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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.