Several readers have sent me this link, but I have to say I’m not that convinced that the views expressed in this news item have any substantive content, or will catch on in society.
The piece, “Leading neuroscientist: Religious fundamentalism may be a ‘mental illness’ that can be ‘cured’” (note the scare quotes), is from The Raw Story, and refers to a talk at the Hay Literary festival by Kathleen Taylor a neurobiologist at Oxford University who studies the psychology and neuroscience of belief. This is the part that got all the attention (my emphasis):
During a talk at the Hay Literary Festival in Wales on Wednesday, Kathleen Taylor was asked what positive developments she anticipated in neuroscience in the next 60 years.
“One of the surprises may be to see people with certain beliefs as people who can be treated,” she explained, according to The Times of London. “Somebody who has for example become radicalised to a cult ideology – we might stop seeing that as a personal choice that they have chosen as a result of pure free will and may start treating it as some kind of mental disturbance.”
“I am not just talking about the obvious candidates like radical Islam or some of the more extreme cults,” she explained. “I am talking about things like the belief that it is OK to beat your children. These beliefs are very harmful but are not normally categorized as mental illness.”
“In many ways that could be a very positive thing because there are no doubt beliefs in our society that do a heck of a lot of damage, that really do a lot of harm.”
Well, in what respect is religion is a “mental disturbance” as opposed to a “personal choice”? Even the free-will compatibilists among us don’t think that one can “choose” to be religious any more than one can “choose” one’s political affiliation, taste in foods, or friends. It’s all a matter of your genes and your environments, and environments include what you’re exposed to—including childhood indoctrination. There is no such thing as the “pure free will” that Taylor is discussing here. (Granted, I was not at her talk, and am going on the news report.)
And yes, religion might be a “brain disorder,” in the sense that it resides in the configuration of your neurons, but so is being a Republican. But I doubt that it’s anything like a genetically-based neurological disease. It’s based largely on wish-thinking and the credulity of children: two things endemic in almost everyone. Yes, religious belief delusional, but so is being a Republican. And yes, we know that in some cases religious belief can be cured—many of us were once believers. But that cure may well involve getting rid of childhood indoctrination, as well as exposure to the arguments of atheists.
Going by the brief news report, I think Taylor sees religion as a ‘mental illness’ on two grounds: the fact that it isn’t based on real evidence, and that it has, as she implies, harmful effects on society. But so are many ‘beliefs’ that aren’t seen as mental illness—for example, the Republican view that increasing taxes on the wealthy will destroy the economy or that legalizing assault weapons is good for society. I’m not convinced, either, that being an “Islamic fundamentalist” has radically different causes from being an observant Catholic. It’s all what you’re exposed to in your culture, and how that exposure interacts with your neurology.
If religion is to be extirpated, it’s useless to begin that endeavor by identifying it as a “mental illness”. Such illness, however unfairly, is seen as a stigma in many societies, and telling believers that they’re mentally ill is not going to make them suddenly flock to psychiatrists. (The alternative, forcible treatment, is simply not in the cards.) It’s better to identify faith, as New Atheists do, as a delusion, and try to “cure” it simply by convincing people that they need good reasons for what they believe.
Finally, as I’ve said many times, the best way to “cure” religious belief is to eliminate the conditions that promote it, and that’s best done by building a more secure, just, and egalitarian society.