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Ending Biblical Brainwash

For better mental and cultural health, it's time we classified religious fundamentalism as a psychological disorder

By George Dvorsky


Betterhumans Staff

[Monday, December 16, 2002] Imagine that you're a psychiatrist. A new patient comes to see you and says that he regularly talks to an invisible being who never responds, that he reads excerpts from one ancient book and that he believes wholeheartedly that its contents must be accepted implicitly, if not taken literally.

The patient goes on to say that that the world is only 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs never existed. He brazenly rejects modern science's observations and conclusions, and subscribes to the notion that after death he will live in eternal bliss in some alternate dimension. And throughout your meeting, he keeps handing you his book and urging you to join him, lest you end up after death in a far less desirable alternate dimension than him.

Is this a mentally healthy person? If you were a responsible psychiatrist, how could you answer yes? These symptoms border on delusional schizophrenia, which the American Psychological Association's DSM-IV describes as involving a profound disruption in cognition and emotion, assigning unusual significance or meaning to normal events and holding fixed false personal beliefs.

So, should you insist on follow-up appointments along with some strong medication? Well, quite obviously, the patient is a religious fundamentalist. So he would most likely not be diagnosed with a psychological problem. In fact, such a diagnosis could land you in hot water; the patient's religious beliefs are constitutionally protected.

Yet, perhaps it's time this changed, and that we made religious fundamentalism a mental and cultural health issue. People should be able to believe what they like, but only so long as their convictions don't harm others or, arguably, themselves. Fundamentalism, however, breeds fanaticism and often leads to terrible violence, injustice and inequality. If society can force drug addicts into rehabilitation because they're a danger to themselves and the public, then we should be able to compel religious fundamentalists to undergo treatment as well.

Religion as virus of the mind

The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins considers religion an opportunistic and dangerous virus of the mind. Comments such as these have a long history, as religion has been a particularly popular target in the post-Enlightenment age. Marx claimed that religion was the opiate of the people. Freud claimed that it was an infantile need for protection in place of the parent. Ayn Rand thought that belief in God was demeaning to man. Nietzsche put it this way: "Is man one of God's blunders, or is God one of man's blunders?"

Dawkins' theory has much merit. He describes religion as a "meme," an idea that gets passed from person to person and generation to generation like a virus that infects hosts to reproduce its genes. Under this view, religion is a potent memeplex that works at a cultural and psychological level. Some psychologists even believe that the human brain is hardwired for spirituality, perhaps to help rational and intelligent organisms remain sane and functional while dealing with the confusions of existence.

Regardless, the human psyche has proven fertile ground for religious memes, which have evolved and withstood selective pressures over time and, as a result, now "organize" their hosts in such a way that institutions, including the legal system, have come to their protection. Evangelical memes -- such as those of Jesuits and Jehovah's Witnesses -- are some of the best at reproducing.

When faith goes bad

Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with this. Under memetic theory, any idea that gets reproduced is a meme. So when do religious memes go bad? What distinguishes fundamentalism from other types of religious belief systems?

Philosopher Daniel Dennett, in an essay called "Protecting Public Health," provides some guidance. "As science and technology eliminate the barriers and friction that have heretofore constrained our human powers and thereby limited the scope of our moral choice, mankind's need for a reasoned, consensual, and open-minded ethics will become ever more pressing," he writes. Dennett is concerned with the fallacies and misinformation that people cling to -- including conspiracy theories, superstitions, mysticism, astrology and, especially, fundamentalism. He states, "Fanaticism of every sort, on every issue, is bound to compete for our attention...[and] unfortunately, many people cling to the simple wrong answers, and are even prepared to die -- and kill -- for them."

Intervening in people's thinking, however, is a sensitive issue, as it touches upon freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression. People have the right to be foolish, naive or dogmatic, just as they have the right to smoke cigarettes and drink too much alcohol.

So at what point do a person's convictions become a health issue? In my opinion, the answer is this: A belief becomes cognitively unhealthy when the believer's free will and normal critical processes have been damaged by the belief system's dialectic. I argue that fundamentalist religions, insofar as they cripple a believer's ability to have free will, exhibit rational choice and appropriately assess the nature of the physical environment, have already passed this threshold.

Danger to society

Moreover, the effect of fundamentalism on society is as detrimental as the effect of fundamentalism on believers. Fundamentalists are the ones who fly planes into skyscrapers and murder doctors that perform abortions. They are the ones who deny the existence of proven physical phenomena while rabidly insisting on the existence of clearly unsubstantiated marvels.

They are also incapable of recognizing that they have a problem, and are often amongst the most intolerant people on this planet, commonly referring to non-believers as pagans, heathens, or infidels.

And historically, underdeveloped sciences, mystically perpetuated pseudo sciences and false assumptions about the nature of reality have resulted in misery and countless social injustices. The more rational the understanding that humans have about their existence, the better off they are in dealing with the hazards of life and developing humane moral philosophies.

Acceptable belief systems

Of course, some beliefs and worldviews are more debilitating than others (both to the believer and to the society around them). Orthodox and literalist theologians apply a very limited worldview to reality, often basing their perceptions of existence on ancient texts and mythologies. Fundamentalist Judeo-Christians are no exception, as many still believe in Creationism, a 6,000-year-old earth and Noah's Ark.

But what about more moderate beliefs? What about belief in an immaterial soul? Or that Jesus performed miracles? Is it mentally unhealthy to believe such things? When do we cross the line and infringe upon constitutional rights?

Ultimately, belief in the soul or Jesus's resurrection is not so unhealthy as to render believers dysfunctional. Some of the brightest and most creative contributors to society were (and are) staunch Christians. It was Bach, after all, who composed music for the glory of God.

Furthermore, most people in the West rarely think about the deeper ramifications of their existence and humanity's relationship with God. Sermons are no longer fire and brimstone threats but, instead, poignant stories about why we should love and help our neighbors -- issues that I would categorize as self-evident truths, and hardly the monopoly of religious doctrine.

Modern religions are useful in that they have taken on the character of moral philosophies which help followers with interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships. Religions form an important, if not essential, role in society. They offer community, existential explanations, compassionate and valuable moral codes and an outlet for the human need for spirituality. (Personally, I am agnostic, as I recognize just how sublime and mysterious the universe really is.)

Also, neither modern scientism nor any other contemporary belief system is perfectly healthy. In fact, stubborn Western empiricists could learn a lot from Eastern philosophies. As Freud once said, "It is a mistake to believe that a science consists in nothing but conclusively proved propositions, and it is unjust to demand that it should. It is a demand only made by those who feel a craving for authority in some form and a need to replace the religious catechism by something else, even if it be a scientific one."

The differentiating factor must be this: A belief system is a mental disorder when it causes believers to deny the observations of empirical methodologies. With fundamentalists, this involves denying the nature of the physical world as it is being presented in favour of archaic and unyielding irrational orthodoxies; their brains have been infected and debilitated with unsubstantiated nonsense.

Kill the meme, not the patient

Since I'm arguing for categorizing something as a disease, it only makes sense for me to also propose a cure. And it is this: Engineer fundamentalist memes out of existence.

Fundamentalists have been mobilized by an unconscious meme that seeks to protect and propagate itself at all costs, even at the expense of a host's mental well-being. Viruses do exactly the same thing, often killing a host as they seek out transmission vectors.

The best way to prevent a meme from gaining a stranglehold on a host is to prevent it from reproducing in the first place. With religious fundamentalism, I propose two key elements for memetic immunization.

The first is responsible and accountable education and reporting of information to the public (including educational institutions, the media and the government). Children who are taught Creationism rather than natural selection, for example, are being primed for memetic infection. The second is raising the standard of living of all people. Assisting Third World nations would help alleviate problems of disenfranchised youths who become desperate and turn to religious fanaticism.

As proof of this strategy, we need only look at how the Taliban recruited members: They attracted poor and uneducated boys who easily accepted radical Islam as an outlet for their frustrations. And without proper education they were unable to properly distinguish religious gibberish from fact.

An important point needs to be made here, however: Killing a cultural artifact is not analogous to killing people. Culture is not self aware. Irrational fundamentalists should be treated as we treat others suffering from psychological ailments and offered immediate help. We should see them as suffering from a disease and help them to accept a more moderate religious stance and develop a more balanced life.

Hopefully, this will return to them free will, rationality and self-respect. In my opinion, these are the elements that give human lives meaning and purpose.

George Dvorsky is the vice-president of the Toronto Transhumanist Association, a nonprofit organization devoted to encouraging the use of technology to transcend limitations of the human body. He is also the director of Sentient Developments, a Transhumanist think tank, and a freelance writer.

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