I was sent a link to a rather unpleasant piece of writing today. It was apparently published by the Telegraph newspaper and was titled Are atheists mentally ill? It seems to be in response to an often discussed (but little cited) study that allegedly showed that believers have lower IQs than atheists.
I have no idea whether this study is credible or not, although I suspect that it has little statistical significance. In any case, my objection to this article by Thomas Knox isn’t because I’m an atheist but because of the sneering and derogatory way he refers, both directly and by implication, to people with mental illness.
Have a look at some of his arguments:
“Let’s dispense with the crude metric of IQ and look at the actual lives led by atheists, and believers, and see how they measure up. In other words: let’s see who is living more intelligently. And guess what: it’s the believers”.
“In 2004, scholars at UCLA revealed that college students involved in religious activities are likely to have better mental health…believers also report greater levels of happiness, are less likely to commit suicide, and cope with stressful events much better. Believers also have more kids”.
“Obviously, it’s the believers who are smarter. Anyone who thinks otherwise is mentally ill. And I mean that literally: the evidence today implies that atheism is a form of mental illness.”
“…we have, as a species, evolved to believe, which is one crucial reason why believers are happier – religious people have all their faculties intact, they are fully functioning humans.”
Even if you agree with Mr Knox’s ridiculous premise that atheism is a form of mental illness, his attitude (both explicit and implied) towards those with mental illness is unacceptable. His article suggests that the mentally ill don’t live intelligently (I’m not even sure what that means, to be honest – maybe that’s because I have a mental illness), that having a religious faith somehow reduces your chance of succumbing to a mental illness, that we have fewer children than the mentally well (I don’t know why this is relevant) and that people who have mental illness aren’t “fully functioning humans”.
I suspect that Mr Knox’s main intention when he wrote this article was to rile a few atheists and he seems to have succeeded. I’m sure he’s pleased. However he has also shown himself to be breathtakingly ignorant about mental illness; his choice of language and his implications that the mentally ill are a group to be sneered at and looked down upon are unacceptable.
He compounds his unpleasantness by concluding:
“Therefore, being an atheist – lacking the vital faculty of faith – should be seen as an affliction, and a tragic deficiency: something akin to blindness. Which makes Richard Dawkins the intellectual equivalent of an amputee, furiously waving his stumps in the air, boasting that he has no hands.”
Mr Knox took what could have been an interesting article about some of the differences between believers and atheists and turned it into a disgraceful example of how to belittle and alienate a vulnerable group. His concluding paragraph and subsequent tweet leave me speechless, frankly, so I will leave them to speak for themselves.
Having a mental illness isn’t easy, Mr Knox, but it doesn’t make us any less human than you. It doesn’t mean we are deficient. And it certainly doesn’t give you the right to flaunt your apparent prejudice against us in the media.