Is religion a delusion?

A few weeks ago I posted on my blog to state that Richard Dawkins was actually wrong and religion is not a delusion. My argument was that the term “delusion” belongs to psychiatry (it is also a clinical and judgement-free term; if others bandy it around as an insult then they are being unkind), and psychiatry is very context specific. The metric for a lot of mental diagnoses are how far they vary from social norms. In the UK it is not a social norm for women to be very sexually forward and so that behaviour would be interesting to a psychologist or a psychiatrist; in Denmark sexually forward women very much are a social norm, and of no psychiatric interest. This metric becomes very interesting when it is used to infer things about a person’s history with much success.

Since I wrote that the issue of religion being a psychiatric delusion has been raised many times. Although Dawkins started that use of that rhetoric, I hadn’t seen it in a while and was surprised it was back in vogue (after all, The God Delusion was written in 2006, 10 years ago. Perhaps I am popular enough to have restarted it). However, as I’ve engaged in the discussion more I’ve noticed something: people are dropping the culturally dependent part of the definition; they are not defining a delusion in a way that takes account of the culture. If we run with that definition, I must draw a different conclusion.

My definition of a delusion in my first post was “a steadfastly held wrong belief that is inappropriate to one’s culture”. I should start by justifying each part of that definition.

  1. A delusion must be unshakeable (or steadfast) else it is just a mistake. I teach a student from South Korea who believed in ‘fan death’. This is the culturally specific belief that sleeping in a room with a fan on can kill you. After 2 minutes research the student changed their mind entirely. That was not a delusion.
  2. A delusion must be wrong, else it is knowledge. For practical terms, I define a wrong belief as a belief held independent of evidence. There is an irony here: you could be right by accident but unsupported by evidence and believing would still be irrational or, by my definition, wrong.

Both of these parts of the definition are easily confirmed by any amount of Googling, using Wikipedia and other highly superficial internet research, but I still have one more part of the definition to justify: inappropriate to one’s culture.

  1. The World Health Organisation ICD-10 defines a delusion extensively. However, under the diagnostic guidelines the ICD-10 includes the quote “They [the beliefs] must be present for at least 3 months and be clearly personal rather than subcultural.” As further evidence, I cite my conversation with a trained psychiatrist. Again, I talk about it in detail in my other post and allude to it in the introduction to this post above. The idea is that as a predictive diagnostic it is only powerful if we pay attention to deviation from social norms.

There is one more part of the definition I want to explain before I decide whether religion is a delusion or not. Wikipedia describes it most eloquently (although the sentiment is found readily in other places): “As a pathology, it [delusion] is distinct from a belief based on false or incomplete information, confabulation, dogma, illusion, or other effects of perception.” Does religion actually fall under another title, like dogma or confabulation (that’s fun to say)? The short answer is no.

Confabulation is about confusing one’s memory, and therefore creates the illusion of evidence where there is none; this is a belief based on incomplete data. Dogma does not refer to attempts at truth claims, but instead at being unable to question principles or values. Unshakeable values are distinct from unshakably held “facts”. There is an overlap between delusion and dogma: if you follow the principle that a particular book is always true then you will have a dogmatic belief. You can play a fun game with this: the more a religious person deviates away from their book and becomes a religious moderate the more they move away from ‘dogmatic belief’ and into ‘delusion’. But religious moderates are not the point here.

Is religion a delusion?

  1. Is religion steadfastly believed? Yes. Evidence: you (probably). Anyone who has said “you have to have faith” or can’t justify their belief. Anyone who will not be swayed in their religion by reason believes it steadfastly.
  2. Is religion “wrong” as I have defined it (i.e. not congruent with sensible evidence)? Yes. There is no sensible evidence for God (I always give the offer to be corrected). There are philosophical questions, yes. But questions are not places for you to make up any answer you like. And when you do make up any old answer to your question, you have to move it when evidence gives you a real answer. More importantly, if there is no evidence in support of your claim it is wrong to believe it. (With specific reference to Abrahamic religions, Atheist Enquiry has done a good job of explaining why the Old Testament is patently false. Therefore there is superior evidence to the contrary of the Abrahamic religions.)
  3. Is religion inappropriate to our culture? Depends. I’d like to think by now that we live in an Enlightenment culture, and religion sure is inappropriate to that. I’d like to claim we live in a culture saturated in information and data, and religion is inappropriate to that. I’d like to say we live in a culture that no longer requires stories and the supernatural to explain our experiences, and religion is inappropriate to that. However, religion is defined as part of a culture. Therefore, religion is circularly defended from ever being called a delusion.

I’d argue that two out of three isn’t bad, and the case can definitely be made that religion is inappropriate to our culture. However, I have written this post precisely because the one aspect defining “delusion” that may defend religion from the accusation of being a delusion is the very aspect people tend to drop. If you do not care for cultural context, religion is definitely a delusion. If you do care about cultural context (and I very much think you should) then religion may be a delusion.

62 thoughts on “Is religion a delusion?”

  1. I believe Dawkins wrote the “God Delusion” not the Religion Delusion. Religion is a con game designed to collect power. Often religions are the refuge of people who could accumulate power in no other way. I do not think delusions have to be culturally based, because no matter the definitions, a delusion is a claim, a mere opinion of someone not participating in the mental landscape said delusion is supposed to exist in.

    Pagan religions used to be able to explain all kinds of natural phenomena based upon the actions of invisible gods. They could also provide prescriptions for rituals to propitiate those gods. All bullshit, of course, and not much is different from now. Participating in such a scheme indicates gullibility, rather than delusion. To vehemently claim that some god or other is real and that one has had conversations with them is just fucking nuts. (I believe that is the technical term.)

  2. Like others I guess I’m having trouble reconciling your definition of delusion. In this link:

    The definition for delusion is given as:

    An unshakable theory or belief in something false and impossible, despite evidence to the contrary

    I guess when I think of the word delusion, this is the definition that I would apply to the word, and seems like Dawkins was using the same definition in his book when I read it.

    It’s also not clear why something can’t be both a delusion, but also have value to culture. Now maybe it only has short term value and long term harm. Maybe it creates community and thus is a place of bonding and friendship. Dawkins also talks about memes and that religion may be a sort of a cultural version of gene passed down from generation to generation to help create cohesiveness in a culture. It seems the whole point of a delusion is to serve some sort of purpose whether for good or for harm. A person might find comfort in their being a creator, or find comfort in the thought of an afterlife to relieve death anxiety. So there is a psychological value to the delusion, even if it’s not real. Unfortunately there is usually a whole of other bullshit you have to swallow along with it. lol

    1. You might want to read the first post I did on this question,
      particularly the second paragraph.
      The point is that “delusion”, as a term, belong to psychiatry. The purpose of the label is that it has diagnostic value. Culturally relevant beliefs lack that diagnostic value.

      The link you provided talks about delusions of paranoia and of control. I think it is less easy to argue they serve a purpose. They are bugs, not features, of the brain.

      Religion, as you describe it in your comment, would look like a feature.

      1. I did read your first post. I understand that there are cultural differences that can make one type of behavior seem more deviant than another. I would still disagree that all sexually forward women in the UK are necessarily victims of abuse…but even if we say they are, I am still not sure how this relates to delusion. You define the term delusion in a very specific way and yet I tried to find any sort of general consensus for that definition and was unable to do so. The link I provided is a psych website, and religion could arguably fit into two of the categories listed there (reference and control). Also given how beliefs work in the brain, and the amount of dopamine that gets released when beliefs are reinforced, it becomes pathological at a certain point. Traumatic events, stress or anxiety can exacerbate the degree of those beliefs. But again the main point is that the definition of delusion in general on the website seems to be the most common one I can find. And to say Dawkins is wrong, you must ask him first which definition of delusion he is using. Also as Steve said above here, Dawkins never said religion was a delusion only God. There are many parts of religion that are surely not delusional.

  3. Your argument starts from a slippery definition, that a delusion is “a wrong belief” which is “a belief held independent of evidence”. Close, but no cigar. Add the word “contrary” right before “evidence” and the definition is more accurate. Remember, lack of evidence for something is not evidence against it.

    Let’s get silly. Say that I believe that eating broccoli will make me turn green and have never eaten any. Is that a delusional belief? No it is not, unless I believe it will turn EVERYBODY green. since at least some people out there have eaten broccoli and not turned green. As long as I believe it will turn ME green, that belief can be described by many words, most of them uncomplimentary, but as long as there is no evidence that it is untrue for me (let’s ignore for the moment any medical evidence that broccoli does not have any ingredient which can possibly turn anyone green), This belief would then only be delusional if I eat broccoli (accidentally or by being forced) and don’t turn green.

    Note that if I was forced to eat broccoli and did not turn green, and then modified the belief so that the act of being forced to eat the broccoli acted as an antidote to the green transformation, a case could be made the new belief was not delusional. A case could also be made that I needed a vacation in a room with rubber wallpaper…

    1. I think believing broccoli will turn your green is a delusion.

      Delusions of control and paranoia are often not directly contradicted by evidence, they are just not supported at all.

      1. You are correct that since we know the makeup of broccoli and the nature of skin and that nothing in broccoli can cause the skin to turn green, yes it would be a delusional belief. Sorry, it was the only example I could come up with off the top of my head. But if we did not have that knowledge, and a person did hold that belief and never ate any broccoli to show it wrong, then the belief that the particular person would turn green, no matter how silly and unlikely, would not be delusional. Whereas the belief that anyone who ate broccoli would turn green WOULD be delusional, since many people have eaten it and none of them have turned green.

      2. Because we know stuff about chemicals and digestion and so on, we are working with knowledge regarding broccoli and green skin. When dealing with religion, we should be dealing only with faith, which is exempted from reality’s arbitration.

        So far, so good.

        But the problem arises when religious ideas and concepts cross this border from faith into the realm of evidence, when faith-based beliefs begin to intrude into areas of evidence-adduced beliefs (which is why there is no end to the confusion imported by believers talking about belief as if evidence-adduced when it is in fact faith-based).

        The confusion and false equivalency is intentional… to give faith-based belief wiggle room to be presented as if evidence-adduced. That’s the mission statement for apologetics and it is immediately recognizable… whether in regards to religion or climate change denialism. It’s the same method.

        When a faith-based belief is used to make an evidence-adduced claim as if descriptive of reality and falsely presented as if another kind of knowledge or insight about it, then it is either an intentional misrepresentation or it is a statement of delusion. Very often, it is clearly a statement of delusion because the belief is maintained only by divorcing it from reality’s arbitration. Again, this not solely the purview of religion but religion is faith’s Mother Ship. No amount of evidence or knowledge will alter this kind of belief and that is a delusional belief by definition.

      3. Exactly, that is why I try not to state my beliefs as “facts”.

        Yes if a person clung to their religious beliefs despite creditable evidence to the contrary, then they could accurately be considered delusional. Let me point out that some person or “expert” or group saying that evidence exists is not creditable evidence (that evidence would need to be stated, and validated and/or compared with the other experts or groups before it could be considered creditable), and that lack of evidence for something is not creditable evidence against it. As far as I know, the “evidence” against God does not meet the “creditable” criteria, so I can claim to be not delusional. If creditable evidence against God exists, being ignorant would seem to be the worst I could be accused of. And my response to that would be “it was kept pretty well hidden, wasn’t it?”

      4. Can it? My definition of God includes the concept that His home is another dimension, which has different physical laws than does ours, so we would be incapable of “testing” Him since our abilities are strictly limited by OUR physical laws..

      5. Equippedcat, it seems you want this god to be both real and knowable in this reality – after all, you believe it for what you think should be reasonable and not delusional merit – but then want all evidence for this merit claim (what allallt describes as a robust claim) to then be beyond the reach of this reality, beyond the reach of our ability to gain knowledge about this agency adduced from this reality. So it seems to me that this tactic is revealing: it’s really a mental shell game you’re playing… a game to hide the delusion.

      6. Sure, I would love for God to be knowable in our dimension, but that would eliminate the need for faith, which God seems to desire for reasons of His own. What I want (or think of the situation) does not matter, because I’m only focused on “me”. God is alleged to be focused on “everything”, so would have a better perspective.

        If God resides wholly in this dimension, then He, as described, seems impossible. Thus this is not a viable course for me to follow. Since it is definitively stated in the Bible that He resides in “the spirit realm”, which is “divided from” our realm, the alternate dimension theory that I found (or perhaps invented) makes sense to me. Since my personal experience seems to indicate that He does exist, this is no more a “mental shell game” than you play with,

        It is possible that neither one of us is delusional, although it is certain one of us is wrong. One or perhaps both of us don’t have enough information. I, at least, am willing to consider that I am wrong. Are you?

      7. Wrong? Me? I don’t know anything about some god. My state of knowledge about your or any other god is ignorance. That’s not delusional. It’s termed ‘agnostic’. But I do not believe there is any compelling evidence to alter my state of non belief about such an agency. In neither case is there any reason to be considered ‘wrong’ now and ‘right’ later should either state change. I am wide open to altering my state of belief and my state of knowledge should there be cause.

        But I do know that religion poisons everything it touches in the sense that it either promotes ignorance to be a virtue or justifies behaviours that either have better reasons or results in atrocious behaviours that causes real harm to real people in real life… whether they recognize it or not. Because religion is predicated on faith for its methodology, I think exporting that method into affecting the real world – as if it were something other than a belief in a superstitious belief – always carries with it a pernicious net cost. Even the subjective attribution commonly used to justify some faith-based position is itself a means to thwart understanding reality with knowledge .

      8. Of course, if you don’t have a belief, it can’t be a delusion. I apologize for assuming you hold the belief that God or gods do not exist. I know well that if you don’t have enough information to go either way, you don’t have enough. Until more comes along. For some people, they can get enough information in a moment; for others, like me, it can take a lifetime.

        Ah yes, there have certainly been cases where ignorance was held up as a virtue, and people or groups engaged in atrocious behaviors that caused real harm to real people in real life. And religion sometimes seemed the cause or the excuse or the agency. But sometimes it was politics, sometimes it was money, sometimes it was drugs or alcohol or mental defect or even lousy parenting. Like anything, when humans are involved, there is a high probability it can get mucked up. It is Man who poisons; religion is just sometimes the poison he chooses.

        And sometimes, because Man is not universally a destroyer, religion causes or is an agency for real good.

      9. Equippedcat, you say, “And sometimes, because Man is not universally a destroyer, religion causes or is an agency for real good.”

        Religion is the cause for real good? That’s quite the claim. I have said upthread that those who say religion causes good are really trying to justify “behaviours that either have better reasons or results in atrocious behaviours that causes real harm to real people in real life… whether they recognize it or not.” Now, it seems to me you’ve done just that with this causal claim. So, I am ready to be corrected. Can you give me any examples linking religion itself to be the cause for this ‘good’? I think you’ve overstepped here because I can’t think of any.

      10. Off the top of my head, a group of guys from my church go down to Mexico twice a year to build houses for people who don’t have one. Is this “good”? I think so. Is it because of their “religion”? Seems like it to me. What “better reason” do you think is the actual cause of this behavior?

      11. Can you think of any non-religious reasons to build homes for the homeless, reasons that have nothing to do with gods or a god? I can. Therefore, religion is not the cause for this behaviour.

      12. Maybe there is some group of guys somewhere with no religious input who would go down to Mexico and build houses for people on their own dime. All I can say is THIS group of guys certainly seem guided by religion. Oh, and the organization “Habitat for Humanity” may have some of their volunteers not be religious, but the organization is religious based.

      13. Yeah, maybe there is. Once upon a time it was called the Peace Corp. Another group who does difficult and dangerous volunteer work is Doctors Without Borders, a fully secular organization. You don’t need religion for this kind of behaviour and claiming religion to be causal utterly fails to recognize the basic humanity shared by all and transfers motivation away from the subjects being helped to some god for brownie points. Doing good for goodness’ sake is enough; religion is merely a thief that tries to take credit. I would be far more impressed with a group of people doing good in order to help others because they can rather than insert some personal religious reasons for the same action; the first is altruistic, the second selfish.

      14. It’s a little more complicated than that. Although I see the basic premise — that winning tokens for entrance into heaven makes the act selfish — the concepts of selfishness and altruism* and internal and external loci of control** muddy the water a lot.

        * I’ve got a post on altruism and selfishness somewhere on here. If I wasn’t on my phone I’d link it.

        ** I did a lot of reading in the loci of control while thinking about how to do further research on it. I wrote briefly on that in here somewhere as well.

      15. It’s begging the question to say the charitable atheists seem religious; whether being charitable is religious was the question at hand.

      16. I’m not claiming all charitable actions are religious. I am claiming that SOME charitable actions result from religious convictions; that is, they would not have been done if the person did not feel led by God to do them..

        And it is even possible that “all” charitable actions result from implantation of preferences towards that direction by God as part of their basic “programming”, even in people who don’t believe in Him. Or maybe some people are just not as big a waste of protoplasm as others.

      17. Your personal experience is wholly in this “dimension” or “realm”. If you have had an experience that convinced you of a God, that God interacted with this “dimension” or “realm”. That makes God testable.

        I heard God was everywhere, and I seem to be right (,-Present-Everywhere).
        If you have a problem with God being in this reality and doing what is claimed, that’s a Biblical issue.

        (And, I’m not convinced that ‘God wrote what the people of the time would understand’ makes sense, because you say there’s a contradictory passage where it says He is in another realm.)

      18. What if our dimension is sort of a “ship in a bottle” existence. Or perhaps a bit closer, one of those “sand art in a bottle” existence. God’s dimension would surround ours. He created the artwork, and implanted in each of us a fragment of stuff from His realm (the “soul” if you will). He can perceive our entire dimension from the smallest to the largest, and can control things, using the laws He set up for our dimension. With the exception of the souls, which is not bound by our laws, there is nothing of Him we would be able to detect, except the communication He has with the “souls”.

        God didn’t “write what people could understand”, Man wrote what he could understand of what God revealed to him. Him being in a different realm is irrelevant, because He provided us all with “walkie talkies”.

      19. Ah, you might be talking about one of the options I discuss in my glossary for a definition of a universe. Can I ask you to check there and let me know if one of them encapsulates some if the ideas your talking about.

      20. Yes, the “universe” definition is leaning in the direction I am thinking of, at least the first two options. “Pocket of space/time” does kind of define our bounded environment. The third option, of multiple “space/time” pockets is sort of where I was heading using the imprecise term “dimension”. If these pockets have just “space” (length, width and height) and time, then they might be “similar” to us (but not us, because the space and time would be DIFFERENT space/time than ours). If there was a pocket of NOT space/time, then that might be the pocket inhabited by God (the spiritual realm).

      21. I tried to think about this on the train this morning and, funnily enough, Flatland was the book that came to mind.
        I imagined taking the square protagonist and rolling him up really tight. What you should get, as a result, is a 1 dimensional line. Similarly, if you imagine rolling a line up really tight, you get a 0 dimensional point.
        It would follow, then, although I can’t picture it, that one could roll up a 3 dimensional object to get a 2 dimensional object.

        I suspect the reason I can’t picture this is because in each example I have to roll the subject through the dimension above itself… a square is rolled upward through the third dimension before being brought back down… a line is rolled through a second dimension, and so on. But I can’t picture a fourth dimension to roll a cube through…

        Anyway, this is the kind of language that String and M theorists use, so I wonder if it is also what they mean. They use this language to explain how the higher spatial dimensions may be hidden from us…

        But, again, use Flatland as the example. The Sphere, when inside the second dimension, was wholly observable.

        I don’t think this is a conversation we can “rationally” resolve, and the data certainly isn’t in to empirical say yes or no to your proposals… but I’d also say that your proposals are not well enough defined to really properly engage with…

      22. Also, in all this talk of dimensions, what is often lost (because people often don’t really grasp or have a solid understanding of what they’re talking about… me included!) is Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture where he explains the fundamental aspect of action in this universe always must have energy signatures. No such signatures can be found for any supposed intervention or activity claimed by the religious – as if intervention and causal effect by some god were to be a ‘reasonable hypothesis’ by some agency from ‘outside’ our universe but still active within it. His reasonable observation I think is worth mentioning here: you can’t have it both ways.

      23. This is one of Sean Carrol’s novel arguments (and Brian Cox makes the same argument to disprove ghosts). We have technology that can detect the most incredibly small energy signatures in the LHC, and so we have the technology to detect energy signature from any perceivable action — and we don’t see God (or ghosts).

        To get around this, you need more of the ‘intentionally deceptive’ magically hidden God.

      24. Equippedcat wrote, “If there was a pocket of NOT space/time, then that might be the pocket inhabited by God (the spiritual realm).”

        I simply renamed this hypothesis as the ‘God of the non-Gap’ fallacious argument!

      25. Our dimension is from “here” to as far as we can now or are reasonably likely ever to be able to perceive; it is the place where those physical laws we presume to be “universal” apply. “Another” dimension would be “outside” or “around” or “next to” ours, with the capability, if not likelihood, of differing physical laws.

        Yes, God created this dimension and acts in it.

      26. Re the definition of dimension, I have the advantage of a childhood immersed in Science Fiction.

        It is not a “claim”. It is a “theory”. And it is a theory which attempts to explain why God is NOT explorable by physical sciences. His actions in this dimension is through control of the physics of this dimension, so His results can appear to be explainable by natural processes.

      27. Are the physics ever altered or suspended?
        If no, then what actions are you talking about?
        If yes, explorable by science.

        Somewhat a misuse of the term “theory”.
        Still not understanding what you mean by “dimension”. Science fiction uses it as a tool to posit otherwise incredible things. But I’m not sure there is any translation between that and what, for example, string theorists mean when they say it.

      28. I don’t think our physics are ever suspended or altered; they are intrinsic to our environment. Possibly they can be bypassed by outside forces. Many of God’s actions in this world could have used our physics, which is why people can legitimately conclude that they are “natural” actions. “Last month I had these nasty growths and the dermatologist said they would be nearly impossible to remove, but I prayed to God and this month, they are gone! Had to be the magic of God, right?” “Nah, your body naturally grew them and then naturally reabsorbed them.” “I can grasp that they grew ‘by themselves’, but why would they have been reabsorbed?” “Beats me, they just were. Or maybe you hallucinated the growths and the visit to the dermatologist.” “Yeah, I and my insurance company also hallucinated paying the bill.”

        What actions? Anything which has ever happened could be directed by God, or have been allowed by God, or just happened without any external interference. Because most can have natural explanations, we can’t say for sure “this was God” or “that was natural”.

        How is this a misuse of the term “theory”? I didn’t say it was a well supported theory, but on the other hand, it is not impossible and does seem to explain the some of the capabilities attributed to God.

        My use of dimension is obviously based on my background and is not precise enough, so I can see how you could be confused. When I talk about a “dimension” as a “place”, I am referring to a bounded environment, and the bounds are probably “dimensions” which are measureable (locally). In our environment, we have dimensions of height, width, length and time. We can comprehend an environment which has width, length and time, but no height (Flatland). If we can postulate an environment with fewer dimensions, we can at least conceive of one with more and/or different dimensions.

      29. The dermatology growths example is simply a God of the Gaps sort of argument, you’re just making it weakly (i.e. ‘God could be there’, not ‘God is there’).

        I do ask that you don’t misread my comments; I’ve always found the humility you have on the issue of ‘knowledge’ to be very conducive to a productive argument, but we appear to meet a conceptual bedrock quite fast and hard. There are things about dermatology we don’t understand. That does not mean the answer lies outside the natural function of the universe.

        If the natural function of the universe is never suspended or altered, I still don’t understand what actions you are talking about. You seem to be suggesting prayer may increase your likelihood of survival — but that is a question science has explored, and the evidence doesn’t support such a claim…

        You can see where this is going… yes, any one example of divine intervention may be dismissed as “just natural”, but given a statistically relevant sample we should see something more interesting.

      30. The dermatology scenario was in answer to your question about actions (maybe) performed by God; an example which at least the person involved might believe was performed by God and other people would believe was some natural action or didn’t happen at all.

        It was an attempt to show a relationship between a person’s prayer and results which would seem to be unlikely naturally but then happened shortly after the prayer. Thus, that person would see a cause – effect relationship which would support his view of God and the belief that the removal of the growths was due to God’s action in response to his prayer. But because there was no observable unnatural phenomenon, it is not proof that God did something; since it there is always some chance it was a natural event. So not really a “God of the Gaps” situation as stated. Now if the person tries to use the event as proof to others that God exists because science “can’t” (or perhaps more accurately, “hasn’t”) explain the phenomenon, that would qualify.

        One wonders if the statistics for those who believe in God would mirror those of those who don’t believe. Now that might be really interesting.

      31. And this is different from the rain dancer causing the rain how (you can’t ‘prove’ the dancing didn’t cause the rain but introducing shifting dimensional woo is hardly a means to coming to understand how and why precipitation – or anything else in this universe – occurs, n’est pas)?

      32. I see that we’re working off subtly different definitions of delusions, here. Just to make our positions (as I understand them clear), we agree the following:
        To be delusional, a belief must be:
        * Steadfast, unshakable or held with certitude.
        * Wrong

        What we disagree on is what counts as “wrong”; does the contradiction to a belief have to be supported by stronger evidence than the belief to be wrong. Or, is it sufficient to be entirely unsupported.

        I doubt either of us actually have the clinical experience to honestly settle that. (It is a clinical term, after all.) I’m going to have to revert back to a state of ignorance (or ambivalence — to see the merit of two ideas, which is subtly different to not knowing) on the question.

      33. Perhaps even more subtle than that. In order to be a “delusion”,

        1) I don’t know how strongly the belief must be held. If it is loosely held despite significant contrary evidence, is it not still a delusion? Certainly, the more strongly it is held, the more likely to be a mental problem rather than an informational problem.

        2) Whether it is “wrong” is immaterial. It is how much information the person has which indicates it is wrong which makes it a delusion. Throughout history, many things were “universally” held to be true until proven to be false. At one time, believing the world to be flat or that Malaria was caused by “bad air” were not delusions, although today they certainly are. I even postulate that technically, something believed which is actually right would still be a delusion if all the information the person has seems to show it is wrong. It is just in that case, nobody else (with better information) is likely to accuse that person of being delusional 🙂

      34. How can one ‘loosely’ belief something in the face of contrary evidence?
        To still believe something in the face of contrary evidence surely it has to be steadfastly believed — else a person is simply proclaiming to believe something they do not.

  4. A thought provoking read, I would like to challenge the question in the title though.

    I think using the word ‘Religion’ is too broad and unspecific. I would say religion can be delusional, but it’s the specific claims or beliefs of the religion being scrutinised that are the delusions. For example, I would say that 7-day literal creation is a delusion.

  5. DSM-5: “A delusion is a belief that is held with strong conviction despite evidence disproving it that is stronger than any evidence supporting it.”

    Any belief – religious or not – that falls into this strong conviction category despite stronger contrary evidence indicates delusional thinking.

    Don’t let the subject – and the subjective willingness to privilege a belief claim – sway you. Attaching the ‘cultural’ aspect seems to me to be a way of rationalizing special privileging utilizing the excuse of popularity which merely muddies the waters of the veracity for the belief claim.

    For example, a large population that believes in Santa Claus does not POOF! Santa Claus into being and so any strong conviction that utilizes this rationalization of popularity to justify the belief claim does not POOF! the belief claim into being anything other than a delusion. The popularity neither increases the evidence in its favour nor reduce the strength of the contrary evidence; it just sets the stage to rationalize the delusional belief into being seen as slightly less irrational than it really is and tries to POOF! the belief into being a more socially acceptable form of irrationality. That’s how privileging certain beliefs works to effect.

    1. I am not saying the fact it is a culturally relevant belief makes it more ‘true’ in some sense.

      But, from a diagnostic point of view, a personal delusion is very different from a cultural belief.

      Now — there is an angle to this that points out nearly all religious belief is personal in that there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of cultural uniformity. Compared the ‘Christianity’ of Silence of Mind to EquippedCat, for example.

      1. I know you’re not saying that… but you are allowing for an influence to differentiate and de-personalize an accepted delusion – a belief that fits the DSM definition – to be somehow and in some unknown way less so if it believed by more than one person. In a nutshell, this is religious apologetics at work, doing its job to mitigate what is the case – deluded thinking exercised by individual believers – and present it in a more favourable light – a religious belief embedded in a culture as if the culture was responsible for making people believe in it, donchaknow.

  6. My apologies Allallt for arriving so late. Since the end of the school year it has been very busy for me with my son’s baseball tournaments 7 out of these 10 weekends of summer-break and traveling to them all over Texas. Ugh.

    This is a great post and I must agree with you: traditional religions, particularly the Abrahamic, are indeed “delusions.”

    Why do I personally think and feel this way? That isn’t, nor should it be, a quick simple answer. However, thanks to my 28-year career in collegiate, semi- and pro-soccer/football, I can speak from firsthand experiences (and thus a broader perspective) from within cultures on four of Earth’s six ‘livable’ continents regarding theism. For me, once I traveled and lived inside a plethora of cultures around the globe, I very quickly realized that MY OWN bubble family within my own bubble neighborhood within my own bubble region within my own bubble nation that I spent a great portion of my youth inside, that very very narrow lens, a “delusion” if you will… was shattered. Granted, I was raised by an agnostic father that became a mechanical engineer and thoroughly trained/educated in mathematics and science, but this allowed me to experience those many cultures on four different continents with an unusual degree of impartiality and curiosity!

    I think that, should one see how endlessly diverse human cultures have become (and still are if not more so) just on our own planet, and how those various cultures live and interpret this existence… they eventually are able to reason well that monism, theism, deism, infallible truths, are forms/consequences of intentional or unintentional ignorance. Or to say it another way, limited (very limited?) vast firsthand experiences — excluding psychiatric patients with God hallucinations, of course. 😉

    Thank you Allallt for this stimulating post, as well as your patience for my busy, busy summer!

  7. Here is a thought experiment:

    What If – one day, all children under the age of two and over a billion older people vanished without a trace?

    What would be your immediate thoughts
    – If you were a Christian?
    – If you were a non-Christian theist?
    – If you were an Atheist?

    What If -,after a day or so, it seems that many of the billion older people missing were thought to be Christian, but that not all people thought to be Christian are missing

    – Would your thoughts change any?

    What If – after a week or so, it was announced (in the media, with government and/or scientific backing) that the disappearances have been explained, by something like
    “aliens who were sick and tired of Christians holding back humanity removed them from the planet”
    “an anti-Christian terrorist group developed an EMP-like weapon which removed the binding force between the atoms of those genetically disposed to follow Christianity, but unfortunately for them (and the rest of the world), also had a side affect of unexpectedly also affecting all children under the age of two”

    – Would your thoughts change any?

    I just saw one of those “left behind” movies, and as a Christian, thought that if I were in that situation, I would figure I wasn’t a “good enough” Christian and do everything I could to be “better”. In my agnostic days, I think I would have decided that those Christians might actually have been on the right track and proceeded accordingly. What boggled my mind was how seemingly “delusional” were the non-Christian portrayals, eagerly adopting either the “aliens” or the “pseudo-EMP” explanations..

    1. Well, the genetics thing seems ruled out pretty much immediately. If everyone who disappeared was a Christian, that isn’t adequately accounted for by ‘genetic propensity to follow Christianity’; it should take up political devotees and devotees of other religions as easily, and it should also take up some nontheists. After all, it’s only a ‘propensity’ we’re talking about.

      “Aliens” may be an option, but I wouldn’t second guess their motives (especially as they took all children under two). The aliens could be as keen to set up a new ‘society’ rather than ‘save’ the terrestrial one they left behind.

      I’d be interested in more information, like their demography. I mean, if Christians were also disproportionately taken from the middle east and Somalia, that would be interesting. But, they may also have NPR radio in common, or listen to WLC…

      On this data, I’d have to remain agnostic. I’d have to entertain immense and precise power. Whether I’d entertain anything I’d call a god is a semantics game; nothing about this event tells us anything about the cause of the ‘entity’ that caused it. Remembering that SoM defines God as the ‘First Mover’, that means this event takes precisely no steps towards demonstrating a God.

      1. Thus if something highly unlikely and “technically impossible” predicted by Christians actually came to pass, and the “official” explanations were just as free of supporting evidence as was the existence of God, it would not add any credibility at all to any of the beliefs held by Christians? Might that not be a wee bit delusional?

      2. Well, we’re talking about handing around a couple of credibility points at the bottom of the credibility league table.
        It may lend some credibility — but it still gives more credibility to explanations that aren’t paradoxical or contradictory.
        And, when “aliens” and “advanced technology in the hands of terrorists” gather more credit than Christianity, inflation takes place as there’s just more “anything could happen” in the market place.
        And that remains the case until a defined explanation garners specific evidence-based support.

        Or, at least, that’s my position at the moment on a global seeming-miracle…

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