A neurologist has published a new book in which she asserts that religious fundamentalism could soon be classified as a mental illness. University of Oxford neurologist Kathleen Taylor says that it’s not only religious fundamentalism that could be categorized as a mental illness, but other forms of extreme or radical beliefs as well.
The Times reports that Taylor says people who have fundamentalist religious beliefs, cult members, and even people who think it is a good idea to beat their children could soon be viewed as mentally ill and received corresponded treatment to cure their illness. Taylor explained:
One of the surprises may be to see people with certain beliefs as people who can be treated. Someone who has for example become radicalized to a cult ideology — we might stop seeing that as a personal choice that they have chosen as a result of pure free will and may start treating it as some kind of mental disturbance…I am not just talking about the obvious candidates like radical Islam or some of the more extreme cults. I am talking about things like the belief that it is OK to beat your children. These beliefs are very harmful but are not normally categorized as mental illness. In many ways that could be a very positive thing because there are no doubt beliefs in our society that do a heck of a lot of damage, that really do a lot of harm.”
Her new book, The Brain Supremacy, delves into the issue of religious fundamentalism but it also contains a warning about the development of new technologies that have the possibility of altering humans’ brains to such an extent that the idea of what is considered “good” or “bad” could be permanently changed:
(We need) to be careful when it comes to developing technologies which can slip through the skull to directly manipulate the brain. They cannot be morally neutral, these world-shaping tools; when the aspect of the world in question is a human being, morality inevitably rears its hydra heads. Technologies which profoundly change our relationship with the world around us cannot simply be tools, to be used for good or evil, if they alter our basic perception of what good and evil are.
In addition to the possibility of religious fundamentalism being treated as a mental illness in the near future, other scientists have found a link between shrinkage of the hippocampus, a large and significant section of the brain, and those who hold deeply religious or spiritual beliefs. In a study entitled Religious Factors and Hippocampal Atrophy in Late Life, lead neurologist Amy Owen wrote that deeply spiritual people with no religious affiliation as well as born-again people affiliated with various religious groups showed atrophy in the hippocampus:
Significantly greater hippocampal atrophy was observed for participants reporting a life-changing religious experience. Significantly greater hippocampal atrophy was also observed from baseline to final assessment among born-again Protestants, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation, compared with Protestants not identifying as born-again.
There have been numerous studies that link religious experiences with less depression, but a more recent and widespread study by bioltechnologist Tom Rees found that religious belief did not have any protective effect against depression.
Experts say that religious fundamentalism could soon be categorized as a mental illness, and others have found brain damage in highly religious and spiritual people, but some question whether scientists will be able to design treatment protocols for this population and also wonder if there are any ethical concerns surrounding such a treatment. Cnet blogger Chris Matyszczyk says that undertaking such an issue means “the moral gradient becomes treacherous…who decides which beliefs are really doing ‘a heck of a lot of damage’? What if those in power decide that everyone should now believe something entirely different from their previous beliefs?”
Matyszczyk also notes, “Part of the problem with attempting to cure us of some of our fundamental(ist) beliefs is that we’ll know it’s happening. We’ll know that someone thinks there’s something wrong with us. And we all get very, very touchy when someone thinks we’re not all there, don’t we?”
By: Rebecca Savastio