Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ ableism

September 2, 2015 • 9:15 am

The latest Jesus and Mo strip, called “Wow,” takes up the issue of whether religion might gain protection against ‘ableism’ were it to be classified as a mental illness (note Mo’s own ableism in the last panel):


I’ve written recently on the controversy about whether religion should be seen as a mental illness, and decided tentatively that it shouldn’t be, at least not in the same way we see schizophrenia or bipolar disorder as mental illnesses. Still, one can make a case that it is—as Dawkins implied in the title of his famous book—a widespread form of delusion. Jesus and Mo apparently take issue with me, but for tactical rather than scientific reasons.

38 thoughts on “Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ ableism

  1. They’re crazy enough to be drinking canned Guiness. Pass the straitjackets and Tasers nad give the Swat team their meth.

      1. That is a point open to much debate. (About which I sit on the fence. I can live without Guinness, and if there’s a choice of Guinness, Murphy’s, or lager, I’ll take the Murphy’s.)

          1. I don’t think I’ve ever tried pouring from a can into some other receptacle. that’s not the point of cans. Thinks back … possibly at a posh party. But … that just isn’t the point of getting a carry-out.

            1. My reason for canned beer is that that’s what’s available on my train ride home. They don’t sell glass bottles for obvious reasons. They could in theory bring in some kegs to serve it on tap, but being that the guys selling the beer haul the beer cart home on the train when the night wraps up, I can understand why they don’t do this. I typically avoid canned Guinness nonetheless but if I do ever opt for it, I pour it in a cup. And then there’s the art of balancing it without spillage on a jerky train…

    1. And Sam Harris in “Letter To A Christian Nation”:

      “The president of the United States has claimed, on more than one occasion, to be in dialogue with God. If he said that he was talking to God through his hairdryer, this would precipitate a national emergency. I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous or offensive.”

      1. It seems to me that a fair number of the Republican candidates in both the last presidential election and the forthcoming one have claimed to have been “instructed by god” to run. Are they deranged? In the words of Bill Murry (in Ghostbusters), “I’d call that a ‘yes'”.

  2. There was a popular book first published in the 1840s (sic) called “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” often cited by Carl Sagan.

    But folks get socialized into popular delusions so the mechanism by which this works is not the same as that of mental illness.

    Freud in “Future of an Illusion” lists three ways that religions are propagated. “Firstly because our primal ancestors already believed them; secondly, because we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from antiquity, and thirdly because it is forbidden to raise the question of their authenticity at all”

    1. I’m reminded of a friend’s 7-year-old son who asked asked his if God was made up. He had heard the classic children’s stories from parents and teachers and stories from the bible, read to his class at school, had the same ring to him as fiction.
      100 years ago, most fathers would have beaten him, and made him pray to G
      od for forgiveness. That way, one soon learns not to question religion.

    2. It would be absurd to call every religious person as mentally ill since religion is such a broadly defined term.

      However, I would definitely say that many fundamentalists might be towards the mentally ill end of the spectrum, if not all the way there. At the extreme end, we’ve all seen the obviously mentally ill homeless person on the street babbling about God. To a lesser degree, I think many people who reject scientific findings may have a mental problem in being disconnected from reality. They simply can’t grasp what is there. But for the majority, I don’t think it’s a problem with mental capacity, but rather a problem with cultural conditioning combined with the human ability to compartmentalize contradictory ideas. When I was a young earth creationist, I don’t consider myself to have been mentally ill; rather, I was extraordinarily ignorant as well as indoctrinated. Brainwashed may be a far better term to apply across the board than mentally ill, but I think even that is going too far if we paint every religious person with that brush.

    3. I don’t know why my response got bucketed under this thread, it was meant to be a top level comment, but since I’m here, I’ll add in that I own an e-copy of that book. In a way, it’s a bit depressing that these delusions have been established for quite some time but are only now starting to fall apart for a significant segment of society.

  3. As someone with depression and an anxiety disorder you’re right that religious belief isn’t in the same category. It can be frustrating and stigmatizing to see mass shooters identified as mentally ill when the vast majority of mentally ill people can lead pretty normal lives with medication and therapy and even when untreated are far more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. In fact, self-harm and suicide are bigger issues in terms of loss of life than mass shootings are, but thanks to wall to wall media coverage of the latter many people don’t know that.

    And, speaking frankly for myself as someone who’s an atheist struggling with mental health challenges- please don’t lump believers in with me. 😉

    1. Indeed. For that matter, the idea of mental illness as a binary is a bad way to think of it. One does not classify people into “sighted” and “blind” because, of course, vision problems fall along a continuum. Similarly, it is a bit of a trap to classify people into “normal” and “mentally ill” because, even more so than eyesight (which is comparatively simple), mental qualities fall on multi-dimensional spectrums. This is important because it is common to see people bemoaning the fact that, say, 38 million people in the US take SSRIs, but no one bemoans the fact that twice that number of people wear glasses. This is because we accept that vision is just a continuum and that “normal” people can benefit from the intervention of glasses, but there is a tendency not to accept that mental qualities also are on a continuum (or a bunch of continuums) and that a large chunk of “normal” people can nonetheless benefit from some interventions.

    2. Yes. I’ve mentioned before how religion always has to be assessed in context. If a community of peers believes something and reinforces it among themselves, then elements which might otherwise be classified as ‘mental illness’ have become the norm. Someone who hears voices may be schizophrenic — but that’s less likely if they’ve joined one of those New Age groups which teach about “listening to your guardian angels” or whatever.

    3. My own experience with a continuum of conditions was with epilepsy. I probably had it all my life, but had a seizure threshold that was high enough that it escaped detection. Then, at age 38, I was prescribed Wellbutrin for depression. It was prescribed for me because it was one of the few antidepressants that did not have weight gain and sexual dysfunction as side effects. I was not aware at the time that bupropion (which Wellbutrin is the brand name for) also carries an increase in risk for epileptic seizures. As it turns out, it probably would not have done any good for me to know that, since I was unaware that I was at risk. Since this was only six years after the drug was introduced, this side effect may not have been known yet.

      After several years of having mysterious episodes which I did not recognize as seizures, I finally got properly diagnosed and treated. After eight years, my doctor withdrew my antiseizure medications and had me tested. The results showed that the epilepsy was in remission. I have been seizure-free for fifteen years and off the meds for seven. But during the years before that, I experienced a continuum of symptoms that escalated from dizziness to blackouts to memory loss and, finally, convulsions.

      Religious mania can be experienced at many different levels from Christmas-and-Easter observance to Kim Davis/Mike Huckabee batshit crazy. Unlike conditions such as depression or epilepsy, there’s no pill for it – people just have to get over it.

  4. Sarah Palin would be the perfect spokesperson to spearhead the idea of the “critically thinking impaired”, or would that be “challenged”, as a group that can’t be ridiculed.

  5. Religion is closer to an infection, like a virus, than a mental illness. The person so infected is, perhaps in some sense, ill, but not because their brain is malfunctioning. Quite the contrary. A normally functioning human brain has biases and flaws that are a fertile environment for religion, just as a normally functioning human body is a fertile environment for certain infectious agents. The flaws that enable infections/religion are more or less universal.

  6. The tactical manifestation of hyper-sensitivity in religion is what I’ve called the Little People Argument: people who believe in God can’t handle the truth, don’t care about the truth, and shouldn’t be reasoned with. They’re too weak and needy to stand without a crutch, too simple and child-like to follow a rational argument. Atheists are taking away their blankie. No criticism allowed. Go away.

    Followed swiftly by claims that atheists deny the obvious due to our weakness of character, of course.

  7. It’s an interesting conundrum.

    The end result is no different from a garden variety complete and total break with reality. Just take the typical religious position and replace the names and only the names with made-up ones; anybody professing sincere belief in the one with the made-up names would obviously be a stereotypical Hollywood schizophrenic nutjob. “Let me get this straight: you talk with Susej all the time and do whatever he tells you to do? And you can tell him to do the impossible for you, and he will? And he lived and died a couple thousand years ago in the ancient Emorian empire but today is with his father in Nevaeh? And he’s going to return real soon and destroy the world when he arrives?”

    But this psychosis is very common, and it’s induced through intense and pervasive indoctrination (rather than resulting from genetic predisposition or environmental trauma).

    From a practical perspective, there’s just no way to classify it as mental illness. We don’t have the resources to even pretend to treat it as such.

    But from a rhetorical perspective, I think it’s well worth pointing out to people that their religious beliefs are, indeed, every bit as crazy as those of the homeless mumbling person whom they rushed by on their way to work this morning. For at least some, that’s all the treatment they’ll need to make a full recovery.


    1. Part of what makes delusions in the technical sense (from what I understand) is the effect on functioning. Having a well-defined social system is part of that; that’s why the homeless guy is delusional (perhaps), because his own particular gods or demons are not believed in by the society aroudn him. This is one reason why mild believers in some sense “promote” the more extreme sorts, by being a cover for their analogous false beliefs.

  8. How is maintaining religious belief any different than adoring some talentless pop star in spandex? Apart from the transcendental expectations, possibly none.

    People claim, for example, that a language or cuisine or beer is better than another country’s language, cuisine, or beer. They will die fighting for their art, music, or democracy. Is that a mental illness? Hard to say. But fighting for things that are real and appear to matter, like socially agreed upon political and economic institutions is not at all the same as fighting for a supernatural non-entity.

    Delusion is much like a mental illness. At the very least, it is differentiable to lionizing a favorite fictional character, like Katniss or Bilbo or Hamlet versus thinking those characters are or were real. And the next time you meet someone who claims to have a relationship with Pete the Dragon there are steps you should take to find that person proper care. So it is with those who talk to the bearded man at night…

    1. How is maintaining religious belief any different than adoring some talentless pop star in spandex? Apart from the transcendental expectations, possibly none.

      Pop star adoration is not typically associated with demands that children be taught that the Earth is younger than some ziggurats, nor with the defenstration of homosexuals.


  9. A stupidly dangerous idea since just by numbers they could label those who donot or cannot believe as the mentally ill ones. We are in the minority and it seems that by sheer numbers we would be in the wrong should they decide to move against us. Remember than dictatorships like to do that trick too. Even back during the open Black slavery they were coming up with mental illness reasons why the Black slave wanted to run away from a “better” life.

    I’m for building bridges and making allies, not turning them all into enemies.

    1. Well said. Soviet psychiatrists were rather well-known for diagnosing as mentally ill those who were unable to accept the tenets of Marxism-Leninism (some of whom were ‘religious’). And are we really going to say that Dante, Giotto, Rafael, Rembrandt, Milton, Bach, Beethoven et al, et al, were all of them mentally ill? I really think that disagreement with the proposition should be rather more than ‘tentative’. It is a dangerous proposition.

      1. Then there’s the fact that proposing something like this means a well reasoned argument that changes one’s mind is a cure for mental illness. Once that’s on the table, it gives more fodder to those who claim diseases like depression should be curable simply by willing it. As I said before, I don’t think I was mentally ill a decade ago; I was misinformed and indoctrinated as a child.

  10. And having suffered from, shall we say, mild melancholia myself, and, more particularly, having been close to people who have suffered from very serious depression as well as one person with schizophrenia, I really find the suggestion that religious belief is a mental illness repugnant. It is not an argument that Lewis Wolpert would have made – he wrote a very well-received book on depression (from which he himself suffered badly)and who also said that religion helped his son, who was unwell mentally, towards some mental stability,  

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