[Content note: mental illness, suicide, abuse]
Some atheists love to compare religion to mental illness, or directly call it one. I won’t link to examples; it’s pervasive and has probably happened on this network.
While there may be some useful parallels between mental illness and certain types of religious experiences, calling religion a mental illness in the general sense is a clumsy, inaccurate, alienating thing to say.
This is a list of things that go through my head, things that I hear when I hear atheists calling religion a mental illness. I’m speaking only for myself here. My experience of having depression informs some of these opinions, but so does my knowledge of psychology, my experience working with people who are struggling, and my understanding of what being religious is like and what draws some people to religion.
Some of these may seem contradictory. That’s because they are. Atheists who compare religion to mental illness may do it in various ways and with various meanings. They may do it in a “logical,” intellectualizing sort of way, or they may do it in a spontaneous, ridiculing sort of way. It can be “Religious people are victims of mental illness and need our help” or it can be “LOLOL go see a shrink for your stupid sky daddy delusions.” What I hear when I hear you calling religion a mental illness depends on the context.
“Nobody in their right mind would ever choose to observe a religion.”
Calling religious people mentally ill suggests that they do what they do because they’re “crazy.” I get that religious beliefs and rituals may seem bizarre to atheists who have never had any desire to hold those beliefs or perform those rituals. Sometimes when I’m at religious Jewish functions I sort of look around myself and feel like a bit of an alien. This is so weird, I think. Why would anyone do this?
A major component of mental illness is that it is maladaptive. People with OCD sometimes can’t function because they can’t stop performing their rituals or thinking about their obsessions. People with depression sometimes can’t get out of bed, shower, talk to people, go to work for weeks or months at a time. People with schizophrenia sometimes lose all sense of the distinction between reality and fantasy.
Religion can be maladaptive when taken to extremes, but that’s a problem with the manifestation, not with the core component: believing in a god. In and of itself, believing in a god can actually be very adaptive. When people feel like they have no control over the universe, when they lose someone they love, when a grave injustice happens, it can be comforting to believe that there’s someone up there pulling the strings. It’s not comforting to me, personally, but to many people it is. That doesn’t make their beliefs accurate, but it does make them understandable. You don’t have to be “crazy” to want to believe in a religion.
“Your religious friends may seem happy and well-adjusted, but they’re actually sick just like you are.”
We often hear about people who are restricted, cut off, or even abused by their religion. These cases are tragic and deserve every bit of the attention that they get. But what about all the people living happily with religion?
Atheists who claim that religion is a mental illness seem to be saying that these people are just kidding themselves. Sure, they’re happy, but that happiness can’t be real because it’s the product of a mental illness. Or they think they’re happy, but they’re really not.
If this is what you believe about religious people, ask yourself why you think you know more about their mental state than they themselves do.
“I consider myself qualified to diagnose millions of people I’ve never met with a mental illness.”
Armchair diagnosis is a bad idea. It promotes the idea that mental illness is whatever we feel on a whim that it is, and that random internet commenters are qualified to determine whether or not someone has a mental illness despite never having even spoken to them, let alone spent time with them in person as a diagnosing psychologist would.
“Whether or not I think someone is mentally ill is more important than whether or not they think they’re mentally ill.”
And in addition to that, the fact that probably zero religious believers think that their religion qualifies as a mental illness is a good indication that you should stop saying that it is. Of course, you can and should disagree with them on other things, external things, like whether or not god exists or whether or not religion is a net good in society or whether or not people can be ethical without religion. But what goes on in their own minds is something they know much more about than you ever will.
“People who say their faith helped them deal with their mental illness are just kidding themselves.”
Can’t fix a mental illness with another mental illness, right?
This is a tricky area because I do think it’s very fair to question the presumption that religion helps people with mental illness in general. First of all, people (religious and not) with mental illnesses are often told that they need to pray or “have faith” or repent or whatever, because some religious people believe that mental illness is a sign of insufficient faith or a punishment from god or both. Second, some religious people find that religion actually makes their illness harder to cope with, whether because of these responses or other factors. Some people may even become more vulnerable to mental illness as a result of something their religion taught them, such as shame or a preoccupation with doing things a certain way.
However, there are also many people who say that religion helped them cope with their mental illness, whether it was the faith itself, a supportive religious community, or both. I do not feel comfortable claiming that these people are lying to themselves or to us.
I wish that people didn’t need faith to cope. I wish we had foolproof treatments for mental illness. I wish everyone had access to those treatments. I wish we never had to send patients home saying that we don’t know what else to do for them. I wish we knew exactly what–which genes, which environments, which neurotransmitter deficiencies–caused mental illness, so that nobody ever had to feel like it was either a random accident of chance (terrifying) or an act of god (slightly less terrifying, for some people).
But right now, we don’t have any of that. So it makes sense that some people would cope by telling themselves that it’s part of god’s plan and that they can’t possibly comprehend that plan.
I want people to be happy and alive. That’s my first priority. Once they’re happy and alive, I can think about trying to get them to think more rationally and scientifically. If thinking irrationally and nonscientifically is what keeps someone from suicide (or from a miserable life), I accept that.
And as far as the community aspect goes, having a strong support system can be both a protective factor against mental illness and also a mechanism that helps people cope or recover. Building humanist communities is extremely important for all kinds of reasons and this is one of them. We’re making progress, but humanist communities still don’t have the scope or resources of religious ones. There are also still plenty of atheists publicly decrying these projects and boasting about how they don’t need them and such things are useless and pseudo-religious and for the weak-minded. That’s harmful. If a religious person feels that their church or synagogue is the only source of support they have for their mental illness, they might not necessarily be wrong.
“Religious beliefs are inherently bad and harmful to the individual, just like the distorted thoughts associated with mental illness.”
Some people, such as Greta Christina, have made powerful, compassionate arguments for the idea that religious belief is universally, intrinsically harmful to society, separate from the harmful effects that organized religion can have. I’m not sure yet how I feel about these ideas, but I’m still much more comfortable with the opinion that religious belief does harm to other people and to society as a whole than that necessarily does harm to the individual who holds it.
Most religious people would probably say that their religion helps them be happy, charitable, kind, and strong. I may feel skeptical about this, but they know better than me.
On the contrary, the symptoms of mental illness are very, very clearly harmful in a way that is undeniable. While people with mental illnesses may sometimes deny that there is anything wrong, they are often clearly unhappy, and their denial is often caused by fear of the stigma of mental illness. (All the same, though, if someone tells me they are not mentally ill, I would never argue with them.)
“All mental illness means is having irrational thoughts or believing something without evidence, and it is possible to completely stop having irrational thoughts.”
I hate to break it to you, but irrationality is probably part of the human condition. Everyone is, to some extent, subject to cognitive biases. Almost everyone at one point or another engages in superstitious, fantastical thinking. Clearing your mind of irrational beliefs that aren’t based on evidence is something that can only be accomplished intentionally, with effort. Even then, you will never be perfect. There’s a reason the popular rationality site Less Wrong is called Less Wrong, not Perfectly Right or Not At All Wrong.
So if being irrational is a sign of mental illness, then we are all mentally ill, atheists included. But more likely, (extreme) irrationality is only one component of mental illness. Others might include engaging in behaviors that are harmful to oneself, behaving in ways that are not considered normative in that particular cultural context (a problematic criterion, but a useful one when used in conjunction with others), being unhappy with one’s mental state, and not being able to function properly in one’s daily life.
“My desire to make a point is more important than what the psychological evidence says about religion and mental illness.”
To put it simply, the processes that lead people to be religious are not the same ones that lead them to be mentally ill. As I mentioned above, religious belief is a subset of the sort of irrational thinking to which all humans are prone. Humans look for patterns in the world and easily form superstitions on the basis of those patterns. Humans also generally enjoy the feeling of being part of a group or having a community, and religion is an easy way for a lot of people to experience that feeling. Many people who are religious were born into religious families and were taught that god exists and [insert religious tenets here] from birth, so it sticks.
On the more abusive end of things, people may stay in harmful religious sects or communities for similar reasons as they stay in abusive relationships. They are made to feel by their abusers that they will never be complete without the faith. They are taught that they will go to hell forever if they leave. They are made to feel worthless and powerless. They are told that people outside of the religious communities are bad people.
Being affected by abuse does not mean you’re mentally ill. It means that someone who knows how to take advantage of people took advantage of you. Furthermore, religion is but one of many props people can use to abuse and control each other.
On the contrary, mental illnesses have substantial genetic and biological components to them. Studies on identical twins, including ones reared apart, have demonstrated fairly high concordance rates for some disorders. While the chemical-imbalances-cause-depression theory has now been shown to be drastically oversimplified, mental illnesses clearly do have some sort of neural causes, triggers, and effects. Mental illnesses are often (but not always) triggered by major stressful life events; they can occur when an individual goes through hardship with which they are not psychologically equipped to cope.
Unlike religion, mental illnesses are not taught to people by other people; they tend to occur when genetic/biological susceptibility lines up with stressful environments or adverse life circumstances. Unlike religion, people do not try to remain mentally ill so that they do not lose their support systems or because they are afraid of what would happen if they stopped being mentally ill. They remain mentally ill until they receive proper treatment, or until the illness remits on its own. Unlike (non-abusive) religion, people do not have a choice whether to stay or leave. Those who suffer from eating disorders, substance abuse, or OCD may claim or genuinely feel that they have a choice, but they actually don’t, and that becomes evident as soon as they try to stop. Yet countless people voluntarily leave religion every day. That doesn’t sound like a mental illness to me.
“You chose to have your mental illness, just like people choose to be religious.”
Some atheists who make this comparison believe that having religious beliefs is a choice (and abandoning them would also be a choice). If having the symptoms of a mental illness is a choice, what does this say about the rest of us?
“Mental illnesses (like religion) can be cured by making fun of people’s irrational beliefs and shaming them on the internet.”
Normally recovering from a mental illness requires therapy, medication, a strong social support system, or some combination of those. I rarely see atheists agitating for better mental healthcare services for religious people to help them deconvert. In fact, providing people with the resources they would actually need to leave religion (as opposed to simply telling them they’re wrong over and over again) is not a major focus of very many atheists. Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the work done by groups like Recovering From Religion and the Clergy Project. But I also haven’t personally witnessed anyone associated with these groups claiming that religion is a mental illness.
“Religious people can’t be held responsible for their beliefs; they’re just victims of an illness.”
If you do agree that mental illness is not a choice, however, that implies that being religious is not a choice either. That implies that religious people do not have agency over any part of their religious belief or observance. Not only is this offensive to religious people, but it actually suggests that we shouldn’t hold them responsible for their beliefs. You wouldn’t blame a person with anxiety for feeling anxious, would you?
“I don’t care about mental illness unless it’s religion.”
Relatedly, better mental healthcare is not a major concern of many atheists (the ones who don’t have mental illnesses, that is). It really should be. Mental healthcare is stymied by both religion and pseudoscience, and advocating for more research, funding, and concern in this area is a project that I think would be of great relevance to the secular movement. But the only time I see most atheists bringing it up is when the “illness” is religion. What about the 25% of American adults who will suffer from an actual mental illness (or more than one) at some point in their lives?
“Mental illness is bad and shameful; that’s why I’m using it to disparage religion.”
Sometimes when I see the religion-mental illness comparison being made, it’s being done in a way that is clearly meant to ridicule and put down. Atheists frequently employ language that stigmatizes mental illness to refer to religious people, such as “crazy,” “insane,” “nutcase,” and so on. Even when you’re not using such clearly hurtful language, though, you can still be perpetuating stigma by saying that such-and-such Islamist “belongs in a mental institution” or that such-and-such fundamentalist Christian “needs to see a shrink.”
If you think religion is horrible and then you compare it to the condition I have, how am I meant to think you see me?
“You are a rhetorical prop for me to use to disparage religion.”
And that’s why I feel like people with mental illnesses are being used as convenient stand-ins when someone wants to diss religion. I feel like our suffering is just a tool for you to pull out of the antitheist toolbox when you need it. “Look how stupid religion is! It’s just like a mental illness!” you say. My depression is not at all like a religion. Unlike a religion, I didn’t choose it. Unlike a religion, it has never provided me with rituals and communities. Unlike a religion, it was not something taught to me by people, not something I could’ve avoided. Unlike a religion, it can’t go away no matter how many times you tell me I’m wrong. Unlike a religion, it has no positive effects, ever. Unlike a religion, my depression didn’t just make me empirically wrong about certain things; it broke my entire life into pieces and took away my ability to enjoy anything. Please stop using that awful legacy to score cheap points against religious believers.
“Attacking religion is more important to me than being inclusive and supportive of atheists with mental illness.”
I tell other atheists over and over again that this is hurtful, inaccurate, and completely pointless. And over and over again, despite the massive support I get in these comment threads from other atheists with mental illnesses, they insist on using this stigmatizing, alienating language. They ignore our knowledge of psychology and mental illness and continue to claim, against the evidence, that religion can be categorized as a form of mental illness. Rather than diving in and learning more about how mental illnesses are defined and which mental processes contribute to religiosity, they refuse to let go of this rhetorical tool.
I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think that deep down many people think so poorly of people with mental illnesses that they know how effective it can be to compare anything you think is bad to a mental illness. It happens all the time.
But considering how many people I know in this community who are diagnosed with a mental illness, I would cautiously say that maybe you shouldn’t keep alienating us. I’m just one person, but I have serious qualms about working with an atheist leader or organization that holds the view that religion is a mental illness. I doubt I’m the only one.
Find a better argument. Find one that is accurate, first of all, and that stomps on as few already-marginalized people as possible.
Moderation note: I have finals this week and am unlikely to be around to answer every single question and argument I get. I will moderate strictly for comments that stigmatize mental illness, though. If this piece sets off lots of debates in the comment section, hopefully they can flow smoothly and somewhat productively without much input from me.