Navigate

Offices

South Africa

80 Strand St
8001, Cape Town
+27 71 736 4601
hi@therainbowmafia.co

God

Religion is a psychotic delusion

The DSM-5, which is used for psychiatric diagnosis, does not classify religion as a delusion, yet it is one.

According to the book The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer, our brains are essentially “belief engines” that naturally seek to find patterns. This process is called “patternicity”, and it’s one of the ways our brains create beliefs.

Shermer argues that beliefs come first and explanations for those beliefs follow. This process, which he refers to as “belief-dependent realism”, suggests that our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it. Once beliefs are formed, the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, accelerating the process of reinforcing them.

In the context of belief in God or gods, this could mean that once the belief is formed, perhaps due to cultural, familial, or personal reasons, our brains seek out patterns and experiences that confirm this belief. This can lead to a strong reinforcement of the belief over time.

It’s also worth noting that Shermer discusses the concept of “agenticity” – the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by intentional agents or forces. This could potentially explain why people attribute events or experiences to a higher power or deity.

However, Shermer emphasizes that beliefs are complex and rarely attributable to single causal factors. Human thought and behaviour are almost always multivariate in cause, and beliefs are no exception. So while these cognitive processes play a role, they are part of a much larger picture that includes cultural, social, and individual factors.

Yet, The Believing Brain provides a compelling explanation of the evolutionary underpinnings of belief formation. Two particular mechanisms stand out. Firstly, there’s the indoctrination process experienced during childhood, where beliefs are instilled through religious conditioning. This creates a coherent internal framework that significantly influences one’s perspective and subsequent behaviour. Secondly, as individuals mature and gain autonomy, they form beliefs grounded in empirical evidence derived from their interactions with the external world.1

The excerpt below from the DSM of psychiatry categorizes delusions in a manner that could encompass religious beliefs. However, it distinguishes religion from being labelled as a psychiatric ‘delusion’ due to its prevalence and acceptance in society.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), issued by the American Psychiatric Association, serves as the essential guide for clinical diagnosis. It is the authoritative source for psychiatric diagnoses. At present, the DSM provides an exception for religious delusions, not categorizing them as mental disorders. Below is the DSM-IV’s characterization of a 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)”2

In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argues that religious faith is a “persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence,” and thus delusional. However, this perspective has been critiqued on philosophical and theological grounds by many. The relationship between religious belief and the psychiatric conception of delusion is complex.

Dawkins famously stated, “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called religion.” This provocative observation highlights the tension between individual beliefs and collective cultural norms.3

Consider the case of an Australian man who believed his penis had been stolen and replaced with someone else’s. His belief was clearly pathological. Yet, the APA’s definition would exclude this isolated case because it lacks cultural support. This distinction raises questions about the arbitrary nature of labelling certain beliefs as delusional while accepting others with similar content due to cultural context.

The enduring question lingers: Why does religion receive an exemption? Why is it that a belief is deemed a delusion only when held by a minority? From the vantage point of being an “incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained” and one that “defies credibility,” religion indeed exhibits characteristics akin to a delusion. Curiously, religious faith remains conspicuously excluded from this classification. Moreover, religious practices—such as kneeling in prayer, conversing with an unseen friend, partaking of wafers, and bowing toward Mecca—hint at a conviction that aligns with delusional tendencies.

For those grappling with this delusion, I strongly recommend seeking professional psychiatric assistance and ensuring that their actions do not harm others.

Sources:

1: Shermer, M. (2011). The believing brain: From ghosts and gods to politics and conspiracies—how we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths.

2: Task Force on DSM-IV. (1999). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV

3: Dawkins, R. (2006). The God Delusion. United Kingdom: Bantam Press

Rick Bronkhorst

Rick Bronkhorst

Founder & Writer

Rick is a former commercial fixed-wing pilot who graduated with merit from City Varsity, earning a BA in Film & TV Production in 2021. He is the founder of Bioskoop.co, Popcorn Time, and Skatte Doos, and co-founded Groovejet. With a strong passion for filmmaking, he aspires to produce streaming series and films for both the South African and international markets. Additional passions include psychology, reading, hiking, rowing, and good wine.