Dear Dr. Saltzman,
I have a friend who is very nice and very intelligent. He has told me that he has seen Jesus. He has seen Jesus on several occasions. He says that Jesus has told him many very specific things. He has no doubt about this whatsoever. He has seen Jesus with his own eyes. Do you think he may be deluded? If so, how common are such delusions?
Seeing or hearing something which really is not there is not a delusion, but a hallucination. A delusion is not something seen or heard, but an idea which is firmly held in spite of being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or supported by rational thought. So, for example, if I see George Bush sitting next to me in my office, or hear him whispering to me, that would be an hallucination. But if I believe that the soon to be ex-president is controlling my thoughts with a secret ray gun, that would be a delusion.
Both hallucinations and delusions may be features or symptoms of certain mental disorders--schizophrenia, for example--so I imagine your question to me really involves whether I think your friend's insistence on having seen Jesus points to some kind of mental illness in your friend.
Without knowing your friend, I will not say that he is mentally ill, but I would say that his seeing an image which he imagines is Jesus, and hearing "Jesus" telling him specific things do constitute hallucinations, and that his beliefs that he hears Jesus and sees Jesus and that Jesus speaks directly to him are delusions.
Of course what constitutes delusion is a matter of opinion, and this must be taken into account when trying to decide about mental illness. In my view, most religious beliefs are nothing more than delusion: a "God" who judges people and allows some to have "eternal life" at his feet in a heavenly kingdom while others, less favored apparently, burn in hellfire; reincarnation; miraculous healing as a result of prayer; virgin girls awaiting (for steamy sexual purposes) martyrs in paradise; the rapture; so-called "salvation," strictly limited to those who claim to believe in the divinity and resurrection of Jesus with; the infallability or special authority of human beings such as popes, lamas, and other so-called "holy men"; etc.; (this absurd list could go on for pages as it does in the "holy books")--all of that, in my view, is delusion.
And the delusive nature of such beliefs is not limited to one religion or another. All religions share the same basic fault: unquestioning embrace of grandiose claims supported by absolutely no evidence at all. And this abject credulity is considered by such believers not as the abdication of intelligence--which, obviously, it is--but instead seen as a virtue they call "faith." How very sad.
I think that any intelligent person must ask himself or herself this: why is believing that fairies live at the foot of the garden either a delusion or simply the product of a fertile poetic imagination, while the belief that "God" directs our actions (George Bush vis-a-vis invading Iraq, for example) is considered not just valid, not just factual, but a praiseworthy demonstration of faith? To me such "faith" involves an unfortunate lack of critical thinking, and deserves neither deference nor "respect."
To choose just one example: evanglical Christians claim that because, by definition, the Bible is the "word of God," it may be depended upon to settle any moral or ethical question. But that is backwards. Extraordinary claims, as Carl Sagan said, require extraordinary proofs. Simply claiming, simply avowing, that some old text is not, like all other writing, comprised of human opinion, human history, or human imagination, but instead is literally the "word of God," does not constitute even ordinary proof, much less anything extraordinary. A claim is not proof. A claim is something that remains to be proved. If a claim has been proved, it no longer is a claim, but a fact. In other words, those extraordinary claims about the divine provenance of the Bible are just words. There is not one shred of proof for that proposition, and much reason, scholars know, to doubt it. But the believers in this nonsense pride themselves on the "strength of their faith" (translation: the depth of their delusion).
However, so many people participate in such religious beliefs that at this point in human history one can share in that foolishness without necessarily being mentally ill. In other words, if just one person, or a few people, believed that after death we all go to heaven or hell based on whether we had faith in Jesus or not, that would certainly be called a delusion, and would be considered a sign of mental disorder. But millions and millions believe this idea, so, although it seems like obvious poppycock—and belief in poppycock is, by definition, delusion--one could participate in this delusion without necessarily being mentally ill, but only in conformity with folly.
In his book, The End of Faith (New York, Norton. 2004), Sam Harris explains this elegantly:
We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is not rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them 'religious'; otherwise they are likely to be called 'mad', 'psychotic' or 'delusional'. . . Clearly there is sanity in numbers. And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window. And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are.
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