FAITH - A PSYCHOLOGICAL DISORDER? by
POSTED: 13 July 2001
Millions around the world profess a faith in religion or believe in mystical forces, realms, and beings beyond our comprehension. Skeptics and atheists, who turn toward a science that fails to explain the metaphysical, oppose faith or belief in such unscientific ideas. Even with the widespread dissemination of scientific knowledge and technological advancement, people still turn toward the supernatural to explain what they cannot understand. Stealth aircraft become reverse-engineered extraterrestrial spacecraft. Mediums are more popular than ever as millions turn to them for advice, predictions, and to contact deceased loved ones. Christian faith healers are still packing auditoriums. Most people follow some type of faith-based religion. There are even those who lobby to include creationism in science classes. Even though many popular mystical beliefs have been thoroughly exposed as fraud or misunderstood natural phenomenon, even exposed as pure myth, believers continue to cling to speculative hypothesis. Why? And does it really matter what people believe? Is faith in the unknown a harmful thing?
In the news this week, two professors, Charlie Wynn and Arthur W. Wiggins, authors of the book Quantum Leaps In The Wrong Direction, have made a controversial claim that the belief in mystical forces can impede oneís ability to think rationally, particularly when it comes to making important life decisions. After examining popular beliefs such as ESP, astrology, out-of-body experiences, and UFOs, Wynn and Wiggins explain that such beliefs do not hold up to scientific scrutiny. Furthermore, they conclude that faith in the unknown or a lack of skepticism leads people to risk their wallets and even their lives. For example, one may choose alternative treatment by seeking out a psychic "surgeon" instead of accepting standard medical treatment, even if they have a life-threatening health condition. Also, many are snared by phony mediums and psychics who charge a high price for their services only to deceive the gullible with staged illusions, cold-reading tactics, or outright lies. Alex Chiu, a Chinese-American who sells magnetic "eternal-life" rings from his Internet home page, is apparently making a decent living off his large cult following of people who have purchased his plastic rings for $25 a pair in hopes of escaping inevitable death.
Despite outlandish claims such as eternal life from a plastic ring, or the exposure of fraudulent mediums and faith healers, many believers have been found to reject obvious explanations in favour of enticing mystical ones. Such behaviour has been described as an alleged cognitive disorder known as true-believer syndrome. M. Lamar Keene, who coined the term, discovered that many believers uphold their beliefs despite having them thoroughly and clearly exposed. In an irreverent quote from newspaperman, book reviewer, and political commentator H. L. Mencken, he observes: "Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable. A man full of faith is simply one who has lost (or never had) the capacity for clear and realistic thought. He is not a mere ass; he is actually ill." But does faith in God or a belief in the paranormal, despite all contrary evidence, really mean that people have a psychological disorder? Does speculation or an open-minded approach to mysterious phenomenon make one irrational and gullible?
The Skepticís Dictionary entry on true-believer syndrome explores this "disorder" further, citing research conducted by Eric Hoffer, author of "The True Believer", who suggests that those who cling to untrue beliefs are simply suffering from a case of insecurity or a desire to "free themselves from the burden of freedom." A holy quest or divine support for ones actions or beliefs can turn insecurity into religious zeal. Also, it is often easier to be told what to do rather than make up one's own mind and take responsibility for the consequences of defining their own morality. Instead of accepting the responsibility for making poor decisions, it is easier to blame the outcome on curses, satanic attacks, or superstitions. Wishful thinking was also cited as a probable cause for stubborn belief in obvious fakery. Fear is another factor that may contribute to a seemingly irrational belief in things that defy science. The perceived consequences for rejecting religious claims such as creationism or a global flood can lead one to uphold such beliefs despite obvious scientific evidence refuting them.
Wynn and Wiggins blame the lack of scientific education and the proliferation of paranormal themes in the media for a blurred line between fact and fantasy. There is far more speculative literature and tabloid propaganda than there is objective, scientific analysis.
While belief in spirits or alien spacecraft may seem irrational to some, for the most part, they rarely have a significant interference with oneís life or ability to be successful members of society. The common dangers of faith or belief in the unknown occurs when one falls victim to phony mediums or psychics which charge money to remove curses; or who unknowingly fall for the staged illusion of psychic surgery; or those who cannot recognize cold reading; or those who give money to TV preachers in exchange for a promise of Godís blessing in return.
Those who speak against religious faith caution that events such as the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem Witch Trials could occur again. In fact, irrationalism has claimed the lives of hundreds of accused "witches" in Africa over the past few weeks (Full Story). Religious and UFO cults have made headline news in the past after committing mass suicides. And there is the case of a New Age therapist who killed a 10-year-old girl by forcing a New Age "rebirthing" ritual where she was wrapped in blankets and eventually suffocated instead of experiencing rebirth (Full Story).
Religious faith or a belief in the supernatural despite contrary evidence may appear to be benign on it's own. Mixed with fear, a desire for power, or prejudices, faith can be a dangerous motivating force for doing harm to oneself or others.