Religion is NOT a mental illness

OK, a word of explanation. Lisa was doing a pharmacy paper on this subject, and I thought I’d do my version, using some of her notes and stuff. See what you think!

The argument that religious belief is a form of delusion is a common one. In psychiatric terms it is not correct; DSM IV clearly states that this, where delusions are stated not to include ‘articles of religious faith’. (American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 765)”

DSM IV does contain a new category of religious or spiritual problem –

“V62.89: This category can be used when the focus of clinical attention is a religious or spiritual problem. Examples include distressing experiences that involve loss or questioning of faith, problems associated with conversion to a new faith, or questioning of other spiritual values which may not necessarily be related to an organized church or religious institution. (American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 685)”

This was adopted for the fourth edition. It has proven controversial – but this refers to psychiatric problems related to religious belief, not religious belief in itself. Delusions can of course take on religious aspect, and some religious beliefs may be delusional, but a standard definition of delusion,

A delusion is a false, unshakeable idea or belief, which is out of keeping with the patient’s educational, cultural and social background; it is held with extraordinary conviction and subjective certainty” (Sims 2003)

Cultural and social background clearly excludes most ‘mainstream’ religious beliefs. A woman who believes her cat is a deity may be delusional; a man who rips out the hearts of victims to offer them to the sun god is delusional, unless he happens to be an Aztec priest of a former era, in which case arguably the definition would endorse his beliefs. Religious belief in itself is clearly not a delusion. in psychiatric terms.

Are religious people, if not delusional, still psychotic? Some have argued that the religious are neurotic, and that religions roots lay deep in personality issues ( for example, (Freud, 1939)). Others have looked for neurological and organic problems, most famously Michael Persinger with his ‘God Helmet’ experiments. These however were not double blind, and when replicated without the subject knowing if the machine was running or not or the purpose of the experiment did not work, showing suggestion at the root of the claimed results. (Granqvist 2005)

At the heart of the discussion of whether those who believe in a God are psychotic must be whether that belief, theism, is a false belief. Richard Dawkins has become famous for asserting “there is no evidence for God”, (Dawkins, 2006) but the claim is clearly untrue – many people claim to have experienced gods, and there is much evidence offered. When challenged he asserts he means “there is no scientific evidence for God”. This however is equally problematic – the basis of all modern Science is methodological naturalism

“It is an epistemological view that is specifically concerned with practical methods for acquiring knowledge, irrespective of one’s metaphysical or religious views. It requires that hypotheses be explained and tested only by reference to natural causes and events.” From

As such questions of God’s existence can not be admitted as scientific questions, and no scientific evidence can be offered. Also The Problem of Induction is settled in all modern Science by Hume’s assumption (see of a universe governed by Natural Laws which are uniform and constant, which precludes direct Divine Intervention. If a God or Goddess exists it will be invisible to Science because of the axioms underlying all Science.

Science is not the only way of understanding however – the questions “how do I feel today?”, “what caused the First World War?”, and “does my mother love me?” are meaningful but not scientific. One can quite rationally argue a proof of a Creator using modern cosmology,  (see Davies 2006, Rees 2000)  or philosophical arguments. such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument  –


American Psychiatric Association (1994) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, DSM IV. Washington: American Psychiatric Association.

Davies, P (2006) The Goldilocks Enigma, Allan Paul

Dawkins, R (2006) The God Delusion, London, Black Swan

Freud, S, (1939) Moses and Monotheism, London, Routledge.

Granqvist et al (2005) ‘Sensed presence and mystical experiences are predicted by suggestibility, not by the application of transcranial weak complex magnetic fields’ in Neuroscience Letters, 379(1), p.1-6

Persinger, MA (1983) ‘Religious and mystical experiences as artifacts of temporal lobe function: a general hypothesis. in  Journal of Perceptual and  Motor Skills. Vol 57( Pt 2):p. 1255-62.

Rees, M, (2000), Just Six Numbers : The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe, Phoenix

Sims A (2003) Symptoms in the Mind: An Introduction to Descriptive Psychopathology.3rd Edition,  Saunders.

About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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5 Responses to Religion is NOT a mental illness

  1. funkspiel says:

    It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

    – Marx

  2. Kismet says:

    Since methodological naturalism is the only mode of knowing that works and no empirical evidence exists for god we must conclude that a. there is no god or b. a god exists but is indistinguishable from “no god”.

    Hence Dawkins is right, god is completely irrelevant.

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Utility does not equate to truth. Simply because methodological naturalism is useful (though by no means the only epistemologically coherent strategy?)does not mean supernatural entities do not exist. Also there is vast amounts of empirical “evidence for God”. You can look out of your window and see churches or temples which are evidence of the convictions of people who believed they were experiencing communication with deities?

      So irrelevant perhaps – methodologicl naturlism rules the suernatural out of the enquiry – but no nearer to proof that God does not exist.

      • Denis says:

        People having delusions is merely evidence of people having delusions – not evidence for a god.

        Science cannot prove the non existence of something, but to claim that something does exist, without any evidence, is by definition, irrational, and why the DSM addresses this.

  3. Denis says:

    “Richard Dawkins has become famous for asserting “there is no evidence for God”, but the claim is clearly untrue” .

    “Clearly untrue” – because people with delusions say so ? Because you say so ? Science doesnt work like that – Science requires evidence; the fact that after thousands of years, and billions and billions of people, there is not a single scrap of evidence for the easter bunny, santa claus or god, means that believing in them is not only irrational, but should be grounds for institutionalising.

    The fact that science CAN explain our existence, without ANY recourse to supernatural beings – should be a major embarassment for anyone who still clings to the last dying vestiges of one of the thousands of gods killed off by science.

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