ver the years, there has been a sustained attempt by some people to establish a link between religion and mental illness. Some have even gone as far as claiming that religion causes mental illness, while others believe that religiosity is a mental illness. In his book the ‘God Delusion’, Richard Dawkins portrayed religious beliefs as abnormal and described them as delusions. Unfortunately, in spite of many researches, no causal relationship has been established between religion and mental illness. In fact, the evidence would suggest that when some religious beliefs are rightly applied, they may be useful in the management of mentally ill patients who are religious.
Recently, Kathleen Taylor, an Oxford neurobiologist in a talk at the Hay Literary festival suggested that Religious fundamentalism may be a ‘mental illness’ that can be ‘cured’” “One of the surprises may be to see people with certain beliefs as people who can be treated,” “Somebody who has for example become radicalised to a cult ideology – we might stop seeing that as a personal choice that they have chosen as a result of pure free will and may start treating it as some kind of mental disturbance.” “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 children. These beliefs are very harmful but are not normally categorized as mental illness.”
It is obvious Ms Taylor was talking about harmful beliefs which she believes, in the context of her culture, is unacceptable and should be regarded as mental illness. She made no attempt to define unacceptable beliefs based on a universal understanding of what is appropriate, even when she has stated that she is looking at beliefs that cause damage to the society. This raises question as to why she included beliefs that cause no harm to the society, like disciplining unruly children with smacking and why she would put smacking in the same category as fundamentalist religious beliefs, which has had and continues to have very serious devastating effect on the society. A few years ago, I argued in an article “The problem with religion: Madness in the name of God “URL: http://nigeriaworld.com/articles/2011/oct/251.html, that some people hold their beliefs in ways that make them a danger to others and are therefore mental ill and need treatment. It would therefore seem that enlightened opinions are reaching a consensus that some religious people are actually mentally ill and should be offered help.
Therefore, there is need to define what constitutes beliefs that cause harm to the society, so that appropriate treatment can be provided to those who hold such beliefs, irrespective of whether or not they are religious. Take for instance the issue of physical punishment of children. The attitude of people to Child discipline is determined by the culture and level of enlightenment. In the western world, political correctness, extreme liberalism and untested romanticised, speculative psychological theories of Child development, have created permissive attitude and approach to child discipline that criminalises all forms of physical punishment. Obviously, beating children and smacking children as a form of discipline are two different things. Ms Taylor needs to explain further what she means by beating children and whether or not it includes the disciplining of children by smacking.
Nevertheless, there is no evidence that physical punishment when used reasonably and appropriately to enable a child reflect on his behaviour, and respect rules and boundaries, has an untoward consequences. Furthermore, there is also no evidence that children brought up with the western permissive attitude that is high on rights, but low on responsibilities, advocated by the likes of Kathleen Taylor, do better than those who grew up under environment where physical punishment is acceptable. There has also been vigorous attempt to link physical punishment with conduct disorder. So far, no study has established a causal effect of physical punishment as a means of discipline with conduct disorder. However, what has emerged is that children brought up with physical punishment in environment where physical punishment is criminalised are made to see it as abusive which distorts their perception of the intentions of those who apply it. This effect has been observed in families of ethnic minority groups living in the west who believe in physical punishment and are minded to apply it with their children.
It is therefore difficult to understand the evidential basis of Kathleen Taylor’s statement that those who believe that it is ok to beat Children, understood to mean that the use of physical punishment of children, is as dangerous as the beliefs that drive Islamic fundamentalism. By including the belief in the use of physical punishment in the same category as dangerous religious beliefs, Kathleen Taylor, muddles the water on what constitutes dangerous beliefs that cause harm to the society. In fact, evidence would suggest that religious fundamentalist of all religious sects should fall into the category of people who should be treated for holding abnormal beliefs which are dangerous to humanity. Especially because she concluded; “In many ways that could be a very positive thing because there are no doubt beliefs in our society that do cause a heck of a lot of damage, that really do a lot of harm.” Considering the damage religious fundamentalist have done and the atrocities they continue to commit in the name of their religious beliefs, there would seem to be enough justification for including them in the group of abnormal beliefs that requires treatment.
Therefore the question is what is in religious beliefs that make those who hold it to behave as if they suffer from mental illness? The evidence would suggest that it has to do with the behaviour which certain beliefs justifies or conducts and actions which religious beliefs sanction in circumstance where a reasonable person would find such behaviour unacceptable or outright irrational. Therefore, it would seem reasonable to offer treatment to those who hold religious beliefs which make them dangerous to the society. This in itself does not suggest nor imply that religion causes mental illness or that those who hold religious beliefs suffer from mental illness.
However, what is becoming clear is that there is a conscious attempt by certain liberal elements, which do not share belief in the existence of a God and feels threatened by religious moral absolutes to portray religion as dangerous. They have decided that the only way to free themselves from the guilt they feel as a result of what religion says about their life styles, choices and preference; is to portray religion as dangerous to the society. This trend was given a huge boost in 2006 with the publication of the ‘God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins an avowed and militant atheist, who has said that the world would be a better place without religion and that he wants to banish God from the thinking of people. In this book, he called religious beliefs delusion even though it does not meet the phenomenological description of delusions.
The simple fact is that holding religious beliefs does not constitute a mental illness even though mentally ill patients can hold very dangerous and irrational religious beliefs. When mental illness has been mentioned in the Bible for instance, it was in the context of religious leaders providing a magical cure. It is therefore illogical to suppose that the source of cure of a malady can be its cause. An example is Saul who later became Apostle Paul. It is also a fact that when people change their religious beliefs their attitude change. In addition, people in other professions can hold irrational and dangerous beliefs within the generally acceptable standard of their community. This is not peculiar to religion. Such irrational beliefs therefore should be address by the society. It would seem therefore that that when people become mentally ill that they tend to express it through the distortion of their premorbid worldviews which included their religious beliefs.
Being a member of any religious group is based on the acceptance of its teaching as truth which is not different from a member of a political party, belonging to Green peace, animal right group or supporting a football club. One either makes this choice as an adult or indoctrinated into it by one’s parents or guardians. On becoming a member of a religious group, one enters into a relationship in which one accepts the dogmas of the religion as truth and invests belief on everything the religious organisation claims to be the truth. In a way, one loses his objectivity the moment one becomes a member of a religious group and therefore, not in a position to re-evaluates his beliefs in the face of evidence.
In this state of mind, religious faith may seem like a delusion to those whose world view does not accommodate religious beliefs or understand the circumstance that makes believers and saints out of unbelievers and sinners. The idea that this state of the mind can be cured is a fact. However it does not constitute a mental illness in the true and current meaning and understanding of mental illness. It is a state of limited insight cause by the amount and nature of evidence one was prepared to consider before reaching the decision to accept by faith what was presented to one. Can a person be mental ill when the person has acted on evidence he has been persuade to accept as truth? I would suppose that one way of approaching this problem is by persuading the believer that they need to give more consideration to the evidence which challenge their position with the views to finding their rightful place in their existing beliefs. However, this is very difficult to attempt with Religious fundamentalists and religious people who become mentally ill.
I will discuss a few historical examples like, Apostle Paul, Osama Bin laden, the Nigerian born pant Bomber and British born shoe bombers to buttress my case to buttress the point I am making.
- Apostle Paul He was born in Tarsus and was a member of the Sanhedrin, a Jewish religious body whose members are called Pharisees. He was very religious and devote. When the Sanhedrin was deciding what to do with the emerging Christian religion started by Jesus of Nazareth, Saul as he was then called, with some other people voted for the persecution of Christians. Others like Gameliel voted against it. The Paul group won and the Sanhedrin set up a task force to eradicate the disciples and followers of Jesus headed by Saul. He set out persecuting Christians. He was on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians when he had his epiphany and realised that what he was doing was wrong and became a Christian.
- Osama bin Laden. Saudi born Muslim militant whose parents were originally from Yemen. Used fundamental Islam as a rallying point for his hatred against the west because of their policy in the Middle East. He convinced some people that war against the west was a legitimate religious obligation and this resulted in the attack in New York on 11 September 2001.
- The Nigeria pant bomber and British shoe bombers were two vulnerable young people radicalised by extreme Islam and convinced that committing mass murder in some way is a noble act which a god of love would approve. Even today, some religion continues to make suicide bombers and psychopathic murders out of their members.
Even though religion seem to be a common trade connecting these individuals and their actions, it is clear that the real issue is what they were prepared to justify because of their religious beliefs. At the same time, it is very clear why they should be offered psychiatric treatment.
To be concluded in part 2