I have seen this article pop up a few times in the last few days, Leading Neuroscientist: Religious Fundamentalism may be a mental illness that can be cured. While many anti-theists and atheists see this as some sort of medical miracle – I see it as being about as productive as “ex-gay” therapies. Choosing a belief system and then following that belief to the point of being “extreme” is for most people a choice. We can educate people and expose them to differing points of view – but to say they are mentally ill because they fervently believe in something is a path down a road we have already traveled and have proven to be ineffective – and even harmful.
To label people of faith as mentally ill does a great disservice to the multitudes of people who follow their beliefs without harming others and those who truly struggle with mental illness. It detracts from the things we do in life that are choices versus things beyond our control. Mental illness implies a lack of control, a lack of choice and personal responsibility. The Soldier who returns from war with PTSD and beats his family – is suffering from mental illness. The parent who forces a child to hold a sign that says, “God hates Fags” is a choice – for the parent. That isn’t mental illness, that is child abuse that can have a negative effect on the child that could lead to several mental issues such as depression, low self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts or actions. However, those who choose to believe a certain way especially in adulthood are not mentally ill because of that choice.
Now there is something to be said for the children in these situations. They become indoctrinated, brainwashed, and believe according to what they were taught. These views can be changed through education and exposure to different belief systems or just taught that there is something different out there. That is not curing someone of mental illness – that is education and enlightenment and some people will choose to leave or re-direct their faith based on new information. That’s how education works. It expands our worldview – it isn’t a cure.
The article also said:
“I am not just talking about the obvious candidates like radical Islam or some of the more extreme cults,” she explained. “I am talking about things like the belief that it is OK to beat your children. These beliefs are very harmful but are not normally categorized as mental illness.”
So with this statement, they aren’t just trying to curb dangerous fundamental and religious beliefs – they are trying to use science to impose morality on people. Who gets to say what is moral and what isn’t? I certainly don’t want to be “cured” of my fervent belief that beating your children is ineffective, as I am sure that people who believe that spanking their kids is a good form of discipline don’t need some scientist picking at their brain to make them believe differently. These things aren’t “normally categorized as mental illness” because they aren’t mental illnesses. They are belief systems. Right or wrong, morally bankrupt or not – they are not mental illnesses.
The ramifications of this type of classification for extreme beliefs is potentially frightening. I am willing to bet the next time a parent prays for their child instead of taking them to the hospital while they watch them die will get to have their defense in court saying, “I am mentally ill and couldn’t make the right decision for my child.” The insanity defense just got easier to plead.
There is no ‘cure’ for fear and fear is what leads many people into extremist views and belief systems. Westboro Baptist people are afraid that gays are ruining the world and they indoctrinate people using fear as tool. As with every cult in recorded history – fear is what they use to get people to follow them. Fear is not a mental illness. While many fears are irrational and can be fought with education and information – it is not an uncontrollable mental disease. It is not something we can medicate away.
Most people are capable of mediating their fears in reasonable ways, but there will always be people who take advantage of the power of fear and use it to get people to do things like blow themselves up, commit mass suicides, and picket funerals of children. These people may suffer some sort of mental illness – and that real mental illness may lead them to follow a certain religion or other belief system militantly however labeling people as mentally ill just because they are fervent believers in something is in my opinion quite dangerous.
Under the logic of the article – we could call parents who choose to home-school their children because they believe the public school system sucks mentally ill if we think that their belief is incorrect. Who gets to decide who and what needs to be cured? That’s the dangerous part. Considering our current government – if the Tea Party has control, all people who disagree with them are mentally ill? Or those of us on the left, when we have control of government do we get to dictate who needs mental health services because they disagree with our ideology? It’s brainwashing in the name of science with a splash of imaginary and completely subjective morality. Dangerous.
There are always going to be people who take things to the extreme. Religion offers an easy way to do that and breeds intolerance and fear. On the other hand, many religious believers are not extreme in their ideology. Many people have their faith and follow it in responsible ways. Again though – who will get to decide who is an extremist and who is just someone who thinks beating their kid is okay? That is a crime, not a belief. Who gets to decide the difference between child abuse and discipline? Some people disagree with giving kids “time-outs” are those parents mentally ill? Is that child abuse? Who makes that determination and how then do we go about “curing” those who don’t believe the way we think they should?
I am all for science coming up with answers about what leads us into extremist views and understanding how we can help people find a healthy middle ground, however I am not supportive of renaming beliefs as mental illness and allowing science to define or ‘treat’ morality.