“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test and said to him: Abraham! “Here I am!” he replied.Then God said: Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.Early the next morning Abraham saddled his donkey, took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac, and after cutting the wood for the burnt offering, set out for the place of which God had told him.
On the third day Abraham caught sight of the place from a distance. Abraham said to his servants: “Stay here with the donkey, while the boy and I go on over there. We will worship and then come back to you.” So Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two walked on together, Isaac spoke to his father Abraham. “Father!” he said. “Here I am,” he replied. Isaac continued, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” “My son,” Abraham answered, “God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.” Then the two walked on together.
When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. Next he bound* his son Isaac, and put him on top of the wood on the altar.Then Abraham reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son”. Genesis 22; 1-10.
Abraham’s willingness to slaughter his first-born son Issac, to appease god, was seen as a highly honourable and virtuous characteristic in the book of genesis. God is so pleased with the readiness of Abraham to make this sacrificial offering that he sends an angel to intervene and tell Abraham that the killing of his son will no longer be necessary. Instead, a ram that has been caught in nearby bushes is deemed to be an acceptable substitute and is slaughtered in the place of Issac. Abraham was to take a central position in the establishment of Judeo- Christian tradition and subsequently is mentioned in the Koran as a prophet within Islam. Indeed the Koran states that Allah (god) had picked Abraham to be a leader of all nations for having excelled in the challenges that god put before him. The book depicts Abraham as representing the embodiment of what it is to be a perfect Muslim. In approximately 2000 BCE, the offering of one’s first-born to god as a ritual sacrifice was deemed to be a devout and noble act worthy of god’s greatest blessings.
History would not be so favourable to UK woman Julia Lovemore or her six week old daughter Faith. In October 2012 she was convicted of the involuntary manslaughter of the baby on grounds of diminished responsibility at Cambridge Crown Court and was sentenced to be committed indefinitely to a psychiatric institution for the criminally insane. Baby Faith was deemed to have suffocated from having pages from the bible forced down her mouth. British NHS employees had entered the house a few hours before the incident in June 2010 and had witnessed Lovemore’s husband David praying that the devil would leave his wife alone. Both of them were Christian fundamentalists and Julia Lovemore was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder and being prone to extreme religious delusions as well as delusions of harbouring supernatural powers.
What is a delusion?
Encyclopaedia Britannica defines a delusion as:
Delusion, in psychology, a rigid system of beliefs with which a person is preoccupied and to which the person firmly holds, despite the logical absurdity of the beliefs and a lack of supporting evidence. Delusions are symptomatic of such mental disorders as paranoia, schizophrenia, and major depression and of such physiological conditions as senile psychosis and delirium. They vary in intensity, extent, and coherence and may represent pathological exaggeration of normal tendencies to rationalization, wishful thinking, and the like. Among the most common are delusions of persecution and grandeur; others include delusions of bodily functioning, guilt, love, and control.
If we were to use the definition of delusion as encompassing the first two lines of the above, then it is more than apparent that religious belief would fit comfortably within its limits. Even believers in such things as transubstantiation within Catholicism, ie the belief that a communion wafer literally becomes the body of Jesus Christ, would for the most part agree that this is illogical and that such belief lacks supporting evidence. The word delusion doesn’t refer to the truth or otherwise of any given belief: it merely holds that the belief that is sincerely held lacks supporting evidence and that the believer’s conviction is unfaltering, despite this absence of evidence. If one is of the opinion that they will be struck down by lightning and live their life in a state of fear as a result of this, then they would be suffering from a delusion in the psychological sense of the word. This diagnosis would not change if they were through a case of sheer misfortune to actually realise this event occurring; unless of course they could prove that they were privy to such knowledge by rational means. Thus when non-believers state that religious people are suffering from a delusion, it is not meant to be offensive. It is merely referring to the fact that they hold a sincerely held unshakable conviction in the absence of supporting objective evidence. Neither the psychiatric profession nor I am suggesting that moderate religious delusion (that doesn’t involve the harm of others) should be considered a psychiatric condition warranting medical attention. On the contrary cultural and religious delusions are the norm within society.
Evolution as a driver of delusional belief
Human cognition evolved as much a product of social bonding as much as any method of empirically establishing what is real and what is imaginary. If an ancient group of people could rally together around a belief that their leader had magical powers; this would enhance social cooperation, in a time where the ability to establish reality through the scientific method was not yet a possible alternative.
Evolution would drive pre-scientific nomads and other vertebrates towards superstitious belief, a phenomenon that has been demonstrated again and again in psychological experiments (most notably those carried out by B.F Skinner on pigeons). It is well understood that natural selection favours superstitious belief in outside agents and has endowed us with what is known in psychology as a type 1 bias. The analogy given by Richard Dawkins of the crocodile or log conundrum is exemplary. Imagine early man going to the lake to fetch water. He sees what he thinks is a crocodile in the water. Fearing for his life, he goes to another part of the lake to get his fill. It turns out that what he thought was a crocodile was in fact just a floating log. Despite this error of judgement i.e. false perception of an outside intervening agent, the man survives and is able to pass on his genes. (This false perception of intervening agency is known as a type 1 bias) The opposite situation where a crocodile was mistaken for a log would have resulted in the man’s death and the elimination of his genes from the gene pool (type 2 bias refers to a failure to detect interventionist agents when they are present). Natural selection universally favours type 1 bias. The downside of this, in an age of science and reason, is the tendency towards superstitious belief patterns that it generates. Thanks to the advances of science, we no longer require this psychological vestige of our early ancestors. Of even greater concern is the fact that our innate psychological hardware puts us at odds with scientific predictions of agency and all too often the advice to trust our gut instinct lead us on a path of rampant evidence denial with type1 biases giving rise to such things as belief in the power of prayer or alternative medicine, when all the scientific and empirical data run contrary to our basest instinct. Richard Dawkins also eluded to the fact that children are naturally less skeptical than their parents, as natural selection would not favour children that lacked the requisite life knowledge, to be skeptical of adult advice. The child who doubted its parent’s advice not to go near the lake because of crocodiles would be more likely to be eaten and thus have its genes removed from the gene pool. Thus the Jesuits claim of getting the child before the age of seven to achieve the best level of indoctrination is more than scientifically accurate.
Cognitive psychology offers a more than adequate explanation as to why populations en masse have embraced superstitious and thus delusional thinking. These include our predisposition to follow and believe the rantings of influential or charismatic leaders, our weakness for being more likely to believe stories that comfort us, especially when told by those in authority, as well as an innate burning desire for knowledge and a fear of death. Despite the robust lack of evidence for any intervening invisible beings in our life, the vast majority of humans on the planet believe in the power of prayer and in the concept of an external force capable of delivering justice to wrong doers, as well as the concept of eternal life. It is worth noting that among the tenets of religion that are most commonly held among all religious traditions, not one of them involve a belief that is contrary to wishful thinking. Who among us would not wish to have eternal life free from suffering? Who would wish that those who harm our loved ones go unpunished and that their suffering was for no discernable reason? Who would wish to be ignorant of how the Universe operates and our place in it (a question that the holy books of the vast majority of religious traditions attempt to answer)? If the theory offered by cognitive psychology isn’t enough to convince you then how about the regimes created by secular equivalents of religious psychology? How were Stalin and Hitler able to garner the support of millions of their countrymen while taking them to the abyss? Why is Kim Jong Un able to command the support of the army and his people and motivate his military to commit such heinous crimes, the like of which have not been seen since Nazi Germany? Examples both theoretical and those witnessed by political and religious events in the real world lead me to believe to a point of almost certainty, that humans, when placed in the wrong environment can be socially conditioned to believe what in an individual would be tantamount to the worst possible case of psychiatric delusion. It is this observation that drives me to promote rationalism and my Atheism is merely a by-product of such endeavours. Anthropological history has shown that our capacity for evidence denial and cultural delusion exceeds that of conventional psychiatric illness.
The above observations lead me to pose a question to the psychiatric profession. Do we need to redefine the concept of delusion in the pathological sense and if so can we take preventative measures or offer suitable treatment at national or international level for the problem of cultural and religious delusion? I believe that defining pathological delusion as being a delusion that is outside the cultural norms in which the person is living is a woeful and dangerous misclassification and as such is turning a blind eye to religious and cultural delusions that are infinitely more harmful than any psychiatric condition that is currently listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I will emphasise yet again that I do not believe cultural delusions that are non-harmful need to be addressed, so long as they are not actively promoted. I am merely referring to harmful religious delusions.
I am currently of the opinion that 1) we should not promote any activity that embraces evidence denial while simultaneously respecting the fact that such pursuits are an inevitable part of human existence for many people. This opinion is based on the fact that I do not know of any society that has prospered by engaging in evidence denial. Such societies have achieved nothing that hasn’t been attained by communities grounded in respect for evidence. Superstitious and religious societies are much more associated with poor governance and underachievement in many areas of scientific endeavour and in areas of human rights. No society that I know of has underachieved as a result of valuing empirical evidence in their decision making. 2) I believe we need to treat evidence denial that results in real or potential harm to others. In 2014 it is no longer acceptable to label certain groups of people as mentally ill because they have an organically based and medically treatable form of mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar depression while ignoring the malignant and unsettling religious and cultural delusions of others. Yes the prevention and treatment of the latter group maybe radically different to the first (or perhaps maybe not so different). Radical preventative measures might include the teaching of critical thinking skills in school and possibly courses in human behaviour alongside civics classes. Most people are completely unaware and lacking in knowledge with regard to the biological forces that govern human cognition and subsequent behaviour. We spot the elephant in the room when it comes to the religious and cultural delusions of others but dangerously assume that because the majority of our own tribe believe something in the absence of evidence that it is somehow different. Without doubt evidence denial affects some cultures more so than others but it is a problem that no one can ignore as even within the borders of the most secular and rational cultures on earth, lie individuals and communities steeped in potentially dangerous superstitious world-views. Whether it be female genital mutilation in Sweden or the deaths of infants due to botched exorcisms in Britain, the psychiatric profession must step up to the plate and radically change its standpoint on what it currently views as psychiatric illness worthy of treatment. Until this is achieved no amount of government rhetoric on the subject of religious fundamentalism will achieve much.
As Sam Harris once stated “The problem with Islamic fundamentalism are the fundamentals of Islam”. I believe the same can be said about Christianity. The fact that most Christians in the west have managed to ignore most of the nasty parts of the bible doesn’t mean that everyone else will automatically have the capacity to do this. Many people including some secularists are of the opinion that promoting non-vengeful religion is a good thing and ask what’s the harm in people believing in such things as the resurrection of Jesus etc? The problem is not that such beliefs in their own right pose a danger to others but rather societies that show such a poor regard for examining evidence appear to always go on a downward trajectory. While religious delusion on a personal level undoubtedly makes some people feel good about themselves and some forms of religious belief may even be beneficial to certain peoples wellbeing (while others being positively detrimental such as a belief in hell being correlated with an increased risk of anxiety and depressive illness), the cumulative effect of societal evidence denial is never positive.
I will now give some examples of how insidious cultural and religious delusion can be and the toll it can take on society. In particular I would like to address Patricia Casey (a practicing psychiatrist) of the Iona Institute, an organisation dedicated to promoting religion in Ireland, or indeed any other psychiatrist of a religious persuasion and ask them how exactly can they justify promoting religion on a societal level, as opposed to tolerating non-harmful religious belief on a personal level, which may indeed give comfort to some people? Of the cultural case studies I am about to show you, can you give me one example of a case study of a conventional delusion in psychiatry that poses the same risks to society as cultural delusion? Do you believe that the psychiatric profession should ever attempt to treat or prevent what I am about to show? I cite Sweden, Denmark and Finland as examples of countries that value evidence and the separation of Church and State. Can you suggest any dangers of such rational cultures that equal or surpass the dangers posed by societies steeped in religious culture? If not then could your attempts to promote religion in the public sphere be a delusion on your own part that is potentially dangerous to society?
The outsourcing of State Institutions to the care of religious
Was the Irish State engaging in a cultural delusion bought about by fanatical religious fervour in believing that the Catholic Church and other religious institutions could do no wrong even after decades of reported abuse of children and young women in schools, orphanages and laundries? Why did these abuses only begin to come to light as Ireland embraced secularism? While abuses of this sort are not limited to religious institutions, secular equivalents such as the Jimmy Saville case in Britain would certainly not have been stopped if Britain was a more religious society. Jimmy Saville was awarded a papal knighthood. On the contrary had Britain embraced an evidence based culture even more so, its citizens could have been taught about the dangers of uncritical hero worship which are essentially the same dangers posed by devotion to religion and people in religious authority.
The edicts of the Taliban
Afghanistan under the Taliban would arguably be better off being governed by a parliament entirely consisting of people with untreated psychotic illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar depression. Among the items banned by the Taliban as stated on Wiki include:
pork, pig, pig oil, anything made from human hair, satellite dishes, cinematography, and equipment that produces the joy of music, pool tables, chess, masks, alcohol, tapes, computers, VCRs, television, anything that propagates sex and is full of music, wine, lobster, nail polish, firecrackers, statues, sewing catalogs, pictures, Christmas cards.
Men had to grow their beard to a certain length and beards were arbitrarily measured by religious police. If it was not of sufficient length to be clasped by the fist, the men were beaten. Women were banned from being employed, with the only exception being in health care, as men were not allowed to examine women. Home owners were commanded to blacken their windows so that men could not see the women inside. This resulted in an increased number of suicides as women were not getting enough exposure to sunlight. Afghanistan under the Taliban had one of the highest rates of female and infant mortality in the world.
The regime destroyed statues, museums and cultural artefacts and any semblance of non-Islamic heritage within the country. However the grizzliest act of the Taliban was the massacre at Mazir-i-Sharif on August 8th 1998. The inhabitants of this city were mainly Shia Muslims. The Taliban arrived in an early morning raid in pick-up trucks loaded with armed militias who shot indiscriminately left and right along the narrow city streets killing men, women, children and animals. The death toll is believed to have exceeded 8000. The Taliban would not allow the dead to be buried in accordance with Islamic tradition that involves the bodies being covered before sundown. Instead the bodies were left on the street for the dogs to eat. Patricia Casey if you as a psychiatrist are in anyway familiar with psychopathy you will know that approximately 1-5% of the population could be considered psychopathic. The figure of psychopaths that have a propensity toward violence is significantly less. Yet this attack is beyond the capacity of the worst serial killers in America. It was sanctioned by the acting government of a country. Afghanistan under the Taliban was about as religious as any country on earth. Patricia Casey, can you give a single example of such evil happening in a genuinely secular country? (I’m not referring to countries based on communist or fascist regimes that worship charismatic leaders such as the dictators of Europe or China but countries that embrace evidence and are less swayed by emotional rhetoric)? Why do we rarely hear bad news coming from the Nordic countries? The only mass murders committed on Nordic soil in my living memory are those carried out by Anders Brevik who was deemed to be indeed psychopathic. Despite killing several people, the treatment of him was an exceptional demonstration of humanity on the part of Norwegians. By his own admission his only complaint is not being granted access to a greater amount of video games in prison. The prison population of these countries is small by international standard which speaks volumes about the delusion that religion has a positive influence on moral behaviour.
Nigerian and Papua New Guinea Witch Accusations
In parts of Nigeria, Papua New Guinea and many other less enlightened regions of the world, sickness, disease, death and misfortune are often attributed to members of the community who are perceived to be dabbling in witchcraft and sorcery. In one such account in The World Post, a 9 year old boy was subject to such accusations by a pastor in the Eket region of Nigeria. The boy’s father tried to remedy the situation by performing an exorcism that involved forcing the boy to drink acid. The pastor involved had been associated with the Mount Zion Lighthouse church. These churches take the bible literally on the command “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” Exodus 22:18. The abandonment of a sibling of a child who died prematurely is all too common and in many cases is ordered by religious leaders. These poor unfortunate children are deemed to have been the cause of the family’s tragedy. The UNICEF document below identifies the extent of this problem throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.
The accusations appear to be levelled more against boys and appear to be more common among Christian believers as Islam doesn’t accord the child with having the ability to attain such evil powers. Christians in the west will say this is a warped version of Christianity yet these practices have been prevalent in the west for most of the history of Christianity. It is not sufficient to say that it is delusional to believe that the bible promotes the killing of suspected witches, while being of the belief that this book is anything other than the writings of pre-scientific humans from as far back as 4000 years. To seek to promote a lifestyle or national culture based on a belief in the authority of the bible is delusional and potentially dangerous. It is more than ironic that a professor of psychiatry would encourage society to engage in mass delusion. While we in the west are somewhat able to accomplish the mental gymnastics necessary to ignore the insidiously malevolent parts of the bible, it is not rational to believe that everyone else can be taught to do the same. Religion and religious fundamentalism are part and parcel of the same thing. Cultures that engage in a greater degree of evidence denial and mass religious and cultural delusion, when combined with unfavourable political, cultural or economic circumstances have throughout history led countless civilisations on a path of self-destruction.
The Church of Christian Science & deadly lack of medical intervention due to religious faith
There is a deeply concerning trend among a small but significant minority of Americans right now with yet another case being publicised last week. That is the belief that prayer can cure disease and the perception that attempting to receive medical care is a sign of spiritual weakness. The Church of Christian Science is the most notorious proponent of this extremely dangerous and potentially deadly world-view. The Church was founded by Mary Baker Eddy in Boston Massachusetts in 1879 as a result of the belief that prayer and biblical recitations cured her from the ill-effects of a fall. While the church is in decline in the US right now, as a result of many scandals, it still remains relatively strong in Africa. Worldwide membership is believed to be in the region of 80,000 people. Last week a Pennsylvania couple Catherine and Herbert Schaible were jailed for 20 years for the death of their 8 month old son Brandon as a result of untreated pneumonia. Brandon was the second son of the couple to die as a result of not seeking medical treatment due to their Pentecostal religious faith. The death of their first child Kent resulted in a court judgement of 10 years probation on the condition that if any subsequent child was to become ill they would seek medical care. Their pastor had told them that the first child’s death was due to their lack of faith and ordered that they were not to seek medical treatment if another child fell ill. Unfortunately, heeding this advice, led to the death of the 2nd child. While tragic cases like this thankfully only account for a tiny minority of religious believers, they are nonetheless an inevitable consequence of societal delusion. If beliefs like this were not considered as group-think they would be considered delusional in the psychiatric sense. If such belief has nothing to do with genuine religion then why are cases like these more prevalent in religious societies? While personal religious belief may indeed benefit certain religious individuals, the idea of promoting mass delusion coming from anyone is a frightening concept. When it comes from a professor of psychiatry it is truly terrifying.
Religious Snake Handling in the Bible Belt of America
Last week we were reminded yet again that religious delusions can have deadly consequences. Pastor Jamie Coots, the star of National Geographic reality TV show Snake Salvation died shortly after refusing to receive medical intervention following a bite from a rattlesnake that he was handling in a church service at his Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church in Kentucky. After being bitten he dropped the snakes, but shortly after picked them up again. He died within an hour of turning away an offer of assistance by medical services. It was not the first death of this kind at his church. In 1995 Tennessee woman Melinda Brown died after receiving a bite from a timber rattlesnake at the same Church. As if two deaths were not enough tragedy to bring this lethally delusional behaviour to an end, the pastor’s son Cody aged 21 vowed to continue the practice, even promising to handle the same snake that killed his father at his funeral. As someone who has a passionate interest in human behaviour and skepticism, I am not shocked by stories like these. Below are the two verses of the bible that are responsible for a number of snake bite deaths among religious believers in the US.
Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Luke 10:19
And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (Mark 16:17-18)
I believe the psychiatric profession need to go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate what it means to suffer psychotic delusions in the pathological sense of the word. For far too long we have branded and marginalised the mentally ill and discriminated against those who suffer delusional symptoms as defined in the narrowest possible sense of the word, while simultaneously promoting cultural delusion that is every bit as pernicious and worthy of investigation as the worst case studies within psychiatry. Cultural delusion accounts for an infinitely larger number of deaths and crimes than those carried out by people who have been committed to institutions for the criminally insane.
Skeptics of deeply held religious and cultural beliefs are often accused of being insensitive for pointing out the elephant in the room that religious belief in magical books is a delusion and that promoting delusion within society has inevitable and predictable consequences. Anthropology has shown that it is almost impossible for societies to universally embrace healthy delusion while not becoming prone to its destructive form. While it may be true that certain religious beliefs give comfort and meaning to some people who are unable to live in a world where random things can happen for no reason; promoting religion and any other form of evidence denial, to those who do not need this emotional crutch has always led to a downward spiral. All the evidence shows that religious societies cannot curtail their delusion to the confines of belief in god etc.
Delusional false hope both within conventional religious settings and that disseminated by quasi-religious political leaders give rise to a predictable cycle. Firstly they are more likely to come to prominence in times of economic and social stress. Secondly the church or political leader/party develops a cult like status within their community by making claims and promises that are far-fetched and unattainable. They are the rock stars of their day and those who criticise them become outcasts within their society. Thirdly this leads to corruption and abuses that ultimately result in their downfall, either by revolution or popular dissent. Fourthly anyone or anything associated with the offending regime is often pilloried and society asks the question how could people have been so stupid to fall for the claims that now seem patently absurd?
This is exactly how leaders that once oozed charisma within the Arab world suddenly toppled like dominoes during the Arab Spring. It is why people like Charlie Haughey were able to rise to power while living a lavish lifestyle, without question from the media, while the rest of us tightened our belts as a result of his now infamous TV appearance. It is exactly the fate of the Catholic Church and the organisations that support it.
Patricia Casey will psychiatrists in the next century deem you to be suffering from delusional thought processes that are every bit as severe as that of the patients you treat? You cannot solve society’s problems by encouraging people to seek solutions that are not based on evidence. It is one thing to acknowledge that people have the right to freedom of belief, whatever that may be and that some people may indeed require a religious crutch. It is a different matter entirely to promote evidence denial as an instrument of public policy.
The Iona Institute led a billboard campaign last year stating that there is scientific evidence that prayer works. This is delusional thought and represents a complete inability to deal in evidence and rationality. The recent controversy concerning the Pantigate/RTE affair show that your organisation has indeed an irrational fear of granting gay people equal rights. This is demonstrated by the fact it devotes so much time attempting to fight against gay marriage. The fears of the Iona Institute in relation to this matter amount to a collective paranoid delusion as they are not expressed by the vast body of scientific evidence on the matter. These are just two examples of how a deeply steeped religious world view can creep into mainstream politics and scientific pursuit. I ask the question, if a professor of psychiatry with several years of experience can succumb to this level of evidence denial then what hope has the ordinary individual who you are trying to indoctrinate under the false guise of an academic institution? I leave you with the words of Friedrich Nietzsche.
“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
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