THE PRACTICE OF VILIFYING THE VICTIM OF FAITH
Both religions and mental illness can give rise to bizzarre and ludicrous beliefs. When the practice of religious beliefs causes horrific events many people, especially those who also believe in the same religion, are quick to label the credulous believer as mentally ill. This shields the True Believer from examining the credibility of their beliefs.
Muslims who kill themselves by flying planes into buildings in countries full of Christians are applauded by Muslim zealots but identified by moderate Muslims as either mentally ill or "not true Muslims". Similar things happen in Christian communities.
Parents who follow the Biblical writers' prescription for dealing with illness instead of seeking secular medical assistance are labeled as "insane" or "not true Christians" when their child dies as the result of their excessive faith and religious devotion. The accusers quietly ignore the fact that the believers have shown less wisdom and commonsense than the average atheist and their version of god has demonstrated less power, competence and compassion than even a run-of-the-mill medical practitioner.
If the child lives, the story which Christians tell each other is quite different. When the outcome is positive the incredible faith of the parents is held up as a standard to be emulated, not decried and their version of god is deemed to have performed a miracle. If trained professionals or other humans had any part in arranging this outcome this is insultingly ignored or belittled.
In short, if the answer to prayer is positive then "god" is asserted to be the cause and glorified but if the outcome is negative then the petitioner is asserted to be the cause and blamed. Of course, there other mind-tricks available to the Believer which get both their version of god and the petitioner off the hook. Bad outcomes can be attributed to a bad god (Satan in Christian mythology) or to a human's freedom to "choose" poorly. If all else fails then a bad outcome can be reinterpreted as a "good" outcome in disguise, usually by suggesting that it only looks bad to humans because we lack the superior mind of whatever god the person believes is imposing it's will on the world.
The classic cop-out, however, is for the religious believer to blame the hapless believer. The closer this believer's faith is to the accuser's own faith, the louder this condemnation and vilification. A favorite mode of attack is to classify the other believer as "insane".
Describing a religious zealot as insane when their beliefs fail in a clash with reality is a convenient way to ignore the insanity of the belief system. Blaming the victim of the disseminated beliefs rather than the belief system itself is a double victimization process: first the belief system fails the Believer, then other Believers fail the victim of these beliefs.
It is a cruel game played willingly by the devout in order to avoid examining the basis of their own beliefs. In many cases it involves a rigorous application of the smorgasbord approach to their religion. When they are faced with a clear dis-confirmation of the truth of what their religion and their religious texts teach then they must deny, ignore or radically reinterpret whole chunks of the system to which they ascribe in order to demonize the staunchly faithful.
"Ask and you will receive" works much better when it is directed to a human with medical expertise than it does when directed to a god who has never been known to single-handedly cure any medical condition which does not sometimes cure itself on a random basis, no matter how much faith the victim or the petitioner have. In fact, there is a very long list of medical conditions which religious people generally intuitively know their version of god cannot cure without any "help" from humans. When faced with a heart attack, few people think twice about calling for medical help before calling on their god.
This sadistic game of re-victimising the faithful dupe is also played by non-Believers. In this case, they gain from pointing to the inherent stupidity of Believers who do not examine their belief system in the light of common sense and reason and discard that which is not supported by mountains of pre-existing evidence.
No matter who plays this game it is based on medical and psychological ignorance of the nature of medical conditions which affect thinking and the experience of reality.
There are some important differences between the bizarre nature of many religious beliefs and medical conditions which engender bizarre beliefs.
First we need to define religion.
Religion can be defined as an organized set of beliefs, generally involving supernatural beings or events, which are taught to others and held by groups of people. A religion may not have a belief in a supernatural being (Buddhism is an example) in which case it qualifies for the title by the fact that its teachings embody beliefs which transcend observable tangible reality and cannot be objectively verified as empirical fact.
The beliefs of a religion consist of oral teachings passed on from one person to another, some or all of which may be contained and preserved in books or texts, ancient or modern, to which are ascribed various degrees of authority.
Its practice may, or may not, involve the use of symbols, ceremonies, traditions, prayers, recitations or chanting of set texts to appease, placate, worship or petition supernatural beings. It may involve the belief that a person is possessed by, or contains an element of, a supernatural being or it may involve the belief that the believer has a personal relationship with a supernatural being.
Believers who state that they are "not religious" because they only have a personal relationship with their version of god are giving the word "religion" a meaning which is not in use by those outside their circle of fellow believers. Their belief system is every bit as religious as the beliefs of those that they wish to distance themselves from because their holy books and basic tenants, like theirs, are held and revered by a group of other people who share, teach and disseminate them.
Religious beliefs may be entirely consistent with the values, principles and maxims held to be true by the surrounding community, the national population, the consensus of civilized nations or even be shared by people across many centuries. On the other hand, religious beliefs may be confined to a specific community or circumscribed by location or time. There is no religion that has remained unchanged through the centuries. All of them have modified their beliefs, values and practices in line with increasing knowledge and changing views of ethics and morality. What is deemed to a god-given moral value in one generation or community is considered to be immoral in another.
The beliefs may be relatively consistent with the discoveries made by science about how the world works or they may be bizarre, ludicrous, incredible, logically impossible, contradictory, sadistic, emotional or fanciful.
Religious belief systems are generally a mixture of several or all of these things.
Religion differs from science and objective reality in that its central beliefs, tenants and speculations cannot be proposed in any form which would allow them to be tested in such a way that disproof is possible. Just about anything can be "proved" or at least "supported". This does not mean that it is objectively true. Subjective truth is fickle.
Religious believers generally encapsulate their religious beliefs from the logical processes which they use to function successfully in the real world.
Now that we have defined what religion is let us turn to defining mental dysfunction.
MENTAL ILLNESS DEFINED.
Mental illness, psychiatric disorders and cognitive dysfunctions differ from religion at several crucial points.
The delusions, hallucinations and bizarre beliefs of the mentally or cognitively impaired person are generally specific to the person, although they may sometimes be shared by a spouse, parent or a few friends of that person. They generally do not result from material which the person has been taught by others or obtained from reading a religious book. On the occasions when they do, the beliefs are given a strange or unusual twist which is not acceptable to others who follow the religion.
Mental illness is generally pervasive. Odd thinking and behavior is not confined to the realm of religious-style thinking; it spills over into other aspects of the person's life, interactions and behavior. It is also accompanied by other signs and symptoms of the disease process or disorder from which the person suffers. The overall pattern of dysfunctions results in syndromes which match diagnostic criteria for specific mental disorders. Such syndromes, including the aberrant thought patterns, disappear or are modified with drugs or surgical intervention targeted to the specific disorder.
Psychotic mental disorders frequently result from neuro-chemical abnormalities in the brain. The bulk of these appear to be genetic in origin but triggered by factors in the external environment (including the womb, physical or mental stressors, strong emotional states, including positive ones, chemical or dietary contaminents, alchohol or other drugs) or changes within the person's body (puberty, pregnancy, menopause, viral or bacterial illness, fever, excessive heat or cold, sleep deprivation, and so on.)
Mental disorders of a different type arise as a consequence of epilepsy, brain tumors or head injuries. In such cases symptoms are often more specific and less pervasive. Religious delusional syndromes, hyper religiosity and bizarre belief sets are a feature of some of these disorders. They are distinguished from normal manifestations of these things in that they are much more intense that the experiences which others have, they occur in tandem with other symptoms of brain dysfunction and increase, or decrease, in relation to these other symptoms. The symptoms occur as specific recognizable clinical syndromes. Again, these disorders are treatable by drugs, surgery and cognitive rehabilitation programs. However, since permanent brain pathology is usually a feature of these conditions unusual behavior or beliefs may not be entirely eliminated by these measures.
In summary, people whose delusions result from mental illness, disease or brain pathology have accompanying symptoms which cohere into recognizable patterns (syndromes) which identify them as due to abnormal, rather than normal, brain functioning. They affect a wide variety of functions which are not related to religion or to the practice of the beliefs promulgated by religions. The delusions are bizarre, unusually intense or temporally connected to abnormal brain states (such as pre- or post-seizure activity). They are generally eliminated or significantly modified with surgery or drug therapy designed to target the underlying medical condition. (The main exception is brain impairment or seizure activity centered on the so-called "god spot" in the right parietal lobe.)
A quick test of whether a crazy idea is due to faulty brain functioning or a faulty belief system is to ask whether the belief is common to a group of people who teach it to others or whether it is unique to a person and arose spontaneously. If the former is true it is due to the insanity of religion; if the latter is true it is due to the insanity of a person.