Ex-New Atheist Eric MacDonald noted a serious problem with the New Atheists:
Consequently, it has become fairly normative to believe that religion has to do with “confected” entities, and religious thought itself not only delusional but even pathological. (Boghossian — in his book on making atheists — repeats the accusation that faith is pathological in his book so often that one is reminded of the George Orwell’s 1984, or the common practice in the Soviet Union of placing dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. There is a deeply threatening aspect to the belief that those whose ideas you oppose are somehow mentally ill, or victims of pathological ways of thinking in need of a cure.)
This led Gnu activist, Jerry Coyne, to engage in some damage control:
Finally, I don’t consider religious people mentally ill, but there’s a case to be made that they are delusional—delusional in the same way that people are deluded about homeopathy, UFOs, or the Loch Ness Monster. All of those believers are victims of a delusion in the sense that the Oxford English Dictionary uses the word “delusion”:
a. Anything that deceives the mind with a false impression; a deception; a fixed false opinion or belief with regard to objecting things, esp. as a form of mental derangement
The part I agree with here is that religious teachings do give people false impressions (though not usually promulgated by others intending to deceive), and proffer fixed false opinions or beliefs with regard to obecting things. I wouldn’t go so far as to call religion a “mental derangement,” but it’s certainly a deviation from the kind of things that people accept as “true” in their daily life. It is accepting things of the greatest import for one’s life without sufficient evidence for so doing.
We see not an iota of evidence for a god when there should be such evidence, and therefore can provisionally assume that a god doesn’t exist—or, at our most charitable, can suspend judgment on the issue. (Most skeptics, however, don’t “suspend judgment” on the existence of Xenu, Thor, or Bigfoot). Therefore, a firm belief in an unevidenced God—and most Americans do have such firm belief—is a delusion, based on wish-thinking and a “false impression.”
My, my. So Jerry Coyne is trying hard to put some real distance between himself and a common New Atheist talking point. He doesn’t think religious people are mentally ill. So he says. No, he just thinks religious people have false opinions and false impressions. Period. Time to move on, folks. Right? Right?
Did you notice that Coyne did not correct MacDonald’s portrayal of Peter Boghossian’s book? Coyne just tapped dance all around that point. That’s odd. Just go to amazon.com and view the page that is selling Boghossian’s book. And what do we see? The first listed endorser of this book is…….Jerry Coyne: “This book is essential for nonbelievers who want to do more than just carp about religion, but want to weaken its odious grasp on the world.”
So what does the book that Jerry Coyne endorsed have to say?
It is crucial that the religious exemption for delusion be removed from the DSM. Once religious delusions are integrated into the DSM, entirely new categories of research and treatment into the problem of faith can be created. These will include removal of existing ethical barriers, changing treatments covered by insurance, including faith-based special education programs in the schools, helping children who have been indoctrinated into a faith tradition, and legitimizing interventions designed to rid subjects of the faith affliction.
Removing the exemption that classifies a phenomenon as an officially recognized psychiatric disorder legitimizes research designed to cure the disorder. These classifications also enable researchers to assess their treatments and to continue to build upon what works. Of course there will be institutional and social barriers discouraging research into controversial areas, but with this one change the major barrier—receiving approval from the IRB to disabuse human subjects of faith—would be instantly overcome.
Of course, it is possible that Coyne did not read the book he endorsed, as this might be just another example of one gnu activist promoting a fellow gnu activist. But Coyne did read this excerpt and gave it a thumbs up just a few months ago. In fact Jerry “I don’t consider religious people mentally ill” Coyne wrote:
Again, religion gets a pass in society. Why should someone’s belief be a delusion only if it’s held by a minority of people? In the important respect of being “an incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained,” and one that “defies credibility,” religion is a delusion. But note how religious faith is specifically exempted. Further, many individuals’ religious behaviors do indicate a delusional conviction (falling on one’s knees and talking to an imaginary friend, eating wafers, bowing toward Mecca five times a day, and so on).
Richard Dawkins’s book was properly named The God Delusion, although of course that angered the faithful, who don’t want to be seen as delusional. If 80% of the population suddenly became schizophrenic, would that no longer be seen as a mental disorder because it’s common?
What is important, I think, is not the frequency of a “disorder”—whether it deviates from the “norm”—but whether it inhibits one’s well-being or leads to behaviors that interrupt one’s life and rest on distorted views of reality (e.g., obsessive-compulsive disorder). The fact is that if, say, evangelical Christianity were the sole religion in the world, and was seen in only 2% of the population, the DSM would classify it as a delusional disorder.
So which side of Coyne’s mouth do we believe? The August 2013 side, where he proudly promotes Boghossian’s book and ideas, arguing that the religion should be classified as a mental disorder, likening it to schizophrenia? Or the March 2014 side, where he denies religious people are mentally ill as part of some damage control effort to deal with someone semi-popular in the New Atheist movement abandoning New Atheism, in part because of Boghossian’s militant extremism?