I am an atheist. As a fairly open and active atheist, I am exposed to a lot of arguments for, against, and about religion. There is one particular idea that crops up in these arguments rather frequently that disturbs me, and unfortunately it comes from my own group.
My fellow atheists, I would like to talk to you about “crazy”.
The word crazy is a fairly common descriptor for just about anything a particular individual disagrees with or finds incomprehensible. In the case of atheism, that would be religion, and there are two main ways I have seen religion and religious people described as crazy. The first is a plain comparison between religious beliefs and mental illness, for example readers may be familiar with “The God Delusion”, and the other is more mindless: the speaker is simply accustomed to declaring things they don’t agree with to be “crazy” (which, again, is fairly common). There are a number of things that are seriously wrong with this, and I am going to try to go through them in the order in which I think readers will care.
1) You sound like an idiot.
This is especially the case when you use “crazy” as an ad hominem attack, calling a religious person crazy rather than a religious idea. When you describe anything as “crazy” what you are really saying is that you don’t have any legitimate arguments against it (this is always the case with ad hominem, so I’m just going to assume we’re calling ideas crazy from here on). In a debate, you are signaling to your opponent that they have won, because you have nothing left to say. “Crazy” is a cop-out here: it gives no information about what is wrong with the idea or doctrine in question. Which is sad because many of the things I’ve seen described as “crazy” are actually serious problems—religiously motivated bigotry and terrorism, pro-life ideology, views of women and sexuality, etc.—that should be criticized for the things that are actually wrong with them. I realize that there is no short hand way to talk about the problems with many of these issues, but in my mind that merely underlines the importance of those issues (and in any case, I am vehemently against arguments that can fit on a bumper sticker). If you are going to criticize an idea, doctrine, or even a person, do so, but you have to actually criticize it. “Crazy” is lazy.*
*that rhyme was entirely unintentional, I’m sorry.
2) You are misinterpreting both your opponent and “crazy”.
If a person decides that god has commanded them to blow themselves up and take a building full of people with them, that person is probably not crazy. If a person believes that homosexuality is evil and that women are subservient to men because a religious text says so, that person is probably not crazy. The vast majority of religious people, whether or not they subscribe to any of the fucked up ideas I have mentioned so far, are perfectly sane. And if you are going to argue against religious doctrines or ideas, you need to acknowledge that. When you call a religious person or idea “crazy”, you are dismissing them without really considering the full impact of the ideology. These ideas have been thought through, reinforced within communities, and endlessly justified; they are not the result of mental imbalance or impairment and they need to be taken 100% seriously if they are to be combated, something you are not doing if you believe them to be “crazy”.
Let’s look at a real, medical definition of mental illness. Mental illness is “Any of various conditions characterized by impairment of an individual’s normal cognitive, emotional, or behavioral functioning, and caused by social, psychological, biochemical, genetic, or other factors…” (American Heritage Dictionary) The “impairment of functioning” part is the most important. Unfortunately, the perception of mental illness in the general population is that crazy people are violent or malicious, when in reality someone with a mental illness is more of a danger to themselves than anyone else. Someone with a mental illness may have difficulty with relationships, coping with stress, holding down a job, or basic self-care practices. While most of the screwed-up ideas that are given religious justification are problematic in society, “crazy” is personal impairment that needs to be dealt with individually. It is true that people can experience significant amounts of distress in relation to some religious doctrines, which could then qualify as mental illness of some sort, that does not make the doctrine itself “crazy”, only that specific experience of it. The way that we deal with societal issues is very different from the way that someone would deal with a mental illness.
Calling a religious person or idea “crazy” shows a misunderstanding of the vast gulfs of difference between these two things, and that limits your ability to affectively deal with the doctrines that are actually problematic.
2.5) Religion is not schizophrenia.
I see this specific comparison often enough to give it its own section. This seriously underlines the lack of understanding and general knowledge about mental illness. The main reason for this is the miscasting of a religious idea or experience as a “delusion” or “hallucination”. First of all, ecstatic experiences can be fairly easily induced in people who have no mental illness at all, so we do not need to posit a “crazy” explanation for religious experiences. Secondly, belief in god is non-falsifiable (look it up if that term is unfamiliar to you), most delusions are blatantly and obviously false. In fact, from the little reading I have done * people with schizophrenia can often distinguish between their delusions and there bona-fide religious or spiritual beliefs. Also, delusions and hallucinations do not necessarily have to be distressing; I have heard of people with fairly benign delusions (believing that your record player affects the weather is not going to have a huge impairment on your day-to-day functioning—this example comes from a friend who spent some time in a psych ward and keeps in contact with some of the people he met there), and I have even heard of people with schizophrenia missing their hallucinations after they begin treatment (many mental illnesses are, after all, just coping mechanisms that have gone horribly wrong).
People are not brought up with a delusional belief, one is not raised to experience hallucinations. Once again we see that religion is a social phenomenon, while the mental illness it is compared to is personal. I encourage readers to do a little basic research on schizophrenia and other mental illnesses to better understand the vast gulfs of difference between them and ideas that are simply incorrect or screwed up.
*I would like to stress very strongly at this point that I am not an expert in mental illness, I just read a lot of literature and blogs on the subject matter. Take that as you will.
3) You are reinforcing the stigmatization of mental illness.
When you say that a particular thing is crazy, what you are really trying to express is that you don’t like it. You are expressing your distaste by making a comparison to something else already considered negative. It is a shorthand, and a fairly lazy one at that. So saying “religion is crazy” is actually saying is “I take issue with religion and so I am going to equate it with this other thing that is stigmatized”. It is exploiting the existing negative connotations given to mental illness in order to attack something totally unrelated.
The purpose behind fighting screwed up religiously motivated ideas and doctrines is to make people change their minds, religious beliefs are something that is chosen. But mental illness is not chosen and can only be changed with a lot of work on the part of the individual (and an amount of outside support and possibly the aid of medication). To equate mental illness with the chosen doctrines that you take issue with is to reinforce the idea that people with mental illnesses are dangerous and/or malicious. In order to call anything you don’t like or agree with “crazy” you have to endorse the idea that crazy people are bad, and so does the person whose ideas you are calling crazy, resulting in a double reinforcement of the stigma when that person reacts negatively.
Mental illness should be responded to with empathy and support, not censure, an effort you are unknowingly undermining whenever you refer to something you don’t like as “crazy”.
Even if you don’t care about any of that, and I realize that unfortunately many people will not, the use of “crazy” is not useful in a criticism of anything. Just stop using it this way; it’s doing the opposite of helping in so many different directions it’s not even funny.