The Intelligent-Design website Uncommon Descent (you know, the one that actually allows comments) is pretty useless, and I don’t pay much attention to their frequent attacks on me. But their latest, “No-one knows the mind of God, except the Committed Atheist,” led me to a much more interesting piece in last year’s Torygraph.
First, let me dispose of the Uncommon Descent piece, which is a bit of apologetics designed to answer my recent request that theists tell us why there is natural evil (the “atheism-of-the-gaps” gambit). Their response:
It is a mystery – Coyne doesn’t specify (unless he is willing to confess to a personal revelation he received from God) – why Coyne would think that, say, the God of the Bible is primarily concerned that everyone be happy all the time, that life be a carefree paradise, that there be no suffering, that we should be beat over the head with signs instead of exercising faith, that our modern sensibilities should match up with ancient cultures, that life should even be fair, that God should be primarily interested in our temporary earthly comfort rather than in teaching us lessons and our more long-term salvation.
That’s still an admission of ignorance, and doesn’t tell us why God lets little kids gets cancer, or sweeps them away in tsunamis. Even if God is not “primarily concerned that everyone be happy all the time,” isn’t he at least concerned about the lifelong torment that parents of terminally ill children experience? Doesn’t He see that he could have have prevented those deaths by simply zapping a tumor or preventing a mutation that caused it? After all, is anything really gained in God’s scheme by allowing such deaths? Do such dead children enjoy extra rewards in Heaven? For if they don’t, then the whole scheme makes no sense under any parsing.
And if there are benefits in God’s plan to allowing natural evils, let the believers tell us what they are. If they say they don’t know, well, then, they’ll have to allow us scientists to say that we don’t yet know whether there are multiverses, or why the laws of physics are as they are. The difference is that at least science has a chance of finding answers.
But I digress. The piece I found was mentioned by one of the commenters on the Uncommon Descent thread; it’s an article from last August’s Torygraph by author Sean Thomas called “Are atheists mentally ill?”
Contrary to the journalistic law that title questions are always answered in the negative, Thomas says yes: atheists are indeed mentally ill—severely so. I tend to avoid calling believers mentally ill, partly because branding so much of society as suffering from illness tends to arouse ire, but mainly because I consider religious belief to be not a full-blown illness, but a situational neurosis or delusion.
But I digress again. Why does Thomas see atheists as mentally ill? Because we don’t avail ourselves of all the material benefits offered by religion. Here’s his analysis:
In other words: let’s see who is living more intelligently
And guess what: it’s the believers. A vast body of research, amassed over recent decades, shows that religious belief is physically and psychologically beneficial – to a remarkable degree.
In 2004, scholars at UCLA revealed that college students involved in religious activities are likely to have better mental health. In 2006, population researchers at the University of Texas discovered that the more often you go to church, the longer you live. In the same year researchers at Duke University in America discovered that religious people have stronger immune systems than the irreligious. They also established that churchgoers have lower blood pressure.
Meanwhile in 2009 a team of Harvard psychologists discovered that believers who checked into hospital with broken hips reported less depression, had shorter hospital stays, and could hobble further when they left hospital – as compared to their similarly crippled but heathen fellow-sufferers.
The list goes on. In the last few years scientists have revealed that believers, compared to non-believers, have better outcomes from breast cancer, coronary disease, mental illness, Aids, and rheumatoid arthritis. Believers even get better results from IVF. Likewise, believers also report greater levels of happiness, are less likely to commit suicide, and cope with stressful events much better. Believers also have more kids.
What’s more, these benefits are visible even if you adjust for the fact that believers are less likely to smoke, drink or take drugs. And let’s not forget that religious people are nicer. They certainly give more money to charity than atheists, who are, according to the very latest survey, the meanest of all.
What is missing in this litany of the benefits of belief—and I’m prepared to accept some of them—is whether such beliefs are true. And, of course, there’s no evidence that they are. In other words, Thomas argues that we atheists are mentally ill because we can’t force ourselves to believe something that would make us feel better. But have you ever tried to force yourself to believe something that is unbelievable? It’s impossible. I couldn’t accept a God even if I knew it would make me live a decade longer. The evidence for God would still be missing, so how could I suddenly change conclusions I’ve arrived at over years of thought, simply because they would make me happier and live longer? It is saner to believe delusions if they make you happy, and does it make you mentally ill if you can’t?
And for those who complain about strident atheists, have a look at Thomas’s conclusion:
So which is the smart party, here? Is it the atheists, who live short, selfish, stunted little lives – often childless – before they approach hopeless death in despair, and their worthless corpses are chucked in a trench (or, if they are wrong, they go to Hell)? Or is it the believers, who live longer, happier, healthier, more generous lives, and who have more kids, and who go to their quietus with ritual dignity, expecting to be greeted by a smiling and benevolent God?
Obviously, it’s the believers who are smarter. Anyone who thinks otherwise is mentally ill.
And I mean that literally: the evidence today implies that atheism is a form of mental illness. And this is because science is showing that the human mind is hard-wired for faith: we have, as a species, evolved to believe, which is one crucial reason why believers are happier – religious people have all their faculties intact, they are fully functioning humans.
Therefore, being an atheist – lacking the vital faculty of faith – should be seen as an affliction, and a tragic deficiency: something akin to blindness. Which makes Richard Dawkins the intellectual equivalent of an amputee, furiously waving his stumps in the air, boasting that he has no hands.
Well, Thomas provides gives no data on how often atheist couples are childless. Again, I’m prepared to believe that they have, on average, fewer children than do believers, but that’s because religions like Catholicism and Islam treat women like breeder cattle, urging them to pump out one child after another. That keeps women in a kind of servitude, and, as Hitchens always emphasized, bars them from the economic empowerment that is often an engine for societal improvement.
But the big flaw again is Thomas that sees refusal to believe something on faith, even if that would make your life more comfortable, as a form of mental illness. Since when has asking for evidence for an important proposition been a sign of mental affliction?
The reference to the brain being “hard-wired for faith” is a canard. If you look it up, you’ll see it links to an article showing that specific parts of the brain light up when one is thinking of God. In fact, those same parts of the brain light up when one is pondering moral conundrums. How on Earth does that show that the brain is “hard wired for faith”?
In fact, the article says this, quoting the authors (Grafman et al.):
“Our results are unique in demonstrating that specific components of religious belief are mediated by well-known brain networks and they support contemporary psychological theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary-adaptive cognitive functions.”
“There is nothing unique about religious belief in these brain structures. Religion doesn’t have a ‘God spot’ as such, instead it’s embedded in a whole range of other belief systems in the brain that we use every day,” Professor Grafman said.
Scientists are divided on whether religious belief has a biological basis.
Note that they don’t say that faith is hard-wired, but that religious belief “is mediated by well-known brain networks” (so what?) and that their findings “ground religious belief within evolutionary-adaptive cognitive functions.” That last statement is a bit weaselly, because all kinds of things that didn’t evolve, like our ability to play chess or invent light bulbs, are also grounded in “evolutionary-adaptive cognitive functions.” In fact, everything that humans do could be said to be “grounded in those functions.” After all, the brain evolved, and much of what we do is actuated by the brain.
This, combined with the fact that those same brain areas light up when one contemplates moral problems (the article don’t say whether atheist brains also light up in the same circumstances), suggest only that different parts of the brain are used for different things. And, of course, we already knew that. It says absolutely nothing about whether the brain is hard-wired for faith, which I take to mean that natural selection has installed in us a belief in supernatural deities. (One could test that, of course, by bringing up kids in an environment completely free from religious influence or knowledge, and see if they spontaneously start worshipping God. My bet is that they wouldn’t, but the experiment is impossible in today’s world.) Too, if religion is “hard-wired”, it’s remarkably easy to soften the wires, for many countries, like those in Scandinavia and Europe (and 41% of Brits) consist largely of nonbelievers. That’s not hard-wiring, but beliefs that are malleable.
If anything is hard-wired in our brains, it’s our tendency to believe what our elders tell us when we’re small children. That would clearly be adaptive, for we immediately benefit from others’ experience. Religion has piggy-backed on this evolved credulity to allow our elders to indoctrinate children with all kinds of superstitious nonsense. In that sense religion is a spandrel.
But what’s important here is that Thomas completely fails to support his case that atheists are mentally ill—unless he considers rationality a mental illness—and he grossly and willfully distorts scientific research to claim that because we’re all “hard-wired for God,” those who are atheists have their wires crossed.
The guy is not only a terrible arguer, but a mean piece of work.