Religious fundamentalism is a mental illness that will someday be curable by science, a leading University of Oxford neurologist recently argued. Future advances in neuroscience, as well as research tools currently under development, may go a long way to combating beliefs which lead to harmful practices such as child abuse. For those who become ordained ministers in the Universal Life Church it is a question that deserves serious contemplation: how does religious extremism hurt us, and how can science help?

Dr. Kathleen Taylor made the suggestion at the Hay Literary Festival in Wales (once described by former U.S. president Bill Clinton as the “Woodstock of the Mind” for its celebration of intellectual diversity). “One of the surprises may be to see people with certain beliefs as people who can be treated,” she said, and somebody “who has for example become radicalized [into] a cult ideology—we might stop seeing that as a personal choice…as a result of pure free will and may start treating it as some kind of mental disturbance”. Taylor pointed out that treating fundamentalism as a mental illness does not apply only to radical Islam, but also to more obscure extremist cults as well as the belief that it is OK to beat children as a disciplinary measure. This new approach could be highly beneficial, she argued, “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”.

Taylor’s ideas are not without precedence—other researchers have also suggested a link between religious extremism and mental illness. Religious conversions may be significantly correlated with a developing psychotic mental illness, according to Dr. Dinesh Bhugra, former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. In a paper entitled Self-concept: Psychosis and attraction of new religious movements, Bhugra draws attention to research from several different studies showing that religious converts are more likely to exhibit first onset psychosis. (Importantly, Bhugra’s study does not necessarily peg religious belief in general as being correlated with mental illness.)

But what kind of reception should these ideas get from us as Universal Life Church ministers, and are they compatible with our beliefs? At first glance, treating religious fundamentalism as a mental illness may seem unusual, but in some ways it corresponds with our values. The ULC Monastery teaches its ministers to value science is a tool for understanding nature, and it also admonishes its ministers against the harm of extreme, unwavering religious dogma, so it seems appropriate for us to approach religious fundamentalism through the critical lens of scientific inquiry.

Obviously many religious people are good people, but many religious extremists are dangerous. Treating religious fundamentalism as a mental illness can be viewed as an attack on religion, or it can be viewed as an attempt to shine a light on more predatory or malevolent belief systems, offering tools for diagnosis and treatment. As interfaith ministers a part of whose mission is to cultivate religious solidarity, perhaps we can find a way to treat the symptoms of unwavering dogmatism while nurturing the core values of spiritual curiosity.


The Huffington Post

The Times

Leave a Comment