Neuroscientist: Fundamentalism As Mental Illness

A HuffPo article from yesterday (Friday, May 31) says:

Kathleen Taylor, Neuroscientist, Says Religious Fundamentalism Could Be Treated As A Mental Illness

An Oxford University researcher and author specializing in neuroscience has suggested that one day religious fundamentalism may be treated as a curable mental illness.

Kathleen Taylor, who describes herself as a “science writer affiliated to the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics,” made the suggestion during a presentation on brain research at the Hay Literary Festival in Wales on Wednesday.

In response to a question about the future of neuroscience, Taylor said that “One of the surprises may be to see people with certain beliefs as people who can be treated,” The Times of London notes.

“Someone who has for example become radicalised to a cult ideology — we might stop seeing that as a personal choice that they have chosen as a result of pure free will and may start treating it as some kind of mental disturbance,” Taylor said. “In many ways it could be a very positive thing because there are no doubt beliefs in our society that do a heck of a lot of damage.”

Though in this story she’s quoted as saying she’s not speaking of “obvious candidates” such as radical Islam, another story on the subject is titled Science ‘may one day cure Islamic radicals’.

Muslim fundamentalism may one day be seen in the same way as mental illness is today and be “curable”, according to a leading neuroscientist.

Heh, that’s gonna go over really well in the middle East.

But it’s an idea I’d like to see propagated. I’ve long said I think it’s a shame there’s no category of mental illness named “religious illness” (as far as I know, anyway). I mean, look at some of the more obvious examples in the U.S. — the Phelps clan, Pat Robertson, Ken Ham — some of those people are crazy as hell. I couldn’t say whether it’s that mentally ill people frequently model religious memes, or whether religion drives people bonkers. Either way, it should be addressed, don’t you think?

  • Machintelligence

    I looks like it could be covered by broadening the definition of Delusional Disorder, which might not be as rare as was previously thought.

    • I’ve been re-reading Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World” lately….from the witch hunts, to holy visions, to alien abductions, to “satanic ritual abuse”….and this is without even getting to the nut of widespread fundamentalist beliefs and thinking patterns. The two chapters’ worth of reader response letters he includes are disturbing all on their own.

      That book scares me more than any fictional horror I’ve ever read or watched, but if we don’t face the demons, they never go away.

  • John Jones

    The greatest supernatural threat comes to us not from religion but
    from animism. Neuroscience makes the animistic claim that physical
    objects, like the physical brain, identifies thoughts and illnesses. It
    is thoughts and illnesses, rather, that identify structures of the
    brain, which goes proxy for our cultural hates and likes.

    pathologisation of human nature is made casually here, as it was for homosexuality, and elsewhere in medicine
    also. Any experience that is unacceptable, like grief or the mystical,
    for example, can be
    pathologised and eliminated from the human gene pool. This possibility
    will be promoted by business, just as they have already promoted other “illnesses”.

    looks from here like you are promoting a deeply worrying, physically
    threatening supernaturalism on the basis of a casual preference.

  • Though I am as atheist as one can be, I think it’s still a pretty sticky wicket, trying to decide where the lines are between indoctrination, ignorance, and personal myths vs. fully delusional, active, and dangerous beliefs that latch onto every part of a person’s life and thoughts.

    I think some percentage of people will always(or at least, as far as I can foresee) have unprovable and unnecessary beliefs that they hold onto in the face of unanswerable questions. Maybe if we can identify when those otherwise less-harmful beliefs and cultural norms turn into the cycle of self-affirming delusion that closes the minds of fundamentalists, we could separate the dangerous from the silly. I can’t see treating ALL forms of irrational belief as a mental illness, but when it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle that controls all aspects of one’s life, and controls what thoughts one is allowed to think, well, there are certainly features that resemble some of the established mental illnesses.

    How can we draw that line? What are the real warning signs, how would it be diagnosed? If we go only on the self-professed depth of belief, a lot of harmless old folks who are just afraid of death and who like the myths they were raised on could end up being looked at as just as “crazy” as the guy who thinks his people can’t be free until he blows up as many chrisitians or jews as possible, or the guy who wants to turn America into a theocracy.

    I know the article specified “fundamentalists”, but I think there might be different states of mind or mental processes involved here, other than just being indoctrinated into “fundamentalist” religious beliefs. There is a different mental process going in, IMO, in those who are allowing their beliefs to take over completely, to control their actions and what they will allow themselves to see and hear, and those people are the dangerous ones.