Is religion a mental illness?

Several readers have sent me this link, but I have to say I’m not that convinced that the views expressed in this news item have any substantive content, or will catch on in society.

The piece, “Leading neuroscientist: Religious fundamentalism may be a ‘mental illness’ that can be ‘cured’” (note the scare quotes), is from The Raw Story, and refers to a talk at the Hay Literary festival by Kathleen Taylor a neurobiologist at Oxford University who studies the psychology and neuroscience of belief. This is the part that got all the attention (my emphasis):

During a talk at the Hay Literary Festival in Wales on Wednesday, Kathleen Taylor was asked what positive developments she anticipated in neuroscience in the next 60 years.

“One of the surprises may be to see people with certain beliefs as people who can be treated,” she explained, according to The Times of London. “Somebody who has for example become radicalised to a cult ideology – we might stop seeing that as a personal choice that they have chosen as a result of pure free will and may start treating it as some kind of mental disturbance.”

“I am not just talking about the obvious candidates like radical Islam or some of the more extreme cults,” she explained. “I am talking about things like the belief that it is OK to beat your children. These beliefs are very harmful but are not normally categorized as mental illness.”

“In many ways that could be a very positive thing because there are no doubt beliefs in our society that do a heck of a lot of damage, that really do a lot of harm.”

Well, in what respect is religion is a “mental disturbance” as opposed to a “personal choice”? Even the free-will compatibilists among us don’t think that one can “choose” to be religious any more than one can “choose” one’s political affiliation, taste in foods, or friends. It’s all a matter of your genes and your environments, and environments include what you’re exposed to—including childhood indoctrination. There is no such thing as the “pure free will” that Taylor is discussing here. (Granted, I was not at her talk, and am going on the news report.)…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s