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The “mental illness argument” is a proposed label for a dismissive strategy often employed against the religious. The technique is simple: one finds some point of similarity between a religious behavior and a known mental illness, and proceeds to dismiss the religious behavior in its entirety. This is a plain logical fallacy involving an over-generalization of similarity. It seems structurally similar to the reductio ad Hitlerum: “comparing an opponent or their argument to Hitler or Nazism in an attempt to associate a position with one that is universally reviled.”
A response based on neuroscience is put forward by Whittle:
His [Patrick McNamara’s] book, The Neuroscience of Religious Experience, contains an exhaustive survey of the neurological research done in the field. In it, he describes three areas of investigation that have illuminated our understanding of the particular role that religious experience plays in the development of self: Neurological disorders and brain injuries; the operation of chemical agents on the brain; the neurology of religious experiences in healthy persons.
There is a remarkable consistency in all three areas of research. Persons suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), schizophrenia, schizotypy, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) among other disorders experience a pronounced heightening of religiousness. Successful treatment for these disorders corresponds to a reduction in religiosity. The areas of the brain involved in these disorders represents a circuit of interacting nodes:
I believe that when taken together the clinical data suggest that the limbic system (particularly the amygdala), portions of the basal ganglia, the right temporal lobe (particularly the anterior portion of the medial and superior temporal lobe), and the dorsomedial, orbitofrontal, and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex are the crucial nodes in a brain circuit that mediates religiosity. [The] circuit, in turn, is regulated by the mesocortical dopamine (DA) and various serotoninergic systems.
When this circuit is stimulated in the right way, you get religious ecstasy. When the circuit is overactivated, you get various forms of religiously tinged aberrations. When cortical sites (right temporal and frontal) play the leading role, you get ideational changes in belief systems and outright delusional states. When limbic and basal ganglia sites play the leading role, you get changes in ritual behaviors as well as increased interest in religious practices such as prayer and other rituals.
And what about healthy persons performing religious acts — prayer and glossolalia, meditation, reading the Psalms? Quite remarkably, the very same circuit of nodes are at play among the wide spectrum of religious activity and people. Rather than an indicator of mental disease, the data suggest that religious experiences represent something quite the opposite: they are part and parcel an aspect of ordinary human brain function. Neurological disorders experiencing extreme or dysfunctional religiosity appear to be malfunctioning nodes and/or interactions within the otherwise normal human circuit for religion.
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