By Jerry Coyne
I’ve just finished reading a prepublication copy of Peter Boghossian’s book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, which will be published by Pitchstone on November 1. I recommend it highly, as it’s quite different from other atheist books. Rather than going through the usual arguments against God and showing that religion is harmful and delusional, he takes these issues as givens and then tells the reader how to change other people’s minds, dispelling their faith. He tries to turn the reader into what he calls a “street epistemologist,” skilled at arguing against religious beliefs in a way that will actually work. His techniques are based on decades of experience in the classroom (he’s a philosopher who teaches courses in critical thinking and atheism at Portland state), in working with prisoners, and in one-on-one encounters with the faithful.
What I also like about the book is that he concentrates not on religion per se, but on the idea of faith as a failed epistemology. He thinks (and I agree) that our greatest leverage against religion is its reliance on “faith”—belief without good evidence—as a “way of knowing,” a way that is simply not justifiable to a rational person. One of our best weapons against religion is simply to ask its adherents, “How do you know that?” And so Boghossian’s strategies are concentrated on going after faith, and not letting yourself get distracted by issues like the so-called beneficial effect of religion on morality.
So have a look at Peter’s book (he gave a terrific talk on it in June at TAM). What I wanted to post, beyond this recommendation, was something in the book that I didn’t know. The DSM of psychiatry, explained in the excerpt below, defines delusions in such a way that religion is really one of them. But then it exempts religion from the psychiatric diagnosis of “delusion” because it is widely held. Here’s an excerpt from Peter’s book, which I post with his permission (the bolding is Peter’s, but I would have bolded it, too!):
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), is the single most important text used by clinicians. It is the diagnostic rulebook. Currently, the DSM grants religious delusions an exemption from classification as a mental illness. The following is the DSM-IV’s definition of delusion:
“A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture (e.g. it is not an article of religious faith). When a false belief involves a value judgment, it is regarded as a delusion only when the judgment is so extreme as to defy credibility. Delusional conviction occurs on a continuum and can sometimes be inferred from an individual’s behavior. It is often difficult to distinguish between a delusion and an overvalued idea (in which case the individual has an unreasonable belief or idea but does not hold it as firmly as is the case with a delusion)” (2000, p. 765).
Again, religion gets a pass in society. Why should someone’s belief be a delusion only if it’s held by a minority of people? In the important respect of being “an incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained,” and one that “defies credibility,” religion is a delusion. But note how religious faith is specifically exempted. Further, many individuals’ religious behaviors do indicate a delusional conviction (falling on one’s knees and talking to an imaginary friend, eating wafers, bowing toward Mecca five times a day, and so on).
Richard Dawkins’s book was properly named The God Delusion, although of course that angered the faithful, who don’t want to be seen as delusional. If 80% of the population suddenly became schizophrenic, would that no longer be seen as a mental disorder because it’s common?
What is important, I think, is not the frequency of a “disorder”—whether it deviates from the “norm”—but whether it inhibits one’s well-being or leads to behaviors that interrupt one’s life and rest on distorted views of reality (e.g., obsessive-compulsive disorder). The fact is that if, say, evangelical Christianity were the sole religion in the world, and was seen in only 2% of the population, the DSM would classify it as a delusional disorder.