New Atheist Delusions About Delusions

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.

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26 Responses to New Atheist Delusions About Delusions

  1. Mechanar says:

    what scares me everytime this comes up is the question “what would they do if they had power” I mean they are convinced religion in all its forms is always evil and most be elliminated

    Jet we are told new atheists would never use violence, huh? So religion is twenty times more dangerous than the atomic bomb People of faith are just a inch far away to be a terrorist and you say they are all delusional and must be brainwashed i am sorry I mean educated to accept the right worldview,

    Jet violence you say is not acceptable? Than how do you expect to make the whole world atheist when There are Billions of People who are constantly multiplying and live withouth reason and are So insane that nothing in the world could change them?

    In order to change the world to change it from the ground up you have to get rid of everything that mayd be a threat that not only includes religious People but all philosophies that are not 100% materialistic and so you are trapped in a spiral of necessities.

    To effectively fight religion you would have to censor The media,art, free expression, If you want to controll what people think and belief you need thought police. if you dont want religious faith to occour you will have to give the state the right to form children as it sees fit, all thing that have huge potential to be abused for Power hungry criminals (which is the most likely outcome)
    And what do you do with the billions of religious? These men tell us! Lock them up! Do you have any idea what all of this means if actually executed in real life?

    Its like any other radical ideology before. you have to read between the Lines, the Foundation and justification for violence and a totalitarian state is right there you just need to have the wisdom to see it.

  2. Dhay says:

    Mechanar > what scares me everytime this comes up is the question “what would they do if they had power”

    You are not alone in your concerns or your conclusions:

    https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2014/06/the-pontificate-of-peter-boghossian

  3. Clay Cosmic says:

    Are you at all familiar with the work of American-Canadian philosopher Kai Nielsen? If not, it’d behoove you to read his work. See also Anthony O’Hear’s _Experience, Explanation & Faith_. And see also Anthony Kenny’s _The God of the Philosophers_, as well as Wallace Matson’s _The Existence of God_. If the notion of the Abrahamic ‘God’ is ultimately _incoherent_ and/or _unintelligible_, then, yeah, that (1) demonstrates that such a ‘God’ not only doesn’t exist, but _cannot_ exist (i.e., is logically/conceptually/metaphysically _impossible_); (2) non-theism/naturalism would indeed be the ‘default’ position for _anyone_ to take; (3) the burden of argumentation would be (and indeed _is_) on the theist to demonstrate that the notion of ‘God’ _is_ nonetheless coherent/intelligible; and (4), to the extent that (1) is indeed true, and (3) is both correct (in terms of correctly assigning/attributing burden-of-argumentation) and has itself not been met/fulfilled, then, yeah, it IS _delusional_ (or, at the very, very least, _quasi-delusional_ (for want of a better alternative way o’ putting it)) for a theist, much less, more specifically, Christian, to maintain his subjective belief in the face of (1)-(3). See also George Smith’s _Atheism: The Case Against God_; and see also Liz Goodnick’s recent contribution to an _Open Theology_ (journal) symposium on Cognitive Science of Religion: “A _De Jure_ Criticism of Theism”. And see also Jason Marsh’s “Darwin and the Problem of Natural Nonbelief”.

  4. neonmadman01 says:

    I think the atheist regimes of the 20th century demonstrated very nicely what we are likely in for if atheists gain true political power.

  5. Ryan says:

    The definition of delusion doesn’t make an “exemption” for religious belief. Even if we remove this sentence: 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). , the definition still excludes common religious beliefs: A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes The part I emphasized excludes belief in God as a delusion. The existence of God is “what almost everyone else believes”, therefore it can’t be a “delusion” according to this definition.

    Now, of course just because something is widely accepted doesn’t mean that it’s not false. It seems to me that the authors of that definition were trying to be cautious and democratize the definition. I don’t think the DSM is concerned about “the truth” as much as it is “normalcy”. That is, a “delusional” person is someone that has very bizarre beliefs that prevents him from functioning normally in society. Boghossian wants to make it about “the truth”. If knowledge is power, then it can be substituted for “power” in the common saying: knowledge corrupts, and absolute knowledge corrupts absolutely. Believing that you have all the answers and that everyone that disagrees with you is “delusional” is what happens when one is seduced and corrupted by the “absolute knowledge” that the cult of scientism promises. It’s about power. The DSM doesn’t exist to determine “the truth”. Boghossian’s lust for power (via possession of the “absolute, undeniable truth”) is actually making him delusional… the irony.

  6. Crude says:

    Are you at all familiar with the work of American-Canadian philosopher Kai Nielsen? I

    The warbling of atheistic philosophers are utterly irrelevant to the question at hand, and any psychology who attempted to justify his view of delusion on the basis of ‘well according to these philosophers…’ would rightly be laughed out of the room. You can find theistic philosophers as well, and argue that atheism is a delusion on the basis of the same authority.

    Avowed atheists so often have no grasp of science or scientific topics.

  7. Doug says:

    @Clay,
    If fundamental physics is ultimately unintelligible (i.e., it is beyond our understanding), does that indeed “demonstrates that [fundamental physics] not only doesn’t exist, but _cannot_ exist”? Sorry, but fundamental physics is what governs the physical operation of the universe. Its existence does not (and cannot!) depend on our ability to comprehend it. How, then, could it be possible for the existence of God depend on our ability to comprehend Him?

  8. Ryan says:

    Clay’s argument: if humans can’t understand something, it cannot exist. Does sound exist outside of the frequency that the human ear can hear? According to dogs and many other animals it does. Can things exist outside of the “intelligible frequency” that the human mind can comprehend? Of course! There is absolutely no reason to assume that something can only exist if it is intelligible to humans… utter garbage. Now, if by “incoherent” one means “contradictory” then I would agree that something “incoherent” cannot exist because of the LNC. However, one must demonstrate that God is actually contradictory, not merely that some New Atheist thinks God is contradictory. Clay, your argument is a failure, and a “Canadian philosopher”? Isn’t that itself an incoherent and unintelligible statement?

  9. Ryan says:

    Clay, since the idea of the universe eternally existing with no cause is unintelligible, and the idea of the universe popping into existence from nothing and by means of nothing is unintelligible, does that force you to say that the universe must not exist? If, on the contrary, you argue that those concepts are completely intelligible to humans and you’ve figured them out then please fully and completely explain them for contemporary science, you’ll become famous.

  10. FZM says:

    Mechanar,

    Do you have any idea what all of this means if actually executed in real life?

    I’ve wondered about this in the past sometimes.

    If the claim that religious belief is a delusion in the psychiatric sense is intended seriously, I think you can ask why the people putting it forward aren’t demanding more active intervention by the relevant authorities to ‘cure’ people of it. It seems like they aught to at least be doing some political campaigning to try to get appropriate legislation passed and measures taken.

    The same would go (perhaps even more so) for ‘religion as child abuse’ claims.

    Apart from Peter Boghossian as quoted in the link Dhay provided, who does seem to actively advocate some kind of Soviet/Albanian style coordinated government action against religious belief, other New Atheists who put forward these claims don’t seem so explicit, perhaps because they are somehow aware that their claims are overblown and sensationalist and wouldn’t bare the weight of the scrutiny they would attract if they did ‘take them political’?

  11. FZM says:

    Clay Cosmic,

    And see also Anthony Kenny’s _The God of the Philosophers_,

    I’m not sure how Anthony Kenny would react if people tried to start using his book as the justification for feeding people who believe in theistic religion or philosophers who aren’t convinced by his arguments anti-psychotic drugs, putting them in hospitals etc.

  12. Crude says:

    I’m not sure how Anthony Kenny would react if people tried to start using his book as the justification for feeding people who believe in theistic religion or philosophers who aren’t convinced by his arguments anti-psychotic drugs, putting them in hospitals etc.

    Considering the kind words Kenny has to say about theistic philosophers he’d probably find it absurd.

  13. TFBW says:

    @Clay Cosmic: I’ll see your Kai Nielsen and raise you an Anthony Flew.

  14. Michael says:

    Are you at all familiar with the work of American-Canadian philosopher Kai Nielsen? If not, it’d behoove you to read his work. See also Anthony O’Hear’s _Experience, Explanation & Faith_. And see also Anthony Kenny’s _The God of the Philosophers_, as well as Wallace Matson’s _The Existence of God_. If the notion of the Abrahamic ‘God’ is ultimately _incoherent_ and/or _unintelligible_, then, yeah, that (1) demonstrates that such a ‘God’ not only doesn’t exist, but _cannot_ exist (i.e., is logically/conceptually/metaphysically _impossible_); (2) non-theism/naturalism would indeed be the ‘default’ position for _anyone_ to take; (3) the burden of argumentation would be (and indeed _is_) on the theist to demonstrate that the notion of ‘God’ _is_ nonetheless coherent/intelligible; and (4), to the extent that (1) is indeed true, and (3) is both correct (in terms of correctly assigning/attributing burden-of-argumentation) and has itself not been met/fulfilled, then, yeah, it IS _delusional_ (or, at the very, very least, _quasi-delusional_ (for want of a better alternative way o’ putting it)) for a theist, much less, more specifically, Christian, to maintain his subjective belief in the face of (1)-(3). See also George Smith’s _Atheism: The Case Against God_; and see also Liz Goodnick’s recent contribution to an _Open Theology_ (journal) symposium on Cognitive Science of Religion: “A _De Jure_ Criticism of Theism”. And see also Jason Marsh’s “Darwin and the Problem of Natural Nonbelief”.

    You are making the same mistake Coyne and Boghossian made – ignoring the definition in order to force your preconceived conclusion. Pay attention to the definiton:

    “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.

    What you have provided fails as “incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary.”

    If you are invested in the notion that all theists are delusuional, your burden of proof is to show that all theists are delusional.

  15. SteveK says:

    Show us that (1) is true, also. We are not convinced that God cannot exist. How do you make the leap from “incoherent and/or unintelligible” to “impossible”? There’s a gap between those terms that you need to close.

  16. Doug says:

    Atheist attempts to paint God as incoherent are delightfully ironic. Without God, there would be no such thing as “coherence” in the first place. Talk about cutting off the branch you’re sitting on!😀

  17. FZM says:

    Crude,

    Considering the kind words Kenny has to say about theistic philosophers he’d probably find it absurd.

    I haven’t found a copy to look at yet but reading about it I’m not sure that the book Clay cited is a real vindication of atheistic naturalism or physicalism either.

    Anyway I think making a case that belief in God is delusional heavily based on philosophical arguments would be quite foreign to the general tendency of the ‘New Atheism’, which mostly seems scientistic. Dawkins ‘God Delusion’ book, for example, if it had drawn heavily on atheist arguments by philosophers with knowledge of what they were talking about might have been more serious but I can’t see it being such a hit with the types who enjoyed what he actually produced.

  18. TFBW says:

    @FZM:

    … I’m not sure that the book Clay cited is a real vindication of atheistic naturalism or physicalism either.

    Ah, the old “citation bluff” trick. It hardly matters in any case: cite a serious philosopher who thinks that the case for atheism is watertight if you want; it’s always possible to counter-cite Anthony Flew, who was one of the 20th century’s most influential atheist philosophers, and ultimately changed his mind on the subject. Flinging around accusations of “delusion” is a transparent attempt to avoid the responsibility of defending such a vastly over-reaching claim with an actual argument.

    … ‘New Atheism’, which mostly seems scientistic.

    Superficially, yes, it does. But when you look at The God Delusion, you find that it’s devoid of science, and consists more or less of equal parts bad philosophy and applied bigotry.

  19. Ryan says:

    TFBW: it’s always possible to counter-cite Anthony Flew, who was one of the 20th century’s most influential atheist philosophers, and ultimately changed his mind on the subject.

    But isn’t it just easier to say that he became delusional after a lifetime of serious thought about the issue?

  20. TFBW says:

    Sure, if you want to fling around accusations of “delusion” in a transparent attempt to avoid the responsibility of defending such a vastly over-reaching claim with an actual argument. I mean to say, what is the actual basis of making such a claim? Why “delusional” after a lifetime of serious thought about the issue? Obviously because he reached a conclusion which is anathema — one which must be dismissed completely and utterly because of its very content. This is blatant rationalisation, lacking even a thin veneer of intellectual respectability, but you’re absolutely right when you describe it as “easy”. “Facile” and “convenient” are also words which spring to mind.

  21. Ryan says:

    If I remember correctly Dawkins tried to explain Anthony Flew’s “conversion” by suggesting he was hedging his bets since he was at the end of his life. That explanation was ridiculous (and insulting) because no religion that I know of teaches that one gets to heaven simply by expressing belief in the existence of God. I think Carrier also tried to do some sort of “investigation” into what happened. People like Anthony Flew are a serious threat to New Atheists because they demolish their “people only believe in God because they’re stupid or delusional” argument.

  22. TFBW says:

    That explanation was ridiculous (and insulting) because no religion that I know of teaches that one gets to heaven simply by expressing belief in the existence of God.

    Also because Flew did not believe in an afterlife, which undermines any relevant motives. One wonders if any of these New Atheists have actually read There Is a God, given their usual claims regarding openness to evidence.

  23. G. Rodrigues says:

    @FZM:

    “I haven’t found a copy to look at yet but reading about it I’m not sure that the book Clay cited is a real vindication of atheistic naturalism or physicalism either.”

    Sir Anthony Kenny is an agnostic (that still attends mass), not an atheist, he explicitly affirms and explains why he is not an atheist (and not a theist either). The book cited argues that there is no such God as conceived by classical, natural theology. He has also devoted several books on Aquinas’ proofs and in his judgment, they all fail. His criticisms have all been under heavy fire, and from what I know of them (I have not read his books with the attention and detail they deserve) , they fail utterly.

    Kai Nielsen is definitely someone worth reading (in opposition to insufferable hacks like Carrier, or clueless morons applying for a Tyrant’s job like Boghossian), and he is indeed a naturalist atheist and defends such positions. But his arguments also ultimately fail.

  24. pennywit says:

    There are certainly plenty of delusional religious people. And delusional atheists. But none can match the delusion of the Cleveland Browns fan …

  25. Dhay says:

    Let’s have a look at “New Atheist delusions about delusions” (quoting the thread title), adopting the viewpoint of Science and Reason, or even better, adopting the viewpoint of science and reason.

    The brain of a committed Christian believing there is a God (or other religious statements) is different from that of a New Atheist believing there is no God — or so the New Atheist delusion-mongers like Peter Boghossian seem to tell us. For the Christian is deluded, they say, while the New Atheist is not.

    Because the behaviours of acting on religious or other beliefs reflect corresponding brain states, one would expect (on the delusion-monger account) to find differences between the brains of committed Christians believing what they believe and New Atheists believing what New Atheists believe; the Christian delusion should show up as a difference under fMRI testing.

    Well, I don’t have the training or equipment to do such an experiment myself; but I don’t need to, Sam Harris did it for already, back in 2009, with his experiment and paper entitled The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2748718/?tool=pubmed

    Were the experimental subjects poles-apart committed Christians and New Atheists? Yes, read the ‘Experimental Design’ section, which includes:

    Christians and Nonbelievers were expected to respond identically to nonreligious stimuli and to be discordant for all religious trials. The nature of the questions, along with a telephone screening protocol that selected for nonbelievers and committed Christians, more or less ensured that subjects’ responses would segregate in this way.
    [My emboldening.]

    So that’s 100%-convinced Christians and 100%-convinced atheists (I’ll refer to the latter as New Atheists, since they were maximally atheist on test); and when a few slipped through that filter, who didn’t show up 100% one way or the other on the day, they were excluded then: “These exclusions ensured that our final group of subjects did, in fact, strongly believe/disbelieve our religious stimuli.”

    In short, Harris carefully selected to get maximum contrast, so that any effect of religiosity vs non-religiosity would show up as the maximum possible differences in the brain scans.

    Now it gets really interesting. What did Harris find:

    Despite the fact that religious believers and nonbelievers accepted and rejected diametrically opposite statements in half of our experimental trials, the same neural systems were engaged in both groups throughout.

    Put simply, Harris found and stated that the brains of the New Atheists agreeing with the statement, “There isn’t a God” etc ** were identical to the brains of committed Christians agreeing with the statement, “There is a God” etc **; and the same for the lot of them, Christians and New Atheists alike, when agreeing with “2 + 2 = 4” etc **

    ( ** These are example questions: the full range of questions can be found in the Experimental Stimuli S1 document linked in the paper.)

    Harris is telling us that Christian brains look the same, to fMRI and Harris, when believing there is a God as they do when believing 2 + 2 = 4; they look identical to the brains of New Atheists believing 2 + 2 =4; they look identical to New Atheists believing there is no God. No difference.

    Harris has put the matter very succinctly on a number of occasions, both when explaining what he expected he would find, and then announcing that he had found it: “belief is belief is belief.” Here’s one example:

    “belief is belief is belief,” as Harris puts it. “We seem to be doing the same thing when we accept a proposition about God or the virgin birth as we do about astronomy.”

    What Harris, his fellow researcher Jonas Kaplan, and the other authors of the study want to address is the idea, which has been floating around in both scientific and religious circles, that our brains are doing something special when we believe in God—that religious belief is, neurologically speaking, an entirely different process from believing in things that are empirically and verifiably true (things that Harris endearingly refers to as “tables and chairs”). He says his results “cut against the quite prevalent notion that there’s something else entirely going on in the case of religious belief.”

    https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/2225/no-brainer

    So, there’s no “God spot” of delusion; instead of Christian “delusional” belief being different from New Atheist “non-delusional” belief, it’s all the same, indistinguishable, content-independent, no difference) exists.

    So how much “delusion” did Harris’ experiment and paper detect? None whatsoever.

    Harris’ fMRI study does not support, but rather refutes Boghossian’s claim that Christians (and religious people generally) are suffering from delusions. It might well be a “quite prevalent notion”, amongst especially New Atheists, “that there’s something else entirely going on in the case of religious belief”: Harris shows it’s a wrong notion.

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