Aug 11th 2014

Dangerous Personality Disorders in Leading Positions – The Role of Religion

by Ian Hughes

Ian Hughes is trained in psychoanalysis. In the area of political science, he co-authored a study on the effectiveness of democracy in Ireland. He graduated with a PhD in atomic physics from Queen’s University in Belfast, and worked in some of the top research laboratories in Europe and the United States. These included JET, the nuclear fusion research facility, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States.

In his 2018 book Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities are Destroying Democracy, he brought together his experience in science, psychology and political science to demonstrate that a small proportion of people with dangerous personality disorders are responsible for most of the violence and greed that scars our world. The book explored how demonstrably dangerous individuals, namely psychopaths and those with narcissistic and paranoid personality disorders, can so easily gain power, attract widespread followings and lead societies towards calamity. He is also contributing author to the 2019 book “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.”

He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Marine and Renewable Energy Ireland (MaREI) Centre, Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork. His work at MaREI is aimed at helping to establish a common understanding among decision-makers across government of the challenges and opportunities associated with system transitions for sustainability and the policy responses which can enable the system changes needed to address climate change.

 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

Earlier article by Ian Hughes on Facts & Arts:

Dangerous Personality Disorders in Leading Positions – DR Congo

Published 21.07.2014
The story of the Congo wars is one of state weakness and failure – the weakness and failure of Congo to defend its borders, impose law and order in its eastern provinces, and build the institutions of state necessary to improve the impoverished...

Psychopaths as Predators of the Poor

Published 25.05.2014
History is the story of the struggle of the psychologically normal majority of humanity to free ourselves from the tyranny of a psychologically disordered minority who are marked by their innate propensity for violence and greed. This minority...

Nelson Mandela and the Wisdom of Non-Psychopathic Leaders

Published 22.02.2014
Failure of leadership is arguably the greatest curse afflicting our world. Too many countries are cursed still by leaders who oppress their people, make a mockery of the institutions of government, and cling to power regardless of the cost in...

Dangerous Personality Disorder in a Leading Position: Mao

Published 22.02.2014
Ten years ago, on the one hundred and tenth anniversary of Mao’s birth, a group of dissidents wrote a letter entitled ‘An Appeal for the Removal of the Corpse of Mao Zedong from Beijing’. In it they wrote[1], ‘Mao instilled in people’s minds a...

Dangerous Personality Disorders in Leading Positions

Published 08.02.2014
Small proportion of people with dangerous personality disorders have dominated the psychologically normal majority of the population in every society on earth for most of human history. The conditions that prevailed the world over, until...

Browse articles by author

More Essays

May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "A blockchain company has bought a piece of Banksy artwork and burnt it. But instead of destroying the value of the art, they claim to have made it more valuable, because it was sold as a piece of blockchain art. The company behind the stunt, called Injective Protocol, bought the screen print from a New York gallery. They then live-streamed its burning on the Twitter account BurntBanksy. But why would anyone buy a piece of art just to burn it? Understanding the answer requires us to delve into the tricky world of blockchain or “NFT” art."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Exercise is good for your health at every age – and you can reap the benefits no matter how late in life you start. But our latest research has shown another benefit of being physically active throughout life. We found that in the US, people who were more physically active as teenagers and throughout adulthood had lower healthcare costs."
Mar 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although around one in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s still no cure, and no way to prevent the disease from progressing. But a recent study may bring us one step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s. The trial, which was conducted on animals, has found a specific molecule can prevent the buildup of a toxic protein known to cause Alzheimer’s in the brain."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "