Dawkins is Wrong: Religion is not a Delusion

The other day I was talking with my flatmate. She was a psychiatrist and the discussion moved to how psychological conditions and symptoms are entirely culturally and contextually dependent. Your behaviour must be inappropriate for your culture for it to be relevant to psychology. But this does not sit well with Dawkins’ definition of a delusion. The definition of a delusion is a steadfastly held wrong belief that is inappropriate to the culture. Dawkins wants to dismiss the latter part—the culturally dependent part—of that definition. This would define a delusion as any steadfastly held wrong belief. But it is a mistake to be so fast to do away with the context and culture.

Our discussion started—as do many others—about sex. It was about the psychological relevance of being a very sexually forward female. Moral dispersion aside, in the UK it is inappropriate to be a sexually forward female. From a psychiatric point of view, this behaviour is a sign of sexual abuse in early childhood or from an early partner (up to around the age of 15). The abuse manifests itself as feeling empowered by sexual encounters while being unable to relinquish that perceived control (notice the paradox of that not being real control). The belief in the relationship between sex and empowerment will be held steadfastly, sometimes in spite of how it makes them feel after each encounter. In Denmark, however, being sexually forward is culturally appropriate. The background of each country that leads to this difference eludes me, but Danish women often are forward. That is not psychiatrically-relevant and so is not a marker for sexual abuse. If we were to follow in Dawkins’ footsteps and erase the culture-specific part of the definition then psychiatry becomes very difficult: do we assume Danish women were sexually abused or do we miss the markers for abuse in British women?

Examples abound of how the same behaviour depends on context before it can be considered a mental issue. Mania, for example, is massive elation and feeling the need to be very charitable. These people are pathologically happy for a short time and could emotionally cope with any bad news. It is not a sustainable state. These people will give away their money, even if it is the last of their money; people have bankrupted themselves in 1 hour of mania. That is clearly insane, and it is based on delusions like having just won the lottery. However, if the maniac has won the lottery it is not psychiatric, it is normal. Without context, we don’t know which it is.

And this brings us to religion. The people of Africa who believe in witchcraft and voodoo are not delusional, they are simply wrong. Their beliefs are dysfunctional. But they are not deluded. In fact, in The God Delusion Dawkins gives reasons why an entire culture may succumb to dysfunctional beliefs: evolution has picked for those who can stand on the shoulders of the giants before them; it is an evolutionary advantage to listen to your parents or elder when they tell you which snakes bite or which berry is poisonous. But when an entire culture lacks knowledge about what a “poison” or “toxin” is, there is a place for “don’t eat that berry because it wants to kill you” instead of “don’t eat that berry because it has an organic chemical which disrupts the function and mechanics of your body”. Endowing things with sentience is the pathway to religion: eventually a culture endows nature itself with ideas of sentience. But just like the sentient berry, it’s a dysfunctional belief.

For the same reason we rely on cultural differences when practicing psychiatry and psychology, and the same reason those professions rely on context clues, we should allow that distinction to stay in place to distinguish between a steadfastly held wrong belief and a delusion.

17 thoughts on “Dawkins is Wrong: Religion is not a Delusion”

  1. Wouldn’t delusion be apt, though, when information (that counters the claim) is freely available but not processed, or even purposefully avoided? Then it is a functional delusion because the individual can’t claim ignorance.

    1. That’s what I would call “dysfunctional”. I can see the striking resemblance to a delusion, and in the more colloquial sense we normally use it it’s probably fine.

  2. It might be a stretch, but one could argue that unscientific beliefs are inappropriate to a culture that has broadly accepted the theories, methods and benefits of science. Perhaps it is a mass delusion to imagine we can live in a world that completely relies on science and engineering, and yet expect that our deeply held beliefs need not be evaluated by science.

    1. This is a fair point. We are a culture of scientific enlightenment…

      The question I was trying to ponder is if I were to convert to Islam now, would that be a delusion?

      1. I think it would be delusional if you suddenly began believing things that are demonstrably false. On an individual level, there are reasons for choosing a religion that are unrelated to falsifiable beliefs. I think there are many “functional atheists” in every religion — people who believe in the generic metaphysical ideas of their religion, but otherwise do not think they have personally encountered supernatural forces, do not look for supernatural explanations behind daily events, never expect to hear personally from God, don’t look to their religion to answer political questions, and always err on the side of science. These are completely reasonable people who believe some “other stuff” that has no practical consequences.

      2. I don’t doubt those sorts of people exist, but I don’t know that I’d call them “functional atheists”.
        I’m still trying to come to terms with what it means for something to be culturally inappropriate. As you said, we are a post-Enlightenment culture so religion really should be considered a delusion. However, Christianity definitely is a part of our modern-day culture… so, if I am a Christian from a Christian family I am not delusional, but if I suddenly convert to Islam, I am…

      3. When I say “functional atheist,” I mean that they are likely to behave in broadly the same ways as reasonable atheists (we need to exclude delusional atheists from the comparison) when faced with ordinary decisions and problems. They will seek reasoned solutions to things like the family budget or problems at work. A delusional fundamentalist might turn straight to prayer or look for magical signs to give them guidance. From saying this, it’s clear that I think “functional atheist” and “reasonable person” must mean the same thing. That may sound uncharitable, but once you expect God to actually DO something for you, or imagine that he has already done something for you, or that he’s sending you supernatural messages telling you what to do, then you’re being delusional and it could have harmful consequences.

      4. Which is why I like the term “dysfunctional beliefs”. The irrational beliefs of a believers are still culturally relevant, even if they are wrong and harmful.

  3. “The definition of a delusion is a steadfastly held wrong belief that is inappropriate to the culture.”

    From which source do you derive that definition? Because the search results all point back to this blog, and a search on the definition of delusion yields the following:

    – in psychology, a rigid system of beliefs with which a person is preoccupied and to which the person firmly holds, despite the logical absurdity of the beliefs and a lack of supporting evidence. (Britannica)

    – an idiosyncratic belief or impression maintained despite being contradicted by reality or rational argument, typically as a symptom of mental disorder (Oxford)

    – a false belief or opinion: labored under the delusion that success was at hand.
    – Psychiatry: A false belief strongly held in spite of invalidating evidence, especially as a symptom of mental illness (thefreedictionary)

    – a belief that is not true : a false idea
    – a false idea or belief that is caused by mental illness
    – the act of deluding : the state of being deluded
    – something that is falsely or delusively believed or propagated
    – a persistent false psychotic belief regarding the self or persons or objects outside the self that is maintained despite indisputable evidence to the contrary; also : the abnormal state marked by such beliefs (Merriam-Webster)

    The above results give no indication that one’s behavior must be inappropriate for one’s culture for it to be relevant to psychology, so it seems somewhat impertinent to criticize Professor Dawkins (who’s not a psychologist) for employing the common meaning of the word in a book geared towards a general audience, don’t you think?

    1. Well, no. If you are going to use a technical term you should use it correctly.
      However, I have to concede that after using Google I also can’t find support for it having to be “inappropriate to the culture”. I have heard it from one psychologist I work with, a psychiatrist I live with a counsellor I used to go to the gym with (and none of them said it in a context specific to Dawkins, they were all atheists).

      1. Interesting….

        George W claimed god talked through him.
        He was responsible for the death of over 3000 American soldiers.
        He was either crazy or delusional.
        Apparently, he was not considered crazy…

        Go figure?

        I am chatting with someone on another blog – a Christian who claims that God revealed himself through the Holy Spirit.
        She claims her therapist – who she consulted about postpartum depression – (this is not confidential, she wrote it on her blog) considers this religious experience not delusional and within the ”bounds of societal norms.”

        I have my own views on that…

        I have no idea what god thinks.

      2. I have certain issues with religion not being considered culturally inappropriate. We live in a culture that is built on the enlightenment values and science. Unfortunately, the definition of a culture is too broad. It literally is the case that if it’s one person its a delusion and if it is many people it’s a religion.
        But the definition is functional.

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