29 August 2013

Religion and Mental Illness (pt 2)

I didn't want to have to grapple with Sean Thomas article mentioned in my previous post, but it got the better of me.

(This is where you can picture my shoulder angel whispering "battle not with monsters, SB7, lest ye become—" at which point his opposite number cuts in with "Oh shut up, you winged twit! Someone on the internet is wrong!")
The Telegraph | Sean Thomas | Are atheists mentally ill?

So which is the smart party, here? Is it the atheists, who live short, selfish, stunted little lives – often childless – before they approach hopeless death in despair, and their worthless corpses are chucked in a trench (or, if they are wrong, they go to Hell)? Or is it the believers, who live longer, happier, healthier, more generous lives, and who have more kids, and who go to their quietus with ritual dignity, expecting to be greeted by a smiling and benevolent God?
If anyone at Sherwin-Williams or Valspar is reading this, could you please supply Mr Thomas with a broader brush? I'm not sure he's generalized quite enough here.

I mean... wow. Even Dante had some good things to say about Virtuous Pagans.

(Side note: how did I not know of Gustave Doré until earlier this year? He's such a boss.)

I can't even begin to explain what's wrong with that paragraph. The slightest life experience ought to show anyone that not all, or even most, believers go happily to their graves. Nor, obviously, do all non-theists die alone and afraid. Does Thomas really not know any good, smart, healthy, happy people outside of his church? If not, the guy needs to get out more.
Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.
— Epicurus, "Letter to Menoeceus"
Thomas ratchets up the invective:
Obviously, it’s the believers who are smarter. Anyone who thinks otherwise is mentally ill.

And I mean that literally: the evidence today implies that atheism is a form of mental illness. And this is because science is showing that the human mind is hard-wired for faith: we have, as a species, evolved to believe, which is one crucial reason why believers are happier – religious people have all their faculties intact, they are fully functioning humans.
This really grinds my gears. The mind is wired for nothing. The brain is wired for a lot of things. Things like attending to moving objects in the visual field. Transform-invariant facial identification. Irrational risk assessments. Tribalism. Violence. Just because there exists an anatomical structure correlated with something doesn't make that thing a good idea.

We've evolved to do a whole lot of things. Most of us aren't even evolved to drink milk or eat wheat, barley or rye. What relation does eating grilled cheese sandwiches on white bread have to either mental illness or divinity? Things like dyslexia, schizophrenia, ephebophilia, and ADHD are in many senses "evolved." Most of what Christians consider sins are evolved behaviors. (Sloth: conserving energy when possible can be evolutionarily advantageous; gluttony: stockpiling nutrients in your body when possible can be evolutionarily advantageous; lust: seizing breeding opportunities when they present themselves can be evolutionarily advantageous.)

To be clear I do think religion is a good idea. But don't feed me some bullshit hackery about "the brain is wired for blah blah blah..." Don't hide behind that pseudo-science chicanery.

Even if the brain was "wired for faith" that doesn't tell us anything about whether faith is good or bad. The brain is barely capable of coping with the modern world. Barely. The fact that we've dragged along some anatomy or function from the last million years tells us nothing about the value of the associated behavior.

I don't have any patience for the Dawkinsian "God Delusion" rhetoric either. Can we all just calm down and realize that there are good people and there are bad people and there are people in between, and all of those types exist both within and without our own little tribes and parties and sects?


  1. Well, this really is the way that people who really, really "believe", think about us non-theists. At least among those who believe in a vengeful deity. Most christians haven't pushed it for a while, but other branches say it is OK to kill non-believers.

  2. And, of course the environmentalists, who workship vengeful trees and squirrels and rocks and planets.