Saturday, June 7, 2014
Are atheists mentally ill? (Revisited)
A ever-growing number of scientific studies comparing religious people to atheists find that religious people live longer, suffer fewer illnesses (including mental illness) and recover from illness faster than their non-religious peers. This is true even after adjustments are made for smoking and other health-impairing habits. Religious people are also found to be happier than atheists.
I'm thinking about these striking findings again after reading an article titled "Are atheists mentally ill?" by British writer Sean Thomas that appeared in the UK's Telegraph last year. Thomas' article was written to provoke, but the question is a valid one: Why does study after study find these disparities in health and happiness between believers and non-believers?
The answer, I believe, is that religious people are in touch with something real in the universe. They make their connection to this spiritual reality via a sixth sense we humans all possess, a faculty that is variously developed in different individuals and cultures. And yes, I think of this faculty as literally a sixth sense.
As with most mammals, we humans have five senses--sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste--that tell us facts about our environment. In addition to these five, however, we also possess a sixth sense that other species lack. In religious people this sense is more developed, while in the non-religious it remains latent. Some people in the modern West (dogmatic atheists) even do their best to keep it as dormant as possible, but of course the fact that it is there in the first place suggests it is not best left dormant. Why after all do we have this sense?
Advocates of a narrowly materialist empirical science (among which the New Atheists) have proposed several evolutionary explanations. Most of these explanations relate to religion's advantages for group cohesion. I find the arguments unpersuasive, but especially worth noting is that they all take for granted that what is being felt or experienced by religious people is purely illusory--i.e., in the case of this particular sense, unlike with our other five senses, the reality being perceived is asserted to be necessarily false. To this I would simply say: Science offers no final ground for making such an assertion.
Clearly this sixth sense we have is somehow connected to the human phenomenon of consciousness, but how it is connected we can only speculate. In any case I believe that it is literally a matter of perceiving the presence of a realm (the spiritual) or a reality (God) that does exist. It is a bridge allowing us connection to a power that begins to complete us once connection is made.
Why, then, the skeptic will say, are there so many different religions? If humans are, in religion, perceiving and reacting to a reality behind things, why do they react in so many different ways?
The wide variety of religions over history doesn't trouble me in the least. In fact I consider it just more evidence for my thesis. That humans perceive the divine somewhat differently from culture to culture is just what one would expect. The interesting thing is that they DO perceive the divine. It is something that is there, but that is perceived "through a glass darkly", as Paul puts it in the context of Christian faith.
Again: Evolution has brought us to a state where this connection is possible. Those who allow the narrow interpretation of science called "scientism" to shut them off from making it are, not surprisingly, suffering from their choice. Because it is part of our humanity to reach across the bridge to that partially revealed reality on the other side. This is what the studies tell us. Meanwhile the dogmatic atheists keep insisting it's religious people who are mentally ill.
Debating with atheists, I've often been struck by the feeling that sitting before me were people who lacked a part of the sensorium. As if we were tailing about a complex piece of music and he or she simply couldn't hear two of the seven instruments being played. It wasn't at all a matter of disagreeing about science--the disagreement was rather over whether science was fitted to tell us about the whole spectrum of sound we're capable of hearing. My ears pick up something that the atheist's do not. And the little meter he carries around in his bag (call it empirical science) simply doesn't have the range to deal with the music in question. Which is not surprising. Though science tells us much about the intricacies of the physical universe, it can tell us precisely nothing about why the universe exists in the first place.
It is clear that developing our connection to this spiritual level in the universe--which religion helps cultivate--is good for our being: it makes us healthier, more resistant, happier. There is an energy that sustains us and adds life to us. Anyone who still cares to doubt it can just look at the evidence.
The linked article is provocative, yes, but I think just this kind of provocation is needed at present given the aggressive tactics of the New Atheists. It is they who are misleading us as to what we are and what the universe is. And they are misleading themselves too. Which isn't doing them much good, is it?
(Sean Thomas' article is at http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/seanthomas/100231060/are-atheists-mentally-ill/. Thanks to the bloggers at the Freedom from Atheism Foundation for bringing it to my attention.)