29 August 2013

I'd like to see the DSM to try to define this one

Mangan | Are atheists mentally ill?

Much like the fact that no vegan society exists, since such a society would fail to make use of vital resources, and would be vulnerable to malnutrition and outside attack by stronger people, so with atheist societies. If any exist now, they probably won't for long. They fail to make use of a vital resource, religion, leaving themselves vulnerable to all sorts of ills.
(1) On the one hand, "when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything." Chesterton is usually given as the source, but I believe it was actually one of his biographers.

In addition, life is too complicated to go through without some cognitive scaffolding to help you understand it, and inventing your own scaffolding is difficult, so you might as well rely on some of the structures that have already been generated and tested. And many of those structures are religious.

So yes, I think religion is useful for a society.

(2) On the other hand, Mangan is being fallacious. It would have been as easy to assert at various times and places the same thing about there being no societies without polytheism, or monarchy, or slavery, or tribes, or nomadic lifestyles.

With veganism we can actually point to physical resources that are being underutilized, and we know what those resources do for us and how. We know what the alternatives to those resources are, and what their relative costs and benefits are.

Smart people have been arguing about what religion is, and what it's for, and what its effects are since at least the pre-Socratics. As much as I loved my theology classes, I can't say all those smart people have come to much in the way on conclusions. In contrast, we know pretty damn well what amino acids are found in a pork chop, and what we need them for, and what happens when you don't get them.

These resource that a vegan society fail to use (i.e. animal products) also — at least until a generation ago — had built-in stabilizers that prevented people from consuming too much of them. Namely, they were too expensive. It's difficult to eat too little meat, because it's tasty and easy relative to a vegan diet, and it is (or was) difficult to eat too much meat, because it costs a fair bit of coin. Religion has no such feedback mechanism to prevent people from falling into either the excessive or insufficient vices.

(3)
I think it was Daniel Dennett who posed the following scenario: suppose there are two armies, both equally matched in skill and weaponry, but one side is composed entirely of economists, and the other fanatically believes that God is on their side. Who do you imagine would win? Who would you want as allies?
Honestly, I don't know. There have been thousands of battles lost when people took foolish risks because their religion made them overconfident. For every brave paladin wading fiercely into battle with a prayer on his lips there has been a crazed zealot who didn't bother to sharpen his sword because he thought God was going to provide.

(4)
Thomas states that atheism is a form of mental illness, and that could be close to the mark, since belief or unbelief does not appear to be a choice. We are compelled to believe, or compelled to disbelieve. We cannot choose, consciously at any rate.
Wait... what? How does "atheism is a mental illness" follow from "belief/unbelief is not voluntary"? I don't think I voluntarily like spicy food or fair-skinned redheads. I don't choose to believe those two things are good. Does that mean I have two more mental illnesses? Or am I the healthy one, and everyone who prefers bland food or brunettes are sick?

I'm truly struggling to follow the logic here. If something is good for you, and you don't do it, but your failure to do it is compulsory, then you have a mental illness. Shouldn't we be more concerned about people consciously deciding to reject something beneficial? This is going to rapidly descend into a sticky mess of metaphysics, theology, free will, predestination, mind/body problems, and who knows what else.

(5) How does framing this in terms of mental health, which already struggles to cope with describing and defining thoroughly-studied neurochemical and behavioral conditions, help us understand religion? Our esteemed psychiatric professionals have already managed to define everything from temper tantrums to gluttony to boyhood as diseases. Do we really want to mimic the APA in this trend? Or is this just some columnist dressing up their pet theory in a lab coat to give it a veneer of 21st century respectability and authority?

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