Faith Is Not A Mental Illness

by Miriam Mogilevsky

I’ve been seeing a disturbing tendency among atheists to compare religious belief to mental illness. Sometimes this comparison is made explicit, as in this article. Other times, however, the comparison is more implicit–for instance, when words like “crazy” and “delusional” are used to describe religious people or their beliefs (hi Dawkins).

These comparisons are inaccurate and offensive to both religious people and people with mental illnesses.

First of all, being religious is a choice. Being mentally ill is not. While it’s a bit arguable whether or not faith itself is a choice–I certainly can’t make myself believe in god, but perhaps others can–the existence and success of religious proselytism proves that choice is at least part of the equation. Only a completely ignorant person, on the other hand, would attempt to proselytize mental health (although it obviously does happen).

Regardless of whether or not you can choose to believe in god, you definitely get to choose whether and to what extent you observe a religion (unless you’re a child, but that’s different). People with schizophrenia don’t get to choose which hallucinations they have and how often. People with OCD don’t get to choose their compulsions. People with phobias don’t get to choose which phobias they have or how they manifest themselves.

Second, suggesting that religious people are mentally ill is sanctimonious and offensive. It insinuates that they are incapable of consciously and purposefully choosing to be religious, and that their religious beliefs are just as meaningless as a symptom of mental illness. It reminds me of when I used to bring up concerns with friends who would respond, “Oh, that’s not such a big deal, you just feel that way ’cause you’re depressed.”

As I mentioned, being religious is a choice. For most people, it’s a choice made with one’s own best interests in mind. Comparing that to a schizophrenic delusion is a wee bit condescending.

(Of course, delusions that are religious in nature do exist. Some people with schizophrenia believe that they are possessed by religious spirits of some kind, that they have spoken to god, or that they are the messiah. However, this is vastly different from the way most religious folks experience their faith, and is obviously a symptom of mental illness.)

Although I’m an atheist who kinda sorta wishes religion didn’t exist, the fact is that it does, and I refuse to believe that all of the billions of religious people in the world are just mentally ill. No, they’re onto something. It’s just not something that I’m interested in myself.

Finally, these comparisons trivialize the suffering that people with mental illnesses experience. The distinction between mental health and mental illness is not that mentally healthy people do not believe in supernatural things and mentally ill people do. The difference is that (most) mental illnesses interfere with the person’s functioning and make them feel, well, bad.

Religion, for all its flaws, often does the opposite–it provides people with community, teaches them to behave morally and charitably, and helps them cope with illness, death, and other challenges in life. (A caveat: I’m talking about religion at its best, not at its worst, and these same effects can be found elsewhere.)

So when you imply that the definition of mental illness is believing in things without evidence, you miss a lot about what it’s like to be mentally ill. Namely, you ignore the emotional pain, cognitive distortions, thwarted goals, ruined relationships, physical fatigue, and all the other things that are part of the experience of mental illness.

There are many interesting, intelligent, and non-offensive ways for atheists to argue against destructive religious ideas (for instance, here’s an example I read today). Calling religious people mentally ill is not one of those ways. Let’s put that kind of useless rhetoric back on the shelf where it belongs.

This piece was republished from the author’s blog with permission. You may find the original here

Miriam Mogilevsky is a senior at Northwestern University. In a year she will graduate with a degree in psychology and pursue a career that involves asking people about their feelings. She enjoys reading and writing about social justice, politics, culture, sexuality, and mental health. For this purpose, she has a blog, a Tumblr, and a Twitter.

About these ads

9 responses to “Faith Is Not A Mental Illness

  1. Don’t you think Dawkins is using the word ‘delusion’ in a broader sense? Religion is obviously not mental illness but I think pathological ideation is very much a part of it. The idea that lighting a candle can change the course of events (other than lighting up a room) is a delusional belief. The big three also promote forms of narcissistic thought patterns…
    I’ve always wondered what role mental illness played in the creation of religion. St. Peter, Mohammed, Jesus, Jewish davening, praying 5 times per day facing a particular direction- I can see clear symptoms of pathologies playing a role.

    • Well, I don’t particularly care to argue about the specifics of what constitutes a delusion because language is malleable and so on.

      My larger point is that even if religious people are delusional (which I disagree with anyway), going around SAYING that is rude, condescending, and counterproductive.

      • As you mentioned in your post, children are often unable to make this choice. Dawkins often focuses on children whom are forced into religion at a young age, finding themselves later unable to consider things outside of their religion or finding themselves struggling with very real trauma or anxiety when they come to separate themselves from their religion. He is concerned about the negative impacts of religion as a whole, but particularly concerned with the impacts on children when religion is taught in a strict and unyielding way. Yes, Dawkins’ did liken some states of religious belief to psychosis, arguing that choosing such belief can yield such effects (much like my choosing not to sleep and barely eat for over 80 hours last year caused me to believe, see, and hear giant bats lived in my apartment), but he does not say it is the same as mental illness. Now, not only do I feel you have indeed used the malleability of language to falsely represent Dawkins’ argument, but I also think that your last comment brings up another question: why is it rude, condescending, and counterproductive to argue that religion is delusional (i.e. a belief faced with internal contradictions as well as contradictions with the known world)? Perhaps simply because “delusion” has a hugely negative stigma that “contradiction” and “unfounded belief” do not. Still, atheists face the same questioning themselves, often followed by verbal attacks of being “demons”, “heathens”, “evil little things” etc. and being cast away from homes, cars, dinner tables, etc. But “hallucination” is not the same as “delusion”, since, as you pointed out, while the former is not a choice, the latter is. I will make another comment shortly praising this post, but I wanted to add to this aspect of the conversation.

      • I see what you mean but whether it’s delusion as a false belief or opinion or a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact- religion fits into those definitions. There’s no right ‘not to be offended’, particularly when what’s being said is based on fact.

        By letting it pass and treating religion as if it’s something of merit we let reasonable conclusions be equated to the absurd. If someone thinks the world is flat, they’re deluded and ignorant. Condescension is appropriate.

  2. I’m a nonbeliever, agnostic, atheist, whichever you prefer. I absolutely agree with the message of your post, but of course it needs to go further since using the language of mental illness to accuse, undermine, and insult others is pervasive inside and outside the community. I’ve been called “insane” before for my lack of belief, but I have also been called “insane” before for putting nutella on apples. Certainly I wouldn’t want arguments against religion to liken it scientifically to mental illness in the same way I would like to see any discussions remove language which silences serious, open conversation about what mental illness really is and is not. Perhaps there is a prevalence of using such language to attack religious belief. I wouldn’t know, since, despite popular belief, non-belief isn’t a community you can clump together like you can a church, so I feel little need to follow the discussions of individuals with whom I don’t share a belief. If so, then certainly talking about this prevalence is important, but this same conversation is still applicable to the way so many communicate, including the way members of the religious community communicate.

  3. It would be worth re-reading my contributor Homer Carroll’s piece on Mormonism’s Joseph Smith, that you reference in the opening of this blog post to gain clarification.

    The piece was empathetic towards the schizophrenia that his friend had suffered from, and simply made a comparison to that condition and the hallucinations that Smith experienced.

    Carroll is not claiming that religion or people that believe certain faiths are mentally ill, but that the found of Mormonism might have based his religious doctrine on his hallucinations, and that it is disturbing that these beliefs now have (non-mentally ill) followers in the millions, including a presidential candidate. It is not damning towards those with mental illness, or to religious persons, and was not intended to have the message that you inferred here.

  4. This article falls short, missing the target completely. It points the finger in the wrong direction as, which has been mentioned by others, this is an issue with language, not the difference between the metal health of the ‘religious’ and those designated as ‘mentally ill’. The author attempted to defend the religious only to then, directly afterward, insult their beliefs by suggesting they are based on the apparent ravings of the mentally ill. Claiming to know the mental health status of an entire segment of people, in this case the religious, based on nothing but opinion, is a bit messed up, no? This is a bigger conversation than a simple opinion piece can hope to tackle.Both issues are very serious and need a great deal more of critical thinking and intentional, directed care for rehabilitation and understanding.

  5. Thank you for your commentary, on two fronts.

    I am not a believer in religion; I’m perhaps an a-theist, but that’s about all I’d venture at this point. What I do know is that militancy of any sort – the kind that makes people comfortable enough to condescend, command, dismiss, prescribe or proscribe – leaves a bad taste in my mouth, whether it’s of the Southern Baptist variety or the Dawkins variety. While folks of both sorts have deep and abiding differences, their similarities should give both sides pause.

    I am someone who has dealt with mental and emotional illness, in myself and in those I love. To compare a philosophical difference, a worldview choice, with the physical and emotional torture of mental illness … words fail me when I think of the obliviously superficial thought process that entails.

    Anyway, thank you. Thank you very much.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s