Dangerous Personality Disorders in Leading Positions – The Role of Religion

by Ian Hughes Dr Ian Hughes’ career has spanned scientist, government science policy advisor, and writer. His curiosity and passion for knowledge cross the boundaries of the natural, social and political sciences.Having graduated with a PhD in atomic physics, Ian worked in some of the top research laboratories in Europe and the United States where he researched the exotic properties of matter on the smallest scale. As an academic he established a Department of Creative Technologies to explore the synergies between art and technology, and co-founded a programme to bring together scientists and journalists to make science more accessible to the public. His current job as advisor in science, technology and innovation policy for the Irish government explores how research in science can result in economic and social benefits for society.Ian has also trained in psychoanalysis, and has previously authored a major study on the effectiveness of democracy in Ireland. In his new book Imperfect Design. Ian brings together his training in science, psychology and political science to demonstrate how a small proportion of people with dangerous personality disorders cause most of the suffering in our world. Ian’s website www.disorderedworld.com was recently been shortlisted in the Top 10 Political Blogs in Ireland. You can also follow Ian on Twitter at @disorderedworld 11.08.2014

 in Iraq is murdering Christians and Shia Muslims alike under the guise of a Holy War. Israel’s merciless bombardment of Gaza has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of women and children- the youngest to be killed was ten days old, the oldest was 100. In Uganda, evangelical Christians are vowing to campaign to reinstate the death penalty for gay men. And in Burma, Buddhist monks preach hate against that country’s persecuted Muslim minority.

Amidst this whirlwind of sectarian hatred, it is time to finally recognise that not only is morality possible without god, morality is infinitely better without god.   

Religion Hinders Understanding

History clearly shows that the rejection of religious dogma is essential if we are to expand our capacities for love and understanding.

Let’s begin with understanding. In his book ‘Imagine There’s No Heaven’, Mitchell Stephens shows that the decline of religion was an essential precondition for advances in fields as diverse as history, medicine, science, politics and psychology.

The discipline of history began in ancient Greece when Thucydides wrote his account of the Peloponnesian War without recourse to the will of the gods or the fulfilment of prophecy.

The scientific basis of medicine can be traced to Hippocrates’ rejection of disease as having a divine origin, and his search for natural causes and remedies for psychical illnesses.

The progress of science, from Copernicus, through Galileo and Newton, to Darwin and beyond has been based on the rejection of divine causes, and the successes of evidence gathering, experimentation and rational explanation.

In politics, the weakening of religious monopoly on power in Europe during the Enlightenment allowed ideas such as political representation, equality within and between nations, and freedom of speech to emerge in serious opposition to monarchy, tyranny, and the divine will of kings.

And in psychology, Sigmund Freud, building on Darwin’s scientific account of nature, set out to develop an explanation of human psychology, as he put it, ‘without god in it’. The result has been an understanding of normal and abnormal psychology without recourse to possession by demons or revelations from the gods.

As Mitchell Stephens states, ‘The modern world was built by those who not only found the gods unbelievable but made them unnecessary by demonstrating how the world worked without them.’ [1]

Modern day religious fundamentalists, in their bloody quest to overturn centuries of progress, are a forceful reminder that the rejection of religious dogma is essential for the continued advancement of human understanding.

Religion Hinders Love

But it is not only our capacity for understanding that is diminished by religion, our capacity for love is too.

The argument that religion diminishes our capacity for love is easiest to make when we consider the restrictions that many religions impose on loving those of another faith. It is also murderously apparent in the hatred reserved for anyone who refuses to accept the existence of god. In thirteen countries atheism is still punishable by death.

The argument that a rejection of religious doctrine makes us more compassionate towards others is also easy to make in view of religion’s treatment of gay men and lesbians. Almost all the major religions sanction discrimination, at best, and murder, at worst, for those whose sexual orientation differs from the heterosexual majority. Evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Muslims, when not urging death upon on each other, find common cause in their hatred for sexual minorities.

But religious dogma has been most corrosive in its effects on humanity’s capacity to love women. In its dehumanisation of women and girls, religious dogma has sinned, and continues to sin, grievously against all of humankind.

In the film Salma, director Kim Longinotto tells the remarkable story of India’s leading Tamil poet and her lifelong struggle against the stifling misogynistic religious culture of her village in southern India. Besides demonstrating the suffocating effects of religion on the vitality of women and girls, the film also shows how men too become its victims. Trapped in the prison of their dominant status, their relationships with the women closest to them are impoverished by the men’s sexual immaturity and inherited superiority. Salma demonstrates how the rejection of religious dogma is necessary for relationships between men and women to be based on love rather than power.

Religion and Psychological Pathology

So why do religions so often stifle our capacities for love and understanding?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that some of the central characteristics of religion appeal to people with dangerous personality disorders. These include the claim to absolute truth, an insistence that proof is not necessary, widespread use of censorship to suppress dissent, and the threat of ultimate sanction for those who disagree. It is these characteristics that serve to forge the link between religious dogma, sectarian hatred, and the rise to power of violent religious bigots.

More specifically, sectarianism provides those with paranoid personality disorder with the perfect outlet for their talents as cheerleaders in whipping up hatred against the ‘enemy’. It provides narcissists with the comforting illusion that they are speaking for God, and allows them ready access to power and authority. And it provides psychopaths with unlimited opportunities to kill and maim countless innocents and be proclaimed heroes for doing so. This unholy combination means that religious dogma often provides a path to glory for the psychologically disordered.

Religion’s claim on absolute certainty, its insistence that no evidence is required to support its assertions, its use of censorship, and its threat of violence if religious beliefs are not adhered to, form the perfect recipe for tyrannical rule. In the words of author Reza Aslan, it transforms those who should be considered murderers and thugs into soldiers sanctioned by God [2].

Like alcoholics whose vision of life has been narrowed to their bottle of booze, modern day religious fundamentalists have narrowed the scope of their perception to a constricted arid mythology that denies the rich diversity of creation. Worshiping a god of gleeful ignorance, they are consumed with violence towards those who value real learning.

Science as a Candle in the Dark

Writing in the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot wrote, ‘Lost in an immense forest during the night I only have a small light to guide me. An unknown man appears and says to me “My friend, blow out your candle so you can better find your way.” This unknown man is a theologian.’ Two centuries later, religious fundamentalists are still intent on blowing out the candles of reason and compassion.

The real and present danger of religious fundamentalism comes from the resonance between religious dogma and the pathological psychology of those with dangerous personality disorders. In the place of questioning and doubt, this disordered minority seek to impose tyrannical authority. In the place of humility in the face of the immensity of the cosmos, they would enforce a monstrous narcissistic certainty.

Darwin’s colleague Thomas Huxley, who coined the term agnostic, wrote, ‘The little light of awakened human intelligence shines so mere a spark amidst the abyss of the unknown and the unknowable.’

Humility is an essential precondition for human progress. Substituting a desire to know with blind faith is a certain road to tyranny. And while religion often promotes humility on the part of its adherents, it is too often built around the arrogance and narcissism of religious leaders.

The Most Dangerous Channel for Evil

The discovery of personality disorders and their prevalence in every society on earth is giving us a deeper understanding of how violent personalities and religion interact. The psychological make-up of the majority of humanity leaves us susceptible to religion’s core messages of sin, repentance and redemption. However psychopathic personalities and those with narcissistic and paranoid personality disorders are not influenced by these core messages because they are simply incapable of compassion and guilt. Their vision of religion differs sharply from that of the majority.

Religions which tolerate both those who devote their lives to making this world a more humane and compassionate place, and those who commit mass murder in their efforts to ignite religious war are a channel for evil – perhaps the most dangerous channel for evil there is.

[1] Mitchell Stephens, Imagine There’s No Heaven: How atheism helped create the modern world, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014,  p28

[2] Reza Aslan, How to Win a Cosmic War: Confronting radical religion, Arrow Books, 2010:5

Dr. Ian Hughes' blog DisorderedWorld can be found here.

You can also follow Ian on Twitter at @disorderedworld

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