February 24, 2004

Mad Englishmen and Other Topics

WE NOTE WITH DISPLEASURE that one Oliver James, writing in this week's edition of The Observer, has taken a rather sneering attitude towards American religious attitudes in an essay about mental illness.

We are not surprised at Mr James' conclusions, as his entire essay is badly-written from the first sentence. Indeed, in that first sentence, Mr James asserts that "psychiatrists maintain that you can no more be a bit mad than a bit pregnant." Perhaps scholarship holds differently on the other side of the pond, but we have never known such views to hold sway here.

For instance, several years ago, we personally suffered from bouts with clinical depression. This was cured over time with the assistance of medication, and we no longer are treated for it. As such, one could argue that our particular case was less severe than a person who needed both therapy and medication for treatment; and that second case was itself less severe than a depression case requiring hospitalization for treatment. Hence, Mr James' argument that there is in fact a spectrum from sanity to madness is entirely specious; or, as we would say here in the United States: well, duh.

So why Mr James sees the need to bring religion into the debate is beyond us, especially when there is nothing to debate. But, in any event, he writes:

Delusional beliefs, like thinking you are a poached egg, are another crucial sign of madness. About one in seven Americans believe they have seen a UFO, and 3.7m claim they have been abducted by aliens. Half agree with the statement: 'The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.' OK, the Yanks are nuts.

The first point, that one in seven Americans, or approximately 40 million people, believe they have seen a UFO largely cannot largely be chalked up to delusional beliefs. Plenty of people see odd things in the sky. These things are, of course, later found to be passenger jets or weather balloons or weird cloud formations, or some other rational explanation is given for their appearance: such as the testing of an advanced fighter aircraft. But simply seeing an unidentified flying object is not prima facie evidence that little green men are in command of it, and that should be apparent.

True, Mr James points out that 1.3 percent of the American public do believe that little green men are in command of such UFOs, and these poor souls believe that said alien life forms have temporarily absconded with them for unknown purposes. However, given that this estimate was likely drawn from a survey sample of just a few thousand persons, it seems foolish to automatically extrapolate that 3.7 million Americans find the idea of a man from Mars eating cars and bars and now guitars all that plausible. Even if they did, one could simply argue that this myth was easily spread among those few people who are easily suspectible to believing in such things. Being mad is not, in many cases, the same as being witless.

Which, of course, makes Mr James' final point about Americans' belief in the Bible's accuracy and source even more insulting. One ought not compare religious belief to madness or witlessness; to do so is both morally repugnant and intellectually puerile. If one wants to argue the pros and cons of religious belief on an intellectual or theological level, that is one thing. But to dismiss it across the board is to show an amazing amount of disrepect for those who do believe in it.

Now we do not personally believe the Bible is the actual Word of God; as a Roman Catholic, we believe it is the inspired Word of God as written by Man. That is a different interpretation than that shared by many of our Protestant friends; but we have no quarrel with them for holding their views, and we respect their faith, even though we may not personally believe in some particular points of their doctrine.

Yet the way Mr James writes, he puts religious belief on the same plane as whether one believes one will get a check in the mail later this week. This intellectual laziness boggles our mind. It would be no different than us saying, hypothetically, that 15 percent of Britons still believe the old version of Clause IV in the Labour Party's Constitution* is a reasonable policy solution despite history's general verdict to the contrary -- and thus, they are mad.

Now it would be perfectly silly for us to argue such a thing, because one cannot link mental health to political or religious belief. Apparently Mr James sees it differently, and that's unfortunate. But as he does, we would be quite interested to know just what he thinks about certain issues. Perhaps he needs some good time off in the country.

(via Emily Jones)

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* The old version of Clause IV essentially calls for the forcible nationalization of industry, a doctrine now thoroughly rejected by all major political entities in the developed world.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at February 24, 2004 10:26 PM | TrackBack