Delusions (Or Not) of God

This is a response post to “Why Religious Belief is Not a Delusion” by Matthew Facciani on his blog “According to Matthew.” I take a few issues with this article. I disagree with his conclusion that no, religious belief is not a delusion, though I need to point out right off of the bat that I actually do agree with where he goes based on that conclusion. So in short, I do believe that religious belief is a delusion, or at least something very similar to one, but I would agree that we should not treat it as such. We’ll get more into that later. First, here is my argument:

Matthew’s article starts off by quoting the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) put out by the American Psychiatric Association, which is used as a global standard for diagnosing and treating mental health. It states the following about delusions (quoted from Matthew’s blog, emphasis mine).

“Delusions are fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence […] Delusions are deemed bizarre if they are clearly implausible and not understandable to same-culture peers and do not derive from ordinary life experiences. […]” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

It is on the basis of the very first definition of delusion that I base my argument. According to the DMS, the global standard in mental health diagnosis remember, a delusion is a belief that is not liable to change even given conflicting evidence. That sounds like every theist I have ever heard try to defend the “rationality” of their faith! It sounds to me almost like the definition of religion! I’ll make this a little easier and describe a situation that would undeniably be considered a delusion (borrowed from the stage play “Harvey,” which is fantastic).

Let us say there is a man named Elwood. Elwood claims to be friends with a giant white rabbit named Harvey. Harvey is invisible to everyone but him. According to Elwood, Harvey talks with him, walks with him, gives special, previously undiscovered knowledge to him. Harvey persuades Elwood to do or say certain things according to his (Harvey’s will). No one can disprove the existence of Harvey, yet Elwood would undoubtedly be diagnosed as experiencing a delusion.

How is this any different than Christianity, or any other religion? We don’t need to prove that Harvey doesn’t exist to label it a delusion, we just need reasonable grounds to doubt Elwood’s belief. The fact that the existence such creatures as described by Elwood have never been corroborated or established is evidence enough to the contrary. Just because “we cannot know for certain that there is no” Harvey, does not mean it is intellectually dishonest to categorize his beliefs as a delusion. In fact, it would be intellectually dishonest to do otherwise! Such is the case for religion. There is no evidence corroborating the existence of god, yet the beliefs are fixed and not liable to change in light of the evidence to the contrary!

The only good argument I can see to not label religious belief as a delusion is according to the second section of the definition in the DSM: “. . . not understandable to same-culture peers . . .” Religious beliefs are often extremely culturally linked, either nationally, locally or familially. Others in your immediate society belief similar things, thus it wouldn’t quite fit this particular nuance of meaning. However, I wouldn’t take a belief being widely held as much of a reason to not consider it a delusion. So perhaps religious belief does not technically fit the definition perfectly (perhaps that clause is in there to specifically preclude religion?), though I still think the similarities should be closely considered.

That is pretty much the extent to which I disagree with the author. Sure, I do tend to think that the things religious people use to convince themselves of god(s) are definitely akin to delusions, but I do not support the medical treatment of religious belief. Primarily because I believe the underlying cause of the delusion is not mental illness – remember delusions are a symptom of mental illness, not the illness itself – but rather a willful, albeit generally unconscious, self-deception. On a Twitter conversation about this very topic (and article), a poster argued that it wouldn’t be all that beneficial to apply such a label, particularly if my practical conclusions end up matching the practical conclusions of the author. I agree with this poster, it isn’t useful.

So why do I care? Why write an entire blog post about it? Well, partly because I thought it was an interesting topic. Partly because it reminded me of “Harvey,” which I love (seriously, go find it)! But mostly because I find that thinking about religious beliefs as delusions helps me to understand how I could have carried them for so long? I have said before, I fancy myself a pretty logical person. To be so utterly fooled by such infantile and preposterous ideas is quite a source of shame for me. It really helps me to come to terms with it all to think of those beliefs as delusions. The human mind is capable of amazing things, the self-deception of religion, or the subconscious forming and maintenance of a delusion to prop up obviously conflicting and ridiculous beliefs is primary among those amazing attributes.

Agree with me or not. That is your prerogative. In the end, I don’t feel so bad, about my past or about those around me. I can understand how they still belief. It’s still pretty bat-shit crazy, but I understand.

Also, I am just a sucker for labels.

4 thoughts on “Delusions (Or Not) of God

  1. This post has a good lay version of the definition of delusions. There’s another reason why psychologists won’t define religious beliefs as delusions, and that’s because the definition in the DSM-IV specifically excludes religious beliefs. Of course, that exception is viewed as arbitrary by people.

    Still, one never hears about a delusional person who only has that delusion through coercion. To use your analogy, Harvey is a delusion because nobody insisted that it exists to Elwood. But what if Elwood grew up with everyone telling him there’s a rabbit out there, and that not believing the rabbit exists will result in eternal punishment of some sort? What if that was reinforced once a week with gatherings of the town, which came together to remind Elwood that the rabbit exists?


    1. Wow, thanks for the reply, it definitely adds an interesting facet to the discussion. I can definitely see where you are coming from with that, and I would have to say I would agree.

      Perhaps I was too hasty to lump religious belief and religious “experience” together. Simple belief would be relatively reasonable if you were always told it was true. I guess I still get hung up on these “experiences” that seem to justify the belief, which to me seem like delusions.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My contention with calling religious belief a delusion is the first part of the definition – “not amenable to change in light of conflicting of evidence”.

    We know that people DO change their minds. Most atheists (approximately 75-80% in the US, anyway) are formerly religious. If they’re delusional and don’t change in the face of evidence to the contrary, where did all those atheists come from?

    I don’t really have a problem with a lay usage of the word “delusional”, but I don’t like when people say religion is a mental illness. That might be a different post altogether, though.

    Good post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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