Delusional Beliefs: A Normative Coping Mechanism?
n 1: (psychology) an erroneous belief that is held in the face of evidence to the contrary [syn: psychotic belief] 2: a mistaken or unfounded opinion or idea; “he has delusions of competence”; “his dreams of vast wealth are a hallucination” [syn: hallucination] 3: the act of deluding; deception by creating illusory ideas [syn: illusion, head game]
|Source: WordNet ® 2.0, © 2003 Princeton University|
This pretty much lines up with how psychiatrist Karl Jaspers, MD, defined “delusion” in his seminal book General Psychopathology. Dr. Jaspers gave three main criteria for a belief to be considered delusional:
- Absolute certainty (A belief is held with absolute conviction)
- Incorrigibility (A belief is not changeable by compelling counterargument or proof to the contrary)
- Impossibility or falsity of content (A belief is implausible, bizarre or patently untrue)
Undoubtedly many of you reading this hold fast to specific religious or other beliefs that meet all 3 criteria. To your way of thinking this is a demonstration of faith, a strength that pleases the Almighty. Nothing will sway you from what you hold to be sacred truth. Maybe you fear dire consequences in this life or the next should you deviate from the faith tradition you were inculcated in as a child or embraced later on. You may not even be able to consider the remotest possibility that what you believe about (say) biblical accounts of miracles or specific stories or accounts could be misinformed, misguided, or just plain wrong. As one neo-Pentecostal minister put it, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it”. This appears to be a timeless species of faith down through the millennia of human history.
Many fundamentalist believers and scholars from the major faith traditions engage in the most incredible feats of mental gymnastics to preserve sacred beliefs. Many Christians, for example, believe that their scriptures are inerrant, while abundant evidence exists that their Bible is chocked full of contradictions and is anything but free of error. For example, the book of Genesis alone contains two separate accounts of the creation saga that contradict one another profoundly http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/contra/accounts.html. The same is basically true of the story of Noah and the flood http://www.sullivan-county.com/identity/2cs.htm. But rather than modify their belief system to accommodate logic and fact, they force a fit between religious dogma and contrary evidence (Or just deny the evidence altogether or define or otherwise alter it such that it accord with belief). This imposition of religious dogma or belief on the process and findings of history and science has given the world an incredible array of pseudo-historical and pseudoscientific books, documents, papers and such that, well, help reinforce the delusions of multitudes of “true believers”.
http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jim_meritt/bible-contradictions.html –Contradictions in the Scriptures
http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/contra/by_name.html – Contradictions in the Bible
http://www.nobeliefs.com/DarkBible/darkbible4.htm – Absurdities and troubling entries in the Bible
Mind you, I am not an atheist or an “enemy” of religious beliefs or faith. My family tree is one brimming over with fervent Protestant fundamentalists, southern Baptist deacons, creationists and even charismatic and neo-Pentecostals. My late maternal grandmother, Faye C. Whittle, a rather extraordinary woman who helped aid and encourage my studies in science and medicine, was about as devout a Bible-toting woman as you could hope to meet and fully fundamentalist in her thinking. I did not often challenge her beliefs…..and was especially less inclined to do so as she reached into her eighties and nineties – for reasons I will weave into this essay shortly.
My own quest for “religious truth,” which is to say a faith that is concordant with logic, biblical scholarship, historic fact, and the findings of science led me first to Roman Catholicism, then ultimately to Judaism. Yes, there are some commonly held Jewish beliefs that run contrary to this thrust, but at least there is room for reconciling all this within most Jewish traditions.
Some of you gentle readers are probably having an “ah hah” moment as you read all this. Some will surely be thinking, “Well, if I embrace delusional beliefs, so does he. So does everyone”.
No doubt most of us – even those who are ultra-diligent in their efforts to bring every aspect of their lives into accord with logic, fact and sound reasoning – harbor some belief, conviction or idea that is at the very least unfounded or suspect, but which we resist discarding unless and until contrary fact compels us to. Such a belief or idea may not constitute a full-blown delusion or delusional belief, but it in some respects belongs to the “fraternity”. Psychologists have shown that we all possess cognitive filters that bias what we perceive and believe; mechanisms (if you will) that tend to find patterns in things (often where none exists), discard ideas or facts that contradict cherished beliefs or views, and inflate our own self-perception of being objective. This tendency to be self-deluded and to deceive others has survival value. Deception is part and parcel of nature itself, something documented by field ethnologists and primatologists studying the behavior of chimpanzees and monkeys.
While not immune to delusional beliefs, in my own case precious few (if any) of my core religious beliefs meet Dr. Jasper’s 3 criteria. How so? In a word, I am willing to modify or reinterpret them to gel with logic and compelling scientific and historic fact. My belief in the Almighty, for example, is resolutely entrenched (A delusion according to many skeptic friends) – but my views on His nature, interaction with humankind, activities and such is amenable to modification in light of reason, logic and fact. Actually, this willingness to modify or discard one’s beliefs about anything that is redefined or overturned by new evidence lies at the heart of the scientific method. Without this plank, there would be little scientific progress. And while this process can and does generate evidence and reasoning that wrecks havoc with many beliefs long held to be sacred, this is not something to be feared or resisted. If religion and religious beliefs are to genuinely enable us to zero in on truth, it must necessarily be informed by the scientific method, critical thinking and hard logic. If not this, there is only a retreat into blind faith – this being often a wellspring of irrationality and, in the case of fundamentalism, a path to unhealthy extremes and even monstrous intolerance and bloodshed.
Of course, the mere idea that one has birthed, embraced, nurtured or perpetuated delusional beliefs is, for most of us, something we tend to resist or deny. After all, to be delusional or harbor such thoughts is invites the stigma of being weak or intellectually failed or possibly given to a form of pathology (Disease). And I would readily agree that more extreme expressions do indeed reflect a pathological form of aberration or deviance. Especially forms that are divisive, that create or sustain barriers that marginalize others or foster bias, racism or ethnocentrism, or otherwise diminish our individual or collective human potential for caring for others, extending kindness and aid to strangers, and encouraging a peaceful coexistence that denies justice, opportunity and fairness to no person.
But what of delusional beliefs that do not give rise to or involve these negatives? Many would argue that a delusional belief is always antithetical to fullest personal development or best appreciation of reality, and this is a reasonable contention. However, I tend to view “benign” delusional beliefs as an effective coping mechanism; a way of ably dealing with the pain, vicissitudes and ugly moments in life, as well as being a mental tool for handling the contradictions and seemingly irreconcilable aspects of life. In this sense, I see delusional beliefs as not only a tendency, but a normative coping mechanism.
And in this vein, truly benign delusions can play a useful role when it comes to the genesis or maintenance of our individual and shared (societal) weltanshaung or worldview; the mental constructs of reality we fashion and refine all the days of our lives. They also can have beneficial physiological effects. People who, for example, believe that ultra-diluted homeopathic medicines effect or foster healing despite overwhelming scientific evidence that they do not produce statistically significant results in well designed and executed clinical trials, nonetheless can and sometimes do perceive good things “going on” that in and of itself is encouraging; that may spawn some corresponding benefits such as one would expect when a person stops being anxious and fearful, and adopts a positive frame of mind. There are studies that link this species of faith or belief with reductions in resting blood pressure.
Delusions can also give life purpose or special meaning in some instances or settings. Consider those who vest tremendous money, time and energy in pursuit of beliefs, events or practices that are contradicted by a confluence of historic and/or scientific fact, logic and well honed scholarship. Some actually border on the irrational, while some truly are. However, when such beliefs, pursuits or devotions cause no harm to self or others, do not generate intolerance or violence or other negative behaviors, do not wind up sanctioned by the state, and basically function to endow the lives of believers with a sense of purpose or meaning, then they have arguable utilitarian merit.
Of course some species of delusional thinking can obviously set the stage for doing great harm to others. One need look no further then Nazi Germany to see this. In this tragic example from history’s darkest page, delusional beliefs and the pseudo-history and pseudo-science they sprang from and reinforced became ideology, then law, and finally a national religion of sorts. The Nazis elevated malignant delusions to sacred status and then took them to their logical conclusion: Repression, brutality, murder and finally genocide.
Given this, it logically follows that people need to be vigilant in terms of identifying, openly exposing, countering and even legally penalizing all forms of delusional thinking that clearly leads to the deprivation, denial or erosion of basic human rights to any group, creed, religion or what-have-you. Humankind can ill afford a Fourth Reich.
But what of countering benign delusional beliefs that offer solace and comfort? This brings me full circle to my maternal grandmother: She believed that her New Testament was inerrant and, as such, was a reliable and sure guide to all that’s needed to assure a place in God’s realm (following death). Yes, there were many occasions – many kitchen table chats on religion (especially during her more vigorous 60s and 70s) — in which I placed before her facts and reason that clearly demonstrated the errancy of scriptures. This she resisted solely on the basis of her faith, not reason or logic or fact. And while this belief influenced her life and actions to a degree, she did not seek to have this view become the law of the land or promulgated in public schools as fact or paraded as science in the classroom. At first I diplomatically and gingerly challenged her stance, but ceased doing so as she grew older and frailty began to take its toll on her physical and mental faculties. Who would be so callous as to deprive her of a delusion (inerrancy) which was a vital component of her worldview (Especially given its benign, tempered expression, as well as its utility in terms of dealing with her own mortality)? Not me.
“No man is happy without a delusion of some kind. Delusions are as necessary to our happiness as realities.”
-Christian Nestell Bovee
The cup of delusions runneth over:http://www.crank.net/
A critical look at homeopathy:http://skepdic.com/homeo.html
What is Pseudoscience?http://www.chem1.com/acad/sci/pseudosci.html
THE DARK BIBLE
http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/donald_morgan/precepts.html – Questionable Guidelines
http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jim_meritt/bible-contradictions.html – List of biblical contradictions
http://www.angelfire.com/pa/greywlf/biblegod.html – BIBLEGOD – A God of Love or a God of Atrocities and Murder?
NOTES ON BIBLE PROBLEMS Compiled by Richard Packham
© 2009 by Dr. Anthony G Payne. All rights reserved.
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Posted on June 14, 2009, in Psychology and tagged Baptist, Bible, biblical contradictions, Christian Nestell Bovee, coping mechanism, critical thinking, delusion, delusional beliefs, doubt, doubt is OK, Evil Bible, fundamentalism, fundamentalist Christian, higher criticism, homeopathic medicine, homeopathy, Infidels, Judaism, normative coping mechanism, Plainview, question beliefs, skepticism, Texas, true believers. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Delusional Beliefs: A Normative Coping Mechanism?.