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The Religious are All Psychotic (in a bad way) July 9, 2012

Posted by wfenza in Skepticism and atheism.

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



Last month, Jules Evans of Wired Magazine posted an article entitled The religious are all psychotic (in a good way) which argued that:

A new paper by Heriot-Maitland, Knight and Peters in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology (BJCP) estimates that 10-15 percent of the population encounter ‘out-of-the-ordinary experiences’ (OOEs) such as hearing voices. By automatically pathologising and hospitalising such people, we are sacrificing them to our own secular belief system, not unlike the Church burning witches.

First off, equating the diagnosis and treatment of people with mental illnesses to burning witches is just stupid. I’m not going to bother pointing out why.

Second, this is just the latest example of someone slapping the label “religion” onto something to legitimize it. As Evans himself says:

A western psychiatrist would nod and tick off the classic symptoms of psychosis: hearing voices, feeling guided by spirits, feeling singled out by the universe, believing you have magical abilities to save the world. Our psychiatric wards are full of people locked up for expressing such beliefs.

Those are the classic symptoms of psychosis for a reason! The reason is that they are evidence of psychosis! Evans goes on to argue that:

Perhaps we need to find a more pragmatic attitude to revelatory experiences, an attitude closer to that of William James, the pioneering American psychologist and pragmatic philosopher. James studied many different religious experiences, asking not “Are they true?” but rather “What do they lead to? Do they help you or cause you distress? Do they inspire you to valuable work or make you curl up into a ball?”

Really? We need to take an experience that, in any other context, is clearly a delusion and shows a dangerous disconnect from reality, and (because it’s “religious”) we need to evaluate them individually on a pragmatic level? I’m all for caution before locking people up, but it’s important to recognize such experiences for what they are: delusions.

Really, this is the same tired old “religion can be a force for good” argument. Of course it can! The problem is that it can also be a force for evil, and there is no way of knowing ahead of time which it will be. The same voice that tells you to donate to charity today could tell you to murder your children tomorrow. If we take a pragmatic approach to such things, as Evans urges, we will end up encouraging people (at least, the people whose visions we deem acceptable) to place greater and greater faith into their own delusions, with wildly unpredictable consequences. Instead of helping these people understand their mental illness and find treatment, we encourage them to adopt an arational worldview and entrench themselves into a belief in things that aren’t real.

Come to think of it, it’s unsurprising that such things are called “religious.”



1. Alex - July 9, 2012

The article is rife with bad logic.

Some of the founding figures of civilisation were, technically speaking, psychotic: Socrates, the father of western rationalism, had a daemon who gave him orders.

Socrates never said his daemon “gave him orders” but rather that he had a “divine voice” that guided his decision-making. That sounds a lot to me like what we call our conscience, superego, etc. Did he mean a literal voice in his head? Most classics scholars don’t seem to think so.

I have a voice in my head too. When I’m hungry, it tells me whether I’m in the mood for pizza or a sandwich. When I’m playing a board or computer game, I often converse with myself a bit as I consider strategic options. This neither makes my psychotic nor divinely inspired. It makes me self-aware. The capacity of weighing options requires a capacity to think in multiple “voices.” This is adaptive behavior, nothing more.

And yet such experiences are very common. A new paper by Heriot-Maitland, Knight and Peters in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology (BJCP) estimates that 10-15 percent of the population encounter “out-of-the-ordinary experiences” (OOEs) such as hearing voices.

Two problems here. First, something can’t be both “common” and “out of the ordinary.” Second, if 10-15% of a population is the tipping point for something being “common,” we’re going to have to rethink a lot of things. 10% of U.S. citizens receive food stamps. 15% of the world population has a disability. 10-15% of the U.S. population suffers from IBS. I’m not sure it would be fair to characterize any of these things as “common.”

Take the example of Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the most successful social organisations of the last 100 years. The founder, Bill Wilson, overcame his alcoholism when he had a religious vision after taking the psychedelic drug belladonna. That’s interesting, but what’s more interesting is the practical work he did after the vision, which helped millions of people.

It might be more interesting if Wilson had created a secular program for rehabilitating alcoholics, but that’s not what he did. Six of the famous 12 steps refer either to god in so many words or to a “higher power.” Also, AA encourages people to submit to the will of a thinly veiled Abrahamic-religion-style deity and essentially pray their alcoholism away rather than to muster their own strength and solve their problem through their own ingenuity, self-control, and ethics. Nah, nothing religious at all about that message.

And, as Wes pointed out, the false analogy of witch burning and psychiatry is worthy of L. Ron Hubbard.

I guess Wired figured that smart people wouldn’t read their magazine this month?

2. John Blackthorne - July 10, 2012

Remember, the experience is no longer delusional by definition but religious! We should now put personal antidotal religious experience on equal footing as rational and critical thought.

3. shaunphilly - July 10, 2012


OK, I’m hoping that explosion I heard was my sarcasm meter biting it, because the other option is the back of my head just exploded. One thinks I would have noticed such a thing.

4. John Blackthorne - July 10, 2012

That’s the problem with the delusionally religious today. You cannot tell factual intention with hyperbole and satire.


5. Carl Degrasse Dawtchins - July 10, 2012

>That’s the problem with the delusionally religious today

Is there any other kind of religious? LOL amirite?

John Blackthorne - July 11, 2012

Do no underestimate their tenacity to drag us all down to their level. Look no further than Creationism, Intelligent Design, Teach the Controversy, Academic Freedom. Or the ignorance of the uninterested masses to ignore this until it’s too late, and you find that your education system has been eroded away. Unfortunately there was no science education to teach you about about erosion, so you won’t know what that means either.

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