November 23, 2020 | As the pandemic raged in April, churchgoers in Ohio defied warnings not to congregate. Some argued that their religion conferred them immunity from COVID-19. In one memorable CNN clip, a woman insisted she would not catch the virus because she was “covered in Jesus’ blood”.
Some weeks later, the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker commented on the dangers of evangelical religious belief in the coronavirus era. Writing on Facebook, he said: “Belief in an afterlife is a malignant delusion, since it devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them longer, safer, and happier.”
Pinker, of course, is not the first to connect – or equate – religion with delusion. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is probably the most famous contemporary proponent of this view, which has intellectual roots dating back at least to political theorist Karl Marx and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins argued that religious faith is “persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence”, and thus delusional.
Was Dawkins right? Many have critiqued his arguments on philosophical and theological grounds. But the relationship between his thesis and the dominant psychiatric conception of delusion is less often considered:
This definition is from the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” – often referred to as the “bible” of psychiatry. The definition is well known but controversial, and those who think belief in God is delusional may take issue with the final clause. Dawkins, for his part, approvingly quoted the writer Robert M Pirsig’s observation that “when one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion”.
So, is the distinction between insanity and religion a mere semantic quibble? In a new paper, we review research that examines relationships – and distinctions – between religion and delusion.