Tag Archives: interfaith

The Problem with Calling Religious Belief a Mental Illness


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.

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A History of God


Here is another video that I just watched. Keep in mind that this video comes from an Abrahamic perspective (all those interviewed were either Christian, Jewish, or Muslim). I am interested in hearing your views on this documentary. Is it accurate or inaccurate? What are its best and worse points? Why do you agree or disagree with the documentary?


I’m At a Loss


I’ve been finding it difficult to come up with ideas for blog posts, which is why this blog hasn’t been very active lately. As such, I’d like to leave it up to the readers: what would you like us to write about? Would you like to know something specific about our atheism? Do you have an argument that you’d like us to address? Would you like us to discuss a particular book? Do you have any questions about Philosophy, Biology, or History? Would you like to know our stance on a particular feminist issue? Is there something else you’d like us to write on? Let us know in the comment section.


The Problem With Biblical Inerrancy


As many of you know, last summer I began to look into theology. Now that I’m no longer in school, I have gotten back into it. This had led me to think about the idea that the Bible is inerrant. As an atheist, I obviously don’t believe that this is true, but most Christians do believe that the Bible is inerrant. This is incredibly problematic.

When I talk to Christians about their belief in God, or my non-belief, the Bible inevitably comes up. I don’t believe in God because I see no evidence to suggest that God exists. I want evidence before I’m willing to commit to a belief. Christians, however, often believe that they have the evidence. The problem is this evidence is not convincing to a non-Christian. Why? Because it tends to presuppose the inerrancy of the Bible. This is also a major problem with the theology I have read. If you already accept that the Bible is inerrant, then I’m sure the arguments presented are fairly convincing. But, if you already accept that the Bible is inerrant, then you are probably already a Christian and you probably don’t need the arguments to convince you of anything. But for someone who does not accept the Bible as inerrant, the conversation quickly becomes frustrating and circular because a major presupposition is being ignored that prevents the conversation fro getting anywhere.

As I’ve said in other posts, if you want to provide evidence to support the Bible (assuming your goal is to convince them that you are correct) to someone who does not accept the Bible, then you cannot use the Bible as your evidence. The Bible cannot be evidence of the Bible. Why? Because someone who is not a Christian does not agree with your premise that the Bible is inerrant, therefore, using the Bible to prove the Bible is no different that using Harry Potter to prove Harry Potter. You as a Christian may disagree with this, but you do not need to be convinced of your own beliefs. This means one of two things: either the Christian needs to be willing to put aside their belief that the Bible is inerrant for the sake of the conversation, or a discussion about Biblical inerrancy needs to be had before the conversation can go any deeper. This is the only way I can see the conversation not turning into a frustrating mess where neither party understands the other.

I bring this up because a lot of the Christians who have commented on earlier posts seem to be unwilling or unable to grasp the idea that we do not accept the Bible as inerrant. We have ended up getting into a number of circular arguments because, when we say that the Bible is not evidence, or even that we do not see any evidence to support the Bible, we either have people throwing Bible verses at us, or we have people saying that we’re wrong because the Bible without getting any deeper than that. I honestly don’t know what anybody could possibly hope to get out of that other than simply shutting down any possibility for further discussion. As such, we ask that you take this into consideration before making such comments in the future.


Can You Actually Make Yourself Believe?


Christians often say to Withteeth and I that we can’t properly understand Christianity intellectually and that we just have to believe. We often get told that we should simply believe. I can’t for the life of me figure out how anybody can think that this is a convincing argument.

Withteeth and I understand full well that our not being Christians means that we cannot fully comprehend Christianity as a believer would. However, we do not think that this is a handicap for us. After all, a Baptist and a Mormon both accept two different versions of Christianity (don’t tell me Mormons aren’t Christians: I don’t care), but that doesn’t mean that a Baptist can’t understand Mormonism. The Baptist will not understand the way the Mormon does, and will likely not understand why the Mormon is Mormon rather than a Baptist, but that doesn’t mean that the Baptist can have no understanding of Mormonism. So the argument that we can’t understand Christianity without being Christians is merely a way to invalidate the problems that we bring up without actually addressing them.

But let’s just think about this idea that we’re supposed to just not worry about the problems and ignore what we actually believe and force ourselves to accept Christianity. As I’ve said before, I never chose to be an atheist. I didn’t wake up one day and decide that I didn’t want to believe in God anymore. I also never chose to be a Christian when I was one. I was born to Christian parents. All my relatives were Christian. As far as I knew, all of my classmates were Christian. At the time, Christianity seemed self-evident. When I became an atheist it was because I could not force myself to continue believing in Christianity. I simply found it no longer convincing. I also didn’t find any other religion convincing. As such, I accepted that I was an atheist. But I’m supposed to ignore all that and just make myself believe? For those of you who are Christians, could you make yourself be an atheist? Could you simply chose not to believe in God and succeed? If so, do you truly believe?

A while ago, Withteeth and I discussed what it would look like to make ourselves believe and how successful we thought we would be. And, of course, how we thought people would respond. It all began when Ryan Bell announced that he was an atheist. I think both Christians and atheists reacted much the same when Ryan Bell first announced his intent to live a year without God. Many atheists wondered if he was some evangelical who was trying to prove that atheists can’t be moral or something, though many were convinced that he was in the process of deconverting (which, of course, ended up being the case). Many Christians, however, were afraid of what the experiment would mean for Ryan Bell. They were afraid that he was condemning himself to hell, or that he was lost and needed to be found. This reaction tells Withteeth and I a lot about what we could expect if we did something similar. If we decided that we were going to live as Christians for a year to fake it till we make it as a number of Christians have suggested, how would people react? Wouldn’t a number of Christians assume that we were being dishonest and deceitful? Would many Christians really welcome us with open arms knowing that we didn’t truly accept their beliefs? I’m sure a number of you would like to think that we would be welcomed in such a way, but we’ve dealt with the disdain that many Christians feel towards atheists. We’ve experienced the mistrust and the personal attacks. As such, I can’t imagine that we would be as accepted as Christians think we would be. We’d also have to deal with how other atheists would respond, but I’m not worried about that.

However, how people would react isn’t the real issue, it is merely another hurdle to our actually believing. Neither Withteeth nor I believe that we actually could believe. Even if we spent a year living as Christians, even if we read the Bible, went to church every week, joined church groups, and only associated with Christians, we do not think that we could “just” believe. Why? Because we don’t find it convincing. Surrounding ourselves with the community wouldn’t make Christianity convincing, it just makes it more difficult to leave Christianity once you already believe it. The only way Withteeth and I could ever believe would be to be convinced intellectually. As such, telling us to stop looking at Christianity intellectually, and that we can’t possibly understand it that way, isn’t helpful. In fact, it’s counter-productive (unless you just want us to stop questioning your beliefs, in that case it’s dishonest and I’d like to know what you’re so worried about). It’s unlikely that Withteeth and I will ever become Christians (or, in my case, become Christians again), but, if we were to do it, it would have to be because we were convinced through intellectual pursuit.


Prayer in Canadian City Councils


Like in the United States, Canada has been having public debates about the role of religion in society for a number of years now. But, unlike in the US, religion, while it prevails in the public sphere quite openly, is not something that we openly discuss. If I go to a store at Christmas time, I will hear “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” as often as I will hear “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” There are also churches everywhere, and religious groups have a lot of privileges where taxes and land ownership are concerned. And, of course, we have prayers in public offices. Our country has a National Day of Prayer and council meetings tend to start with a prayer. While these prayers are often more on the interfaith side of things, they still assume a god and they are still religious in nature. As such, this has sparked a debate.

One of my city’s news papers, the Herald, published this article on recent events:
“City of Calgary lawyers will review the Supreme Court of Canada’s 101- page ruling against prayer in council to determine if Mayor Naheed Nenshi can still recite the 30 words that begin every council meeting.
Many cities have announced they will suspend or cease their traditional council prayers after Canada’s top court ordered the town council of Saguenay, Que., to discontinue the practice and remove Catholic symbols from council chambers.
The reading of a Catholic prayer at council meetings infringes on freedom of conscience and religion, the court said in a unanimous ruling Wednesday.
Canadian society has evolved and given rise to a ‘concept of neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs,’ the judgment said.
‘The state must instead remain neutral in this regard.’
The ruling puts an end to an eight- year legal battle that pitted atheist Alain Simoneau and a secular- rights organization against Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay.
Several municipalities reacted swiftly to the ruling. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson skipped prayers at a council meeting Wednesday pending a review of the decision. Windsor said it will do away with the Lord’s Prayer in the wake of the ruling, but the mayors of Winnipeg and Oshawa told reporters they would not immediately put an end to the practice.
Calgary isn’t yet sure how to proceed at Monday’s special council meeting.
For council’s long- standing custom, the mayor asks everyone in chambers to stand for a customary opening prayer that invokes God but doesn’t single out a particular faith:
‘O God, author of all wisdom, knowledge and understanding, we ask thy guidance in our consultations to the end that truth and justice may prevail, in all our judgments. Amen.’
Nenshi, a practising Ismaili Muslim, recites the same prayer used by predecessor Dave Bronconnier, a Lutheran.
In an emailed statement, the mayor said the city’s law department will review the decision.
‘However, I do believe that faith has a role in the public square and we will explore ways of doing that in the context of today’s decision,’ Nenshi said.
Council has begun with a prayer since at least 1977, according to the city clerk’s office. A policy in place since 1986 allows for a minister to recite a prayer, but commonly the mayor or presiding deputy mayor does the honours.
Although the Supreme Court decision ruling is based on the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the province’s legislation parallels the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms on these tenets, says law professor Errol Mendes.
That would make a legal challenge by another community an uphill climb, according to Mendes, who teaches constitutional and international law at the University of Ottawa.
‘I think it’s a fairly strong signal to the councils across the country that they really have to look at their practises,’ he said in an interview.
While many Calgary councillors are not religious, Jim Stevenson, a member of his Lutheran Church board, says it’s not the court’s place to decide if council prays.
‘Asking the Lord to watch over what we’re doing and to guide us — that’s what the purpose of prayer is, to look for spiritual guidance,’ Stevenson said.
‘So that would be offensive to me if they said we can’t do that if we choose to.’
If the regular prayer was stopped, Stevenson said he would silently pray to himself.
Coun. Gian- Carlo Carra, a nonpractising Catholic, said he understands separation of church and state but also likes the interfaith tradition that commences each meeting. ‘I’m fine with it. Apologies to the atheists out there,’ he said.
In the Saguenay case, Simoneau filed an initial complaint in 2007.
City officials introduced a bylaw in 2008 that changed the prayer to a new one it deemed more neutral.
But in 2011, Quebec’s human rights tribunal ordered an end to the prayers and religious symbols.
The Quebec Court of Appeal overturned the tribunal’s decision in 2013, expressing some reservations about religious symbols in the council chamber, but concluded the city imposed no religious views on its citizens and ruled reciting a prayer does not violate the religious neutrality of the city.
The Supreme Court of Canada disagreed.
‘This neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non- belief,” the ruling read. ‘It requires that the state abstain from taking any position and thus avoid adhering to a particular belief.
‘When all is said and done, the state’s duty to protect every person’s freedom of conscience and religion means that it may not use its powers in such a way as to promote the participation of certain believers or non- believers in public life to the detriment of others.’
In the Alberta legislature, the speaker starts each daily sitting with prayer. The justices’ ruling makes a point of not touching the House of Commons prayer because of parliamentary privilege, and that would also apply to Alberta’s house, legislature law clerk Rob Reynolds said.”
As I’m sure you can imagine, Withteeth and I aren’t really fans of our government having a religious bias. However, what Withteeth and I think isn’t as relevant as the data. To give you a bit of insight into the state of religion in Canada (unfortunately I don’t have the most up to date data because our Prime Minister doesn’t understand the value of it), in 2011 non-religious people made up 23.9% of the population. It has risen since then, but I don’t have reliable data on how much. I have read that anywhere from 30-53% of the Canadian population now identifies as non-religious. The 23.9% was an increase from the 16.5% of people who identified as non-religious 10 years earlier in 2001. Catholics made up 38.7% of the population in 2011, which was a decrease from the 43.2% of the population that had considered themselves Catholic a decade before. Again, I don’t have the numbers on how much it has decreased since 2011, but it has been suggested that the decrease in the number of people who consider themselves Catholic has continued. In fact, from what I read, it appears that only Orthodox Christianity has recorded an increase in followers in recent years. The Baptist church had gone from 2.5% of the population to 1.9%. The Presbyterian church had stayed at 1.4% of the population. The United Church had gone from 9.6% of the population to 6.1%. And the Anglican church had gone from 6.9% of the population to 5.0%. However, the Orthodox Church had stayed at 1.7 during that 10 year period and has apparently grown by 14.82% since then. Non-Christian religions as a whole made up 8.1% of the Canadian population in 2011, which was an increase from the 6.4% that they had made up in 2001. As such, the religious traditions of Canada’s past are a little out of date. While I mentioned that the prayers in councils tend to be more interfaith, they do still have a distinctly Christian feel to them. But we are no longer living in a time when Canada is nearly all Christian. In fact, we may have entered into a time when Canada is more non-religious than religious (though I don’t believe we are quite there yet). I believe that it is time that Canada begins to reflect these changes in how things are done.
But not everybody agrees with me. My interfaith group received an e-mail from a man who does not like the Supreme Court’s decision. He wrote “The Supreme Court of Canada’s Decision below [referring to the Herold piece above], is wrong – period!” His reasoning? “If there were ‘No GOD’ ~ the term ‘GOD’ could NOT have come about!” This is very faulty reasoning. We have a lot of terms for things that don’t actually exist, such as “unicorn” and “fairy.” And the concept of what a god is as changed over time. Many early gods were essentially just really strong humans. Humans are storytellers. We use stories to help us make sense of things that we don’t understand. We also use stories to teach values and traditions. Stories don’t necessarily reflect reality, so there is no reason to believe that gods must exist simply because the word exists. And, if the existence of a word did mean that the thing itself existed, then wouldn’t that mean that Thor exists? And the Flying Spaghetti Monster? And every other god that has ever been given a name? This logic simply does not work.
The man went on to say that “They [the Supreme Court] should have UNANIMOUSLY decided to STRENGTHEN the Social/Moral/diverse Religious ‘Fibre’ of our Canadian Mosaic Society by changing the House of Commons Prayer & that of ALL City Council & Government Public Sessions, etc.” When your society is highly secular, as Canada is, pushing religion on the populous doesn’t strengthen it, it tears it apart. Look at the US. Has it been strengthened by the push to make the country more religious? From where I stand, the growing non-religious populace has just been made to feel attacked and put on the defensive, which has led to them fighting back against the religious push. All of the court battles over 10 commandments and school prayers have resulted fro the push to make religion a more dominant part of the social landscape. Those types of battles don’t occur in countries that allow the populace to worship how they want while religion is kept out of the public sphere. He also assumes that religion and morality are interchangeable. This is not true. The moral strength of Canada is not threatened by the removal of prayer. He suggests that we make “All religions are facets of the same TRUTH ~ Let the different faiths exist & let them flourish in our Great Country of Canada to the Glory of the ONE GOD!” the prayer used at all government events. This is not adequate. For one thing, most religious people do not believe that all religions are facets of the same truth. Saying that they are will only enrage the most conservative of religious believers. For another, the one God remark makes it very clear that the Christian God is assumed to be the only true god, which kind of destroys the whole attempt at interfaith that occurred in the beginning. Further more, it ignores the secular populace completely. We make up a large percentage of the population, so we deserve to be represented as much as the religious do. Nobody is taking religion away, they are merely saying that no one group deserves to be represented above all others. This fact seems to go over the heads of so many religious people, and it is quite annoying.
He finishes by saying “Our Founding Fathers based our Canadian Constitution upon the Judeo/Christian Faith – the above would add & proclaim our ‘Unity in Diversity’ & ‘Unity in Divinity’ of ALL Canadian citizens!” Yes, the “our founding fathers” argument exists here too. The hilarious thing about this is we don’t have founding fathers like in the US. We have the Fathers of Confederation who came together to negotiate the creation of the country of Canada, but this is not all that similar to the work done by the Founding Fathers to create the US. For one, we were still a British Colony and had no intent to change that. For another, we had a lot larger of a land mass to deal with and were largely interested in preventing the US from taking any of it. They negotiated terms with one another to bring the various provinces (only some of which joined at the time) together as one country, but they did not need to make a constitution since Canada was still a colony. The original constitution of Canada was developed for Canada by the British parliament. Our constitution is not based on any religion any more than the American constitution is. It is merely a set of rules that has been revised many times to reflect changing times that is meant to give Canadians certain rights and freedoms. And no, the prayer he offered does not in any way support or reflect all Canadians. My diversity is ignored, as is my right to not believe in any divinity. How can anything that ignores a large chunk of society proclaim anything about all of us.
It is a huge mistake to assume that representing your personal beliefs represents all beliefs. Just because you feel represented doesn’t mean that everyone else will. And just because you believe something to encompass everyone doesn’t mean that it does. We all have biases, and those biases blind us to the various beliefs that we don’t hold. What is more, not representing anybody is not the same as taking away your rights. If the government doesn’t say a prayer, then they aren’t representing any specific religious beliefs. However, they also aren’t removing any freedoms from anyone. The religious can still pray when and where they want to, they just no longer have the right to force their prayers on me. They are losing a privilege that I don’t have, but their rights and freedoms are still in tact.

What are Your Favorite Documentaries?


I’m looking for some new and interesting documentaries. I want to watch ones on religion, conversion (and deconversion), sexuality and gender, abortion, and educational reform. Does anybody have any good documentaries to recommend?


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