Last month, Jules Evans of Wired Magazine posted an article entitled The religious are all psychotic (in a good way) which argued that:
A new paper by Heriot-Maitland, Knight and Peters in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology (BJCP) estimates that 10-15 percent of the population encounter ‘out-of-the-ordinary experiences’ (OOEs) such as hearing voices. By automatically pathologising and hospitalising such people, we are sacrificing them to our own secular belief system, not unlike the Church burning witches.
First off, equating the diagnosis and treatment of people with mental illnesses to burning witches is just stupid. I’m not going to bother pointing out why.
Second, this is just the latest example of someone slapping the label “religion” onto something to legitimize it. As Evans himself says:
A western psychiatrist would nod and tick off the classic symptoms of psychosis: hearing voices, feeling guided by spirits, feeling singled out by the universe, believing you have magical abilities to save the world. Our psychiatric wards are full of people locked up for expressing such beliefs.
Those are the classic symptoms of psychosis for a reason! The reason is that they are evidence of psychosis! Evans goes on to argue that:
Perhaps we need to find a more pragmatic attitude to revelatory experiences, an attitude closer to that of William James, the pioneering American psychologist and pragmatic philosopher. James studied many different religious experiences, asking not “Are they true?” but rather “What do they lead to? Do they help you or cause you distress? Do they inspire you to valuable work or make you curl up into a ball?”
Really? We need to take an experience that, in any other context, is clearly a delusion and shows a dangerous disconnect from reality, and (because it’s “religious”) we need to evaluate them individually on a pragmatic level? I’m all for caution before locking people up, but it’s important to recognize such experiences for what they are: delusions.
Really, this is the same tired old “religion can be a force for good” argument. Of course it can! The problem is that it can also be a force for evil, and there is no way of knowing ahead of time which it will be. The same voice that tells you to donate to charity today could tell you to murder your children tomorrow. If we take a pragmatic approach to such things, as Evans urges, we will end up encouraging people (at least, the people whose visions we deem acceptable) to place greater and greater faith into their own delusions, with wildly unpredictable consequences. Instead of helping these people understand their mental illness and find treatment, we encourage them to adopt an arational worldview and entrench themselves into a belief in things that aren’t real.
Come to think of it, it’s unsurprising that such things are called “religious.”