Is Religion a Mental Illness?

You’re coming at this from a good place Cristina, but I have to disagree with you; and I say that as someone with a mental illness (depression).

Religion absolutely is a mental illness. Specifically I would say it’s a delusional disorder, which I would define (as a syncretic definition taken from several medical and psychological dictionaries) thusly:

A fixed false belief held without and/or against evidence.

There’s objections to this, some of which you have mentioned yourself, others of which I hear quite often.

1. Religion is Excluded from the Definition

It is true that many of the official definitions of religion specifically exclude religious or cultural beliefs that are widespread. The alternative term ‘relusion’ has been suggested, but this wouldn’t include ideological or political indoctrination in places like North Korea, so I don’t think that’s a solution. Excluding religion is such an egregious case of special pleading that I don’t really know why anyone would do so, other than a residual unease at criticising religion.

Yes, a lot of people are religious but when people fall sick we don’t change the definition of healthy, even when it’s a virulent pandemic. Do the beliefs fit the definition? Yes? Then that person is mentally ill/bonkers/insane. Simple.

2. It’s a Choice

Is it? I don’t know that I chose to be an atheist, it was the inevitable conclusion given logic, reason and evidence. Choosing to ignore reality for a comforting myth is a form of mental illness of its own (Freudian denial), is it not? Do kids have a choice? No. Do adults? Sometimes. However we acknowledge that it is possible to give people other forms of mental illness. We can torture people to break their minds, leave people with PTSD and anxiety and otherwise screw them up and leave them mentally harmed without their consent so why should religious indoctrination be any different? With mental illness we have some choice. We can take the meds, do the mental exercises, take up CBT, undergo therapy all to minimise or even cure our mental issues or at least learn to deal with them. So there’s an element of choice there too. Doesn’t invalidate that they’re still mental illnesses.

3. That it’s Insulting

In the words of the prophet:

Yeah?

And?

So?

What?

Is it accurate? Yes it is. That’s all that really matters. I’ve tried to make this point to people who use the term ‘cisgender’ whilst apply their own subjective standard to other correct terms and trying to get people to stop using them, but it doesn’t seem to ever sink in.

If your doctor tells you that you have cancer, he’s not insulting you. If someone with sufficient knowledge tells you that you have depression or are delusional, it’s not necessarily an insult either. It’s a diagnosis.

4. It Minimises the Seriousness of Mental Illness

Does it? I think it brings home the seriousness of it as regards religion. While mental health issues still aren’t taken as seriously as, perhaps, they should things have improved a lot in recent years. People have a better (but dysfunctional) understanding of what it means to be mentally ill and how debilitating it can be. Pointing out that religion is a mental illness helps, in my opinion, lend weight to our criticism of it.

There is one big, important, terrifying difference between religion and other mental illnesses though.

Religion is communicable.

Advertisements

Drop Dead Fred

fred_phelpsSo Fred Phelps died, not that long after having been strategically excommunicated from his own church.

I’ve been suggesting, for some time, that we need to be better than our enemies. Phelps and his Church were the face of unashamed homophobia and religious hate. A cartoonish set of underwhelming supervillains against which it has been easy to ally and align.

Phelps gave us a gift. An unambiguous, unalloyed bigot – a true believer in a form of Christian hatred that everyone thought was on its last legs. He brought moderate Christians, bikers, atheists, left wing, right wing all together against him and his Church and he reminded us all of the value of free expression, even horrible free expression.

If Phelps had been silenced, censored, prevented from publicly spewing his hate we would not have known and it would have rotted away behind the scenes and spread. That he was public brought us together. Nothing unites humanity like a common enemy.

I won’t celebrate his death. I won’t celebrate the death of any human being. We get one, glorious opportunity to live and to live without compromise, even as a disgusting bigot and slave to a myth, is something admirable.

If nothing else, he inspired Kevin Smith to make his first really good film since MallRats.

Bye Fred, you were a useful idiot.

The Beliefs of the Richest People

I had a rather bizarre claim levelled at me today, that the majority of the top twenty richest people in the world were atheist. I thought this sounded like bullshit, so me being me, I checked.

Now, atheism is correlated with intelligence and education, so you would expect the number of atheists to be higher amongst the most successful people in the world. Of course, wealth isn’t entirely analogous to talent, since a lot of it is inherited or ‘old money’, but still with a (rough) world figure of 15% atheistic you might expect two or more of the top 20 to be atheists.

1. Carlos Slim Helu – Christian
2. Bill Gates – Atheist
3. Amancio Ortega – Christian
4. Warren Buffet – Agnostic
5. Larry Ellison – Agnostic Jew
6. Charles Koch – Christian
7. David Koch – Christian
8. Li Ka-Shing – Buddhist
9. Liliane Bettincourt – Jewish (by marriage)
10. Bernard Arnault – Catholic
11. Christy Walton – Christian
12. Stefan Persson – Christian
13. Michael Bloomberg – Jewish
14. Jim Walton – Unknown
15. Sheldon Adelson – Jewish
16. Alice Walton – Christian
17. S. Robson Walton – Christian
18. Karl Albrecht – Christian
19. Jeff Bezos – Christian
20. Larry Page – Atheist

If we count agnostics, that only 4/20, nowhere near 17/20 and of those I know Gates and Buffet have been extremely philanthropic via the Gates foundation, tackling genuine global issues of poverty, starvation and disease. While checking on the religions of the others in this list I found little outside religious donations, Christian summer camps and the like.

In short, religion seems to be no particular guide to someone’s charitable status or generosity and if you are religious, much of your effort seems to be diverted into the pockets of religion and perpetuating that faith.

Fusion Theism’s New Fallacies

Discussions about religion often end up in the realm of identifying logical fallacies. Typically, as an atheist, one sees the Argument from Personal Incredulity, Argument from Ignorance and Circular Reasoning. Fusion Theism in his post HERE and on Twitter, tried to identify or create new fallacies applicable to atheist thinking and as one of the few polite and reasonable debaters to be found, he’s worth answering.

The Double-Standard Fallacy:” Accepting one form of evidence for your own claims, while simultaneously rejecting this form of evidence for your opponent’s argument.

I confess I don’t know what he’s referring to here as I haven’t seen this occur. It’s possible he’s referring to the way in which we take scientific knowledge as truth, even though it’s relayed to us and comparing that with people taking biblical ‘knowledge’. In other words, the idea that ‘both are from books and we have faith in who is telling us’. All of this is assumption and perhaps he can clarify, but I would point out that science – unlike religion – is subject to peer review, repeat experimentation and has practical real-world applications that confirm its usefulness. IF this were accurate, it would indeed be a problem.

“The Tree-Falling Fallacy:” This argument goes something like this: ‘If a tree falls in the woods and no one recorded it, it never happened,’ or ‘If no one wrote a book about Alexander the Great, that means he never existed.’

This is trying to justify the fallacy of Shifting the Burden of Proof. The point missed is that without evidence for something, it is not logical or reasonable to accept it. Trees falling is a regular occurrence and the existence of a fallen tree is evidence that it fell in and of itself. When it comes to historical figures the comparison being drawn is obviously between Jesus and Alexander (there’s other examples people like to use too, like Socrates). Compared to Jesus, the claim ‘Alexander existed’ is supported by numerous contemporaneous accounts, archaeology, the records of conquered nations and it is not an extraordinary claim. So not only is this an attempt to shift the burden of proof, but it’s inaccurate too.

“The Goat-Herder Fallacy:” Attributing automatic falsehood (and rejecting the arguments of) anyone based on their profession or career. Example: ‘I reject the Bible because it is written by goat-herders.’

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone actually say that’s WHY they don’t believe the Bible or dismiss the arguments. Rather it is a snarky way to make a point that people in the past were ignorant of much we know today. If this were accurate you could argue that it’s a sort of inverted argument from authority.

“The Contemporary Fallacy,”(also known as “The JFK Fallacy”): This fallacy goes like this: ‘Any books written about President Kennedy after his death in 1963 must be rejected as myth, since they were not written about him while he was alive.’

Again this seems to be making a false comparison between the religious mythology of Jesus and actual historical events. Books about JFK are drawn from contemporaneous accounts, film footage, recordings etc. There is absolutely nothing contemporaneous in the stories of Jesus.

“Telephone-Game Fallacy:” Automatically assuming that adults cannot accurately relay facts to other adults, based on a popular children’s game.

Well this isn’t a fallacy and oral history does, indeed, have issues. We can’t be sure of distortions 100%, but we can be reasonably sure.

“The Uneducated Fallacy:” Attributing a lack of education to your opponent simply for holding views that are different or opposite from your views.

That would be an argument from authority, but it can be true. Most people who reject evolution – for example – know little or nothing about it.

“The Truth Fallacy:” (also known as “The Mislabel Fallacy”): Re-defining the word “truth” or “evidence” to only apply to the position that you support, or to the kind of evidence which supports your argument, but not your opponent’s argument. For example: ‘Only science can be accepted as truth or evidence,’ or ‘Only the Bible can be accepted as truth or evidence.’

If accurate this would be a fallacy of redefinition.

“The Auto-Myth Fallacy:” Automatically assuming that an ancient book is myth because it is ancient, or automatically assuming a book is myth if it does not agree with your worldview.

Arguing that an ancient text is accurate or inaccurate based purely on its age would be an argument from antiquity and from its modernity an argument from that. I don’t think anyone actually says that it’s merely age that makes something a myth.

“The Bias-Fallacy:” Attributing more bias to anyone who has a different view from yours, than you attribute to the people who hold your view.

Cognitive bias is a real issue. In my experience non-believers are more aware of it while theists embrace it as though it were a good thing.

“Extraordinary-Fallacy:” Automatically labeling something false because it sounds extraordinary to you.

A reference to ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. I wouldn’t say this is a fallacy per se since it still calls for evidence. I think we can also, usefully, define ‘extraordinary’.

“The Born-This-Way Fallacy:” Claiming that the best argument is always the one which most closely resembles the knowledge you were born with. For example, ‘Atheism is a much better option than theism, because everyone is born without knowledge of God.’ This would be fallacious since everyone is also born without knowledge of science, logic, math, etc.

I don’t know that anyone has claimed this exactly, rather they’ve pointed out that this is the state of nature and that they remain unconvinced otherwise. Religion is not like science, logic, mathematics etc. We could re-learn all these from scratch and come up with the same answers. IF religion started from scratch, it would be virtually unrecognisable.

“The Raised-This-Way Fallacy:” Claiming that the best argument is the one most closely matching the status or knowledge you were raised with.

I’d file this under cognitive bias again, rather than a fallacy as such. It’s also one that very much fits theism.

More Ham: Observational and Historical Science

hamThis division is pure, grade ‘A’, nonsensical horseshit. There is no such division in science between observational and historical, there’s just science. ‘History’, a humanities subject, is sometimes called ‘Historical Science’ but in your actual ray-packs and jet-guns science, such a distinction does not exist.

Essentially, what Ken Ham is suggesting by making this division is that ‘If you didn’t see it, it didn’t happen’. Nye dealt with this quite adroitly with comparisons to procedural crime dramas like CSI and so on. Hopefully a point aimed at a level that could get through to the creationist audience. After all, everyone can appreciate the need for a justice system and one that – hopefully – catches the right guy and can prove it in court. There are many imperfect parallels between criminal investigation and science and that makes it a great way to reach people and help them understand. (Presumption of innocence = Burden of Proof, Judge & Jury = Peer Review, Evidence = Observations & Experiments).

Can we use observations in the present to determine what happened in the past?

Let us suppose that I have a piece of ham. Not Ham, just ham. Now we all know that ham is a pork product, made from pigs. Do we though? How do we know? Were we there when the ham was made? No, we weren’t. How might we use observations in the present, to determine that this ham was a pig in the past?

Well, ham is still pig flesh. We could take a biopsy from my sandwich and send it away for testing. It could then be cross-checked against the pig genome and if the genetic blueprints match any reasonable person might agree that yes, this ham used to be a pig.

We could also trace the ham back to its source. Tracking where food comes from is hugely important for hygiene and other reasons. It allowed all those ‘horsey’ lasagne ready meals to be tracked back to their source and allowed prosecutions and fines to be levelled. Incidentally it was genetic testing (see above) that demonstrated the presence of pony flesh in the first place. We can go back to the supermarket, from there to the supplier, the factory, the farm and to the herd of pigs. Depending on the country and level of food paranoia we might even be able to trace it all the way back to an individually recorded pig.

Does this not seem a reasonable way to pursue information about the past?

Ham relies on ‘testimony’, witness statements. Of course, the Bible isn’t reliable witness statements and doesn’t come from the time of the alleged events so it fails even by his own standard, but that’s another argument. Never mind that witness statements are the most unreliable 42_43e9fe72926526557c320ce95a8819feform of evidence we have, they’re great at convincing juries and in a similar way ‘testimonials’ are great for convincing people to sign up to the faith and drink the Flavor-Aid. This is where science has a bit of a PR problem. Scientists rightly couch everything they say in cautious terms, but that reads as weakness or uncertainty to that kind of crowd. ‘We think’ and ‘The evidence suggests’ and ‘It’s probable that’ sounds unimpressive next to ‘I know’ or ‘God told me’, whatever the truth of the matter might be.

If we went by Ham’s way of thinking criminals would walk free most of the time and we would cut ourselves off from some of the only meaningful ways we truly have to look into the past. It is telling when someone is so utterly desperate to maintain their outmoded belief system that they’re willing to throw any and all reason under the bus.

Religion Vs Not a Religion

A popular online dictionary defines religion, usefully, thus:

Religion: A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

So then. Is atheism a religion?

Atheism is a singular lack of belief in god/s.

That’s it.

It says nothing in and of itself about the cause, nature or purpose of the universe. Does not posit superhuman agency and has no devotional or ritual observances. In and of itself it says nothing about a moral code or the conduct of human affairs.

Is ‘being in a relationship with Jesus’ a religion?

As such you believe god is the cause of the universe and that by nature it is a creation with the purpose of testing mankind for his worthiness of access to a supernatural afterlife. You consider it the creation of a superhuman agency and you most likely pray and observe religious holidays in the manner determined by your faith. You believe, laughably, that the Bible contains a moral code for the conduct of human affairs.

That IS a religion. Christianity.

Other things that aren’t religions:

Science: A process of evidence gathering and testing to approach a usefully objective understanding of the universe.
Secularism: The singular belief that church and state should be separate.

The End is Nye

1267825310-billnyeSo Bill Nye is ‘debating‘ Ken Ham.

Many people are decrying this as a terrible idea and quoting various people who have their reasons for not debating creationists – and these are excellent reasons. Dawkins and others have chosen not to debate creationists because the ‘debates’ are not entered into honestly by creationists and because it lends credibility to the creationists who manage to ‘bag’ a scientist. It puts them on a – perceived – equal footing.

I don’t know that this is one of those cases though.

Much as I love Bill Nye and consider him an important educator and populariser of science and critical thinking, he’s a TV scientist and not a Dawkins, a Dennett, a Krauss or a Cox. There is little in the way of kudos to be gained by getting to debate him.

I’ve watched some of Ken Ham’s talks about creationism and the style he affects is a very self-effacing, jokey, down-home-country-style approach. It puts one in mind of the folksy lawyers so often used in The Simpsons and Futurama, playing up their idiocy and humility to play on the emotions of the jury and the gallery.

Eminent scientists can misread to your average punter as arrogant. Certitude, based on a lifetime of study and ready access to the facts, is seen as somehow sneering at or demeaning the common man.

Nye is a humble man, a man of good humour and a man effective at getting quite complex ideas across to people, especially children. These seem, to me, to be perfect qualifications to get through to what will likely be a fairly ignorant, predominantly creationist audience.

However…

I would not suggest that Bill goes into this as a debate, but rather that he uses the opportunity to lecture and to teach.

His opponent will throw a huge amount of garbage at him, all at once. The well known ‘Gish Gallop‘. If Bill tries to explain and defuse every bullshit argument thrown at him he’ll get nowhere because he’ll run out of time. Explaining why creationist arguments are wrong, unfortunately, takes a lot more time and effort than presenting them.

Rather, then, Bill should talk about:

1. The Scientific Method.
2. Why Ken’s historical/observational science split is dishonest.
3. The differences between and evidences for for BBT, abiogenesis, evolution and human evolution.