According to some in the atheist community, religious belief is a kind of mental illness or neurological disorder. This is an opinion that has been expressed by such prominent voices as Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher.1 The thinking seems to be that because certain religious beliefs look so absurd – to these atheists at least – and yet manage to be quite convincing to the believers, it must be the case that mental “deficiencies” are the cause. Sadly, this view is often merely assumed to be true and contributes to the stigmatization of those that really do have psychological disorders, particularly where suggestions are made that religious believers are “crazy” or suffering from delusions.
In an interview with Dr. Kevin Schilbrack for the Armchair Atheism podcast, we discussed some of the complexities involved in how we define and understand religion. Religion is not just about belief, but also consists of rituals, religious experiences, and more. A number of religious practices and behaviors even seem closely related to other forms of cognition and behavior that we typically regard as natural to human beings. This certainly complicates the naively simplistic picture of religion as a fixed concept that can be explained in terms of any single cause like pathology.
When it comes to the science, the evidence is unequivocal. There is a large body of research to show that religion is a natural byproduct of cognition. Daniel Dennett has made this argument in his book Breaking the Spell, as has Pascal Boyer in Religion Explained. Many studies exist that establish a link between prosocial behavior and religious belief. As Matthew Facciani points out in an essay on the subject, mental disorders are maladaptive by definition, yet there is substantial evidence indicating that not only is there nothing inherently maladaptive about belief in a supreme being, but quite the opposite is found in the literature.2
By the numbers alone, we have good reason to accept that religious belief is a natural byproduct of human psychology. Atheists have long been in the minority throughout history. To imagine that everyone else, or most everyone else – from past to present – must have had a mental disorder is something that beggars belief. Of course, to call religion natural doesn’t mean it’s good or bad, only that it has a basis in human cognition. As Pascal Boyer puts it, “religious thought activates cognitive capacities that developed to handle non-religious information.”3
Something of particular interest that further helps to show this is the correlation that religious belief has with intuitive thinking. Some studies have suggested that analytic thinking undermines religious belief, but often times what this really points to is that religious thinking operates by a different method.4 Both intuitive and analytic thought are natural parts of our cognition, after all.
Among the experts, there also seems to be practically unanimous agreement that religiosity is not a mental disorder. In an article at Patheos, Sincere Kirabo documents the responses of dozens of researchers he personally contacted on the matter.5 Their responses concur with many of the arguments made here.
Labeling religion a neurological deficit or a mental illness is a thoughtless and careless way of dismissing something to which you don’t relate. It’s an ad hominem attack against the religious, and an ableist one at that. Calling this out won’t prevent us from leveling other, far better criticisms against religion. On the contrary, it will demonstrate a commitment to the evidence and to values that we in the atheist community, and especially the humanist community, profess to uphold.
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1. Bill Maher: Christians have neurological disorder, WND (February 18, 2005); Richard Dawkins, Twitter post, July 27, 2014. Retrieved January 28th, 2021.
2. Matthew Facciani, Claiming ‘Religion is a Mental Illness’ Conflicts With Psychological Science, Patheos (August 30, 2017). Retrieved January 28th, 2021.
3. Pascal Boyer, Why is Religion Natural? Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 28 no. 2 (March/April 2004). Retrieved January 28th, 2021.
4. University of British Columbia, Analytic thinking can decrease religious belief, study shows, ScienceDaily (April 26, 2012). Retrieved January 28th, 2021.
5. Sincere Kirabo, Why You Sound Ridiculous Claiming Religiosity is a Mental Defect, Patheos (Sept. 16, 2015). Retrieved January 28th, 2021.