Does it bother you to read a news article about something controversial, and find the treatment by the press to be somewhat unsatisfactory?
I’m referring, of course, to the media’s propensity to effect an air of impartiality, by presenting two sides of a story without any resolution. In matters of religion, for instance, the question of divine existence is usually presented impartially, so as not to offend the great majority of believers.
So, when I see an article like this one, about an obviously delusional Christian who killed her son in an attempt to exorcise demons she thought he was possessed by, I perk up. Not because it’s a horrible tragedy, but because of the way the article ends:
Lawson’s deeply felt religious convictions, her delusion, had tragic consequences. Often extremely religious people believe that they have the power to do supernatural things, like casting out demons. Such belief is delusional. Demons are but a figment of the imagination, a ready made explanation for the ignorant and superstitious.
Can you imagine the New York Times, or anyone in the mainstream media, making that statement, informing its readers of that conclusion?
Sadly no, and even more sadly, such honest reporters as this one will never make it to any kind of big-time media outlet.
Calling things like you see them is frowned upon in the media. This is why alternative media is necessary. For instance, what helped provoke anger at the Republicans fillibustering to block aid funding to the 9/11 first responders? CNN? NBC? NYT? FOX? No, Jon Stewart on the Daily Show.
Along the same line, Net Neutrality plays a part here. If it dies, then Comcast and other ISPs will created a tiered internet, like cable services. You’d then have to pay extra for Youtube, Facebook, and so on, limiting the flow of information. If the MSM won’t adequately cover the news or call a spade a spade, then you have to go elsewhere, and that elsewhere, aside from the Daily Show, is the internet. I’m not even sure if anyone under 30 relies on MSM for news anymore.
Net neutrality is a huge issue. The free flow of ideas – good, bad, even ludicrous – is necessary for keeping a participatory, republican political society healthy. Without such access, this society could easily slide much closer to an Orwellian future. Then again, the future may already be here and we just don’t know it yet.
Religion and Delusion
The woman in the linked story was delusional, but I doubt that all of her delusions were grounded in religion. It’s likely that she has at least one serious underlying mental illness; hers wouldn’t be the first such case. What is the relationship between mental illness and bizarre beliefs, religious or otherwise (i.e., alien abduction)? Does mental illness render one unusually susceptible to believing and acting upon nonsense? Do bizarre beliefs exacerbate mental illness? Until we find the answers to such questions, stories about deranged people who do horrific deeds and justify them on religious grounds will continue to be rather commonplace.
Having said all that, we all know that most religious people function perfectly normally in every day life; their religions don’t incapacitate them. It seems to me that one reason for this is because (even if they refuse to admit it) many of them know when to take their beliefs seriously and when to leave the beliefs on their shelves. But, for the mentally ill, it seems that religion often distorts their sense of reality to such a degree that they do bizarre things that make sense only in their twisted minds.
I’m not at all sure where the lines between mistaken beliefs and delusions should be drawn. All of us have mistaken beliefs of one sort of another, and sometimes we do stupid, even harmful, things on the basis of those beliefs. Being wrong is not the same as being deluded. Still, I used to believe in all seriousness that I was engaged in a cosmic battle between good and evil, a belief that was not merely mistaken, but deluded. That belief didn’t render me unable to report to work every morning, drive a car, change my kids’ diapers, feed my family, pay my bills, etc., but it was nonetheless a very strange lens through which to view my relationship to the universe. I was deluded, but still highly functional; I was still largely grounded in the real world, even if I interpreted it wrongly. I don’t think that was the case with the woman in the linked story.
Many religious people do function normally enough that you wouldn’t say they were crazy. However, there are a plethora of religious beliefs that get in the way of truly healthy functioning. For instance, many religions have some neurosis about sexuality that gets in the way of a healthy sexuality.
Just because someone is able to function in society doesn’t make their beliefs benign.
Just because the negative effects of nonsensical beliefs are small doesn’t make them excusable.
A religious person who isn’t suffering from a mental illness might still believe in the possibility of evil possessing a child, but they might be more likely to discipline and shame their child (rather than killing them) out of whatever behavior the parent thinks is causing the evil spirits (perhaps something as normal as disobedience, listening to rap music, or masturbation). This parent may never cross a line where their parenting would be considered abuse, but they are more than likely causing their child a great deal of mental anguish over something that isn’t harmful, because it is condemned by religious doctrine.
You raised some good points about the negative effects, however small they may be, of any false beliefs, religious or otherwise. Many highly functional believers are still at least slightly dysfunctional with regard to things like sexuality, diet, etc. Many of them still have knee-jerk reactions to gay marriage, DADT, abortion, etc., based primarily on false beliefs. I agree that benignity is not a good measure of whether a belief is excusable, but it seems to be a prevalent measure at work in American society. In fact, benignity seems to be a criterion for religious tolerance/freedom of conscience: you’re free to believe whatever shit you want to believe as long as you don’t harm anyone or interfere with another’s freedom.
I’m pretty sure that I would have de-converted much earlier if I hadn’t been scared of hell. I literally had the hell scared out of me for decades. Not much of a reason for remaining in the fold, I know, but it is effective. I suspect there are others who, like me, are scared shitless of pursuing their questions too far because of what they fear the consequences will be. If they’re not scared of hell, they’re at least scared of death, a more reasonable fear, I’ll admit, that is also effective at keeping the sheep in the pen.
My issue with the linked article was that the author seemed (to me) to pin the tragedy entirely on the woman’s religious beliefs and ignore the strong possibility that she had other mental issues going on too. I don’t think her beliefs, and I think we both agree that they are bizarre, were the sole cause of her actions. I think they were part of a deadly cocktail working in a very sick mind.
I, personally, would love to see everyone abandon religion, superstition, woo, etc. But, they can’t be forced to do it, just as nonbelievers (absent brainwashing, childhood indoctrination, etc.) can’t (or shouldn’t) be forced to believe. Nonbelievers can reason with believers, but we should respect their right to believe whatever the hell they want to believe. We don’t have to respect the beliefs, though. We can, and should, continue calling wrong beliefs what they are.
More accurately, you had the hell scared into you.
I agree with your contention that her problems were primarily mentally, rather than spiritually, related. However. (Always that big However). Where did her mental illness come from, and how much did her religious beliefs either cause them or exacerbate them? Perhaps she was raised in a fire and brimstone family, always exhorted to fear Satan, always told that bad things came from devils. Wouldn’t you say that her religion then was directly responsible for the way she reacted to her son’s normal 3 year old irritability?
Sure, carrying her dead baby around for 18 months in a suitcase tends to indicate some serious mental issues, but what came first, the chicken or the egg? The religion or the mental illness?
I tend to agree with Sam Harris when he claims that the moderate, functional theists in society give cover to the underlying illness that we call religion. Without our tolerance of the functional Christians, the dysfunctional Christians would be dealt with more realistically. Now we simply say “Oh, it’s her religion. We have to respect that”. Fuck that.
In my initial comment, I asked, “Do bizarre beliefs exacerbate mental illness?” One could add another question and ask, “Do bizarre beliefs cause mental illness?” I suspect there are cases in which this is true. I wasn’t being facetious when I intimated, in that same paragraph, that we need to conduct serious research into questions like these. The relationships between religious beliefs and mental illness require serious attention, which they haven’t gotten yet because religion has gotten a free pass for far too long.
I think you know me well enough by now to know that I’d never say, “Oh, it’s her religion. We have to respect that.” We don’t have to respect her religion. But we do, if we believe in freedom of conscience, have to respect her right to practice her religion and hold her batshit beliefs.
My purpose in commenting at all was to point out that, IMO, the author of the linked article was sloppy because he intimated that her only problem was her religion. Her religion was a problem, and for all we know it was her biggest problem, but I don’t think it was her only one. Sorry, SI, but I don’t think his piece was a good example of media neutrality. I think he allowed his bias against religious belief – which you know I share – to color his presentation a little too deeply.
Damn. Sorry about making the previous comment all bold. I didn’t mean to shout.
Yes, I know. I wasn’t criticizing your comment, just piling on.
The article was clearly biased, too. But the bias was one I share. And to take it just a step further, it’s a bias that should not be considered bias, if you get what I’m saying.
In an unbiased, neutral presentation, the article would be perfectly fine stating the obvious – that her religious delusions are just that – delusional. It’s only because we have an us vs. them mentality rampant in our culture, that it’s even perceived as bias, as opposed to a simple fact.
I’m certainly not going to disagree with you about the dangerous potential for faith based beliefs, however in a free society individuals should be allowed to indulge in any activity that doesn’t harm or threaten others, even if that activity is harmful to themselves. For instance, there’s the potential that a drinker could drive, posing a deadly risk to others, but that’s not enough to prevent access to alcohol. Many people drink responsibly, just as many indulge in faith based beliefs like astrology and religion responsibly.
The best we can do is warn people of the dangers involved in certain activities and severely punish those who harm or threaten others as a result of such selfish indulgences.
As I’ve thought about this story some more, I’ve been coming to that conclusion too. Although I initially wished the author would have acknowledged the probable extent of the lady’s mental problems, I’m now thinking that such an acknowledgment would have backfired. The reason for that is related to what you stated earlier, drawing from Sam Harris – moderate religion gives shelter to extreme religion. In a similar vein, I think the presence of other mental illnesses gives shelter to the delusional nature of her religious beliefs. Religious believers can point to her other issues and say, “See, she didn’t do these things because her beliefs were wrong, she did them because she was ill.” No, it’s more likely she did those things because of both of those factors – she was ill, and she held dangerous beliefs.
As I stated earlier, I don’t think her religious beliefs were the sole cause of her behavior. But, I can’t deny that those particular beliefs played a huge role in motivating and justifying these particular actions. So, regardless of what other mental factors were at play, at some point, the specific beliefs related to these particular acts have to be criticized. I agree with Richard Dawkins’ contention that we’ve got to stop giving religion a free pass and screening it off from critical scrutiny. Even though acknowledging the complex mental factors that were likely at play in this tragedy would have been an honest thing to do, it was also honest for the author to have just called her delusional beliefs what they are.
John, your evolutionary views are delusional, too, but you’re allowed to hold them. And, I would also add a hearty “fuck that” to anyone suggesting offering humanist pseudo-science any legitimacy, in keeping with your attitude toward religion. Nice to see that we share “commonalities” isn’t it?
So, demons are imaginary, eh? You haven’t seen any, so they don’t exist, right? You haven’t been harassed or molested by any, so others are lying when they say that they have, eh? How much actual ‘science’ have you, yourself, laid eyes upon or handled in a laboratory, John? Point of fact, isn’t most of what you know about the natural world and science merely, in legal terms, hearsay?
You have any Christian clients, John? Do they know how anti-theist you are?
Ah balls, the sedatives wore off.
Get back in your corner, Giddy, until the men in white coats come and make the voices go away again.
I wouldn’t get my hopes up, if I were you. This guy wires anti-religion articles, so this is just par for the course.