Religion, Evil and Insanity: Has God Been Talking to You?

“Men never do evil as completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

Blaise Pascal


“The religions of mankind must be classed among the mass-delusions of this kind.  No one, needless to say, who shares a religious delusion ever recognizes it as such.”

Sigmund Freud


Back in the day, the insane were considered evil, possessed.  You had to beat, torture or drown the demon within.  But the torturers were delusional themselves.  And with the psychotics who were hearing voices, where was the line?  Countless ancient prophets heard voices and were honored.  How about Joan of Arc?  Joseph Smith?  Apparently being REALLY earnest is essential to having “authentically” heard God’s voice.  Also, what God is saying has a lot to do with it – see below.

Today, it’s the other way round: you’re evil because you’re insane – at least some of the time.  More on that also below.

Divine Chatterbox

In the Torah, God talks a lot, mostly to Abraham, Moses and a few other individuals, but he does occasionally address Moses and Aaron together (e.g., Exodus  8:12-15).  The Torah writer at one point (Genesis 18:16-21) even reports what God’s thinking to himself – quite a feat, to know the mind of God!   

Interestingly, God sometimes addresses multiple people, e.g., in Deuteronomy 26, he appears to be talking to all the Israelites.  I suppose it never occurred to the later ancients to ask: God spoke to many people en masse before, but how come now he never does?  So how do we know the voice in our head is God?

Simple questions, really, and one that religious people sidestep, just as they probably have some dodge to answer the question of why God doesn’t listen to the prayers of amputees.

Talking to yourself

Internal speech – talking to yourself -- is, to me as a linguist, one of the most fascinating and ineluctable of all cognitive phenomena.  Maybe that’s why I’ve so seldom read about it (or maybe I’m reading the wrong magazines).   If we ever understand the neuro-physiology of internal speech, we will understand the physiology of thought itself.  I’m not optimistic.

Think about it:  language is not merely a series of infinitely variegated, elaborately encoded brain instructions to the speech organs.  It also resides, simultaneously or alternatively, in a series of neuron-webs that somehow construct language and relay it in actual, well-formed utterances of English (or whatever language you speak) to the auditory centers instead of the speech organs – so you hear yourself talking to yourself.


How many selves are there?  At least three, as exemplified in the actually-uttered sentence “I don’t know if I can control myself.”  Football fans can call it the “I-formation Theory of Personality.” 

All within the same brain, there is a decision-making “I” who exerts or fails to exert control over behavior, an executional “I” who is controlled (or not) by the first “I”, and an observing “I” who, in this case, doesn’t know which way the other two will go.

Now think how complicated it becomes when you introduce yet another “I” – the cogitating “I”, who can also be observed or addressed, e.g., “So I said to myself…” or “So I’m thinking to myself, …” -- who’s doing the talking and thinking?  To whom?

Well, at least we know whose voice we’re hearing.  That points to another brain mechanism, which in some people distinguishes internal messages from self from messages from others.  A normal, non-psychotic brain hears only the former. 

Who’s talking?

This realization about who’s talking grew with human consciousness: as we began to make language, the internal mechanism developed, and at first it must have seemed really weird to hear these voices inside your head.  Maybe they thought it was gods at first, though even that process implies a higher level of self-observing cognition.  Eventually, after millennia, I suppose, humans realized who’s talking.

Who’s talking to me?

Except not everybody did. In past ages, people could claim to be having important revelations from divine figures, coming from inside their heads.  Even today they can  convince themselves it’s someone else’s. 

But there lines, limits.  Today, if you hear voices, it depends on who’s talking to you and what they’re telling you to do.  Any non-religious figure talking (unless perhaps a real person from memory): you’re nuts.  Any religious figure: OK,  as long as they’re answering prayers or offering needed advice (or justifying wars) – but not telling you to commit a crime.

Insight from God?

Case in point: The Boston Globe reports on Shari Johnson, a – coincidentally! – evangelical Christian from Odessa, Texas. 

When contemplating her daughter’s lesbian marriage, she says, “'I said out loud in the car to God: “What event could a parent be asked to attend that would be worse than this one?”. . .And his answer was,  “A funeral.”  That’s how God speaks to me.  It’s not a booming voice from Heaven [no, because then other people could hear it – AMP]; it’s a thought that I’ve never had before that I would never have myself.  And it’s so contrary to my thinking that I know it has to be God.’”

Oy vey, Shari.  It’s YOU.  YOU had a different idea.  Is God responsible for every new thought or inspiration that you and everybody else has had?  Which of Leonardo’s or Edison’s inventions did God prompt?  I need hardly add that the newspaper reported her language as “striking.”

Well, yes. She claimed to have heard from God.  You’d think he would be inside the head of every unbeliever, trying to make his existence known.  Nope. Nada.  Silence.  That’s the way I like it.  

Religious outreach to gays???

I note, in the same article, that the Greater Boston Chapter of the Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays is inviting a bunch of clerics to their meeting.  Good luck with that.  How are they going to get around the fact that their holy books condemn gays as an abomination?  I can’t wait to hear the spin.

So there are limits, which a little observation will reveal.  In most of the civilized world, you can’t claim God’s talking to you, unless privately.  No rabbi would begin a sermon with “God has told me to tell you…” – although that’s the way much of the Torah is written, with God giving instructions to Moses.   People who do make such claims attract the unstable, and together they form a cult.   That term may include the Catholic Church, if the pope claims to hear from God.

Hearing God’s voice

But in mainstream religion, they’re very careful about claiming to hear God’s voice.  Unless, of course, they’re giving him credit, as Shari is doing.  Or using his voice to mold the behavior of the flock, as clerics all over the world try to do.  Or citing his support for a war, as Dubya and countless Popes and kings did before him.

Come ON, Shari.  It’s YOUR voice and YOUR mind at work.  Give yourself credit for realizing, in a flash of inspiration, that your daughter’s life is, ironically, more important that your religious doctrine that condemns her.

And as for the argument that it must be right because it’s contrary to your thinking: I’ve heard that one before. 

Rabbis are famous for arguing that their hundreds of inane commandments must be right because they (the disobedient, stiff-necked Jewish people) didn’t want them (as evidenced by Golden Calf story).  Gimme a break and stop making stuff up. 

Parent and child

More to the point, that is what happens in a parent-child dynamic, where the parent frequently compels the child to do something that is genuinely for his/her own good but that the child resists.  The comparison is obvious; the relationship, degrading.

Evil? Insane?

But the connection between evil and insanity lingers.  In an Illinois murder case, the defendant is expected to plead insanity because she “told police the children had the devil inside them and that she killed them to drive out the devil.” 

Now that’s batshit.  That is SO 14th century that anyone who believes it in the 21st  is arguably insane.  The kids didn’t DO anything diabolical.  It was Mom’s delusion that they were evil that killed them.

Shari’s God-talk is just one more example of the WIDE berth that religion gets, a gap in reason as big as its tax write-off in real estate.  Religion is treated with the greatest of deference, and the claims of God-hearers are believed and lauded – provided God is telling them the right things.

Views: 368


You need to be a member of Atheist Nexus to add comments!

Join Atheist Nexus

Comment by Alan Perlman on November 12, 2012 at 6:55pm

Reply to Michael: The GOP is weird, scary, and obsessed with wealth, religion, war, and sex.  And I'm not even a liberal.

Comment by Alan Perlman on November 12, 2012 at 6:53pm

I agree with Loren.  If the author of that great remark had credibility with the candidate, he really could have gotten the man to think about his beliefs. 

Comment by Alan Perlman on November 12, 2012 at 11:29am

To Steph...Thank you so much.  Replies like yours make my day.  After many years of gpostwriting, it's fun to unload and say what I really think.


To S/B...As always thanks for kind words and for reading and commenting. 

The phenomenon of auditory hallucinations suggests another mysterious brain mechanism.  Almost everyone can summon up music is his/her head.  Often it doesn't go away (this is called an "earworm" [really!], and I saw a cartoon that claimed to solve the problem with a pill called "Song-B-Gone").  Yet there are also real auditory hallucinations, which are different -- but how?

Good point, which was lost on Shari: God everywhere condemns homosexuality but informs Shari that her daughter's life is more important that the divine commandments.  I wonder how often this happens in people's minds: in this one case, God told me I don't have to obey.  God would need a lawyer to keep track of all the exceptions. 

Comes back to the question I raised in the post: how does the brain distinguish the real from the unreal?  I can recall things my father said, and in his voice, but I know he's not talking to me from "the other side."

I had the same experience with Venus/penis!  The problem for believers is not that they don't hear God clearly but that he often speaks so vaguely -- both in their heads and in the holy books -  that believers have to explain what he meant.  That's when the fun begins.

Comment by Loren Miller on November 12, 2012 at 11:24am

Pat, sometimes diplomacy is useless.  Sometimes the hard dash of ice-cold water is the only mechanism that has an opportunity to wake up those who sleep-walk like this.

The scary and sad fact is that sometimes even that won't work on a True Believer.

Comment by Michael Brice on November 11, 2012 at 6:49pm


Comment by Michael Brice on November 11, 2012 at 6:48pm

At first glance I thought your headline said "Religion, evil and insanity: has GOP been talkng to you?"



Update Your Membership :



Nexus on Social Media:

© 2020   Atheist Nexus. All rights reserved. Admin: The Nexus Group.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service