Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Insanity of Religion IV

Some years ago, you would have been considered insane if you suggested the Earth was a big ball hurtling through empty space and that people could not fall off the Earth only because of an invisible force that wasn't mentioned in the bible.

Not too long ago--indeed even now in some circles--a person would have been considered insane for suggesting that mankind is just an animal and that the universe was not created for us by an invisible magic man in the sky.  Yet, the only objective evidence we have regarding our origins suggests exactly that.  The essential question is:  Which of these incompatible and competing views is the delusion?

Currently the handbook for mental health professionals, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, IVth edition, or DSM-IV, defines delusion as follows:  "A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary.  The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith).  When a false belief involves a value judgment, it is regarded as a delusion only when the judgment is so extreme as to defy credibility."  See this webpage.

Breaking the definition down into its parts, you have 1. false belief, 2. incorrect inference about external reality, 3. persists despite evidence to the contrary and finally 4. the beliefs are NOT ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture.  If a belief does not meet all of these criteria, then it is not considered a delusion by mental health professionals.

The most notable part of this definition, for me, is the last part:  So long as a belief IS ordinarily accepted by members of the person's culture, then DSM-IV would not classify it as a delusion--no matter how obviously false.

If your culture maintains that eating the flesh of another human being will endow you with that person's attributes, that is not delusional according to DSM-IV.  If your culture maintains that cutting off one's legs will enable one to fly, that would not be delusional according to DSM-IV.  Yet, is there any doubt that such beliefs are delusional?  Clearly, something is wrong here.

The first three parts of the definition of delusion in DSM-IV are based on notions of objective reality--falseness, incorrect inference, and evidence to the contrary.  These seem like very good criteria because the essence of a delusion is its falseness.  One has to wonder why there should ever be ANY acceptable beliefs that meet the first three criteria.

Delusions are subjective; reality is objective.  Objective reality does not change based on the number of people who believe in it.  (Argumentum ad Populum is a logical fallacy.)  Objective reality does not change based on what the authority figures believe.  (Argumentum ad Potentium is a logical fallacy.)  If a belief is false, based on incorrect factual inference, and there is evidence to the contrary, then it should be considered a delusion regardless of whether others have the same delusion--even if there many of them and even if they are considered authorities.  See, e.g., this webpage.  So, why would the authors of DSM-IV include such a criterion?

It is easy to see that the fourth criterion was meant to prevent the diagnosis of religious people as delusionalThe definition itself admits this.  It is clear that without it the religious would have to be diagnosed as delusional.

To the extent that mental health is defined as the ability to conform with the population in which one lives, then this notion has some validity.  I don't think, however, that conformity is the sole or even primary criterion by which sanity should be judged.  More important, I don't think it should be on a par with the objective criteria.

If sanity is to be judged by any set of standards, then I think a lack of delusions must be one of those standards, regardless of their prevalence in the general population.  Other criteria should include a well balanced emotional life--no emotions that are out of control or excessive or which are so unacknowledged or suppressed that they cause the person to behave or think in an irrational or dangerous manner.

These criteria and others are difficult to judge and amorphous--changing with the situation and in relation to each other.  Although psychology and psychiatry aspire to scientific objectivity, they are hampered by a lack of precision in their subjects and therefor their data.  They are, and perhaps will forever remain, subjective in part.

Psychology and psychiatry like other fields that may never be considered "hard" sciences do not operate in a universe devoid of objective data however.  The criteria they use may be thematic to an extent, but they operate in a universe of objective fact and thus should be effected by the objective facts of that universe.

It is difficult to quantify the extent to which sanity should be objectively defined and the extent to which it should be subjective--based on the prevalent habits of thought in the general population.  I think it is clear, however, that the fourth criterion in the definition of delusion in DSM-IV should not be co-equal with the first three but should be subordinate to them in most cases.  If a large number of people make factual claims that are not supported by evidence and thus appear to be delusions, the sheer number of people making the claim should not effect its classification as a delusion.

Some level of conformity may be a sign of sanity, but mindless conformity shouldn't be considered a sign of sanity.  Conforming to the expectations of others may yield many benefits to the individual in human society, but at some point those benefits will be outweighed by the costs.  For example, if suicide became a wildly popular fad, clearly mindless conformity would not be considered a sign of sanity.

(In a simpler world, the costs of believing in invisible magic men may have been tolerable, but after centuries of fighting insanely over them it is clear that the costs long ago began to exceed the benefits.  And, now that such wars could conceivably bring about the extermination of humanity, it is no longer morally defensible to maintain that religion provides a net benefit.)

The question then becomes the level of absurdity necessary to trump the popularity of a notion and justify labeling it a delusion in spite of its popularity.

If an idea doesn't meet the objective criteria, but is still widely held within a culture, then one must wonder what force is impelling its popularity and thus the mindless conformity.  If the particular belief has been inculcated in the population by centuries of heinous, brutal persecution of dissenters, as is the case with religion, then its delusional nature should be judged solely based on objective evidence.  Such tactics clearly undermine or even pervert the marketplace of ideas and belie any notion that a culture or subculture can somehow act as a "sanity filter" and keep out insane notions.

Just how irrational does an idea have to be before the mindless conformity itself starts to become a sign of insanity?

Irrationality is not, unfortunately, subject to objective classification and measurement.  I would suggest, however, that an unacceptable level of irrationality has been reached whenever the arguments used to support a notion are objectively invalid or unsound.  

This objective standard can be tested by presenting the same arguments to the supporters of that notion but in a different context.  If those supporters recognize the arguments as invalid or unsound when they are presented with the same arguments in a different context, then one can conclude that the notion itself is not sane.   

(This also indicates that the supporters adhere to it for reasons not contained in the arguments, or, worse, that they are incapable of even recognizing the irrationality of what they are doing.  This inability serves to further bring their sanity into question, whether it is the result of bias or simple mental inability to think properly.)

I have tried this test with believers on occasion and I have spoken to other non-believers who have done the same.  The results are always the same.  When religious arguments are presented to religious people in support of other notions, they see them as the obvious nonsense that they are.   In other words, it is clear that the arguments themselves are invalid or unsound and the notion they are being used to support is not a sane one.

Holding that an insane notion is true should not, by itself, indicate that a person is not sane.  The notion could be only a very small part of the person's mental and emotional character.  It would not be possible to insist that humans be perfectly rational.  On the other hand, if the notion is sufficiently important to the adherent's mental and emotional character that it affects much of his behavior and defines a large part of his identity, then it can be argued that it is the person that is irrational or insane and not just the notion.

Religion is not just a minor fancy; religion is an entire worldview--a universal view actually.  It affects virtually everything the believer thinks to some extent, no matter what the subject matter.   In fact, the more important the subject matter, the greater the effect.  

Thus, religion is an objectively false notion that permeates the believer's entire mental and emotional character.  I think religion is sufficiently irrational and sufficiently broad in scope and effect that it can properly be considered insanity and not merely an insane notion.

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