Ending Biblical Brainwash
For better mental and cultural health,
it's time we classified religious fundamentalism as a psychological
By George Dvorsky
[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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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