One of my psychiatry professors characterized religion as “a societally endorsed delusion.” I took that to mean religion is a special case of delusional disorder that society agrees not to characterize as pathological.
People with delusional disorder often don’t have a generalized psychotic illness such as schizophrenia. Though possessing an otherwise healthy mind, they adhere to a false belief that is not shared by society in general. They cling to their delusion in the face of objective evidence to the contrary. Efforts to disabuse the delusional person of the belief are usually fruitless. The delusion can influence many aspects of thought and behavior, but these arise from “logical” conclusions based on the erroneous belief.
The professor felt religious faith is just another form of delusional disorder that gets a free pass because so many people share it.
Strictly speaking, he was incorrect.
According to the definition of the term, in order to be identified as a delusion a belief requires incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. I call this the “incontrovertible evidence clause.” The definition also includes another caveat. If beliefs are widely endorsed in society, they do not satisfy the strict criteria. This I call the “consensus clause.” According to that clause, my teacher’s statement is oxymoronic because if religion is “socially endorsed,” it is not, in the formal sense, a delusion.
Further, incontrovertible factual evidence, pro or con, does not exist regarding religion because the concepts of God, the “soul,” and other aspects of religion reside in a supernatural realm. This makes it is impossible to test their validity on the basis of natural law and objective reality. If we apply the incontrovertible evidence clause to it, we are really just applying understandable but unconfirmable skepticism.
For a brief and entertaining course in a number of the philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God, read my novel, “Guitars of the Gods: The Redemption of A. Lester Lord,” Kindle books, $2.99. Cheap. My books enjoy the distinction of not having been removed from any school libraries. (Let’s put aside the fact they never were in any, or for that matter, anywhere else.)
Though these two clauses give religion a fee pass many people would argue it can still be considered delusional.
A source of confusion on this issue may arise from lumping religion and belief in God together. Though based on a belief in God, religion is about much more than God. It is a system of thought, a guide to morality, a reminder that humans are not the be all and end all in the vast universe, a carrier of culture, a collection of rituals that people find comforting and a structure around which community is built. These components of religion are largely based on rational factors and actually predate the concept of God. They arose as a result of evolutionary adaptation in social animal species, such as ours, of which religion is obviously not a requisite component. Though human religions insert God into them, these aspects of religion can, and do, exist independent of the concept of God in humans and non-humans alike.
Still, since religion does revolve around a belief in a supernatural entity, one who doubts the existence of God might assert that it’s based on a delusion, thus rendering all of religion as delusional. These people probably are rejecting a specific type of God, the concept of an anthropomorphic God, a king, who makes commands and sets rules. I’d say there are other entities we could call “God,” such as the power of the universe and the miracles of nature whatever may be their origin. These do and should inspire our awe and reverence. In that sense, perhaps a non-delusional version of God does exist.
Still, skeptics may argue that we are engaging in semantics and that the clauses are simply a cop out.
Let’s take another look at them. In areas outside of religion, in both the mentally ill and in those not diagnosed as such, delusions can be identified with a great degree of confidence through the incontrovertible evidence clause no matter how many people endorse them. For example, despite being the consensus of a huge number of people, lies and misperceptions promulgated by MAGA Republicans are still demonstrably false. Or, if we want to use the word, delusional.
If we can rightly consider them delusions, this undercuts the formal definition of delusion. It shows that, in practical terms, consensus of an erroneous belief does not make it any less false. Why, one may ask, should religion be an exception?
In the case of the incontrovertible evidence clause, consider that someone not born into and indoctrinated in a religion would, being an objective observer, reasonably be expected to be skeptical of its dogma. In the USA the dominant and most influential religion is, of course, Christianity. There is much in that religion that would raise skepticism in one who is not, to quote A. Lester Lord, “brainwashed in the blood of the lamb.”
To those not indoctrinated, Christian dogma in particular is so rife with implausible claims one would not be blamed for thinking there’s little difference between it and popular folklore such as Grimm’s fairy tales, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. All of these are known by any rational adult to be mythological and to have no basis in fact. This holds despite the fact that millions, mostly children, believe them and, being imaginary, they cannot be formally disproved by the incontrovertible evidence clause. Getting closer to God, what about all the Greek, Roman and Egyptian Gods? They were very real to many people, and we can’t prove they don’t exist. Yet we overwhelmingly agree they are imaginary and, if believed true, delusions.
People, even otherwise rational ones, are inclined to embrace delusions that they view as beneficial to themselves or when a reality, like death, is too hard to bear. Trump supporters choose to embrace his lies and elevate him to the status of infallibility because they can’t bear facing the fact that he was totally unqualified to be president and, thank God (delusional or not) lost the election. His loss may deny them his promise to “make America great again,” code for a White, Christian, male dominated society living in Ozzie and Harriet land. To them, this is a promise of an earthly paradise.
The promise of another paradise, eternal life, similarly strongly motivates religious Christians to embrace what many regard to be an irrational belief system.
In this respect Trumpism and religion have much in common. Religion enjoys an additional advantage. It is shielded by the social convention that it must be treated with respect. We are permitted to say Trumpism is delusional but it’s considered rude and in bad taste to say the same of religion. Consider this though: If Trumpism is clearly delusional despite the two formal clauses are there any reasons, other than politeness (and not wanting some religious fanatic to slit your throat) not to regard religion the same way?
America is currently under threat from a large segment of citizens who embrace beliefs we could label delusions. They are acting in societally harmful ways based on their beliefs. They help elect nefarious and unqualified lawmakers. These in turn facilitate the encroachment of religious law and dogma into our secular lives resulting in the persecution of citizens who do not share in the delusional system. It threatens social and scientific progress and democratic norms. Adherents to these delusions could well take over our government, our schools, our medical system. Many are are so immune from logic they are prepared to resort to violence if their belief system is criticized or even questioned.
Still, religious faith, delusional or not, is not necessarily a force for evil. Consider those like Senator Pelosi and President Biden. They also embrace Christian dogma. Some would claim they, too, are delusional. To their credit, as in the case of abortion rights for example, they do not impose their personal belief systems on our laws and institutions.
Whether or not we view religion as a delusion, we should be careful not to demean all delusions including religion. There are many commonly held delusions, most of which are harmless. Some are even beneficial to individuals and to society.
My next blog will further explore delusions that permeate our collective consciousness, both to our benefit and to our detriment. Watch for “Choosin’ Your Delusion” coming next time to this blog site.