Religion: Private Matter or Public Policy?

Steve Davidson

Hair-raising media images and stories of nth-degree violence in the name of religion raise the question: Are these people mentally ill? Common sense suggests the answer is “Yes.” But a thorough search of the diagnostic manual of mental disorders shows that the manual is vague in supplying a definitive, official determination.

“Personality Disorder/Explosive Type” has possibilities. “Undersocialized Conduct Disturbance/Aggressive Type” beckons. “Dissociative Hysteria” seems to ring bells. “Fanatic Personality” or “Personality Disorder/Paranoid Type” would seem to be in the ballpark. Then of course there are the old standbys: “delusions of grandeur” and “megalomania.”

But, perhaps surprisingly, there is no actual diagnosis of “religious extremism/aggressive type,” defined as something similar to “devotion to a system of beliefs for which there is no credible evidence, accompanied by violence visited upon anyone who questions or does not abide by that system of beliefs, supported by a presumption of superiority and consequent entitlement, which results in a toxic loss of empathy.”

Now under normal circumstances, a judge doesn’t have too much difficulty in hospitalizing someone who, for example, empties an office building at gunpoint while screaming “There are devils in the elevator.” Such a person would be considered a “danger to self and others due to a delusion.” But there is no way mental-health officials are going to go to the Middle East (or anywhere else) with clipboards and mental-status exams and start hospitalizing everyone who is violent on the basis of vast systems of unverifiable beliefs. It would take a hospital the size of the lost continent of Atlantis and more drugs than could be supplied by even the most ambitious and well-organized street cartel. And then the United Nations would complain.

None of that is necessary, though. The issue can be massively simplified.

Here’s the thing. A lot of people draw tremendous solace from belief systems that are, well, tenuously tethered to tangible reality. There’s usually a core book that adherents turn to in times of trouble. It’s full of stories and poems, reminders and aphorisms. It offers a lot of guidance to living, and it’s beautifully written. There are often group meetings with some kind of authorized leader that allow people to share problems, hear words of advice, gain encouragement, and generally draw support from the fellowship. The formal meetings are usually held in gorgeous, imposing buildings that the adherents have paid for themselves, frequently with great difficulty. They may have their own special rules—clothes they wear, things they particularly say and don’t say/do and don’t do, and special times of rest. Religious involvement such as this makes people feel good. Who’s to complain?

The problem comes in when people decide that these rules they have arrived at don’t just apply to them but to everyone else as well. And then they decide that they will enforce the rules with violence, perhaps with extreme violence! Needless to say, now there’s trouble. Now there’s violent social and political conflict—and it’s going on all over the world—because a line has been crossed between pure faith, solace, and mutual acceptance on one side and totalitarian social control on the other. A line has been crossed between personal belief and political extremism. These conflicts always come down to beliefs that don’t have a concrete referent, that can’t be proven. It’s like the eternal conflicts over which is better—Chevy or Ford? The Red Sox or the Yankees? There are no disagreements more passionate than the ones that rest, ultimately, on personal preferences.

So what is the public, caught in the middle of all this, to do? How is the public—which to some extent doesn’t care either way—to resolve all this? Here is one way. Adopt the following rule: If a person merely wants to pursue a personal religious belief and it doesn’t hurt anyone, the person is free to do so and no one has the right to interfere. Purely personal belief is okay. However, if a person wants to cross the line over into extremism and impose religious beliefs on other people as a matter of public policy, that person doesn’t have that right and certainly doesn’t have the right to violently impose those beliefs. Extremism is not okay.

Above and beyond all this, in religious extremism as well as in hospitalizing violent, delusional people, the reality is that such people are often desperate for validation, support, respect, and, often, money to live on. So, another approach for the public, in addition to the rule above, is to pursue the social and economic root of the matter. Ask whether these people are hurting in some way. Do they have some kind of case? Should they be listened to and their situation assessed? And ultimately—do they need help? Social problems often underlie religious extremism; it often is a last, desperate resort of the lonely and lost, the poor and ignored.

So, all this gives the public a way to structure this worldwide issue: (1) Religious extremism may be a form of mental illness, even if it doesn’t have a perfectly fitting diagnostic label, and that reasonable possibility ought to give everyone pause. (2) Passion and drama in beliefs don’t make those beliefs either true or practical. (3) As a general rule, the public might want to base public policy on manifestly fair and useful principles—say, social justice and rationality—rather than on premises that favor special groups on the basis of beliefs that have no concrete referent. (4) The public, in addition, with a compassionate, analytic touch might want to make an effort to penetrate to the source of the extremism and see if the people with violently held religious beliefs are in need of some kind of understanding and assistance, whereby they can transition toward a more calm, mutually beneficial, prosperous, and healthful way of living.

Steve Davidson

Steve Davidson, PhD, is a psychologist practicing in Newport Beach, California. He has initiated continuing education programs, taught at the university level, and helped establish the San Bernadino Mental Health Court.


Religious extremists are crazy, right? Not so fast.

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