Is Religious Fundamentalism a Form of Mental Illness?

There is a British neuroscientist who is leading a movement to classify Fundamentalist belief as a form of mental illness like Stockholm Syndrome, with serious cognitive dissonance symptoms affecting performance. This approach would examine the current deplorable situation in the United States, referencing the Book of Joshua, EPA head Scott Pruitt announced sweeping changes to the agency’s science advisory boards on October 31st, 2017, closing off scientific discourse on Climate Change, and opening the door to more input from the business world.

Citing The Bible as a reason to vandalize constituent and environmental protection agencies is the natural and inevitable result of a couple of decades of concerted Christian Fundamentalist conditioning, brainwashing, and propaganda. Add to this the ongoing, unconscionable desecration and vandalism of educational standards in schools of “religious grounds,” which has made ‘an American Education’ the equivalent of a Hasidic ‘education’ in a Brooklyn Yeshiva, or a Wahhabist ‘education’ in an ISIS madrassa anywhere in the virtual ‘Second Caliphate.’ In short, it’s really not an education. It’s just overt brainwashing, resulting in measurable brain damage.

Kathleen Taylor, an Oxford neuroscientist, maintains that Religious Fundamentalism could soon be treated as just another form of mental illness. An Oxford University researcher and author specializing in neuroscience has suggested that one day religious fundamentalism may be treated as a curable mental illness. A science writer affiliated to the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics,” Dr. Taylor made the suggestion during a presentation on brain research at the Hay Literary Festival at the University of Wales, Swansea, in 2013.

In response to a question about the future of neuroscience, Taylor said that “One of the surprises may be to see people with certain beliefs as people who can be treated,” The Times of London noted at the time. “Someone who has for example become radicalised 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,” Taylor said. “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.” The author emphasized that she wasn’t just referring to the “obvious candidates like radical Islam,” but also meant such beliefs as the idea that beating children is acceptable. (Meredith Bennett-Smith, ‘Kathleen Taylor, Neuroscientist, Says Religious Fundamentalism Could Be Treated As A Mental Illness,’ The Huffington Post, 05/31/2013)

Dr. Taylor’s curriculum vitae is impressive. This is not the first time she is known to have explored the mind processes of radicals and religious extremists. In 2006, she wrote a book about mind control called Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, which explored the science behind the persuasive tactics of such groups as cults and al Qaeda. “We all change our beliefs of course,” Taylor said in a YouTube video about the book. “We all persuade each other to do things; we all watch advertising; we all get educated and experience [religions.] Brainwashing, if you like, is the extreme end of that; it’s the coercive, forceful, psychological torture type.”

Dr. Taylor notes that brainwashing, though extreme, is part of a the “much more widespread phenomenon” of persuasion. That is, “how we make people think things that might not be good for them, that they might not otherwise have chosen to think,” or ‘propaganda.’ She avows caution in dealing with toxic ideologies or religious dogmas and doctrines in a purely scientific or technological manner, however; “Technologies which directly scan or manipulate brains cannot be neutral tools, as open to commercial exploitation as any new gadget,” Taylor wrote in a blog post for The Huffington Post in 2012.

“The brain supremacy offers chances to improve human dignity, but it also risks abuse,” said Dr. Taylor, advocating caution in terms of the ethics of delving too deeply into the human brain’s mysterious workings. In short, she is far from advocating playing fast and loose with the changes in the brain that result from accommodating fear-based convictions instilled by religious terror, constant aggression, and violent fantasies of retribution. But her caution, issued in 2012, does not help us with the problem now manifesting itself in the Halls of Power of the most powerful and potentially destructive nation on Earth.

Effective immediately, scientists who receive EPA funding cannot serve on the agency’s three major advisory groups. Some Republican lawmakers have been pushing for similar changes to the agency’s advisory boards for years. “We want to ensure that there’s integrity in the process and that the scientists that are advising us are doing so without any type of appearance of conflict of interest,” EPA head Scott Pruitt said at a press conference announcing the directive. Using the story from the Book of Joshua to help explain the new policy, Pruitt stated that, on the journey to the promised land, “Joshua says to the people of Israel: choose this day whom you are going to serve,” Pruitt said. “This is sort of like the Joshua principle — that as it relates to grants from this agency, you are going to have to choose either service on the committee to provide counsel to us in an independent fashion or chose the grant. But you can’t do both. That’s the fair and great thing to do.” (Zahra Hirji, ‘Citing The Bible, The EPA Just Changed Its Rules For Science Advisers,’ BuzzFeed News, October 31, 2017)

“Frankly, this directive is nuts,” Al Teich of George Washington University wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “There is an important role for citizen advisors who are not experts in a scientific field and who represent various constituencies on advisory committees,” wrote Teich, a research professor of science, technology, and international affairs. “But they should complement, not replace the experts. Disqualifying the very people who know the most about a subject from serving as advisors makes no sense.”

‘The change calls into question EPA’s ability to protect the country, according to Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “We question whether the EPA can continue to pursue its core mission to protect human health and the environment,” Holt said in a statement issued Tuesday.’ Michael Honeycutt, a controversial Evangelical toxicologist from Texas, is the new head of EPA’s Science Advisory Board, which provides scientific counsel to the agency’s top official. Honeycutt once told Congress he didn’t agree with the EPA’s toxic evaluation for mercury, and he’s argued against the agency’s ozone standards.

As I’ve reported elsewhere, The Washington Post reported toward the end of February on an alarming report, composed by a Christian conservative group connected to Education Secretary Betsy Devos, revealing plans for the promotion of Christianity in public schools and putting a definitive end to the Department of Education. The group prefaced their recommendations with a précis: “We submit this report to the Donald Trump/Betsy DeVos administration with the hope that our organization may be of assistance with the restoration of education in America, in accordance with historic Judeo-Christian principles.” The Education Department is to be replaced with “Presidency’s Advisory Council on Public Education Reform.” The Council would:

  1. Restore Ten Commandments posters to all K-12 public schools.
  2. Clearly post America’s Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
  3. Encourage K-12 schools to recognize traditional holidays (e.g., Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas) as celebrations of our Judeo-Christian heritage.
  4. Implement select bible classes, such as Chuck Stetson’s Bible Literacy Project.
  5. Encourage instruction on U.S. and world history from the Judeo-Christian perspective for middle school and high school history and civics classes.
  6. Develop and recommend in-service training on philosophy of education for K-12 faculty based on historical Judeo-Christian philosophy of education.
  7. Strongly push states to remove secular-based sex education materials from school facilities, and emphasize parental instruction.

The Washington Post sums it up here: “The five-page document produced by the Council for National Policy calls for a “restoration of education in America” that would minimize the federal role, promote religious schools and home schooling and enshrine ‘historic Judeo-Christian principles’ as a basis for instruction.” The theocratic manifesto to “bring God into American classrooms” was tied to Trump aides Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, both Evangelical Catholics in the pay of weird billionaire funders, Robert and Rebecca Marcer. Both are part of the Council for National Policy, which just released a five-page manifesto on how to dismantle the federal Department of Education and bring “God” and “historic Judeo-Christian principles” into education.

Betsy De Vos is on record with her enthusiastic response to this retrogressive petition: “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s Kingdom.” (Emma Brown, ‘Influential conservative group: Trump, DeVos should dismantle Education Department and bring God into classrooms,’ The Washington Post, February 15, 2017)

I have been watching this nihilistic, apocalyptic End Times narrative play out in the collective mind of patriarchal Judeo-Christian religiosity, with its die-hard delusion of linear time, that begins with the Creation and ends with the Apocalypse, for over 50 years, since I became aware of the tale’s political ramifications as an adolescent in the American South during my conscientious activism in the 1960s. I remember my thought, when I truly cottoned on to the power of the narrative and it’s grip on the fear-filled, xenophobic, slavery-guilt-raddled Southern imagination, which can be paraphrased as, “Uh oh! This’ll end in tears for everyone and everything.” It is truly past time that this ideological contagion be treated as the mental, intellectual and emotional disease that it is.

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Yvonne Owens, PhD

Yvonne Owens, PhD

I'm a writer/researcher/arts educator on Vancouver Island and all round global citizen who loves humans even though we're such a phenomenal pain-in-the-ass.