Originally posted August 30, 2013.
Surprise, surprise. The Gnu Atheist activists seem to think all religious people should be diagnosed as mentally ill because they suffer from delusions. We learn about this totally novel attack [cough] when Jerry Coyne recommended yet another atheist book to his fans. No, not PZ Myers’ book. Coyne continues to ignore that one for some reason. Instead, it’s an upcoming book by Peter Boghossian. I’m dying to comment on Coyne’s recommendation, but let’s get back to the professor’s diagnosis. Coyne writes:
What I wanted to post, beyond this recommendation, was something in the book that I didn’t know. The DSM of psychiatry, explained in the excerpt below, defines delusions in such a way that religion is really one of them. But then it exempts religion from the psychiatric diagnosis of “delusion” because it is widely held. Here’s an excerpt from Peter’s book, which I post with his permission (the bolding is Peter’s, but I would have bolded it, too!):
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), is the single most important text used by clinicians. It is the diagnostic rulebook. Currently, the DSM grants religious delusions an exemption from classification as a mental illness. The following is the DSM-IV’s definition of delusion:
“A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture (e.g. it is not an article of religious faith). When a false belief involves a value judgment, it is regarded as a delusion only when the judgment is so extreme as to defy credibility. Delusional conviction occurs on a continuum and can sometimes be inferred from an individual’s behavior. It is often difficult to distinguish between a delusion and an overvalued idea (in which case the individual has an unreasonable belief or idea but does not hold it as firmly as is the case with a delusion)” (2000, p. 765).
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.
Not so fast there, professors. Some of us value critical thinking and, as such, would like to take a closer look at that definition (the sentence you two wanted to pass over with your highlighting):
A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary.
Start with the core issue that makes the atheist an atheist – the existence of God. In the atheist mind, of course God belief is perceived to be “a false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality.” That comes with the atheism. No basis for making psychiatric diagnoses there. But what about the rest of that statement? Is belief in God sustained “despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary?” Of course not. It would be delusional to think there is some incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence that shows God does not exist and we theists struggle to sustain our belief despite that proof. Thus, belief in God fails to qualify as delusion.
In fact, we can see this clearly from the empirical data. Take the leader of the Gnu atheist movement. He himself does not agree there is “some incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence” that shows God does not exist. In fact, he even recently backed away from the label of “atheist”:
There was surprise when Prof Dawkins acknowledged that he was less than 100 per cent certain of his conviction that there is no creator.
The philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, interjected: “Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?” Prof Dawkins answered that he did.
An incredulous Sir Anthony replied: “You are described as the world’s most famous atheist.”
Prof Dawkins said that he was “6.9 out of seven” sure of his beliefs.
“I think the probability of a supernatural creator existing is very very low,” he added.
A man who thinks he has some incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence that shows the non-existence of God does not acknowledge his uncertainty about the existence of God and call himself an agnostic. Such a man would proudly score himself a seven out of seven and declare the non-existence of God as a proven fact instead of relying on some mealy-mouthed, vague hand-waving about very low probabilities.
So if the leader of the Gnu atheist movement doesn’t think such incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary exists, why are we supposed to think it exists?
Yet we need not stop with the Leader of the Gnus. Anyone who has ever interacted with the Gnus knows that they do not come to us preaching about their incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence that God does not exist. Yes, now and then a nutty Gnu will try to make that case. But most of them are smart enough not to overreach on that one and instead begin mewing about there being no evidence for God. And that’s fine. I’m sure there are many Gnus who see no evidence for God. But those of us who value critical thinking can easily tell that claiming there is no evidence for God is NOT equivalent to providing incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence that God does not exist.
So while Coyne and his fans may wring their hands about psychiatrists not diagnosing God belief as some type of “pass,” the professor doesn’t seem to understand that he and all of his fellow atheists have failed to disprove the existence of God in an incontrovertible manner. As such, it is logic that prevents us from making that diagnosis. God belief does not fit the DSM-IV definition.
Of course, the DSM-IV’s definition of delusion relies extensively on subjectivity. For example, if atheists want to insist the DSM-IV’s definition does apply to religion (because of the atheists’ own subjective sense of what has been “proved”), we can just as easily turn the tables to define Gnu atheism as delusional belief system. For example, a very common belief among the Gnus is that Religion is Evil. And this is a fringe, minority belief that is almost exclusively held by Gnus who maintain and sustain it when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. In other words, delusional Gnus calling the rest of the world delusional.