Jacoby is a 1984 Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of "The Age of American Unreason." She was named a fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library in 2001.

Religions Rooted In Delusions

Q: A Baltimore mother accused of joining a cult and starving her child says she was acting on her religious beliefs. What's the difference between extreme religious conviction and delusion? Between a religion and a cult?

These questions go right to the heart of the atheist case against religion in general. I do not believe that there is one bit of difference between any religious conviction based on belief in the supernatural and a delusion. There is, of course, a huge difference--in emotional and legal terms--between pleasant delusions, such as belief in a merciful deity who forgives sin, and evil, criminal delusions. The "One Mind" cult in Baltimore, which starved a toddler to death because he refused to say "Amen" after meals, clearly belongs to the party of evil delusion. The leader of the group, known as "Queen Antoinette," told her followers, including the mother, that God would resurrect the baby. After the body decomposed and the group abandoned all hope of resurrection, the cult members hotfooted it out of Baltimore and stored the suitcase with the baby's remains in Philadelphia. They weren't deluded enough, it seems, to proclaim their achievement from the rooftops.

I know that what I am about to say will outrage many Christians whose religion ethos is based on mercy and forgiveness, but the only difference between believing that a man rose from the dead after being executed more than 2000 years ago (the standard, mainstream Christian view) and believing that someone rose from the dead yesterday is--well, 2000 years. If you went to your own pastor and told him that your mother was dead in her bed, but that she was about to be resurrected, your pastor would, no doubt, see that you got the psychiatric help you needed. But believing that someone in the mists of time rose from the dead is theologically and socially acceptable.

While I do not see any real difference between religious belief and delusion, there is a major difference between mainstream religions and cults. Cults generally restrict the ability of their members to leave--by force, if necessary--and they engage in a constant brainwashing process that isolates cult members and removes them from any possibility of acquiring contradictory information. Engaged in this process, cults like the one in Baltimore frequently violate the law.

The Baltimore DA has filed first-degree murder charges against 21-year-old Ria Ramkissoon and four other members of the group. Ramkisooon's attorney, Steven D. Silverman, is not claiming that his client was criminally insane; instead, he says she was brainwashed into "following a religion." He asserts that because she was brainwashed, she was unable to do anything but follow the orders of her superiors in the cult. Here we have a classic example of the confusion generated by kowtowing to religion in this society. If following a religion that kills babies who don't say "Amen" after meals isn't a classic definition of insanity, I don't know what is. But these people are not merely insane: they are criminally insane. Calling an entity a religion or, for that matter, a cult, does not make it less insane.

I have no sympathy for religious defenses when major legal violations are involved. And it is not only members of tiny cults who have been allowed to violate the law and get away with a religious defense. In God's Perfect Child (1999), Caroline Fraser details a nauseating array of cases in which children of Christian Scientists have died because their parents denied them conventional medical treatment. What would be called child abuse or depraved indifference to human life if the parents were not religious is called "liberty of conscience" in too many cases where religious parents are involved. Is it a delusion or merely an "extreme religious conviction" if you believe that God will heal a child's perforated appendix and therefore the child must be denied medical treatment?

Of course it is true that most mainstream religions do not instruct their members to murder in the name of spiritual delusion. But there is nothing rare about cases, especially involving domestic violence, in which religion plays a significant role. The man who beheaded his estranged wife in Buffalo fits a classic profile of a religiously motivated "honor killing,." but already people are trying to separate religion from "culture" in this case.

Devout anti-choice Christians don't have the right, because of their moral convictions, to murder doctors who perform abortions. People who consider assisted suicide a moral act in certain circumstances--a group that includes religious believers and atheists--
get to try to change the law, but they don't get to break it without consequences if they can't change it. Jehovah's Witnesses, whose religion prohibits blood transfusions, no longer (in theory) get to risk their children's lives by denying them blood in life-threatening circumstances. But again, many believers who perform insane acts in the name of religion get off much more easily than they would if they claimed some other rationalization. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia would sanction the killing and torture of animals in voodoo rites because to do otherwise would violate freedom of religion.

There are plenty of mainstream religious delusions that, while not intended to commit
violence, make a great contribution to human misery. When Pope Benedict preaches the delusion in Africa that condoms do not help halt the spread of AIDS, he has blood on his hands. He is selling this anti-scientific delusion in Africa because it won't sell anymore to educated residents of Europe and the United States. So he tells poor, unschooled people not only that the church is morally opposed to contraception but that condoms don't work. What difference is there, in this instance as in so many others, between an extreme religious conviction and a delusion? None.

Our society and its laws must stop all this nonsense about placing clearly violent religious delusions in a separate category from non-religious delusions. As for nonviolent, happy delusions about angels and eternal life, they can be left to comfort those who derive comfort from these ideas. But it is all, in the end, a delusion. As long as your delusion, in Thomas Jefferson's phrase, "neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg," you are welcome to it. Via

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Well said.
The real difference between a religion and a cult boils down to something as simple as time - time in existence. It appears that, in order for a cult to become a religion it must remain active and viable for about 100 years. If a cult is able to do so for 100 years or so, it winds up becoming more and more accepted as a mainstream religion. Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc. are around that time frame, and society is beginning to accept them more and more. Scientology is about halfway there, and yet it is already becoming more and more accepted; give it another 50 years or so and it will be as accepted as Mormonism is now.

However, on a side note, I do agree with you in that society must be protected, and specifically the "innocents" (e.g. children), from religions/cults that bring harm to those innocents. Basically, as long as the religion/cult respects the "laws of the land", then I think society has to accept it (begrudgingly). Do I wish religions would go away? Of course. But I also believe that people have the right to believe what they want to, as long as they don't impose their beliefs upon me.

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