Hyper-Religiousity or Mental Illness?

AgonyThe news are full of cases where very religious people do extremely ridiculous or cruel things. For example, there’s Javon Thompson, a 1 year old starved to death by his cult member family because he did not say “amen” during mealtime. Or more recently, a 7 year old girl who was killed during an exorcism by her priest and congregation members. If you want something less harmful to others, look no further than the man who spent his life savings on those Harold Camping apocalypse ads.

A response I’ve seen a few times is that it’s wrong to “blame” religion for these incidents. The reason given is that the people who perpetrate this “obviously” just have a mental illness and that’s all there is to it. It would be as disingenuous as to blame critics of Rupert Sheldrake (a biologist who’s a major proponent of telepathy and other “challenges to the orthodoxy”) for the man who stabbed him . A certain percentage of the population just have Issues. No movement or social group will be without such people as members. Should every movement be blamed for its kooks?

It’s clear that in some cases of hyperreligiosity combined with mental illness, it’s mental illness that’s the overwhelming force. Cases of mothers who kill all their children because they want them to “be with God” are the most blatant examples. But I think to divorce these acts from religion entirely (and say that the exorcist priest was “just crazy”) is to miss the point.

Firstly, I don’t think it’s obvious that all of these people have a mental illness. We have a strong interest in seeing them as “crazy” since otherwise it would mean that the act was done by someone “normal” which is horrifying to most people. But unfortunately, both history and psychology show that the things we label insane are often done by very normal people. It’s crazy to see a suicidal person at the top of a building and yell for him/her to jump. And yet it’s common knowledge in police circles that a crowd of NORMAL people will spontaneously do this — more here. It’s crazy to deliver a 450V shock to a person at the behest of a person dressed in a lab coat, a shock that would be fatal. And yet 65% of people do this. It’s crazy to take a holiday snapshot of yourself posing in front of a few corpses of civilians you’ve hanged and send them as a postcard to your family, to see yourself in that moment as an average Joe Bloggs. But of course this happened all the time with the Nazis. And it looks like this was done by many ordinary soldiers too (not just the SS elite), meaning the ones drawn from the general population.

It’s ridiculous to explain these acts as a chemical imbalance in the brain. No, this is just normal brain function in a very specific set of circumstances. As scary as these might be to face up to, these are facts. Circumstances can influence a very ordinary person to do horrible things. These circumstances include ideology. If a horrible thing related to religion becomes very widespread (eg. the “witch children” of Nigeria), the mental illness explanation becomes much more unlikely. Of course the religious ideology is rarely the only cause or even the most important one — but it shouldn’t be ignored.

The second reason has to do with cases where we accept that a person has a mental illness and that this was the main cause for the action. I came across it in a wise statement by Angie the Antitheist when she was a guest on the fabulous Godless Bitches podcast episode 1.5. To paraphrase, because mainstream religion often consists of ridiculous beliefs, it provides an indirect cover for someone with an actual mental illness. In other words, a person’s crazy beliefs don’t stand out as much as they should.

To give just one example, if a person belongs to one of the Christian communities that is heavy into the persecution and martyr complexes, who emphasise something like Matthew 24:9 (“Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake.”) then it will be all the much more difficult for anyone to notice if in fact he/she has paranoid delusions. Especially given how extreme entire religious communities can get in these matters.


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The thinly-veiled identity of lives and rants in Sydney. Views not his own, provided by hivemind. All my original work on this blog is licensed under a CC BY-NC License.

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