Is Belief in God a Delusion?

Summary: A new study examines the relationship, and differences, between religion and delusion.

Source: The Conversation

As the pandemic raged in April, churchgoers in Ohio defied warnings not to congregate. Some argued that their religion conferred them immunity from COVID-19. In one memorable CNN clip, a woman insisted she would not catch the virus because she was “covered in Jesus’ blood”.

Some weeks later, the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker commented on the dangers of evangelical religious belief in the coronavirus era. Writing on Facebook, he said: “Belief in an afterlife is a malignant delusion, since it devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them longer, safer, and happier.”

Credit: Now This

Pinker, of course, is not the first to connect – or equate – religion with delusion. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is probably the most famous contemporary proponent of this view, which has intellectual roots dating back at least to political theorist Karl Marx and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins argued that religious faith is “persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence”, and thus delusional.

Was Dawkins right? Many have critiqued his arguments on philosophical and theological grounds. But the relationship between his thesis and the dominant psychiatric conception of delusion is less often considered:

Delusion: A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly held despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture (i.e., it is not an article of religious faith).

This definition is from the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” – often referred to as the “bible” of psychiatry. The definition is well known but controversial, and those who think belief in God is delusional may take issue with the final clause. Dawkins, for his part, approvingly quoted the writer Robert M Pirsig’s observation that “when one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion”.

So, is the distinction between insanity and religion a mere semantic quibble? In a new paper, we review research that examines relationships – and distinctions – between religion and delusion.

Penis theft and pathology

The APA’s definition of delusion excludes beliefs that are widely accepted. This drives a seemingly arbitrary wedge between isolated cases of obviously pathological belief and cases where beliefs with the same content have cultural support.

Consider the case of an Australian man who believed his penis had been stolen and replaced with someone else’s. The man had cut his penis and poured boiling water on it, and was surprised that these acts were painful. This is a clear case of delusion, as the belief is false, and this kind of belief is virtually unheard of in Australia.

But beliefs in genital theft do have some cultural acceptance in other parts of the world. Indeed, epidemics of such beliefs – so-called “penis panics” – have been documented in various countries. Should a belief cease to be a delusion once widely adopted? That’s what the APA’s definition of delusion seems to imply.

And this focus on shared belief appears to have other surprising implications. For example, while the APA’s definition of delusion may exclude followers of popular religions, the founders of those same religions may not get a pass until they attract a community of followers, at which point the subculture exemption comes into effect.

Culture and clinical judgement

So there are certainly controversial consequences of judging a belief by its popularity. But we argue that the APA’s clause about culture is clinically valuable. After all, a definition of delusion that pathologizes most of the world’s people would be clinically worthless.

Careful attention to cultural judgements can help clinicians distinguish beliefs that require psychiatric treatment from those that do not. Consider a young Bengali woman’s belief that her husband had been possessed by an invisible spiritual creature called a jinn. Beliefs about jinn possession are widespread in some Muslim communities. In this case, the treating psychiatrists (in Australia) were aided by a Muslim Bengali caseworker who advised about cultural factors impacting the patient’s presentation.

In addition, the APA’s emphasis on cultural acceptance is consistent with a growing awareness of the social function of beliefs. Through our beliefs we do not just model the world around us – we mould it to our purposes. Our beliefs mark us out as members of certain social groups, helping us to secure trust and cooperation.

This shows a man praying
Can a belief be delusional when it promotes social cohesion? Image is in the public domain

Indeed, steadfast endorsement of some clearly false propositions – such as the claim that the crowd which attended the 2017 presidential inauguration of Donald Trump was the largest in US history – may be equivalent to ritual body piercing or firewalking: a signal of group commitment that is credible to others precisely because it is hard to sustain.

Community and continuity

In the case of religious beliefs, there is typically a social payoff to these mental contortions – a range of evidence supports the role of religion in social bonding. But the prevailing psychiatric view is that delusions are idiosyncratic, alienating and stigmatising, representing a dysfunction in the ability to negotiate social alliances.

So what distinguishes healthy religious beliefs – and perhaps beliefs in conspiracy theories – from delusions may be partly a matter of whether or not the belief strengthens community bonds. If sustaining a belief impairs your daily functioning and disrupts your social relationships, then your belief is more likely to count as a delusion.

Nevertheless, distinctions between healthy and pathological religious beliefs are unlikely to be sharp. Instead, the emerging picture is of continuity between religious cognition and cognition associated with mental disorders.

Our aim here is neither to demonise, nor to defend, religious belief. While religion is a source of solace and comfort for millions, particular religious beliefs can be “malignant” in Pinker’s sense – devaluing and damaging mortal lives. And, unfortunately, malignant beliefs that are shared by the many are far more dangerous than those shared by the few.


Ryan McKay receives funding from the Cogito Foundation, the British Academy and the John Templeton Foundation.

Robert Ross receives funding from the John Templeton Foundation and the Australian Research Council.

About this neurotheology and mental health research news

Source: The Conversation
Contact: Ryan McKay and Robert Ross – The Conversation
Image: The image is in the public domain

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.
  1. As reality at the deepest level is unknown everybody is living in his make believe world. Those who have commonality become a group that proclaims a faith. Then the umpteen groups and their pleasant and unpleasant rivalries. All isms are human creations. Once you belong to capitalism you cannot stand communism and of course you have brilliant reasons for faith. In the same space we decry economic inequality! Simple faith in love, giving and altruism are suspect as nothing can go against selfish gene! Fortunately a gene with altruism is declared recently but we have to watch its fate! In the final analysis one man’s illusion is another man’s delusion.

  2. The real issue is not with a particular religion or a philosophy, or if there is a god, but is directly connected to the word “Belief.” A belief is a static mindset that has crossed the boundary of the tenets of a system such as a religion or philosophy that offers guidance to living one’s life, into the realm of the incontrovertible, an absolute, closing the mind and heart to possibilities. A “belief” that cannot be questioned and must be “obeyed” allows no room for inner growth. Belief is different than faith. Faith is complete trust or confidence in oneself or the process of living and growing, that gives one the strength and courage to move forward through adversity and the challenges in life. If all one has to fall back on is belief it’s like trying to carve granite with a toothpick, and the result is the soul atrophies.

  3. I am a Psychiatrist and totally convinced all religion is fundamentally based on delusion initially but also satisfied that that many people are subsequently drawn into it by social and cultural influences rather personal insanity. I am an Atheist but I recently married a Catholic woman in her church because that was her wish. The priest got me an exemption for “never having been baptised”.

  4. Belief in GD is not the issue, the question is how emotionally intelligent are the people with faith, because if they truly had faith would they not wear a mask for the sake of the other?
    true love is doing for others. Many use GD faith too escape, hide behind, feel righteous yet when tested defy that which scripture say’s like, render unto Cesar that which is Cesar’s, the social laws. If they won’t keep that how can they keep that which is for GD, grace. GD is not corporeal, more like that which emits creating the orchestra of the tangible reality. Just a thought.

  5. For Children in their sensorimotor stage, out of sight is out of mind, for real. Show a young child an object and then hide it. The child responds as if the object never existed.

    How many times he showed his presence on earth?

  6. If an evidenced based empiricist, then one can not escape the argument that delusions are learned and/or inherited; and thus, in both cases a delusion, at it’s inception, must have been formed from some form of tangible thing / evidence / experience / heritable DNA sequence.

    As such, by definition, and as fallacious is the occam’s razor of the modes ponens of this argument as is the article, a delusion must be based on evidence- and thus reality based.

    Moreover, the levels of explanation can not always be bidirectional. For instance, the existence of a microscope and observer does not depend on the cellular function under study. But the cellar fiction under microscope exists because of the microscope and observer.

    Though, followers of Biologos and religious scientists believe that inner workings of God (i.e., cellular function) are proof of existence of God.

    In either case, just because there are religious wars or people who use religion to slack off on keeping Covid safety protocol, does not support the corollary that religious beliefs is a delusion or that delusions have no empirical basis!
    Happy New Year!

  7. Since delusion requires “what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary”, then religious belief is not a delusion: there is not any proof of the inexistence of God.

    Moreover, this seems to me another article that fails to follow the scientific method and the rational approach that the authors claim to be so proud of.

    Indeed, there are several points that should be made, and that event some comments do not see. What follow constitutes some of those points:
    – religion, as science, is a matter of Truth. However, moving far beyond science, religion defines also what is ultimately Right and Good, while science can simply tell us what is good for reaching some objective that we have decided;

    – being a matter of Truth, we cannot decide if religion is good or not based on its social consequences. Otherwise, we would consider the matter from the wrong perspective, that is, the perspective of the creatures, and not the perspective of the Creator;

    – being a matter of Truth, we should not decide by ourselves what religion is true or false. We should, instead, study every single bit of every single religion and put it to trial, as John Locke put it. For instance, about Catholicism (I am a catholic), we should study and analyse the Gospels, the biographies of every Saint – how many people have read them? –, the Holy Shroud (the scientists that supposedly showed it was a false have hidden their results for more than 30 years: when they released them some years ago, other authors found severe errors in the datation. So much for the scientific method!), the miracles, the exorcisms – how many people have assisted to real exorcisms or have talked to real exorcisms? See the movie “The Rite” or read the book “The Making of a Modern Exorcist”, or the books from Father Gabriele Amorth if you want to deepen this theme – etc., and not relying on simple believers or even simple priests. Unfortunately, many believers and even priests lack important knowledge about their own religion and even misunderstand it. The reason? They are humans, as scientists are;

    – therefore, we should discriminate between religion and believers, in the same way we discriminate between science and scientists. For example, the claim that Covid could not infect us because of God’s protection, according to Catholicism, is almost blasphemy, since it is like tempting God (it does not differ from how Satan tempted Jesus in the desert). In the same way, regarding a comment, Jesus never said to kill others for him: on the contrary, he said to be ready to die for others. So, when a catholic fosters war, it is not Catholicism to blame, but that single person – in fact, even science could be said to foster intolerance when some knowledge becomes dogma. Nonetheless, this is not true for every religion, since some religions explicity say to kill those who not believe;

    – lastly, many times, when evaluating religious matters, we take indeed the wrong perspective, that is, ours and not the one of God. For instance, when talking about miracles, we always seek grandiose events: sure they are miracles, but the most important miracle is conversion, because conversion is what brings people near Salvation. In the same way, prayer does not need to heal the body to be effective: it has to lead to conversion. Conversion, and not health, brings to Salvation. Nevertheless, in Catholicism and other religions it is essential to relieve others’ suffering: for instance, Saint Pio from Pietrelcina devoted himself to the construction of one of the greatest hospital in all Europe, “Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza” (tr. “House for Relieving Suffering”). Not helping someone in need or not improving the health or life of someone whenever is possible constitutes a sin in Catholicism. On the other side, it would be normal for catholics to sacrifice their life or health for others, as Jesus and the Saints did. So, again, should catholics have a worse health than atheists, that would indeed be due religion, but it would not be a problem.

    Of course, in the end, we could ever reach the proof of God’s existence, otherwise we would not need faith. But as science is not entirely rational – many axioms or principles are a matter of pure and simple faith –, so religion is not entirely faith.

    Unfortunately, when talking about science and something goes wrong, scientists are bad and not science; when talking about religion and something goes wrong, religion is bad and not the believers. But this isn’t rational at all.

    Moreover, whereas science does not oblige us in the moral realm, religion does, and for us it is very difficult to bow our freedom to Truth, although as scientists, philosophers or believers we are called to do precisely that. Maybe that’s why we are not rational when we come to religion.

    Jesus may bless you all for the good deeds you do.

  8. I’m not a scientist or a psychiatrist, but I have an obstinate and deep-seated belief that the growing pandemic of animal worship is pathological. There’s nothing sick about feeling empathy for the lot of animals, nor wanting to help them and prevent them from harm. But when I see photos of people putting their lips against the lips of a dog or cat, or letting them sleep in their beds, I can’t help thinking “Something is rotten in Denmark,” Denmark being the DSM for not calling this out as a mental disorder. But apparently the world has been brainwashed by the multi-billion dollar pet industry to the point where people who don’t want animals in their lives are seen as crazed monsters who are not even human.

  9. What is the difference between holding a belief in supersensible worlds and actual experience of them? Beliefs create problems because they influence our sensory perceptual experience and often cause us to make false assumptions. Experience of the spiritual worlds is not based on belief. In fact, quite the opposite. You have to work hard to shed your belief systems. In this context then, I would agree that, yes, the belief in God is a delusion. You cannot have a taste of anything remotely associated with ‘God’ if you hold distorted beliefs; purification of the mind is one of the rudimentary steps. But hey, don’t believe me, experience it for yourself.

  10. The same argument could be made about SJW and how they are delusional and how they react to conflict and confrontation. Or their reaction when they are confronted with facts or feel they have been attacked for thier beliefs. It can be argued that they were created by the same people who criticize organized religions, economics and political systems in search of a Utopian society that they endorse, while failing to practice what they preach. Just saying how these studies attack one aspect of life while shielding another if it challenges the narrative.

  11. The definition of any word can change to meet any other meaning, words can and have changed meanings over the years. In fact the grammar that we use is only 100 years old, and more than likely our language won’t even be recognizable in another 50 years.

    Also, Religious belief is actually pretty stereotypical brainwashing. Partly genetic in that people that believe in religion tend to see complex patterns at an early age. Many of the patterns may not exist to be real patterns but made up in their head. Showing people patterns of images is one way to condition them and brainwash them. Partly I would think they would also be dopamine addicts. Getting themselves high on christ with a placebo effect. because the brain can do many many things. Christians also tend to get less sleep, more than likely because of bad microbes caused by the chronic stress of religion, and people that get less sleep tend to hallucinate.

  12. This article is honestly the most appalling research article I have ever read. I see this in no way credible scientific research just because “Pinko” believes religion is dangerous. I think Pinko should keep his opinions to himself, as he can’t speak from experience, since it is quite evident he is non-religious. Religion and the existence of God occur on the supernatural level, and thus, cannot be confirmed or denied by science, which occurs on the natural level. Nice try Satan.

  13. It takes more “faith” to NOT believe in God than it does to believe that everything came from nothing. As the great atheist turned Christian, Dr. C.S. Lewis once wrote: “Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning…”

  14. Yes. Religion IS a delusion. There is absolutely NO evidence to support the belief. This is entirely separate from whether or not it fosters social cohesiveness. So does ‘communism’, ‘fascism’ and ‘racism’.
    But ALL of these also foster intolerance — think of all the religions wars fought, all the was that politics has caused, all the deaths that racism has caused.

Comments are closed.