Religious Beliefs: Divine Revelations or Mental Disorder?

One man’s ‘crazy talk’ is another’s manifestation of the divine.

Posted Apr 26, 2011


The evolutionary biologist and renowned atheist Richard Dawkins has lucidly pointed out that many religious beliefs would constitute signs of mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia) if these were not cloaked in the drapes of divinity. Take a supernatural belief rooted in religious doctrine, and call it divine "fact" X. If it is part of a person's religious narrative, it constitutes a belief that must be respected (and for one particular religion, one should not even criticize openly any of its belief I am not referring to the Amish). However, if an individual held the same belief X, without it being part of a religious narrative, the individual holding this belief would be met with derision (if not concern for his/her mental wellbeing).

I would push Dawkins's argument further. Take a given divine "fact" X held by members of some religion. Most individuals who are not part of the religion in question will typically view the belief as outlandish. Hence, a belief that would otherwise be considered a sign of mental illness is perfectly "logical" when it applies to one's religion.

Lest some reader misinterpret my position, let me be clear: I am not suggesting that religious believers are "crazy" or that they suffer from mental illness. I am merely pointing out that the same belief is either sacred or a sign of mental illness depending on the context in which it is believed. The teaser image that I have chosen for this post makes roughly the same point. A child's belief in the Easter bunny and in Santa Claus is acceptable but one is expected to outgrow such childish beliefs. Now, an adult who believes in God (who otherwise shares an extraordinary number of the same narrative as Santa Claus) is perfectly sane. Readers interested in my critique of religion may refer to many of my earlier posts on this subject including here.

On a related note, readers might be interested in the works of three neuroscientists, Vilayanur Ramachandran, Michael Persinger, and Mario Beauregard, each of whom has studied the neuronal basis of particular aspects of religiosity.

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