So are Christians supposed to be mentally ill or not?

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 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?

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11 Responses to So are Christians supposed to be mentally ill or not?

  1. darrenl says:

    Does Jerry Coyne ever explain why he can’t be the one who is delusional? Why…suddenly…is both historical and human perception of the supernatural a delusion, but the statistical anomaly of atheism is how the human brain acts normally?

    Doesn’t this man think evolution is true. So…if humans evolved to believe in God (…put aside the truth of it..), isn’t the process of evolution therefore prone to produce delusional thinking? If that is the case, and atheism is not delusional, wouldn’t it follow that atheists are an un-evolved subset of homo sapiens?

    …does this man even think?

  2. Kevin says:

    coyne suffers from the same delusional certainty in his own powers of reason that every other new atheists suffers from, which I think is actually one of the prime personality traits that causes and / or attracts one to be a new atheist. Pretty much boils down to “If you fail to convince me of your position, it’s because you’re wrong. If I fail to convince you of my position, which is the obvious truth, it’s because you’re delusional.” They are increasingly impossible to take seriously.

    Anyone who says something synonymous with “not one iota of evidence for a god” has already proven themselves incapable of objective rational thought, far as I’m concerned.

  3. “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).”

    Well, religious belief is correlated with psychological well-being, so…

  4. Dhay says:

    …bowing toward Mecca five times a day…


    I realise that many New Atheists think they need to know nothing of religions and religions to dismiss it and them out of hand — but doesn’t this just show how appallingly ignorant (or pig-ignorant) Coyne is.

  5. Michael says:

    Did you notice how not one atheist could reply with something along the lines of, “You’re right on this one, Mike”? Like I said, New Atheists cannot and will not criticize their leaders.

  6. Liam says:

    If you are an adult, asserting you have an invisible and imaginary friend who created the universe, you have lost your mind. You have divorced yourself from reality and you most certainly have a mental disorder. If this imaginary friend talks to you and you hear the voices in your head, your condition warrants medical intervention. That is the bottom line! Religious fundamentalism is the very definition of a mental disorder and is usually a combination of varying degrees of psychosis, neurosis, and schizophrenia. And no amount of philosophical mambo jumbo will get you around this fact. What. Did you think that clinical depression is diagnosed as a mental disorder but invisible and imaginary friends who sometimes talk to you don’t? LOL!

  7. Michael says:

    Liam, can you spell out, in more detail, what this “medical intervention” would look like?

  8. Kevin says:

    I too am very interested in what this intervention would look like. For example, should all Christians have their guns taken away? Children? Forced relocation to an institution?

    Because you know what doesn’t work? The inane ramblings of new atheists.

  9. Dhay says:

    Religious fundamentalism is the very definition of a mental disorder and is usually a combination of varying degrees of psychosis, neurosis, and schizophrenia.

    a) Can you link to the scientific evidence that religious fundamentalism is a mental disorder, please. And also link to the scientific evidence that this particular disorder is usually a combination of varying degrees of psychosis, neurosis, and schizophrenia. If you cannot, I will assume you are just on a rant and shooting your mouth off.

    b) Both the recent Finnish paper, “Atheists Become Emotionally Aroused When Daring God to Do Terrible Things” (see, and the earlier paper, “The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief” (see, use test subject who, for maximum contrast, are explicitly and intentionally drawn from the extremes of strong Christian believers and strong atheists. Whatever the intention of the experimenters, one conclusion that can be drawn from the results of each is that Religious Fundamentalists and New Atheists are very similar emotionally and neurologically.

  10. Dhay says:

    Anyway, doesn’t Sam Harris’ “The Neural Correlates of Religious and Non-Religious Belief” conclude that the brain of a Christian believing in God looks just like the brain of an atheist believing there is no God.

    If the Christians were mad — and the experiment ruthlessly selected only the very strongest Christians — and if the ruthlessly selected very strong atheists weren’t mad, why didn’t that madness show up as a difference.

  11. Dhay says:

    In his June 25, 2011 blog entry entitled, “Is medical psychiatry a scam?” , Jerry Coyne (very much to his credit, I judge) strongly criticised drug-centred (ie ‘medical’) psychiatry, including eg: “for the vast majority of drugs used to combat mental illness—and especially depression—the doctors had no idea how they worked, yet they pretended they did”; “instead of developing a drug to treat an abnormality, an abnormality was postulated to fit a drug”; “convinced me more than ever that medical psychiatry is largely a scam, a rotten-to-the-core coalition between psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies”; “The DSM book resulted from a deliberate decision by the American Psychiatric Association to ‘remedicalize psychiatry’ in the late 1970s. Each time it is revised, the number of disorders included increases drastically: the latest has 365, more than doubling the 182 in the DSM-II”.

    So the APA and pharmaceutical companies love to add new disorders (that can be treated with new drugs). And he describes at length the pretty horrible effects of Eli Lilly’s best-selling antipsychotic, Zyprexa.

    Coyne observes: “As we all know, psychiatric talk therapy has been largely supplanted by the use of drugs. Medical students are now given minimal training in talk therapy and maximal training in how to prescribe drugs.”

    So Coyne is well aware that were Christianity to be recognised as a DSM psychiatric delusional disorder, that would almost inevitably result in Christians being treated with drugs, possibly even with drugs as horrible as Zyprexia: perhaps Coyne’s conflicting New Atheist and humanitarian tendencies explain his wobbling on whether or not to medicalise Christianity.

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