Tag Archives: theism

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.

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.

I am an Atheist and No, I Don’t Think You’re Stupid

It seems to be a common assumption that atheists are a bunch of arrogant pricks who think that all theists are necessarily stupid. It is true that there are a number of atheists who do think this, and many of them considered leaders within the atheist community. But to say that all atheists think theists are stupid is as wrong as saying that all Christians are homophobic. A number of Christians are homophobic, and many of them hold leadership positions within their given communities, but does that mean that all, or even most, Christians are homophobic? From my personal experience, I would be willing to argue that only a small percentage of Christians are homophobic. It is probably similar to the percentage of atheists who believe all theists are stupid.
I believe that one of the biggest causes of this assumption, other than the fact that people equate the loudest group with the biggest group, is the fact that atheists and theists often talk past each other. We try and prevent such interactions here, but at times it seems as though atheists and theists, even within the same country, do not speak the same language. This is endlessly frustrating, but I have no idea how to change it. I came to this realization when it was brought to my attention that the “I find God as convincing as I find Santa Clause” argument comes across as calling theists stupid. But this is not what that argument is saying. In fact, that argument has nothing to do with the theist and everything to do with the atheist. To say “I find God as convincing as Santa Clause” is not to say “I find theists who believe in Santa Clause as dim-witted as adults who believe in Santa Clause,” it is to say “I see as little evidence for the existence of God as I see for the existence of Santa Clause.” I can understand how one might view the argument as meaning the first version, and I’m sure some atheists have implied that theists are basically adults who believe in Santa Clause, but that is not what is generally intended by that phrase.
To be perfectly honest, while I have never met an adult who still believed in Santa Clause, I can’t say that I would find that person dumb for holding that belief. After all, intelligence is a complicated matter, and there are many types of intelligence. I, for example, am good at writing. I’m good at researching and arguing (in the philosophical sense) too. Were I to be judged solely on my ability to do those things, I’d likely be judged to be very intelligent. However, I am not that great at math. Were I to be judged solely on my ability to do math, I’d likely be judged to be far less intelligent. An adult who believes in Santa Clause may be smarter than me where math is concerned but be less intelligent where critical thinking is concerned. As such, I would not feel comfortable judging them as dumb until I know more about them than simply that one belief. I’m not as willing to say that a theist may be less intelligent than I am where critical thinking is concerned, because theism is a lot more common than adults who believe in Santa Clause are. However, it is likely that most theists are smarter than me in certain regards and not as smart in others. This is simply because very few people are highly intelligent in all areas, but most people are intelligent in some areas.
But even if I didn’t understand that, I doubt I could truly think theists are dumb. I know too many intelligent theists that I respect. We may disagree on the existence of god(s), but we agree on a lot. Those things that we agree on tend to be what have formed our relationships and what keep us friends, but they are also what we discuss on a given day and why we respect each other. Those are why we view each other as intelligent. We don’t focus on the one thing we disagree on, and we don’t let it affect our relationship. Instead, we respect each others beliefs and each other.

“God’s Not Dead”

My partner and I have been busy with a comic convention over the last few days. It was a wonderful experience. I was able to meet quite a few writers and publishers. I also finished my last exam on Friday and am now looking forward to enjoying a summer of writing and networking.

After the festivities of the day, my partner and I decided to go to a movie. There was one theater in town that was playing God’s Not Dead. I have wanted to see that movie for a while because of how much hype it had received. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of acting. It was very well done. But there were a lot of obvious stereotypes in the movie. The Chinese father and son where the father tells the son to accept what his professor tells him without question. Grades are more important than supporting and defending your own argument. The Muslim who’s forced to wear a hijab by her father and is abused and thrown out of her home when her father discovers that she has been listening to the bible on her ipod. The dying woman who denied god for years and then accepts god when the good Christians pray for her to be healed. And of course the angry athiest who is mad at god.

These stereotypes bothered me. They put people in a box and allow the viewer to judge all people in that group in the same way. It doesn’t help that the movie didn’t seem to represent the university experience very accurately. Most professors don’t care what their students believe unless the student becomes disruptive to the class. They have a particular subject to teach and giving that information to their students is what they truly care about. Philosophy professors can be different. They aren’t there to give their students a particular set of information. Instead they are there to teach critical thinking. Philosophy professors may actually care what their students believe, but it should not be in a “you must believe this” way. It should be in a “read this and tell me why you agree or disagree” manner. The professor in that movie was not a good professor. He was intellectually dishonest and he was a bully. That professor likely wouldn’t have kept his job very long in a real university.

What’s more, the professor wasn’t actually an atheist. Maybe he thought he was. Maybe he just wanted to be. But he admitted to being angry at god when pushed by the student. That is blatantly stereotyping the atheist. It is a trope held by theists that says that atheists are just angry at god. I don’t know of any atheists who would have responded the way that the professor did. When asked “why do you hate god?” the atheists that I know would either answer “how can I hate something that doesn’t exist?” or “why do you hate the tooth fairy?” depending on their nature. Atheists do not hate god. We simply believe that none exist. We could debate for days any other possible belief held by an atheist, but the one belief that all atheists agree on is that there is likely no god.

I would go into the problems with the other stereotypes that I listed, but I don’t know to what degree they are true. And rather have somebody who knows what they’re talking about pointing out those flaws. However, I was able to determine rather quickly that they were stereotypes and they do cause problems in the form of putting people in boxes and allowing one’s self to avoid understanding another person. The atheist trope bothered me the most. A) because he was the “bad guy” and b) because of the ending. If you have not yet seen the movie and want to, and don’t want to know what happens, then stop reading now. 

The movie ends with a tragedy. The atheist professor reads his mothers note and realizes that he had been wrong.He goes to make up with his now ex-girlfriend and is hit by a car before he gets there. He dies. Before he dies he accepts Jesus into his heart. He then receives a text from his ex that says “god’s not dead.” The missionary tells the pastor that something good has happened. I can’t remember how he worded it. No. Nothing good has happened. A man died. His death was horrible and painful. That is a tragedy. To say otherwise is just plain wrong. It is supposed to be a good ending. A Christian band is playing happy music, everybody has come to Jesus, the Christian student won his debate, and everybody lives happily ever after. Except the atheist professor. The antagonist. He’s dead. There will be no happily ever after for him. For the creators of the movie to portray that ending as a good thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth. 

Also, for all the good acting, the death scene was terrible. It looked completely fake. I suppose that’s kind of a good thing. But it makes it less important and it makes it easier for the audience to swallow the “happily ever after” BS.

What are other people’s opinions of the film? How did those of you who saw it interpret it?

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