Now a British science writer named Kathleen Taylor, is advancing a provocative and politically incendiary idea — that “religious fundamentalism” (whatever that term means) may one day be treated as a mental illness.
The (UK) Times refers to Taylor as “a science author and research scientist at the University of Oxford.” But Taylor describes herself as “a freelance science writer affiliated to the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, University of Oxford,” who had “trained as a neuroscientist after doing a first degree in philosophy and physiology at the University of Oxford.” She specifically states she is not a “therapist”. And yet she’s tossing claims about “religious fundamentalism” being a “mental illness”!
(Note: I’ve spent most of life in academe, beginning as an undergraduate student to eventually being a full professor, but I have no idea what a freelance writer “affiliated” to a university means. I am retired from my university and although I’m no longer employed there, I am “affiliated” to my university as a professor emeritus. In Taylor’s case, however, her “affiliation” to Oxford carries no title. It appears what her “affiliation” means is that she was a student at Oxford U.)
The (UK) Times‘ article on Taylor is titled “Science ‘may one day cure Islamic radicals’,” and attributes to Taylor the claim that “Muslim fundamentalism may one day be seen in the same way as mental illness is today and be ‘curable’.”
Curiously, Huffington Post‘s account of Taylor makes no mention of radical Islam but refers only to a vaguely generic “religious fundamentalism.” According to HuffPo, Taylor was speaking at the Hay Literary Festival in Wales when she was asked what she foresaw as positive developments in neuroscience in the coming years.
She replied: “One man’s positive can be another man’s negative. 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. In many ways it could be a very positive thing because there are no doubt beliefs in our society that do a heck of a lot of damage. 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.”
Links between extreme faiths and mental health have been made before, with former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Dr Dinesh Bhugra, highlighting recent religious conversions being more associated with a developing psychotic mental illness. In a paper entitled ‘Self-concept: Psychosis and attraction of new religious movements’, he points to data from studies which shows that patients with first onset psychosis are likely to change their religion.
The HuffPo article got more than 5,700 “likes” on Facebook.
So who decides what constitutes “religious fundamentalism” or “a cultideology” or “beliefs in our society that do a heck of a lot of damage“?
Today, Kathleen Taylor says radical Islam fits the bill. But once the idea of religious beliefs being a form of mental illness catches on, who’s to say that Christianity won’t be “diagnosed” as a mental illness?
The problem is the vagueness and ambiguity of terms such as “religious fundamentalism,” “cult ideology,” and “beliefs that do a lot of damage” — a vagueness of which Kathleen Taylor seems blithely unaware.
That same obtuseness to the importance of clear and specific terminology is also displayed in a “Meet the Author” video, in which Taylor talks about “brainwashing” — which includes religious brainwashing — in a distressingly vague way that any self-respecting scientist should eschew.
In the video, Taylor seems to define “brainwashing” as “the extreme end” of changing a person’s beliefs. By “extreme end” she means the employment of “coercion,” “force,” and “psychological torture.”
But what is “coercion”? Does “coercion” include children being taught the Bible by their parents, church, and parochial schools? Does “coercion” include our soldiers’ sharing of their religious beliefs being labeled as “religious proselytization” and threatened with court martial?
In case you don’t know, religious believers were incarcerated in mental hospitals in the Soviet Union, as well as in the People’s Republic of China. Just ask the neo-Buddhist sect Falun Gong, whose adherents have been and are still being hounded, arrested, tortured and killed in China today.
H/t FOTM reader Jasmine.
Dr. Eowyn is the Editor of Fellowship of the Minds and a regular contributor to The D.C. Clothesline.