Out From Under the Umbrella

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The Problem with Calling Religious Belief a Mental Illness

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I’ve seen some atheists throw this out there as the reason people are religious/Christians. I cringe each time I see it. If people who are religious are so because they are mentally ill that is like saying that I was mentally ill and have been cured because I am no longer religious. I don’t think that I was mentally ill. I think I believed a falsehood. That doesn’t make a person mentally ill. It belittles those who are actually mentally ill. It’s like saying finding one’s way out of religion is a cure for mental illness. Which is just as utterly stupid as saying that finding Jesus is the cure for it.

hessianwithteeth

I’m sure many of you have heard the claim that religion is a mental illness. I despise this claim. It is insulting to those of us who actually suffer from mental illnesses and it is insulting to those who are religious, regardless of whether or not they suffer from mental illness. In fact, I’d say it’s doubly insulting to those theists who actually do suffer from a mental illness.

So what is a mental illness? According to http://www.cmha.ca/mental_health/mental-illness/#.VXTVjEaJJc8, “Mental illnesses are health problems that affect the way we think about ourselves, relate to others, and interact with the world around us. They affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Mental illnesses can disrupt a person’s life or create challenges, but with the right supports, a person can get back on a path to recovery and wellness.” Obviously this is a very broad definition that can be applied to many different things…

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12 thoughts on “The Problem with Calling Religious Belief a Mental Illness

  1. “It belittles those who are actually mentally ill. It’s like saying finding one’s way out of religion is a cure for mental illness. Which is just as utterly stupid as saying that finding Jesus is the cure for it.”

    Well said. Sadly, Christianity is primarily responsible for stigmatizing people with mental disorders. I see very few atheists who say this, and many, many more Christians stigmatizing mental disorders. Interestingly enough, I also see many people calling out atheists for this stigmatizing rather than the main instigators, Christians.

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    • I don’t know. I’ve seen mental illness thrown out there as a term of derision to be insulting. While I’ve certainly seen some Christians that I thought might have a mental disorder, it wasn’t because they were Christian, it was because of erratic and illogical behavior. The problem I see with that is that it devalues those who really do have a mental disorder. It’s like calling someone a retard just because they’re acting stupid(in our opinion). I can see how someone with a mental disorder could take offense at it’s usage. I’ll call it out where ever I see it. It’s not about being politically correct, either. It’s about having empathy for those who do suffer from disorders of the mind.

      I certainly agree with you that Christianity, in particular, stigmatizes those with mental disorders. As you know from firsthand experience, people with mental disorders are frequently labeled as possessed or some other such nonsense, and it is largely undiagnosed and untreated because all the sufferer need to is get them some Jesus or some more Jesus. Which we all know doesn’t work.

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      • I agree that the term should never be used as a means to insult a believer. We both were indoctrinated from childhood. Indoctrination is not mental illness. The problem I see is that we can read “holy” books like the Bible, we can clearly see behavior from religious leadership that is indicative of certain symptoms of severe mental illness, but it is totally irrational for someone claiming to be rational to say that people with religious belief are mentally ill.

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  2. It’s only been a few times that I’ve heard religion referred to as a “mental illness”, but in any case, I, too, disagree, albeit, I can see how someone who’s never been indoctrinated might see it that way, for instance, when watching the news and seeing religious people running around cutting people’s heads off or bombing abortion clinics. Yeah, I can totally see how someone never exposed to religion would see such people as mentally ill, and if these people’s religion is causing them to do it, how the association is then made. But being a former religious person myself, I don’t equate a religious person with mental illness; I just seem them as indoctrinated. Although, in rare cases, the indoctrinated person’s religious beliefs can drive them to do things on par with people who have a legit’ mental illness..e.g…Charles Manson.

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    • I see the association and I also see what you’re saying about people who have never been religious. Though even if you haven’t been indoctrinated nor exposed to a great deal of religion one would certainly be able to see that a majority of people claim to be religious but the majority of those people are not cutting people’s heads off or bombing abortion clinics. Correlation is not causation. People who do that are very likely mentally ill, but would still be mentally ill even if they weren’t religious. I do think that mentally ill people sometimes cling onto religion because it validates them. The thoughts they have suddenly take on important meaning. They are carrying out God’s will.

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      • […]the majority of those people are not cutting people’s heads off or bombing abortion clinics. Correlation is not causation. People who do that are very likely mentally ill, but would still be mentally ill even if they weren’t religious.”

        True, correlation is not causation. Good point. And I also must concede that people who do really horrible things in the name of religion might, without that religion, find other reasons to do horrible things. Line people up and decapitate them or blow up abortion clinics? Slim chance, IMO, but no way to be sure, really.

        What we can be sure of is that religion is used a “license” to do these, and other despicable things, maybe not by the majority, but by enough people that non-religious people will look at this and associate the acts of these people with being mental ill, not as in mentally retarded, but as insane. I think that’s actually reasonable. I do disagree the times that the label is use pejoratively, though.

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        • Line people up and decapitate them or blow up abortion clinics? Slim chance, IMO, but no way to be sure, really.

          I agree with you here. I think that religion validates some of the irrational thoughts that they have, though. So I’m thinking midnight cinema mass shootings or mass mall shootings or mass school shootings where the people involved don’t cite religion as a factor, but they still do horrific things. It’s just easier to see that it’s mental illness in those cases rather than religion as their cause. I also think that some forms of indoctrination, themselves, can cause a psychotic break because people’s brains can be rewired, for good or bad.

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  3. The maintenance of belief requires massive dissonance. That’s not an illness. It’s willful. And that makes it worse.

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    • Exactly! Not only that but calling a religious fundamentalist mentally ill as a form of insult makes an entire swath of people who do suffer from mental illness feel less-than. As if they are, themselves, an insult to society. Like I said, it makes me cringe.

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  4. I completely agree. This kind of language typically shuts down conversation too. Saying someone’s mentally ill just for a particular belief is inaccurate, which probably only makes the person (and any bystanders) less likely to trust anything else we say. It also gives no way for the other person to save face about their beliefs. If we treat people with the assumption that they’re trying to live rationally but may just be mistaken about some things (just as we might be), then it helps give them a little more room to adjust their positions in light of new information. After all, that’s what rational people do. But if we accuse them of being mentally ill or stupid, then they’re forced to defend their position, because it’s the only way to overturn our claim. In other words, it just unnecessarily escalates the situation.

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    • Thanks for commenting, Nate.

      I’m not sure if it’s intended to shut down conversation or if it’s thrown out for shock value, but the end result is that it is a conversation ender. And, what you say about it forcing the other person to dig in their heels and defend their position is a good point, too. If it doesn’t end the conversation it turns it into a tit-for-tat back-and-forth that only ends up in an argument. Either way isn’t very productive and neither side ends up considering valid arguments.

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