. From the Washington Post:
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?

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."

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:
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.)

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.)
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.

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!


Anonymous said...

You mentioned the social aspect of religion at the very end, but actually I think it's quite a significant part of the distinction between religion and what we would normally think of as delusion. We're social animals with an enormous drive to fit in and think like the crowd. It's understandable that when faced with a society that mostly believes this idea, a person will think of it as normal and believable. Most of society does not, on the other hand, believe there are fairies that tie our shoelaces, so a person believing this has even less reason to believe it, and we would call him delusional.

I'm not fully convinced that "delusion" is not the right term, but nor am I convinced that it is, which is why I don't generally talk about religious beliefs as "delusions". But I certainly agree that a legal distinction ought to be made. Most religious people still have their reasoning skills, even if they are suspended in some circumstances, and are capable of rationally considering the consequences of their actions. Therefore they should be held accountable. But there are all sorts of identifiable brain problems (and many unidentified ones, I'm sure) that cause people to take actions without making a conscious decision, and their cases ought to be handled differently.

Anonymous said...

This post is disappointingly lacking in substance, essentially coming down to a legal issue - which, by the way, is a non-issue. The argument would be that religion, like belief in socialism or Nazism, is not symptomatic of an incurable insanity but rather a grave misapprehension that, due to its perversity, must be subordinated to reason (as most manage). A punishment for not doing so is thus fair.

Your defintion of delusion is too short and hence misses the point entirely, in a spectacular example of the strawman fallacy. "an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder : the delusion of being watched." (OAD) Note the part that this is 'despite being contradicted' by rational argument or what most perceive as reality.

Religion *is* a delusion.

miller said...

Um, so are you saying that religion is "typically a symptom of a mental disorder"?

Larry Hamelin said...

It's common for words to have different meanings in different contexts. So we have the dictionary/colloquial meaning of "delusion" as either "a false belief or opinion" or — apparently borrowed from psychiatry — "a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact."

Then we have the technical psychiatric definition of delusion. Judging from the testimony you quote, at least one psychiatrist distinguishes beliefs based on how they were formed.

It doesn't seem immediately problematic (absent technical legal issues) to assert that someone is delusional in the colloquial sense but not delusional in the technical psychiatric sense.

AFAIK, there is no technical legal definition of delusion. The law does have a definitions of mental incompetence and insanity. A defendant is mentally incompetent to the extent that "there is reasonable cause to believe that the defendant may presently be suffering from a mental disease or defect" such that the defendant "is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense." US Code, Title 18, Chapter 313 §4241

"Insanity means such a perverted and deranged condition of the mental and moral faculties as to render a person incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, or unconscious at the time of the nature of his act, or though conscious of his conduct and able to distinguish between right and wrong, and knowing that the act is wrong, yet his will - by which is meant to the governing power of his mind - has been involuntarily so completely destroyed that his actions are not subject to it but are beyond his control." (Coffman v US)

Note that (IIRC) it is not an insanity defense to assert that the defendant him or herself believes the act itself to be right; the defendant must falsely believe that society and law consider the act to be right (or must be otherwise incapable of knowing or apprehending that society and law actually considers the act to be wrong.)

Thus it does not establish insanity just to say the defendant had some sort of psychiatric delusion: the delusion must affect the defendant's perception of legal right and wrong. For example: if Alice were deluded that Bob was a vampire and posed a general threat to society, Alice could not establish legal insanity if she were to murder Bob in his sleep. On the other hand, if Alice were deluded that Bob was a vampire and she was in imminent mortal danger and believed she was acting properly in self-defense, she could (possibly) establish legal insanity.

Additionally, I don't think we should worry too much about the implications of what we call things.

If we determine that religion really is colloquially delusional, then we should call it delusional in colloquial speech.

If psychiatrists have sound scientific and medical reasons for calling or not calling religion technically delusional, they should follow the reasoning, regardless of its legal implications.

If it turns out that religion really does or really does not objectively establish legal insanity in a particular case, then we should or should not accept legal insanity as a defense in that case.

Call things what they are according to well-established objective definitions in the appropriate context, and let the chips fall where they may. I'm more in favor of a treatment paradigm than a punishment paradigm for crime in general, so I have few objections to even over-broad constructions of legal insanity.

miller said...

I think we will have to agree to disagree here. In principle, there is nothing wrong with using a colloquial definition, but in the case of "religion is delusion", it is wrong. First, it erases a message I personally consider very important: the true etiology of weird beliefs.

Second, it promotes sloppy thinking of the kind that was seen on the Friendly Atheist. The story was about delusion in the legal context, and everyone jumps in and says, of course she's delusional--she's religious! I'm sure these same people would retract or at least be more careful if they thought about it more seriously (like if they were on the jury). So that's what I'm asking for, think about it more seriously.

Good explanation of the insanity defense, btw.

Larry Hamelin said...

I think we will have to agree to disagree here.

I think we can do more than just agree to disagree: I think we can discuss this controversial, non-obvious issue as intelligent people of good will.

First, it erases a message I personally consider very important: the true etiology of weird beliefs.

I don't see how the relevant dictionary (i.e. colloquial) definitions of delusion "erases ... the true etiology of weird beliefs."

3. a false belief or opinion: delusions of grandeur.
4. Psychiatry . a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact: a paranoid delusion.

Both definitions are purely descriptive: they do not speak at all to etiology or indeed any causal story whatsoever. (Note that examples of usage in dictionaries are never intended to be exhaustive.)

Second, I don't see how a descriptive usage itself encourages sloppy thinking. It is an unfortunate reality that most people — and most atheists — often think sloppily, but I don't see how a specific descriptive term with a clear denotation can be the cause.

I too would like to see people think more clearly, but I don't see how deprecating descriptive vocabulary helps that goal. Indeed, it seems like we're just replicating the "bathroom" meta-language game: every time we coin a euphemism for our excretory activities and apparatus, that euphemism becomes the denotative — and therefore unmentionable — term.

Larry Hamelin said...

Also, I'm not sure specifically what sloppy thinking you're referring to in the Friendly Atheist or Pharyngula posts themselves. (If you're referring to sloppy thinking in the comments, I must note that sloppy thinking and egregious stupidity are so ubiquitous in blog comments in general that we cannot draw many strong conclusions from their presence there.)

miller said...

Yes, I was referring to the comments, rather than the posts themselves. And from this I made the inference that the language used was encouraging their sloppy thinking. There's my evidence, and my inference. There's not much else to be said.

Larry Hamelin said...

<shrugs> OK. I'm unpersuaded: I think people are far more confused and ignorant about the legal process — hardly unsurprising since a sophisticated understanding of the law requires specialized training — than they are about the meanings of words. I guess it's time to move on.

Larry Hamelin said...

...hardly surprising...

Anonymous said...

Religion IS a delusion... As an ex-catholic of 33 years I know all to well the mind games, basically it boils down to reward and punishment (with the emphasis on punishment), religion plays when people surround themselves with others who think and feel the same way as you do it only strengthens the delusion. Now combine that with people who are already unstable, mentally, you're looking at a ticking bomb!
Now your argument on why religion isn't a delusion is ludicrous! You're trying to protect the legal system, which is already corrupt enough as it is! Not only this, but you're helping to full the fires of these already delusional people.

Anonymous said...

I would say religion is a delusion. Religion is the single most dangerous thing that threatens civilization. While I believe people are free to believe what they like the practice of preaching and teaching insanities like scriptural innerancy should be illegal and punishiable. The case of a familly indoctrinating a child is child abuse. And should be dealt with as such.