Thursday, November 8, 2012

Mental Illness and the Main Characters of the Bible

I would have to say that the number one reason I'm an atheist is that all the religions of the world rely on magical communication between the other-world and people -- selected people -- in this world.  Those who have been chosen to see, hear, know or otherwise learn of the other realm then transmit this specialized knowledge to the rest of us. The few who believe them call them "prophet" or "seer" or "shaman" and revere their every word from then on.  After all, normal people don't hear voices, believe their dreams, or see people who aren't there... or do they?

Did Moses see an actual burning bush

Even if Moses did exist, and even if he did write or dictate his experience accurately, and even if his story was transmitted faithfully for thousands of years before being committed to papyrus, he probably did not see an actual magical burning bush.  He either saw an ordinary burning bush, or he had an hallucination.  Hallucinations of fire are not that unusual. In Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, Clinical Neuroscience (Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 1996), Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D writes:
Hallucinations may occur secondary to tumors or seizures involving the occipital, parietal, frontal, and temporal lobe, or arise secondary to drugs, toxic exposure, high fevers, general infections, exhuastion, starvation, extreme thirst, partial or complete hearing loss including otosclerosis, and with partial or complete blindness such as due to glacoma ...  For example, tumors or electrical stimulation of the occipital lobe produce simple hallucinations such as colors, stars, spots, balls of fire, flashes of light.

Next, Moses supposedly heard the voice of God, not coming from within his own head, but from somehwere else.  (Or God wrote the commandments on the two tablets himself) A certain type of brain injury can cause that too, as can schizophrenia.  Stress can also cause auditory hallucinations, including stress due to sensory deprivation.  Moses was alone, so we don't "know" what his sensory input was.  Another potential cause is a milder condition, in which ordinary sounds (such as the wind rustling through a shrub high on a mountain) can be misinterpreted in the brain and turned into full-fledged vocalizations from outside the mind.  And "The most common type of auditory hallucinations in psychiatric illness consists of voices" so the likeliest thing for Moses to hear in this state would have been one or more voices.  Since he was alone, naturally he had nobody to attribute the voices to other than God.  Someone experiencing the same thing today might make the same mistake (unless they had just ingested a psychogenic plant!)

So my verdict on Moses:  some kind of hallucinatory experience, from any number of causes, is much more likely than God performing a miracle and then talking to him.  Moses most likely did not exist, but ancient people would have been aware of the phenomenon of seemingly sane people having hallucinations that they interpret as coming from a divine source.

Dreams likewise seem to have an external origin.  Even the few people who claim to be able to do "lucid dreaming" or otherwise control their dreams admit they work very hard at it.  For the rest of us, dreams are foreign invaders into our experiences, spinning out stories that can be the cause of great distress.  Like hallucinations, our reality-tester in our brain is out of commission and after the fact has no basis for knowing what was real.  Everything seems real in a dream.  I do agree with dream interpretation as a psychological tool because the same brain that goes about our daily business dreamed up the dream story.  Even when people know that they've had a dream, it still seems significant to them, and it may be.  Dreams reveal how our brains are processing our lives and how we feel about events.

In Genesis, Jacob saw a ladder reaching to "heaven." And then, just like Moses, he "heard" God telling him that he and his progeny would rule the earth.  When he woke up he believed it was all real and he made a life-decision based on it:  he "founded" the city of "Bethel."  A later dream-God told him to abandon his city.  This may say as much about culture as the individual:  plain old good judgment can't be presumed in their leaders.  They need to be supported by a higher authority.

The other big dreamer in the Bible is the most famous: Joseph, who had prophetic dreams of his own and became a dream interpreter for Pharoah.  Again, assuming any of this stuff happened as it was written down hundreds or thousands of years later, this is a very convenient way for someone to manipulate another person.  Just like phony psychics who do cold readings, a clever "dream interpreter" can get their mark to believe almost anything.  Coincidentally, Pharoah rewarded Joseph with valuables.  Joseph sounds more like a con artist to me than a prophet.

In almost every culture and in folk life generally, dream interpretation can be a game, a prophesy or a form of manipulation.  Did Jacob's ladder mean anything?  Did Joseph really get messages from God through his own and others' dreams?

No.  Not likely at all.  Dreams are just dreams, though sometimes they are revealing of something in our experience or thinking.  Seeming proof of supernatural communication is wishful thinking.

Sometimes people just seem to "know" things in the absence of having been told by a real or hallucinated figure.  To the person holding the delusion it's every bit as real as the ideas they have about the actual real world.  Something has gone very very wrong for them.

The obvious example from the New Testament would be Jesus, assuming he really meant "son of God" when he called himself "Son of Man."  There's no description in the Bible of Jesus being told by his mother that she'd been impregnated by God.  He had siblings, and presumably was the oldest, so he would have been somewhat elevated in the family by virtue just of being the oldest boy.  That's enough to mess with any child's brain. 

Delusional Disorder is currently defined as delusions in the absence of other symptoms, which family and culture do not support.  If your culture does support the idea that a person can be magically special, it would be not be a delusion by today's standards, but I think that's a cop-out.  The culture itself can share a delusion (as Richard Dawkins says of course), and an individual's psychosis can fit right in with it.  More recently, we have had the famous cases of  Jim Jones, Charlie Manson, and David Koresh.  They were able to gather a group around themselves in a personality cult reminiscent of Jesus and his disciples, with even more success in some ways, yet would they be considered mentally ill if the outcomes hadn't been so drastic?  We've been too polite about the (somewhat) less dangerous versions of them such as Mary Baker Eddy, Joseph Smith, and L. Ron Hubbard.

And the person harboring the delusion can appear normal:  "Unfortunately, patients with delusional disorder do not have good insight into their pathological experiences. Interestingly, despite significant delusions, many other psychosocial abilities remain intact"

So... was Jesus really the offspring of a human-deity mating?   Assuming that story wasn't cribbed from other stories current in his time, why should his belief in his divinity be more convincing than the "false" prophets?  It's not.

Conclusion:  Jesus, if he existed, and if his story was transmitted accurately, probably was more like Jim Jones and Charles Manson in his path to self-delusion than a truly half-divine man-god. The fact that others believed him, doesn't make it more true any more than Charlie's followers convince most of us that he was anything but a demented, delusional cult leader.

Which brings us to Paul, who in my opinion is the true inventor of Christianity.  What happened to him  on the road to Damascus?  In Acts 9-13 it says:
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.  “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you musist do.”
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.
The bright light sounds hallucinatory for sure, possibly due to something like an ischemic stroke, or stress-related hallucination.  This is his one big moment, not one of a long series, so he wasn't mentally ill, but he could have been in a temporarily ill state.  The others "hearing the sound" doesn't necessarily confirm the experience, especially since they didn't see anyone, and presumably didn't hear the bright light.  One, he was a leader and who is going to say "No, boss, I didn't hear nuthin?"  But also, it's possible for the person hearing the voice to believe others also heard it.  And since his companions weren't the ones writing about this story, is it likely (assuming they were real persons of course) that they were the ones telling the story to whoever did write Acts?  No, it's much more likely, that if Paul existed, and if he'd heard these things, and if he told others about them, that only his version of events was written down.

So... did Paul really hear Jesus talking to him on the Road to Damascus?  Since he'd never actually met Jesus before the crucifixion, how would he know?  He had only the voice's word for it, and disembodied voices just can't be trusted.  So my verdict on Paul:  hallucination and biased reporting.

You could go through the holy stories of any other religion and find the same types of stories (sometimes the same story with different names!) and because the people telling the stories were credible, powerful, charismatic, or dishonest, the stories became the basis for religions.  If you were born more than 100 years ago, you could hardly be blamed for believeng that other people's delusions, dreams, and hallucinations were actual windows into another reality.

If you believe in other people's delusions today, though, you should be ashamed of yourself.


Tommykey said...

I would have to say that the number one reason I'm an atheist is that all the religions of the world rely on magical communication between the other-world and people -- selected people -- in this world. Those who have been chosen to see, hear, know or otherwise learn of the other realm then transmit this specialized knowledge to the rest of us.

That's definitely one of my top reasons. By way of analogy, I like to point out that if I had the e-mail address of everyone on the planet, I could simultaneously send them all the same message. Since this God character seems incapable of the same thing, then it would appear that we have surpassed it in power.

The same reasoning applies to so-called psychic mediums. Isn't it so convenient that none of us ever seem to be capable of communicating with our dead relatives but apparently a select few people who tend to be strangers to us can?

LadyAtheist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LadyAtheist said...

As Edina said in "Absolutely Fabulous," And if you're a bloody psychic psychologist how come I'm always having to phone you?

Ahab said...

Would you believe that there are still believers in this day and age who believe in this? Listen to any of the speeches by New Apostolic Reformation preacher Lou Engle -- he places great emphasis on his dreams and visions.

I have to agree with you. Hallucinations are a sign that something is neurologically wrong, and dreams are just dreams.

LadyAtheist said...

Ahab I'm not sure I want to listen to them but I may just for the *lol*

I think the "charismatic" and pentacostal movements are more keyed into that stuff. At least the "mainstream" christians seem a bit embarrassed by it.

Anonymous said...

Just a few things from a believer in God, but not in religion. 1) Religion was first organized to fight God 2) Stop trying to figure out the mainstream version of how God was presented to you..which is the magical, mythical character..there are people who believe in a God who has to follow the scientific laws he set up 3) The Bible is symbolic, and should not be taken literally..the metaphors, and similes were added when it was revised and translated. For instance, you mentioned the burning bush. Moses did not see a burning bush. The burning bush was a symbol of God's anger, yet controlled..hence the bush did not burn just kept burning...Trust me..I would be an atheist too if I believed in all that heaven in the sky, hell in the ground fairy tale that mainstream religion has taught us..but what happens when you meet a person who believes in a scientific God?

LadyAtheist said...

Dear Anonymous,

I'm not going to take one version of Christianity as "true" over any other. I think they're all nonsense.

The fact is, that though some more enlightened modern liberal denominations have come to believe that the stories are allegories, they were taken to be true until very recently and are the source of the tradition. If the Bible were to be discovered today with no previous history, nobody would take any of it seriously.