In a previous article I made the case that all religious beliefs are delusions and should be called out as such (found here). I really do keep this view in perspective however and don’t actually feel particularly compelled to call out all my religious friends and associates as delusional at every opportunity. But I still maintain that it is absolutely necessary to do so without compunction when it comes to extremely delusional thinkers like Ken Ham (see here) who publically propagate a large number of very bizarre delusions.
Regardless of how accurate and justified it may be to characterize all religious beliefs as delusions, doing so is problematic simply because of the huge number of people who believe. If you call religious beliefs delusional, then all religious people are at least somewhat delusional. And that is most of us. And if believers are all delusional, that would produce profound ramifications in all manner of social and legal interactions.
In his book “Bad Faith” (found here), Paul Offit looks at the insane faith healing beliefs of Amish, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses who feel compelled by their faith to commit murder through the withholding of medical care for their children and other loved ones. In a recent lecture I attended, Offit observed that our legal system essentially gives these families “one free murder” before the State is willing to characterize their beliefs as dangerous and harmful.
Sure they are clearly crazy. But non-religious people can be crazy too. Most normal religious beliefs are entirely reasonable.
Except it is not that simple.
In his book “Under the Banner of Heaven’ (found here), John Krakauer documents the insane history of Mormonism and the 40,000 Mormons who still believe much of it and practice polygamy. In particular, he documents the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty, Mormon brothers who felt compelled by their faith to commit multiple murders. The defense in that case argued for an insanity plea based largely upon the craziness of their religious beliefs.
Their defense argued that the delusional beliefs of the Lafferty brothers rose to the level of insanity and that their clients were therefore not fit to stand trial. However, psychiatrists for the State argued that their beliefs were essentially no different in any qualitative way from any other belief considered “normal.” (It could be argued that no person who believes in an afterlife truly understands the consequences of their actions.)
In his book “Thinking About the Insanity Defense” (found here), author Ellsworth Fersch lays out the fundamental problem in the Lafferty case:
“Their strategy was to show that he was sane through comparison with other individuals. First, they pointed out all the similarities between his fundamentalist religious beliefs and the religious beliefs of people with ordinary religious faiths. By doing so, they made his seemingly outlandish claims and ideas seem much more normal. For example, Dr. Gardner compared Ron Lafferty’s belief in reflector shields to belief in guardian angels. This strategy was effective because it forced anyone who was willing to consider whether he was insane to also consider the larger question of whether any religious person is insane.”
Belief ties sanity and delusion into an almost inescapable Gordian knot. To uphold an insanity defense would be to imply that all religious believers are similarly insane. That would never be acceptable. But to exempt religious beliefs would make it extremely difficult to ever characterize anyone as insane or make any value judgment about any belief. It would make it difficult to interfere with any dangerous behavior such as faith healing when it is claimed to be based upon a “deeply held belief.” That in fact serves the narrow self-interest of believers.
These are extremely vexing conundrums even for psychologists. They have been completely muddled over this all the way back to Freud who suggested that all religious beliefs are delusional and that religion is a mass-delusion. On the more diplomatic side of the argument is the definition established by the American Psychiatric Association (codified in DSM-IV) which says essentially that a belief is a delusion – well unless enough people believe it that is. Clearly if Freud is right, then that conclusion leads necessarily to widespread clinical, social, and legal ramifications. However, if the APA is correct, then sanity is completely contextual. What might be sane in one society or in one group or at one time in history may be completely delusional and result in institutionalization in another setting. Precisely how many believers must I recruit in order for my insane delusions to be considered sane and immunized from ridicule? The APA view creates significant social problems for all aspects of society.
In his paper “Faith or Delusion? At the Crossroads of Religion and Psychosis,” Joseph M. Pierre attempts to review the psychiatric literature in order to find a sensible middle ground. Pierre points out that:
“Neither Freud’s stance that all religious belief is delusional nor DSM-IV’s strategy of avoiding mention of religious thinking in discussions of psychosis is an acceptable way to resolve the ambiguity between normal religious belief and religious delusion.”
One might think this question should be resolvable by simply looking at other criteria to evaluate sanity, not merely the presence of religious beliefs. But Pierre goes on in his paper to review the body of psychiatric works that attempt to distinguish faith from delusion using a wide range of possible criteria. None of these attempts prove to be satisfactory. Since every belief is inherently not based on any objective facts, it is impossible to make qualitative distinctions between “normal” beliefs and “delusional” beliefs. Attempts to measure their impact by other indirect measures, such as excessive preoccupation, conviction, emotional valence, claims of universal validity, and level of contradiction all fail to provide a satisfactory distinction.
So the situation we are left with is that we are precluded from ever admitting that religious beliefs are delusional, even though the APA defines beliefs as delusions held by a sufficiently large number of people. Instead we are forced to make mostly arbitrary decisions about when to characterize a belief as a delusion. But I think I have a suggestion to help with this problem. It seems to me that much of this Gordian Knot is glued together by a presumption, a prejudice, and a conceit that says that sanity and insanity are exclusive binary conditions.
As I argue in my book (found here), we each have a myriad of ideas that could each be placed along a wide spectrum from sane to insane. If someone has a lot of delusional ideas a lot of the time, that person may cross the threshold of clinical insanity, but we all still do have some insane ideas some of the time.
If we would only stop applying to word delusional to people and instead start applying it with less reluctance to ideas, recognizing that we all have some delusional ideas some of the time, then I think we go a long way toward reaching the balance we need to respond to mass-delusional thinking in a more reasonable and consistent manner.
But I’m out of room for now. I’ll expand on this in a future article.