"Mens sana in corpore sano", "The God Delusion", Al-Qaida, Bertrand Russell, DAECH, Divine Inspiration, Inerrancy, Jehovah Witnesses, Jim Jones, Real Presence, Richard Dawkins, Robert Pirsig, William Harwood
Some of us are a little too quick on the draw when we say some people are mad. We usually mean “eccentric”, “irresponsible”, “outrageous” – but not “mentally ill”. It is common enough, however, for atheists to consider religious faith true madness. After all, it fits the definitions. The title of Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” was deliberately chosen by the author, for whom a delusion is a persistent false belief in the face of strong contradictory evidence (or, I would suggest with Bertrand Russell, lack of sufficient evidence). Dawkins seems to agree with Robert Pirsig’s statement in “Lila” (1991) : “When one suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called religion”. He would no doubt also agree with William Harwood who said : “The difference between faith and insanity is that faith is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence, whereas insanity is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence”.
We atheists, but also non-atheists, members of mainline Christian churches, agree that the world is full of religious nutters. Pentecostal snake-handlers, tent-revival enthusiasts conned by charismatic, “miracle”-working preachers like Jim Jones and his credulous congregation of nine hundred willing consumers of poisoned Kool-Aid, the “martyrs” of Daech and Al-Qaida – their name is Legion. But we all know people who believe in the “Real Presence” of Jesus in a wafer of bread, in the divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible and the Koran, in the reality of life after death – people who otherwise are as rational as we are. We seem to make an exception for them. The vast majority of mankind has some sort of religious belief. Maybe Robert Pirsig was right . . .
Whether or not we consider believers mad, there is clearly no point in broadcasting the fact. It is a perfect dialogue-stopper. Trading insults never won arguments and succeeds only in perpetuating a dialogue of the deaf. It is far more effective when talking to a Jehovah Witness who refuses a blood-transfusion for his child because God forbids it, to ask “How do you know that ?” The question has, in fact, universal application : the inspiration of Scriptures, the Resurrection of Jesus, the infallibility of Scripture and even of the Pope – the question applied to all such beliefs puts the monkey on the believer’s back. We don’t have to disprove such beliefs, including belief in the existence of God; the burden of proof is on the non-atheist.
Accusing believers of insanity is water on a duck’s back. I was one (a believer, not a duck) for fully half my life. I would never have admitted that I was nuts. I may right now be on my way to precocious senescent dementia, Alzheimer’s, but I’m not there yet. I’ve always had a “mens sana”, though not necessarily in a “corpore sano”. I guess the reason believers dismiss the accusation of insanity is that there are billions of perfectly normal people like them. They can’t all be nut-cases. Objectively, their beliefs are unfounded and irrational. We have to help them realize that. It won’t happen by telling them they’re crazy.