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, but mental illness is marked by how it affects a persons ability to cope with daily life. Mental illnesses make everyday life more difficult. It can make it difficult for a person to get or keep a job, it can make simple tasks like grocery shopping infinitely more challenging, and it can even make getting out of bed or leaving the house impossible. Different mental illness effect people differently, and each person reacts differently to their mental illness. Some people suffer more than others. But we are all affected in one way or another and we all struggle with some element of daily life that others don’t struggle with.
Religion does not have this affect on people. A person who is religious may choose to avoid leaving the house so that they don’t have to associate with those who don’t share their religious views, but they don’t find it physically impossible to leave the house. They don’t feel the fear and anxiety when trying to leave the house. They don’t suffer from the panic attacks or the compulsions. Leaving the house for a religious person who tries to avoid mainstream society isn’t any more difficult for the religious person than it is for the mentally healthy person. And even the so-called delusions and hallucinations said to be suffered by the mentally healthy religious person aren’t like the delusions and hallucinations suffered by those who have delusions and hallucinations as part of their mental illness.
Here’s the thing, all people suffer from delusions and hallucinations at one time or another. Whether it’s seeing a person in the shadows or hearing a wild animal in the rustling bushes, we all see and hear things that aren’t there. In fact, it’s an evolutionary advantage to do so. It’s better to hear a predatory animal when there isn’t one and run from nothing than it is to not hear a predatory animal when there is one and get eaten. It’s better to over react than under react. As such, humans see people hen no people are there and hear danger when there isn’t any. All people do this unless they suffer from some disorder that prevents them from doing so. As such, hearing and seeing things that aren’t there doesn’t make one mentally ill. And being mentally ill doesn’t make one delusional. Not all mentally ill people suffer from delusions or hallucinations.
Do religious people hold beliefs that aren’t real? Of course. I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t believe, and even cling to, some falsehood. I would like to think that I’m smart enough to only believe true things. I would like to think that I’ve perfected my rationality to the point where I can only believe what is true, but I haven’t. And, like it or not, neither have you. None of us are capable of such a thing. Our brains just aren’t capable of it. So yes, religious people believe things that aren’t true, and yes, I believe that a number of their false beliefs relate to religion. But that doesn’t mean that religion is a mental illness. It means that they are fallible humans like everybody else who have fallen for one, what I believe to be, lie that I haven’t. But what about the people who say they talk to God? Aren’t they delusional? Well no. Have you ever taken the time to listen to how they talk about their conversations with God? It’s not like the way a schizophrenic talks about their delusions, or the way any other mentally ill person talks about their own delusion. To demonstrate this, I will use music as an example. We’ve all heard those annoying songs that play over and over again in our heads. Those songs that we know aren’t taking place in the real world. They don’t sound real. They don’t sound solid. Often only one part of the song will play, and we will only hear the words we know. Sometimes we’ll even hear it in our own voice, or it’ll be more like a hum than an actual song. But we know that nobody else is hearing the song. This is often how religious people will talk about their conversations with God. They will say that is was one sided and only they spoke, but they knew that God gave them an answer, or they will say that they heard God’s reply in their own voice. And if they do hear Gods voice in a voice that isn’t their own, they still talk about knowing that it was only in their head and only they could hear it. Very few people say they saw God as if God were actually in the real world, or that they heard God speak externally in a way that others could hear. Were they delusional, the voice of God should feel solid, physical to them. It should seem like others are crazy for not hearing it. It should seem external from themselves. For example, I have a friend who hears music as part of her mental illness. The music is in her head, but she doesn’t hear the music the way we do when we have a song stuck in her head. The song seems to be coming from the external world around her. She has even asked her brother to turn the music off when she heard it. It is only when she’s told that there is no music playing that she realises that it is happening in her head. That is how a delusion manifests itself. Delusions don’t just seem real to the person who experiences them, they feel physical and external. Religious people may eel their conversations with God are real, but they rarely talk about them as though they are physical and external. When they do talk about them as physical and external even other religious people tend to think they are delusional.
But my problem with calling a religious person mentally ill isn’t just because it is inaccurate. Calling religious belief a mental illness automatically devalues my involvement within the atheist community because I am mentally ill. It assumes that mental illness is an insult. It uses mental illness as an excuse to dismiss the person without dealing with them. By using mental illness in this way, you are dismissing me despite the fact that I’m not religious. Despite the fact that I’m “on your team.” But mental illness isn’t an insult. I’m not less human, or less valuable, because I’m mentally ill. I’m not wrong more often or more likely to believe falsehoods than you are because I’m mentally ill. I just struggle with day to day tasks that you don’t struggle with. I just need to be more aware of my mental state than you do. I just need to take medication that you don’t have to take, and only for a short amount of time. My mental illness isn’t a reason to dismiss me, and mental illness wouldn’t be a way to dismiss religion either. Even if religion were a mental illness, you would still need to deal with it in the same way. You would still need to engage the religious. The conversations wouldn’t be any different. And the medication wouldn’t make it go away. Mental illnesses are dealt with, they aren’t cured. I will always have an anxiety disorder. No amount of medication is going to make it go away. Religion would be the same were it actually a mental disorder. It could be dealt with, but no amount of medication would make it go away.
So stop trying to dismiss the religious by calling them mentally ill. Stop trying to use mental illness as a way to discredit the religious. And stop acting as if it’s not an insult to me to call religion a mental illness. The argument doesn’t work. It is not accurate and it does not mean that you can avoid the conversations or cure the religious. It’s just insulting and dismissive.