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A Delusion of Reference

June 9, 2011

While I was doing some ‘research’ the other day I came across a Huffington Post blog posted last summer by Prof Matt J Rossano, department head of Psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University, entitled: Why Religion Is Not Delusion. Of course religion is not a delusion, it is fact, it exists, however, it seems to me that all religious faith involves one or more delusions.

Let’s start as Rossano does, by looking at the psychological definition of a delusion:

A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody 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.

(Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM IV-TR))

The dictionary gives this definition of illusion:

1. an act or instance of deluding.

2. the state of being deluded.

3. a false belief or opinion: delusions of grandeur.

4. Psychiatry – a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact: a paranoid delusion.

The key difference between the DSM definition and the dictionary, what could be called the layman’s definition, is that the DSM excuses religious faith with a neat little get-out clause (emphasised in the above quote).  I want to examine this get-out clause first of all.

The DSM is telling us that an idea is not a delusion, whatever its other qualities, if it is commonly held within a culture or sub-culture.   The get-out clause in the DSM definition is simply an ad populum logical fallacy, an assertion that because a large number of people believe a thing to be true, it is true.  Which is false.  Without the protection of this clause many religious beliefs are going to end up in the delusion bracket.

We must remember of course that delusion, like most mental states, is not a starkly black and white issue, but exists on a continuum.  All of us, I think, entertain some beliefs that are not based on correct inference about external reality; it is only when these incorrect beliefs affect our functioning in relation to others that they become a problematic delusion.

Extreme examples of this are obvious: the concept of the suicide bomber, as supported by elements of Islam, being perhaps the most obvious.  Slightly less extreme but still dysfunctional might be the refusal of medical attention for a child due to mistaken belief in (the Christian) God’s power to heal, leading to unnecessary suffering and, in some cases, death of the child.

I think that most people would accept that these 2 beliefs fall squarely into the delusional category with or without the get-out clause given by the DSM.  What about belief in an idyllic afterlife for virtuous persons or belief in the efficacy of prayer then?  These are apparently harmless beliefs which, without the get-out clause, would have to be said to be delusional, but not necessarily a problem.  If someone believes that by being good they will go to a Paradise after death, or that God will guide or positively influence their life if they ask for things, this doesn’t hurt anyone else.  Does it?

The problem is that a suicide bomber’s final, disgusting act is predicated on the belief that Paradise (including virgins and/or dried fruit) awaits them and the believers in God’s healing base that belief largely on the efficacy of prayer.  The big, nasty delusions can’t exist without the little, harmless ‘eccentricities’.

Two of the categories of delusion most often referred to are delusions of grandeur (“I am Napoleon”) and paranoid delusions (“The CIA is watching me”).  These types of delusion are built into many religions and are, in fact, their root premise.

A Christian or a Muslim, for example, believes that the world was created by an all-powerful God for the purposes of humanity and that this mighty being cares deeply what they do in the privacy of their bedroom, for example.  This surely takes egocentricity and delusions of grandeur almost to their furthest extreme.  The same Christian or Muslim also believes that their invisible sky-daddy is watching them all the time and knows what they are doing and thinking.  It doesn’t get much more paranoid than that.

Rossano argues in his post that (my emphasis):

By evolutionary design, we tend to see the world in terms of intentional, meaningful patterns. Religious thinking simply takes this mode of thought to its very logical conclusion: we’re inclined to think the world is an intentionally created, meaningful place because it is.

It isn’t.  And what is Evolutionary design?  Is that a euphemism for Intelligent Design?  Evolution is not a design process because design implies a designer.  Design is also a synonym for an intention or plan.  So the above quote is a circular argument which can be shortened to:

If people believe they and the world around them are designed they will believe in a designer.

Well, duh.  The fact is that the world and the flora and fauna it supports are not designed.  The belief that they are is a delusion.  Rossano argues that people who don’t believe in a created world are more likely to suffer from an inability to reconcile their beliefs and their experience than religious types because of the way people have been designed.  Show me the evidence, Professor.

Rossano concludes that religion actually helps prevent people becoming delusional because:

(1) its general notions and practices are not obviously contradicted by evidence.

(2) it requires very little mental effort to sustain most religious notions.

(3) it encourages community integration which promotes healthy psychological functioning.

My response is:

(1) its general notions are not supported by any evidence.  Therefore they are contradicted.  Obviously.

(2) it requires Herculean mental gymnastics to believe in, for example, an all-powerful, benevolent God who allows children to die of starvation in huge numbers for want of a bit of rain and practically none to believe that this is a by-product of nature and must be relieved, if possible, by people.

(3) it encourages community integration for those who believe the same as the community does but guarantees exclusion for those who deviate, which cannot help healthy psychological functioning of those excluded.

All in all then I disagree almost entirely with Rossano’s post.  I am not an expert in evolutionary psychology, as he is purported to be, but I know bullshit when I smell it and I got a good whiff while reading his post.  He is partially right that religion is not a delusion.  It is made of many delusions, delusions built on delusions.  If my blood pressure can stand it I may read more of what Rossano has to say.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2011 15:28

    There’s lots of evidence for God, probably all around you, but it’s not going to drop into your head like an automatic update. You have to actually open your eyes to seeing it. The statements above are your opinions, and based on what’s stated above, your own personal delusions which you keep because you like to. The amount of mental gymnastics you’re currently doing to not believe is the same as what I’m doing to believe. The difference is, I was willing to make an effort to find out while you’re taking the lazy path to keep what you started with–lack of knowledge about the subject.

    While many, probably most or even all religions have a quirk or two that got started along the way without good foundation, religion (the system) is different than relationship (learning to know and understand, including your place in it all) and faith (willingness to believe and act upon what you believe). The example you offered, about children perishing for lack of water, was troublesome to me once, too, but I made the effort to pursue relationship (study, get informed, ask questions, see from another p.o.v.) and now I understand the bigger picture better. Studying true Biblical Christianity is the ONLY thing that has made sense out of this whole messed up, crazy world. I was deluded while thinking the world’s way; I’m finally free of that crap thinking. I thought I knew a lot before, all gifted and supremely educated as I was, but that pales in comparison to what I now know and am continuing to learn. Believing isn’t hard, it’s letting go of your current thinking that’s hard. A faith journey is for the really sharp and brave, not the dull and wimpy.

    You seem like a sharp guy, and if I’m to guess correctly from the camo jacket a member of the armed forces, not a wimp. So I challenge you to step up and apply your intelligence and critical thinking skills to pursuing the acquisition of that knowledge, attempt viewing things from other points of view, and see if it doesn’t stretch your mind to think bigger than yourself. I’m certain that when you do, you will be wowed and humbled that you did not know nearly as much as you thought you did, nor were you in any capacity able to judge as well as you think you are. I agree that religion can be very frustrating, so skip that for now and start with the relationship part instead. Grab a Bible (try Today’s English Version or New International Version), start studying, and when you get to a part you don’t understand/agree with, tell God what you don’t like about it and ask Him to defend His position. He always answers. He loves sharp people who ask a lot of questions (respectfully) and pursue advanced knowledge. It’s the ones who don’t wimp out too soon that are given the backstage passes to the good stuff.

    I’ve heard this guy does a great job at guiding a very logical approach; since you were mentioning circular reasoning, you might like his style: do a video search (YouTube, Vimeo, something like that) for Dr. Tim Keller. Also, the Bible teacher who finally cut the crap and got to the heart of it all for me which helped me to finally understand is Dr. Creflo Dollar; he’s got lots of videos and sermon series on his website (usually by topic, I think): A half dozen hours watching his teaching will probably get you willing to keep listening. If you’d like to share your thoughts on either of these gentleman’s videos with me, you’re welcome to. I love a good discussion, especially when it comes to how radically and amizingly life can be changed for the much, much better.

    I’ll leave you with this brain teaser: The opinion you currently hold is exactly what Satan wants you to think. Which means if you choose to continue with it, you’ll be choosing to agree with Satan.

    (My sincerest hope is that while you may not believe much in God yet, which is understandable because you haven’t met or gotten to know Him, that you would be uncomfortable with the possibility of knowingly siding with Satan. I hope that, like a sprung spring in a mattress, this pokes at you enough to get you up to investigating more.)

    Have a mind-blowing day!

    • June 9, 2011 15:42

      Thanks for your comment sailingspirit. I spent some 10 years of my life as a believer in pretty much the same things as you. I read the Bible (and still do) and I tried to talk to God. It was precisely when I questioned such things as the contradictions and reprehensible morals presented in the Bible that I realised that God wasn’t answering and never had.

      I came to the conclusion, based on the evidence, that he is not there. All the evidence seems to confirm my conclusion. God never spoke to me because he (and Satan) were invented by a bronze-age tribe who had no better explanation for the world they lived in.

      You and I do have a better explanation and to ignore it is, I must insist, a delusion.

      Have a great day yourself 🙂

  2. Nightblogger permalink
    May 15, 2012 06:04

    Of course the whole of our life experience may be delusional – we have no way of knowing anything for sure. We all live by faith – even those who have rejected religion.

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