Brother Tayler’s secular Sunday sermon: a riff on a hoax

An article in The NewsNerd notes that the American Psychological Association is about to classify extreme religiosity as a mental illness. A true God Delusion!:

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a strong and passionate belief in a deity or higher power, to the point where it impairs one’s ability to make conscientious decisions about common sense matters, will now be classified as a mental illness.

The controversial ruling comes after a 5-year study by the APA showed devoutly religious people often suffered from anxiety, emotional distress, hallucinations, and paranoia. The study stated that those who perceived God as punitive was directly related to their poorer health, while those who viewed God as benevolent did not suffer as many mental problems. The religious views of both groups often resulted in them being disconnected from reality.

Dr. Lillian Andrews, professor of psychology, stated, “Every year thousands of people die after refusing life-saving treatment on religious grounds. Even when being told ‘you will die without this treatment’ patients reject the idea and believe that their God will still save them. Those lives could be saved simply by classifying those people as mentally unfit for decision making.”

. . . With the new classification, the APA will lobby to introduce legislation which would allow doctors the right to force life-saving treatment on those who refuse it for spiritual reasons on the grounds that they are mentally incapable of making decisions about their health.

I’ve written at length about this very problem (in Slate, for example), especially the the United States’s shameful coddling of parents who withhold medical care from their children on religious grounds. Those parents are given a legal break in 43 of the 50 U.S. states, and it’s reprehensible and unconscionable.(47 of the 50 states also permit religious exemptions from vaccination for children attending public school.) The last chapter of Faith versus Fact, for example, discusses this issue in detail, for it’s a palpable example of severe harm caused by faith—and the onus to fix it is on all of us.

Sadly, as Jeffrey Tayler notes in his latest Sunday Secular Sermon in Salon, “The religious have gone insane: the separation of church and state—and Scalia from his mind,” this story in NewsNerd, like all others on the site, is a fake. It sounds realistic, and is what many of us would like to be true, but it isn’t.

Screen shot 2015-07-26 at 8.02.09 PM

So the largely free license that religious parents have to hurt their children via faith-healing remains untrammeled. (Tayler even pays me a nice parenthetical compliment for my discussion of the issue: “For a shocking, even heartbreaking exploration of this issue and much more, check out Jerry Coyne’s ‘Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible’, which could be a primer for all rationalists wishing to argue the case for nonbelief.”)

Tayler goes on to insist, as he has before, that extreme religiosity is a form of mental illness. Some readers may disagree, but let those who do remember that if people behaved the same way about Bigfoot as they did about Jesus, they’d be seen as delusional. Tayler:

 . . . the satire in the News Nerd’s piece derives its efficacy from an obvious truth: belief in a deity motivates people to behave in all sorts of ways — some childish and pathetic, others harmful, a few outright criminal — most of which, to the nonbeliever at least, mimic symptoms of an all-encompassing mental illness, if of widely varying severity.

Why childish?  A majority of adults in one of the most developed countries on Earth believe, in all seriousness, that an invisible, inaudible, undetectable “father” exercises parental supervision over them, protecting them from evil (except when he doesn’t), and, for the mere price of surrendering their faculty of reason and behaving in ways spelled out in various magic books, will ensure their postmortem survival.  Wishful thinking characterizes childhood, yes, but, where the religious are concerned, not only.  That is childish.

Tayler goes on to recount the palpable harms of faith: not only the death of innocent and brainwashed children, but the oppression of women, the “scarred psyches” of many of those brainwashed kids, Jesus Camp, ISIS, and so on. The list is familiar, but Tayler’s remedy is pure New Atheist:

Yet all is not lost!  If the News Nerd’s APA story was a hoax, professionals are, nonetheless, taking note of the danger it was parodying.  A San-Franciscan human development consultant named Dr. Marlene Winell, herself a survivor of a Pentecostal upbringing, has bruited the idea of “religious trauma syndrome” and established its symptoms as “anxiety . . . depression, cognitive difficulties, and problems with social functioning.”  Kathleen Taylor, an Oxford neuroscientist, has proposed treating religious fundamentalism itself as a “mental disturbance.”

The cure, in my view?  Talk therapy, otherwise known as free speech, focusing relentlessly on religion and its multitudinous, multiplying ills, to be administered by us to the faith-deranged.  Treatment might begin in language they can readily understand.  The best, most succinct notion to be transmitted to the patients: “The deepest sin against the human mind is to believe things without evidence.”  The nineteenth-century British biologist Thomas H. Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog,” said that.

It’s up to us.  For the sake of humanity’s future, for the sake of our children, rationalists need to be unabashedly “bull-doggish.”

The time has arrived to bark, and even to bite.

I’ll bite! What say you: should we treat this extreme form of religiosity as a mental illness, when we know it really is one, albeit one that’s widespread? Should we even call it a mental illness, knowing that it will alienate many of the faithful?


  1. BobTerrace
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 11:48 am | Permalink


    • GBJames
      Posted July 27, 2015 at 12:13 pm | Permalink


      • rickflick
        Posted July 27, 2015 at 7:09 pm | Permalink


  2. Frank
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    All mental illnesses are a matter of degree. We clinically say someone is schizophrenic or not, knowing full well that there are mild and severe forms along a continuum of dissociation from reality. And we know that this continuum is affected by many identified genes as well as the environment.
    The same goes for religiosity. There should be no question that it should be deemed a mental illness when it leads to extreme and harmful irrational behavior – even if the person appears “normal” in other spheres of his or her life. But it likely would be counterproductive to call milder religiosity a mental illness, even if we think that this or that belief is downright crazy.
    We all know people who swallow the most absurd ideas – and they are often inculcated with these at a very young age – but are otherwise functioning, even rational individuals in the rest of their lives. So we might have to resort to using the consequences of religiosity to make a judgment about the mental state of an individual? I think you might make a case that someone who knows the benefits of modern medicine, and willfully withholds them from their children in serious cases, is indeed mentally ill.

    • eric
      Posted July 27, 2015 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, I would tend to agree. I think a better phrasing of the NewsNerd’s satirical position would be: “According to the American Psychological Association (APA), any belief that greatly impairs one’s ability to make conscientious decisions about common sense matters will now be classified as a mental illness…with no exception for religious beliefs.”

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted July 28, 2015 at 9:11 am | Permalink

        Yes, there’s no reason to single religion out. Everybody’s a fuckup to some degree (that’s a technical term, but as long as behaviour remains mostly within the normal range of only moderate destructiveness, there’s no need to stigmatise.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted July 28, 2015 at 9:12 am | Permalink

          [close parenthesis before comma]

        • Diane G.
          Posted July 28, 2015 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

          Yes, but…

          The satire can be read as singling out only the whacko fringe, for which there may in fact be data about their health and outcomes that could qualify as mental illness. We don’t have to consider it an all or nothing diagnosis, and in fact that’s not what the article calls for. People who intentionally starve their babies on the basis of supernatural dictate are surely under the grip of a deleterious delusion, at the least.

  3. frednotfaith2
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Certainly the more extreme sort of religious fundamentalism should be treated as a mental disease, although because it is likely by far the most common form of mental disease it most probably never will be recognized as such by the American Psychological Association or any other such group as while individual members may actually agree but would be unwilling as a group to risk the uproar, including by mentally inflicted but powerful and bombastic politicians, that would erupt after such an announcement. Certainly Republicans would be express deep resentment and outrage despite having not-so-secret rules mandating that each of their presidential wannabes be certified as being inflicted with that particular mental illness before they can be accepted as a legitimate candidate.

  4. William G
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    The stifling anticomedy of NewsNerd reminds me of the recent article in the Daily Beast about the death of satire. I recommend giving it a read.

    As for the Religion Is A Mental Illness meme, I object, not just because it dehumanizes believers and stigmatizes people with disabilities, but because it’s just wrong. Delusional means unable to distinguish reality from unreality. Ardent religionists have that ability, but choose not to use it wherever they think they can get away with it. That’s not delusional, that’s deludued.

    • Ian Clark
      Posted July 27, 2015 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      That’s not pedantic, that’s pedantry.

      • William G
        Posted July 27, 2015 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

        Do you have something substantive to say about what I wrote? If not, you may be in violation of Da Roolz, specifically number 7.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted July 28, 2015 at 9:16 am | Permalink

          I thought it was humorous and also fair comment, as the distinction you imply between ‘delusional’ and ‘deluded’ is not at all clear (if it exists at all) in common usage.

          • William G
            Posted July 28, 2015 at 9:43 am | Permalink

            Well I found it glib and insulting, and if Ian’s still out there, I’d appreciate an explanation or an apology from him.

            Delusional: Unable to tell reality from unreality.

            Deluded: Able to tell reality from unreality, but willfully choosing not to use that ability where it suits you.

            Anything else you need help with?

            • phil
              Posted July 29, 2015 at 8:44 am | Permalink

              Your definitions don’t seem right to me. Most of the definitions I’ve read couch both delusional and deluded in terms of having delusions, e.g. (from The Free Dictionary)

              Adj. 1. delusional – suffering from or characterized by delusions

              not about the subjects ability to tell reality from unreality. A person might not be able to tell reality from unreality due to poor or insufficient data, but that might not make them deluded nor delusional. What would make them deluded or delusional would be holding beliefs for which there is no good reason to, especially beliefs for which there is good reason not to (i.e. delusions).

              For someone to have a delusion suggests that their ability to distinguish unreality from reality is impaired, for whatever reason.

              • William G
                Posted July 29, 2015 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

                Why am I getting so much push-back here? I acknowledge that there are more than one definition of delusion, but we are clearly talking about it here in the context of mental health (remember the headline of the crappy NewsNerd article?). Since you’re taking the Free Dictionary as authority here, you should have assumed that I meant delusional in the capacity of it’s root noun’s 2B definition, :

                (Psychiatry) A false belief or perception that is a manifestation of a mental illness.

                Yes, delusions are common, but delusional in the context of the APA guide means suffering from those false beliefs because of a malfunctioning brain.

                And you didn’t even bother to compare it to the Free Dictionary’s straightforward definition of delude, which is the actual distinction I was trying to make.

                To cause to hold a false belief; deceive thoroughly

                As in “You’re deluding yourself”. It’s not that you’re crazy, it’s that you’re being foolish. Do you think I’m coddling religion when I say that believers aren’t sick in the head, they’re just lying to themselves?

    • eric
      Posted July 27, 2015 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      If someone acts in society in a way that dangerously mistakes unreality from reality, shouldn’t that be considered ‘delusional’ regardless of the content? As a fellow member of society, I could care less whether somebody is smashing cars because they think the government’s mind control laser is telling them to do it or because God told them to do it; both beliefs are functionally similar.

      • William G
        Posted July 27, 2015 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

        I suspect that both of your car-smashers fall into the “delusional” camp. I’m not saying that mentally ill people never act on religious beliefs, I’m saying that you can’t tar the whole spectrum of religious belief with “mental illness”.

        If a Christian told you that she only donates her time and money to a worthwhile charity because she knows in her heart Jesus loves her and has forgiven her, would you say that she’s mentally ill? No, you’d say her religion inspires her to do good things while at the same time degrading her as a worthless sinner. (You’d be right)

        I don’t say this to coddle the faithful. It’s the opposite. We all operate under delusions, but most have the mental tools to fix them. When you call someone delusional or their religion a mental illness, you’re saying you expect no better from them and ending the conversation there.

        • eric
          Posted July 27, 2015 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

          I’m saying that you can’t tar the whole spectrum of religious belief with “mental illness”.

          I would agree with that. However, I think Jerry’s point is that if you look at the way the law treats behavior such as starving or killing ones’ kids through neglect, the spectrum of religious belief isn’t treated the same way as the spectrum of secular or non-religious beliefs; its given more leeway. That’s wrong. Nonbelievers advocating a change from the status quo are NOT demanding that going to church on Sunday be considered grounds for removing your children from your home. They are demanding a change in law such that killing your kids based on religious belief be treated just like killing your kids based on non-religious belief…criminalized; not tolerated.

          • William G
            Posted July 27, 2015 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

            I agree whole-heartedly that bad religious behavior is given more leeway, and in some cases even sanctioned and subsidized, by society and that it shouldn’t be. What does this have to do with calling religion a mental illness?

            Tayler and Jerry (both of whom I respect very much), imply that calling religion a mental illness is accurate, but that we only don’t because it alienates people. I say it’s inaccurate at the get-go because, while the beliefs may be nuts, the believers themselves are only indulging common cognitive biases. You can’t reason someone out of thinking that his dog wants him to kill the president, but you can reason someone out of believing the Christ died for his sins. That he’s more likely to dismiss disconfirming evidence and try to change the subject does not make him crazy, it makes him human.

            • GBJames
              Posted July 27, 2015 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

              I trust you would agree to adding a qualifier here: “…the most believers themselves are only indulging common cognitive biases…” There are, after all believers who I expect you would acknowledge were clinically insane. Guys who believe themselves to be Jesus reborn comes to mind. Charlie Manson types, etc.

              • William G
                Posted July 27, 2015 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

                Absolutely. Religion often provides a nifty framework for madness, but is not a mental illness in and of itself.

            • eric
              Posted July 28, 2015 at 7:05 am | Permalink

              What does this have to do with calling religion a mental illness?

              One reason the current double standard exists is (IMO) because we have a double standard in labeling beliefs insane. We don’t call people who kill their kids in exorcisms insane the way we might if it wasn’t linked to religion. We are less willing to call religious behavior a mental illness than we are to call the exact same behavior a mental illness when its not religious. Remove that double standard in how people think about behavior, and we’ll go some of the way towards making such behavior less socially acceptable.

            • rickflick
              Posted July 28, 2015 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

              I agree. It seems to me that you can think of the class of people who suffer from, say schizophrenia, who, when exposed to religious indoctrination behave within the religious context in crazy ways. Now schizophrenia has correlates in brain structure and chemistry. The religion does not cause her to act insane, but provides one of many outlets for observing symptoms.
              The average believer, on the other had who is not schizophrenic, with similar indoctrination, can act in similar crazy ways based on a complete misunderstanding of reality. Clearly they are not mentally ill, just misguided.
              We might consider a 3rd class who are basically psychologically normal but who behave insanely and become schizophrenic because of the religious indoctrination. I’m not sure this last class actually exists in any numbers. Can people with normal brain structure and nurochemisty have these characteristics altered by indoctrination?

              • Diane G.
                Posted July 28, 2015 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

                Perhaps yes, along the same lines as Stockholm Syndrome.

            • phil
              Posted July 29, 2015 at 9:20 am | Permalink

              I reckon you could just as accurately say you can reason someone out of thinking that his dog wants him to kill the president, but you can’t reason someone out of believing the Christ died for his sins. A christian who has been indoctrinated in the faith since childhood is likely to be very difficult to “deconvert” by reason, you probably have to induce some crisis with their identity to make them flip.

              Some people have been pretty much brainwashed into believing, from a very young age. Surely that *is* close enough to a mental disability to be called illness.

              I should also add that what rates as unreasonable belief (delusion) has cultural context, religion especially. Furthermore “religion” covers a spectrum of beliefs, rituals, practices, etc, and some of it would not rate as a mental disorder, however some instances of it certainly would qualify.

              • William G
                Posted July 29, 2015 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

                You can’t accurately say that. John Loftus, Dan Barker, and I are just three of I don’t know how many former Christians who reasoned our way to atheism.

                It’s true that some are so deep in the culture of their faith that it’s difficult to talk them out of it, but that doesn’t make them crazy, it makes them unreasonable.

        • phil
          Posted July 29, 2015 at 8:59 am | Permalink

          “When you call someone delusional or their religion a mental illness, you’re saying you expect no better from them and ending the conversation there.”

          I think that is a generalisation and not always true. I might call someone delusional as a slap in the face, with the hope that they may reassess their beliefs. Maybe it won’t work. I might tell someone I think they are deluded if they asked me what I thought of their faith, or I might describe religious belief as a delusion if I were asked about it.

          Whether it ends the conversation there depends on the interlocutor and the nature and purpose of the discussion.

          It’s also possible that I don’t want to prolong the conversation and ending it there is a blessing.

          Actually I think a lot of believers should be informed about how offensive their beliefs are to others, that they (their beliefs) are not necessarily warm, comforting and harmless.

          • William G
            Posted July 29, 2015 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

            I don’t like getting slapped in the face either. I didn’t as a Christian, and I don’t as an atheist. You can tell someone that what they profess is wrong and offensive without playing amateur psychiatrist and impugning their capacity to reason. In fact, you might find your point comes across better if you don’t. And if it’s a conversation you’d rather not be having, don’t say anything. Just walk away.

    • tombesson
      Posted July 27, 2015 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      William, where is the evidence to back your assertion that pointing out when someone thinks wrongly is dehumanising and, in the case of people with disabilities, stigmatising? It appears that you have some sympathies for those who choose not to think for themselves. Okay, but don’t support beliefs that foster harm to innocents. Those who advocate beliefs that harm innocents also think that if they believe certain thoughts while while their cells are dividing, they can change the cosmos when their cells stop dividing (Their ‘souls’ will go to one place versus another.). I don’t agree with that assertion because it is both delusional and deluded.

      • William G
        Posted July 28, 2015 at 7:25 am | Permalink

        I wasn’t saying you shouldn’t call out the religious when they are wrong and causing problems, I’m saying you shouldn’t say they’re mentally ill just because they have religion.

        It dehumanizes because it treats religious people like they are not responsible for their own actions. It’s as bad as the Mormon Church stating that people who leave LDS, regardless of their stated reasons for doing so, are under the control of Satan. Do you need evidence that that is dehumanizing?

        Are you suggesting that atheists call religion a mental illness out of compassion? It’s stigmatizing towards people with mental disorders because it is clearly meant as an insult. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous.

        “It appears that you have some sympathies for those who choose not to think for themselves.”

        That is a mighty superior attitude you’re taking there. It’s OK to think you’re better than some people. You probably are. But to be so dismissive of the larger part of humanity is just going to alienate potential friends and converts, as well as make you deaf to legitimate criticism of your own views.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 27, 2015 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      That article is simply a nostalgic “my era was better than this era” whinge. And he’s hardly one to talk about clickbait.

      • William G
        Posted July 28, 2015 at 7:33 am | Permalink

        Well, there’s no arguing taste I suppose, but it seems to me a verified fact that the Onion and the Daily Show aren’t what they were in their heyday, and that the interwebs are awash in amateur comedians who want to do what the Onion does but can’t.

        Do you think the NewsNerd is funny? It’s a straightly written article based on a contrived premise. I don’t see any joke there.

        • Diane G.
          Posted July 28, 2015 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

          Not only had I never heard of NewsNerd, I skipped right over the title of this post when I began reading and thus thought it was a true story till Jerry’s remarks afterwards. So considering it deceived an uber skeptic like me, I’d say it’s absolutely brilliant. 😉

          • William G
            Posted July 28, 2015 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

            The question wasn’t “Is it a competent deception?”. It is. It is written completely straight. The disclaimer Jerry posts is not on the article page. It’s just flashing banners and pop-up ads, with seemingly random words hyperlinked, taking you to further advertisements.

            The question was: “Is it funny? Is it good satire?” Tastes may differ, but I don’t think it is, and I wouldn’t if I did think reclassifying religious belief as a mental illness was a good idea. The headline hints at a potentially humorous scenario, and that’s where the comedy stops. It doesn’t poke fun at the powerful and self-important. It doesn’t upend commonplace societal assumptions. It’s an out-of-season April Fool’s Day joke, and it’s tedious.

            If you scroll down, you’ll see a link to another piece about A boy suspended from school for reading the bible during recess. The punchline:

            “The school refused to elaborate on why they chose to suspend Joshua, other than saying his actions were directly against school policy.”

            Funny? No. Satire? Dead.

            • Diane G.
              Posted July 28, 2015 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

              Easy solution –if you don’t like the site, don’t pursue it any further.

              • William G
                Posted July 28, 2015 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

                For Christ’s sake, really? It’s not like I was ever expecting you to say that I might have a point, but “if you don’t like it, don’t read it and shut up about it”? Why were you defending the site in the first place at all, then? Why didn’t you play this card sooner?

                Do you, as an “uber skeptic”, accept this maxim when a Christian tells you to stop messing with his Bible if you don’t care for it? Would you have accepted it from me when you slammed the Daily Beast article I cited at the beginning of this miserable exchange?

                I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be mean and I don’t think you’re a bad person, but I think you’ve treated me rather shabbily here and am frustrated at how some of these exchanges have completely derailed.

              • Diane G.
                Posted July 29, 2015 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

                William, above you asked, “why am I getting so much push-back here?” I think you’re getting disagreement, not push-back, and that’s what one risks when posting opinions. You seem to be mad because I liked the NewsNerd article better than the satire-is-dead article that you posted. I think my opinion is as valid as yours. Nothing to get upset about. Just because you feel strongly about something doesn’t mean we all feel the same way.

              • William G
                Posted July 29, 2015 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

                As I’ve said throughout our exchange, Diane, I understand that tastes vary, and I’m not mad that other people found that manipulative clickbait funny. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where everybody likes the things that I like and hates what I hate. I like arguing with people. It keeps me sharp, so long as things don’t devolve into misrepresentation and insults.

                What upsets me is your dismissive tone. I put thought and effort into that comment. You could have elaborated on your reasons as to why you find it funny. You could have reciprocated my “to each his/her own” sentiment. You could have not responded at all. Instead, you told me, in effect, to shut up if I don’t like it. That wasn’t thoughtful disagreement. It was disrespectful.

  5. Mark R.
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I would say YES, treat it as a mental illness, though I think there are degrees. For some it is a harmless delusion, for others deadly. The difficult task would be to determine when it needs some form of treatment, and if so, should treatment be forced. That’s where it gets dicey. Perhaps we start just by stating it’s a mental illness, (as is suggested in the post) and let’s see where it takes us.

    In the same regard, I would also treat extreme racism/xenophobia/misogyny as a form of mental illness. Hate that is not based in reality. Is it treatable? I say yes. I would go further on this topic and say some need to be forced into therapy. Obviously, Dylann and his ilk comes to mind.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted July 27, 2015 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      I tend to agree. The problem here is really that mental illness carries a stigma (in some countries more than others too) that physical illness mostly doesn’t. In societies where physical illness is seen as a divine punishment people are less likely to seek treatment for conditions they can hide, and the same is true in most societies in relation to mental illness. Religiosity won’t be labelled as the mental illness it is as long as there’s a stigma attached to mental illness.

      Perhaps it would aid the de-stigmatisation and acceptance of mental illness if holding irrational beliefs like religion was declared a mental illness?

    • Posted July 28, 2015 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      I wonder if forced therapy does any good. Seems to me you need to want success to benefit from it; if you think there’s nothing wrong with you, you’ll be resistant.

      • Diane G.
        Posted July 28, 2015 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

        You have a good point. I’ve heard that cult “deprogrammers” can achieve good results, however.

  6. Karen
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    The article mentions something about how you have to be childish to believe in invisible, magical beings. I would love to start the “grow up” campaign whereby if someone states nonsense about reality you simply say, “you’re a child, grow up” and walk away. But would it do any good? Is that insulting enough? Too insulting? I don’t know. Why oh why can’t a celebrity who accepts reality turn to another faith-addled celebrity on a network talk show and say exactly that, “You’re a child. Grow up.” And then turn his back. That would make the news, wouldn’t it? I see t-shirts, “Grow Up! The earth is 4.6 billion years old.” And “Grow Up! Vaccines save lives.” Does anyone else like this idea? Or would it do more harm than good.

    • BobTerrace
      Posted July 27, 2015 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Saying “grow up” and then turning your back, is itself somewhat childish. I think a dialogue would be preferable.

  7. DrBrydon
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Well, much as I disdain religion, I think this idea is a non-starter. The explicit protections in the Constitution for religion would prohibit any sort of mandated therapy, and it is bordering on impossible that this would change. (I, for one, as an atheist would oppose such a change.) And if such therapy isn’t mandated, what is this, but another pointless act of political theater which brings the medical community into further disdain?

    Frankly, this sounds too much to me like the Soviet use of mental hospitals, and schemes for curing homosexuals. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of much importance to say that it would only be “fundamentalists.”

    There can be no useful purpose in stigmatizing theists in this way, even if it were accepted by the medical community. We would do well to observe that theists are more likely than most to defend their beliefs with violence. The First Amendment protects us not only from the war of sect against sect, but of belief against unbelief.

    Finally, if this were a medical condition, would we at some point have to pay disability to theists? Would we have to permit behavior in the workplace under the guise of a medical condition that we don’t now accept under the First Amendment?

    • eric
      Posted July 27, 2015 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      I don’t want to lock up theists when they are theists; I want to lock up theists and nontheists alike when they are child abusers.

      Frankly, this sounds too much to me like the Soviet use of mental hospitals, and schemes for curing homosexuals.

      I think that’s a slippery slope argument with not a lot to support it. Right now we have reasonable (but far from perfect) methods for deciding who gets to keep their kids and who doesn’t. Who needs to be institutionalized and who doesn’t. Nobody AFAIK is demanding we relax those criteria across the board. What people like JAC do want to do is see those criteria applied equally to wrongdoers who claim they were acting for religious reasons. I also find it somewhat ludicrous to think that theists in today’s US have to worry about being considered and abused minority in this scenario. In Stalinist Russia yes the church and church-goers had something to fear; the government was opposed to them. In the 21st century US, the reverse is true; church-goers are the government.

  8. Pliny the in Between
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    DSM 31; July 2100:

    Theological Affective Disorder: An impairment of executive functions characterized by persistence of magical thinking into adulthood.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 27, 2015 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      Nicely done.

  9. Jonathan Dore
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    As attractive as the idea sometimes seems, treating the religious as mentally ill would easily play into the hands of those who wish to paint atheism as a threat to freedom of thought and conscience. It wouldn’t take them long to remember (as we should, too) that one of the ways the Soviet Union used to oppress the religious was by classifying them as mentally ill and incarcerating them in prison “hospitals” as a result. (Yes, this really happened — I was involved in an Amnesty International campaign in the late 1980s on behalf of such a person.) Frustrating and annoying as it is to try to argue with people who just make stuff up and unashamedly repeat things after you’ve demonstrated them to be untrue, I’m afraid there’s no shortcut to be had in the sleight-of-hand of simply reclassifying their thought as mental illness. We simply have to oppose it, by argument, again and again and again.

    • Posted July 27, 2015 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      Classifying religion as a mental illness would be a disaster for atheists in terms of image. It would go exactly as you suggest it would. FOX would have a field day.

      • Posted July 28, 2015 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        Of course, this doesn’t mean that at least some forms of religion aren’t in fact a kind of mental illness, or at least a symptom of mental illness.

        Just because a lot of people would dislike it if we called a spade a spade doesn’t mean the spade is not a spade.

        • Posted July 28, 2015 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

          I agree, I just feel as though atheists should avoid framing it that way in the press. I should have been clearer that I was speaking in the context of messaging.

    • William G
      Posted July 27, 2015 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      Very true. I’m getting the sense that the tactic is just borne of frustration from people who are disappointed by the lack of mass deconversion in the wake of growing evidence of a purely natural world.

      I think it was Sam Harris who said that religion allows people to believe by the millions what only a crazy person could believe alone. The important takeaway there is that it’s the belief that’s crazy, not the believer.

      It isn’t insanity that keeps people tethered to temples, it’s a collection of cultural and cognitive biases, in which we all share. It’s nothing beautiful, as Karen Armstrong or Krista Tippett would have you believe, but it’s real, and should be acknowledged and challenged, not dismissed by amateur psychologists as mental illness.

      • Posted July 27, 2015 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

        “The important takeaway there is that it’s the belief that’s crazy, not the believer.”

        Exactly. Saying otherwise plays into the hands of those who argue the cause of extremism is anything but crazy ideas.

  10. Randy Schenck
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I suppose when people go extreme on almost anything it can be considered a mental disorder of some type. Therefore, extreme religion should be no different but it would never stick in this country. Religion gets a pass as it does with most everything else including taxes.

    Was Jim Jones a full blown nut job? Was David Koresh crazy? Sure they were, and the dead left behind are the result. But the fact that they accomplished the disasters they did only shows our fear of getting involved in anything with religion wrapped around it.

    • Posted July 28, 2015 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      This is, AFAIK (do we not have any psychologists around?) already the position of the DSM. Any false belief *if it impairs function* (used in a technical way) can be characterized as a delusion (in the technical sense), from what I understand.

      So religious beliefs *can* be characterized as one symptom of mental illness.

      The twists are:
      (a) What counts as functional is social-group relative.
      (b) Delusions are *symptoms*, not by themselves conditions, so mental illness by itself is not necessarily the conclusion.

  11. Posted July 27, 2015 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    We already have people trying to explain away terrorist acts for example by claiming the perpetrators were depressed, or otherwise mentally ill. Making extremism by definition a mental illness is counterproductive, it takes the blame away from religion.
    What we want people to recognize is that perfectly sane, and rational people can act in extreme ways when motivated by the belief that their religion is true. It’s not, for example, unreasonable to blow yourself up, and take others with you in the name of Islam, if you sincerely believe you will be rewarded with direct access to paradise.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 27, 2015 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      Good point.

      “We already have people trying to explain away terrorist acts for example by claiming the perpetrators were depressed, or otherwise mentally ill.”

      Primarily, white perpetrators.

    • William G
      Posted July 27, 2015 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

      Nailed it. It seems odd that people at both extremes pathologize hyper-religiosity. Religion’s cheerleaders like Reza Aslan will say that transgressors and terrorists are bringing their own psychopathy to a pure and blameless faith, while anti-accomodationists will say that professed allegiance to faith turns an otherwise supple mind into a de iure lunatic.

      I don’t want to draw a false equivalence here (I fall squarely in the anti-accomodationist camp) but I think it’s unworthy of both parties. People often have rational reasons to rationalize the irrational. For example, we talk about parents withholding medicine from very sick children: The doctor is unlikely to make any promise of certain recovery. The shaman is happy to promise that, as well as get the whole family in good with the spiritual community and the great comptroller in the sky, who will look after them all forever. The parent who picks the shaman isn’t having a break from reality, she’s just hoping against hope that Pascal’s wager comes through for her.

  12. Posted July 27, 2015 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    The Christian Right is already playing the martyr, and making ridiculous claims of persecution. Calling extreme faith a mental illness would play into their hands and, for the first time, would give evidence of what is so far, non-existent. They may even use the satirical article as such evidence.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 27, 2015 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      Well, tough. I think it’s great satire. 😉

  13. AdamK
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Some people with schizophrenia believe they’re receiving transmissions from aliens, some believe it’s from angels. Both groups are schizophrenic. The second doesn’t have a different “illness,” just a different delusional system. Religiosity can present as manifesting mental illness, but isn’t particularly diagnostic of which illness or illnesses are present. It’s generally present in the culture.

  14. Matthew Jenkins
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    It is high time that it became normal to regard religious people as suffering from cognitive impairment. If readers of WEIT make this point regularly in conversation and comments on online newspapers, we will bring it into general consciousness. The satire article reflects a welcome sea change.

  15. Vaal
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    I don’t like the idea.

    First, I don’t like ever encroaching pathologizing of human behavior in general.

    Second, it’s just damned creepy, given the diagnosing of religious belief (or other thought patterns) as “mental illness” is a tried and true method of secular Authoritarian states. (And the diagnosing of alternate belief systems as mental illness
    is used by various cults and religions over the years as well).

    Yes, I know we are talking about some debilitating extreme, not religious belief in general, but I don’t like the vibe.

  16. Marella
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    I think as a general rule, a mental quirk becomes an illness when it seriously impinges on your ability to live a productive life. If your religious beliefs are destroying your ability to function effectively, then they are a mental illness. Most people’s religious beliefs have little to no effect on their daily lives, and amount to little more than the feeling that they are too important to snap out of existence when they die. But for some people their religion is the final straw for a fragile psyche, and it becomes an illness.

  17. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    It is hard to support an idea as an official mental illness when that idea has so much official support. Even extreme forms.

    The idea of god is acknowledged as true by a huge majority of people. Many of those people are world leaders, the top of the hierarchy. Given that and the congruent belief about texts like the bible and Koran being the word of said being then anyone believing it cannot be being be said to be delusional.
    The imaginary voices and images they assert they experience are validated by a majority of people.

    Extreme cases are pretty much what they think they are, more faithful to the book and belief than others.

    Unless every notion of a god, especially the most mild is also castigated and condemned and it is applied to the top of the tree first, I think it is unreasonable to call it mental illness only for some.

    All or none.

    That is not to say that some extreme forms are not mental illness but just in terms of religiosity itself, all or none.

    I vote all.

    The Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Ayatollahs, Patriarch this that or the other, all, batshit crazy.
    Start there and work our way down.

  18. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    One question is whether the underlying mechanism (both psychological and physiological) that supports religious belief is the same as that for severe forms of schizophrenia. I suspect not. Professional psychologists no longer use the term “addiction” to describe what much of the world calls “sex addiction” or “video game addiction”, because the underlying mechanism underlying the latter is quite different than that underlying addiction to cocaine or alcohol. (The latter addictions permanently modify the brain in a way that the former do not.)

    I do think some forms of religion !*induce*! genuine mental illness, but that’s a tad different from saying it !*is*! mental illness.

    • Posted July 28, 2015 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      I have wondered from time to time recently whether or not religion might also be a self-medication of sorts. Think of all the repetitive motions and such in many ceremonies and rituals – could people who find the religions which do a lot of these be “self-medicating” for OCD?

  19. Jeffery
    Posted July 27, 2015 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    The worst part about this, “spoof” article is that some, “believers” will see it, think it true, and scream to all of their friends that, “THE WAR ON CHRISTIANITY HAS JUST BEEN ESCALATED!” Even when they ARE informed that it was a hoax, it’s too late: the emotions triggered by the fact that they ALREADY believed there was a “War on Christianity” have now been “ramped up”, just as a person’s heart may continue to race long after the snake they thought they saw turned out to be a vine. This notion of yet another “threat” to a cherished belief only serves (as shown by studies) to “harden” their faith, cause them to seize onto even more absurd rationalizations to defend it, and make it more likely that extreme measures will be taken in the perceived, “necessary” defense of that faith.

  20. Posted July 27, 2015 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on dyke writer and commented:
    The Reality is that Religion is a mental illness (imaginary friends and delusions) and the terrible satire is that no organization that has the grounds to say so is doing so, eh?

  21. Posted July 28, 2015 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    I’ll add one more comment that most religious belief shouldn’t be classified as mental illness. It’s merely being mistaken, usually due to a history of being taught false information. By analogy, if a scientific theory is updated by new evidence, it doesn’t mean people were delusional for believing the previous theory, just mistaken.

  22. Hempenstein
    Posted July 28, 2015 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Um, the relevant term is Extreme. Such as, when someone you’ve never seen before confronts you at the deli counter and demands to know if I’ve accepted J Haploid Christ as my personal savior. That is a form of derangement.

    And then there was the once bright, starry-eyed girl I knew from highschool who had turned into a babbling loon on FB, turning everything into some religious confrontation.

    A little help from the APA would be appreciated.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 28, 2015 at 4:21 pm | Permalink


  23. Posted July 28, 2015 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Unless one lives an extremely charmed life, a few mental delusions are helpful. For example, I’m harboring one right now about how much I can accomplish on a project before a deadline at the end of August. If I tried to be realistic about it, I’d throw up my hands and give up. Closer to the deadline, I’ll reassess and replan.

    But, you say, that’s totally different than religious belief. Is it? My mom-in-law is nearing the end of her life. She’s the last sibling in a large, close-knit family, currently grieving the recent death of her last living sister. There are days when the delusion that she’ll be reunited with Evie in heaven, and neither of them will suffer the imposition of a badly-working body, keeps her going. Who am I to argue with that?

    It’s when the delusions start ruining one’s quality of life (see: Patriarchy/Quiverfull movements in Christianity for an example)that they become problematic. I don’t have any problem with insisting that your delusions don’t get to cause damage to others, and if they are prone to that then you really should get counseling. If those others are your minor children, maybe we should be insisting (with the force of CPS) that you get counseling.

    Finally, there have been comments about calling religiosity a mental illness being stigmatizing to the religious, but nobody has pointed out that it is stigmatizing to the mentally ill. when significant illnesses like depression and bipolar disorder start getting lumped in with worshiping God/Jesus/Allah/Whoever, those of us with now-recognized mental health issues can easily get blown off.

  24. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    Tayler goes on to insist, as he has before, that extreme religiosity is a form of mental illness.

    As I have noted many times before, the DSM-5 implicity acknowledges that _all_ expression of religiosity would be a form of mental illness if not it was already practiced as much.

    “Delusions are fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence. Their content may include a variety of themes (e.g. persecutory, referential, somatic, religious, grandiose).[…] Delusions are deemed bizarre if they are clearly implausible and not understandable to same-culture peers and do not derive from ordinary life experiences. […] The distinction between a delusion and a strongly held idea is sometimes difficult to make and depends in part on the degree of conviction with which the belief is held despite clear or reasonable contradictory evidence regarding its veracity.”

    [ ; my bold]

    Presumably when you get out to the rarer extremes, the null hypothesis becomes the most likely option, as Tayler claims.

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