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    • #583
      Argumentative Atheist
      Points: 100,928

      An increasingly common refrain from irreligious communities is that religious people are somehow mentally ill. This is wrong in every regard. Not only is it wrong, it minimises and trivialises real mental illness. This concept is damaging both to the irreligious community and people who suffer genuine mental illness. This includes the idea that religions are the same as delusions, which is a very common subset of the mental illness assertion often put forth by atheists. Delusions will be addressed specifically in a separate post after mental illness has been discussed here.


      Mental illnesses are, according to the American Psychiatrists Association,

      “health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities” [1].

      When people use the term “mental illness” in common usage they will mean something like,

      “any of a broad range of medical conditions (such as major depression, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, or panic disorder) that are marked primarily by sufficient disorganization of personality, mind, or emotions to impair normal psychological functioning and cause marked distress or disability and that are typically associated with a disruption in normal thinking, feeling, mood, behavior, interpersonal interactions, or daily functioning” [2].


      Religion as a psychological condition similar to mental illness.

      I will mostly be addressing the psychological definition of  mental illness, but the points put forth should apply just as well to a common usage definition of mental illness. While, from a non believers point of view, religious belief can be problematic from the believers point of view it certainly is not. Lets address the two most significant points for our discussion separately, distress and difficulty functioning in society.

      Point one, distress. Religious people do not experience distress as a direct result of being religious. Many irreligious people may argue that religion can indeed cause distress, and it is certainly true that religious beliefs can individually cause a great deal of distress for a great many reasons. However, these are results of the individual beliefs, not simply of being religious. There are many religious people all over the world who do not hold whichever belief you wish to claim causes distress, and probably many who do hold said belief but are not caused any form of distress as a result of said belief.

      You could argue that it is a collection of religious beliefs that leads to distress, which is a valid point, but suffers the same flaw as the previous point about individual beliefs. Many religious people hold similar sets of beliefs and yet do not suffer any distress. Until or unless you can show that an attribute of being religious, that is common to all religious people, specifically causes distress in all, or at least the vast majority of, people who are religious then this does not signify that religion is a mental illness.

      Point 2, difficulty functioning in society. Most societies on Earth currently are majority religious. Lack of religion is growing in many demographics, and there are definitely some large countries/societies that are more irreligious than otherwise. But it is objectively true that most societies have more people in them who are religious than not religious.  Being religious clearly does not make functioning normally in society difficult.

      In fact a good argument could be made that, depending on where you live, being irreligious makes functioning in society difficult and can cause significant distress. If we were to try to suggest that religion is a mental illness there is as strong, or in some cases a stronger, case for atheism being a mental illness.

      The negative impact on people with genuine mental illnesses.

      Mental illnesses are often ignored by people who have not experienced them. Genuine mental illnesses are distressing and can often be debilitating. By equating religion with mental illness, something that clearly and obviously does not cause distress or difficulty for the vast majority of religious people, you are saying that mental illnesses are no worse than being religious. That having a mental illness is not a particularly difficult position to be in. That having a mental illness is a side note that has little genuine impact on your life that you do not choose to allow it to have.

      Religious people can be as involved in religious communities and religious doctrines as they choose. Whether they make their religion a core part of their personality is largely a function of their community and personal choices. People with a mental illness do not have that luxury. People with a mental illness often suffer a serious condition that impacts their mental well being and personal health. They can make simple things like going to the shop a physically and mentally draining expedition that causes a great deal of distress.

      Why this is bad for the irreligious community.

      Religion is not a mental illness. This is clear. People claiming that religion is a mental illness do so as a means of denigrating religious people and attacking their personal beliefs. It is a dishonest attack and easily dismissed by religious people. Not only is it easily dismissed, but it easily turned on the person making the claim. Religious people can point to this clearly wrong claim being used to attack others and say “See, they are unreasonable and dishonest. Why would you trust anything they say when they attack your beliefs in such a dishonest manner?” Not only can they use this as a pretence to ignore anything else you say, but they can also use it to discredit your points and opinions to others. By making this claim we weaken our moral standing, challenge our intellectual honesty and discredit any other point we could hope to make.

      Religion is not a mental illness, and claiming it is damages irreligious communities and minimises the impacts of genuine mental illnesses.

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