The Religion Delusion

February 23, 2011

Richard Carrier's outstanding lecture about "Are Christians Delusional?" is must-see video for nonbelievers.

Sure, watch the whole lecture (scroll down), but maybe pause for this question first:

Does Carrier's preferred definition of "delusion" fit belief in God? His definition, borrowed right from psychology textbooks, goes like this:

A false belief based on an incorrect inference about external reality and firmly sustained despite clear evidence to the contrary.

Many specific religious beliefs are delusional in this sense. Every religious claim in the Bible, for example. Religion in general relies on methods that lead to widespread delusions , no doubt about it.

But what about just this belief, by itself: "There is a supernatural being."

"There is a supernatural being" by itself (adding nothing about superpowers or perfections) does not fit the given criteria for a delusion. That is so, because there is no clear evidence to the contrary. By definition, a supernatural being has nothing in common with anything natural -- no shared features, powers, or properties. So a supernatural being, by itself (again, without any extra commitment to this God being all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, etc.) is logically compatible with all natural evidence, and therefore nothing natural could supply clear evidence against this supernatural being. Neat, right? Right -- suspiciously convenient indeed. Too convenient, but not delusional, as defined here.

Skeptics deny that any god exists because there is insufficient evidence to justify belief. Religious believers are foolishly believing in a God despite insufficient evidence. But that it quite different from delusionally believing in a God against clear evidence.

Since psychology's definition of "delusional" does not cover the simple belief that a supernatural God exists, is there another term that does cover this specific belief? I just called it "foolishness" but maybe a more technical-sounding term is already somewhere in a glossary of psychology/psychiatry. Suggestions?

And now I give you Dr. Richard Carrier.




#1 Max (Guest) on Wednesday February 23, 2011 at 5:53pm

Obviously, religious believers refer to belief without evidence as faith, but you could also call it gullible, credulous, uncritical, unskeptical, or wishful thinking.

#2 L.Long (Guest) on Thursday February 24, 2011 at 8:10am

Like MAX I feel it is basically ‘wishful thinking’ based on absolute fear of ‘nothing beyond’.  The fear to grow-up and be adult because it is hard work to be adult and think!  They would rather have a psychotic father to take care of them and keep them save after death then be adult, think and let the ‘after death’ take care of itself what ever that turns out to be.

#3 Doug (Guest) on Friday February 25, 2011 at 11:10am

I think gullible works perfectly.  Many atheist speakers I’ve seen like to ask the difference between faith and gullibility; specifically why they aren’t the same thing.  believers tend not to be able to answer that question.

#4 Val Esman (Guest) on Friday February 25, 2011 at 10:49pm

Sure Christians are delusional.  But then many Americans are delusional too in general.  They believe they still live in a democracy rather than a plutocracy.  But maybe it does start with religion, or, maybe it starts with Santa Claus.  But Americans are taught at a very young age a number of things that they are expected to accept “on faith”.  The God faith, the “anti-communist” faith, the “American exceptional faith”, etc. I also find it very interesting that at the end of every Presidential address we hear the words “God bless America”.  Why just America?  Yes, the God faith and the jingoistic version of American patriotism have all become wielded into one big fat lie about the nature of American society, truth, justice and the world.  And on all these faiths are based the biggest military budget in the world.

#5 Max (Guest) on Saturday February 26, 2011 at 1:14am


Where’s democracy, in Cuba and China?

#6 Val Esman (Guest) on Saturday February 26, 2011 at 7:15am

Where’s democracy in America since the United Decisions ruling came down from the Supreme Court?  Oh, I see, you’ve got the “capitalist means democracy” delusion LOL!

BTW, where’s the democracy in Indiana since a new Republican judge elected decreed that public unions can no longer engage in collective bargaining?

Where’s the democracy in America when schools around the nation are closing their doors and lights are being turned out in cities around the country?

Where’s the democracy when the rich and wealthy get bailed out but the poor get their food stamps, transportation monies, health visits to doctors curtailed or cut off altogether?  Oh, I forgot.  That’s called capitalism.

Where is the democracy for the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan and Yemen when the US sends drone attacks that murder hundreds of thousands of innnocent civilians?  Like Vietnam where we murdered over 3 million Vietnamese defoliated their country, we are saving the people’s of the world from totalitarian regimes.  Me thinks you suffer from the anti-communist bogeyman and American exceptionalist delusion which enables Americans to kill with Christian and Jewish impunity around the world in the name of America (and our Israli satelite) and saving people from the anti-communist bogeyman (and Islamofacism) delusion too.  Yep, and we do do it in the name of our Christian nation, too and with our Christian and Judeo God on our side.

Meanwhile, Obama’s life was threatened again by another Republican constiuent the other day who asked his newly elected Republican Congressman “when we were going to assassinate the President?”  This Congressman had repeatedly referred to Obama as a “socialist” and “Muslim”.  Yes, just pin the red label on people and they are a target for assassination and murder now too.  Or as Glenn Beck put it, “kill them before or they will kill us”.  Yes, the American democracy delusion.

#7 Val Esman (Guest) on Saturday February 26, 2011 at 7:25am

“When facism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross”. Sinclair Lewis

#8 Val Esman (Guest) on Saturday February 26, 2011 at 8:00am

Here’s another good one:

“Five Myths about Ronald Reagan” in the Washington Post published on Feb. 4th, 2011.  I’m arguing that our political myths and delusions in this country are better than our religious ones and ultimately more destructive than our religious ones.

While CFI likes to discuss superstitution and myth in the practice of medicine, they avoid the topic of superstitution and myth in the practice of politics in this country.  While they claim that others tackle the question, in fact, nobody does tackle the myths in American politics or try to track down truth vs. lies.  It’s artifical IMO to separate one group of myths from another and pre-categorize them when the American psyche is programmed to accept unequivocally wholesale myths and superstitutions in all facets of American life.

#9 Paul Boire (Guest) on Saturday February 26, 2011 at 10:03pm

I quite disagree, as would virtually all good thinkers from the earliest days of Christianity that their idea of the supernatural is unrelated to or irrelevant to the natural order. Surely somebody must have done a little more reading than this! The cosmological argument, the most recent and unrefuted instance of which uses the fact of all of the ‘conditioned’ events in the here and now, demands that there be an ‘unconditioned’ end to the immediate, here and now, causal chain. Thus as St Paul said, the temporal is a way to the transtemporal. It is also obvious with but a little effort that any ultimate causal reality cannot be composite. It must be simple. This kind of thing, and the puny arguments raised against it are why most rational people believe in a ‘supreme being’ of some sort, and there certainly hasn’t been much of a case brought against this most emienently reasonable view or reality. The only one that makes an allowance for reason.



#10 Paul Boire (Guest) on Saturday February 26, 2011 at 10:07pm

Faith for traditional Christianity has never been about faith without reason. What a silly idea.

Looking at Carrier he should also realize that homosexuality is not an inbred state, leads to any number of unhappy results Danish study 2006, but irrespective of this act of faith, if my son were homosexually attracted, I would certainly try to help him with this, but of course would love him. How ridiculous.

#11 Paul Boire (Guest) on Saturday February 26, 2011 at 10:12pm

Carrier’s fundamentalist , literalist view of how the bible should be understood is also just stupid.

Most biblical scholars do not at all arrive at the same naive treatments and conclusions.

Does God both accept divorce and later in Christ reject it? Or is the view of OT exegesis Carrier advances quite unrelated to how the west treated scripture. Lightweight stuff.

The argument from suffering is trite. Did God promise infinite life and pleasure here and now? No? Next. Dull stuff.

#12 Max (Guest) on Saturday February 26, 2011 at 11:34pm


I didn’t ask, “Where’s democracy in Cuba and China?”
I asked, “Where’s democracy? In Cuba and China?”
I’m just curious if you consider any of the following to be democracies: Cuba, Venezuela, China, Belarus, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Vietnam, Cambodia, Zimbabwe.

#13 gray1 on Sunday February 27, 2011 at 9:35am

The title to Dr. Carrier’s presentation reminds me of the old question,“Have you stopped beating your wife? Answer yes or no!”.  That’s funny but sadly the brightest thing I witnessed therein was the projector bulb which seemingly refused to participate for the longest time. 

Continuing in the given mode of levity as seen through the program I pose the question, “How far would you follow Dr. Carrier into a real life or death situation?” and then actually dare to suggest that this might be exactly what some of us are doing.

Such a “Positive explicit” atheist position will always sell a certain number books but lacks any serious consideration of reality as recognized by Socrates who said “The only real wisdom is knowing you know nothing”.  Certainly we all have our own Scotoma (Greek for darkness) which can be used to describe either a physical or mental blind spot but that is simply something else to be aware of.  Shifting from Greek to Latin we can also consider “ignoramus et ignorabimus”, meaning “we do not know and will not know”, unless the absence of evidence provides real evidence of absence by inference alone. 

Not all of us can have the vision of Socrates or Einstein but even such genius must come at the expense of a certain focus which blurs elsewhere - assuming that any such limits are inherent with having existence as a mere mortal. It is perhaps ironic then that Einstein and his fellow scientists have by inference given us dark matter as the largest constituent of our universe which (although invisible) would seem to amount to our largest blind spot yet!  This admittedly represents great progress.

Each of us are reserved nevertheless the right to express our individual belief as to whether there is a god or gods, there is no god or gods, or (if reason prevails) to say that is something we cannot actually know, but any such belief is nothing more (or less) than a matter of faith.

#14 Paul Boire (Guest) on Sunday February 27, 2011 at 10:14am

Very nice post gray1, but ..I should stop before I have to revisit epistemology 101.. I believe the normal abstractive nature of the human intellect , which ,like numbers and propositions do not seem readily reducible to mere physical stuff…the tired idea of Russell and others.

In my experience, most of the not so ‘new’ atheists are amongst the dullest thinkers I’ve come across in a long time. But more to the point, I think Robert J Spitzer has blown holes through the vagaries of much of the argument from ignorance that atheists hope… (whatever hope can be in materialism) will be defended by the fine science of physics that Christian Europe bequeathed to us. Also he shows quite clearly that the spiritual, religious view is actually better supported by science than ever before. Here’s a link. Spitzer is a Phd philosophy, who did his thesis on the nature of ‘time’ with a specialty in the philosophy of physics.

It’s funny to see poor Stephen Hawkings trying to throw the highly speculattive stuff of M theory.. which isn’t even a theory and babbling about time “emerging” out of space. He honestly thinks this thing didn’t occur in time. As was well observed, when physicists who only study things insofar as they have quantity, grow old, they suddenly think they are philosophers.

Thanks for the fun post



#15 Val Eisman (Guest) on Sunday February 27, 2011 at 11:27am

There is no “science” at all that supports any notions that a Christian “god” every existed, every spoke to anyone, every created any miracles or ever created the world in 7 days.  Or that any other god every existed.

Science, more than ever, supports reason and evolution.  And sure, it doesn’t explain everything—certain things are possibly beyond our comprehension.  But the superstitious beliefs and evolution of human thinking and society going from several gods to one god IS entirely within our comprehension as the science of human evolution and society explains humankinds’ intellectual development and evolution.

#16 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Sunday February 27, 2011 at 6:26pm


Undetectable, adorable purple aliens control human governments; I know this because they whisper it to my mind.

Can I disprove this.  No.  I can’t disprove it because by definition the idea cannot be falsified.  The martians are by definition undetectable.  This is known a logically unverifiable idea.  Does this mean it is true.  No.  The idea gets dismissed because without the ability to disprove the idea, it cannot be tested.

Change the words adorable purple aliens to god(s) and you have the same argument and same conclusion: the logically unverifiable god idea is dismissed.

Contrast the logically unverifiable god idea to this:

The fossil record shows species appearing and disappearing in an order.  The fossil record shows that as some species go extinct, others emerge with a large number of traits that resemble those of the extinct species.

Idea: perhaps the new species evolved from a previous species.  Can I disprove this.  Yes.  If a rabbit fossil were found in the cretaceous, that would disprove the idea.  Now that a falsifiable idea exists, a hypothesis can be produced and tested.  With enough hypotheses, repeated tests, and evidence a theory can be constructed.

Notice the difference: logically unverifiable ideas: limitless, unproductive, cannot be tested; they get dismissed.  Falsifiable ideas: may not be true, but may be tested to determine veracity.

Thus, god idea: unreasonable. 

You can wrap it up in medieval rationalism, but it is still unreasonable.  You can argue that “Faith for traditional Christianity has never been about faith without reason. What a silly idea.”  But, consider the following:

Galileo recorded his citing of five moons around Jupiter in the essay, The Sidereal Moons of Jupiter.  A prominent rationalist professor at Padua refused to look through the telescope, but nevertheless constructed a rationalist argument disproving Galileo’s observation using empirical evidence such as there are seven holes in the head, seven days in the week, etc.; thus, there must be only seven planets.

The Padua professor gave a typical catholic, christian “reasoned” explanation of how the universe is organized. 

So what.

Who do you think was right and who do you think was silly.

The scientific method produces demonstrable results; feudal rationalism, not so much.

As to gays, you might want to read neurologist Simon LeVay’s, “Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation.”  The scientific evidence is overwhelming: sexual orientation is biological.  Using a logically unverifiable idea of a god to suggest that being gay is a pathology is nothing more than bigotry wrapped in religion.

#17 gray1 on Sunday February 27, 2011 at 6:46pm

“Undetectable, adorable purple aliens control human governments; I know this because they whisper it to my mind.”

So at least the speaker as well as perhaps a few others know the above to be a true statement in his/their own subjective reality (the aliens are actually blue).  If there is such a thing as objective reality such is beyond our reckoning, however, we do collectively create a perceived or induced reality by consensus of the many.  Such nevertheless remains subjective in nature and is quite often later proved quite wrong.

#18 Paul Boire (Guest) on Sunday February 27, 2011 at 7:26pm


It’s hard to fathom why so many evidence based brites, when they aren’t undermining materialism like Dawkins ironically in The God Delusion, waste their would be condescending breath on dumbass little blue breathers. Like most fundamentalists, you are naively offering an empirical image, inductive by nature, inconclusive and quite unrelated to intelligent theistic discourse. Dull , tepid and sloppy minded also come to mind.

Also whizkid, the scholastic philosophers were not rationalists. Rationalism is naive as your post manifests. Even duller if predicated upon inductive processes which yours reduce to.

As to Galileo, apparently you suffer from the delusion that he successfully defended the Copernican system with which he was attaking everyone. Insead of just ingesting Voltarian bile, why not at least read what modern historians say about this famed event. Maybe you agree with aristotle that the sun causes tides and reject as he did Kepler’s elliptical orbits in favour of Aristotle.

So far you are quite ignorant of the issues you yourself raised. Not surprising. Not interesting either.

LeVay is more famous for the bogus arguments generated by advocates on his ‘science’. I am no enemy of homosexually attracted persons, but there is huge evidence that human sexual attraction is very malleable. Sorry about that. Read the Danish registry study of 20 million or so in 2006. You are probably homosexually attracted, but you might also like “The Mismeasure of Desire” by another homosexually attracted atuhor. Read what HE has to say about LeVay.

If you choose to label me a bigot because I insist upon human free will, and deny biological determinism like almost every other human on the planet, then so be it. Who cares? But if the Danish study is confirmed as showing that family instability is a significant ‘determining factor’, then by all means educate away.

Just read more before you post. It’s a tiresome waste of time and you lack comprehension, hence content.

#19 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Sunday February 27, 2011 at 7:40pm


Yes, evidence matters.  I have an artificial hip.  I am not going to go to a plumber when it needs attention.

LeVay is a great scientist.  His book is well documented.

Yes, you’re a bigot.

When you can adduce a falsifiable idea about a god, get back to me.  Until then, hope you enjoy the company of those who KNEW that Jupiter could not have five moons.


#20 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Sunday February 27, 2011 at 7:43pm


What you are suggesting is radical skepticism; the idea that nothing can be proved or disproved. 

In that case, you cannot be sure there is a god.

Given that I have had the benefit of modern science with a hip replacement, which absolutely changed my life for the better, I’ll stick with materialist science.

I suggest that if you really are a radical skeptic, that the next time you think you have a life threatening disease, you see voodoo doctor.  If nothing can be known, then you’ll save some money.

#21 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Sunday February 27, 2011 at 7:45pm

And Paul,

Bringing up issues about Galileo that I didn’t include or address suggests that you are stupid.

Hmmm, stupid and bigot, not an incompatible combination.


#22 gray1 on Sunday February 27, 2011 at 9:05pm

Actually I consider myself a pragmatic fatalist.  I am seldom disappointed in anything that way.

Science necessarily relies on observations, speculations and inductive reasoning as part of the scientific approach.  The well and good scientific deduction which says that as much as 90% of our universe consists of something called dark matter (which is both invisible and not detectable by our human senses or broad spectrum instrumental observations) must exist to explain our observations of the cosmos.  OK, I’ll buy that as the best we can currently do for cosmology which has an excellent history of improving our understanding of such things. 

Being somewhat open minded, I can also recognize that any good study of world-wide religions will find therein a long history and wide variety of human interactions with things which are also “both invisible and not detectable by our human senses or broad spectrum instrumental observations”.  This has been made subject to widespread speculations, inferences and deductive reasoning as an attempt to explain what it is that has been historically observed as being of premier importance in one way or another across all human civilizations. 

Something of this same nature has also often been felt directly by individual humans at the highest of emotional levels, inclusive of possible audio and visual hallucinations (or maybe not).  If anything, the historical data kept on religion is very much older, far larger, more studied, more debated and at least as complex as the infinite unknowns that scientists also have to work with.  Both are staggering in scope with any progress or lack thereof subject to constant debate by equally qualified individuals or groups.

The chief difference I see here is that the evolution of science is towards seeking absolute truth, towards understanding some order in the universe while any evolution of religion (barring some new revelation which pops up from time to time) would appear to actually be a pollution of whatever absolute truth might have somehow once been.  Thus religion is a movement towards chaos in such view, but strangely enough that is what is often preached!  And yet, of the many, many great and learned minds having been involved with the study of either subject those of religion are now deemed delusional (at least on this particular website) while scientists who seek and report on things equally unfathomable are now deemed gods.

#23 Val Eisman (Guest) on Sunday February 27, 2011 at 10:13pm

You can say the same thing about religion that you can about human garbage.  That the data is old, long, and been studied a long time.  Whether it’s complex is another matter.  Both qualify for the dustbin as far as I’m concerned.  Because there is about as much reason in either. In fact, there is probably more reason and logic in human garbage than there is religion, a religion with a long history of persecution and murder of other human beings or torture in the name of religion.

But if you want to dress up mysticism, fanaticism,jealousy, hatred, bigotry ( you shall have no Gods before this God) and murder and persecution and call these basic human emotions “complex” and equal to complex scientific theories involving mathematics and physics, well, then you are making a false comparison between base emotions and a huge body of learning, science and intelligence.

Religion has been used by many societies to codify human behavior.  And human ritual from earliest times to mark the passage of human beings from childhood to adulthood.  These are all simple and known human behaviors.  Nothing very complex nor mathematical or scientific about any of it.  But there is a study of human behavior in society—it’s called sociology and anthropology.  And it’s based on scientific study and observation of human customs and rituals and belief systems.  Nothing very complex about any of that either.  Interesting, but not complex.  And they all relate to humankind’s need to understand the “why” of his/her existence, injustice and suffering and of great inequities and unfairness in this world. That’s understandable too.  No need to gussie any of this up and call it something it’s not.

All the human “gods” created all relate to the state of humankind’economic evolution at the time of their creation.  When humankind were hunters and gatherers, their gods were simple.  As human society has evolved, so has religion and religious insitutions which also become part of the social order in perpetuating injustice, unfairness and suffering in the human world.

#24 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Thursday March 03, 2011 at 10:56am

Heads I win, tails you lose.  The house rules at the CFI.

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