Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Posts tagged ‘religion’

Is atheism a mental illness?

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.”

and tweeting:


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.

Reflections on motherhood and atheism

When I was a young child I believed in God. I was christened in the Church of England and until I was 5 or 6 (when my father lost his faith) my family attended church quite regularly. My parents were careful to raise my sister and me in a balanced way though, we were encouraged to explore our beliefs and make up our own minds about religion. As a result my sister is a committed Christian while I am a convinced atheist (well done Mum and Dad!).

I’m not an atheist of the sneering, Dawkins-led kind though; I have no time for that sort. To be honest there are times when I wish that I had faith; I see how comforting it can be in hard times and I wish that I had that extra support. But to me religion simply makes no sense. There are aspects of religion that I love though: the beauty of the buildings, the sense of community, the music, some of the rituals (in fact I recently read a great book by the philosopher Alain de Botton, enthusing about how helpful many aspects of religion could be in secular life – it’s called Religion For Atheists if you want to check it out).

I’ve mentioned before how my atheism can sometimes make parts of motherhood tricky (discussing death with young children for example). I wish that I could tell my children that there is a supernatural being watching over them. I wish that I could tell them that heaven exists, that they will be reunited with lost loved ones after death. But to me and to DH it’s just too big a lie. We can just about manage Santa Claus (although DD already has her suspicions about his authenticity) but not heaven or deities.

However we are being careful to raise the children to be curious and open-minded. When DD asks I explain that Mummy and Daddy believe X, while other relatives and friends believe Y, and some people believe Z. It’s important to me, to us, that the children come to their own decisions about religion as they grow up. It’s equally important that they learn to be respectful of other people’s right to their beliefs, although respecting some of the actual beliefs (those leading to homophobia, misogyny etc) can be nigh on impossible.

As we live in the UK, a culturally Christian country, we celebrate the major festivals of Christmas and Easter. DD knows the nativity story and that that’s why some people have a religious Christmas, but so far we’ve steered clear of the rather more gory Easter story. We don’t do the religious traditions but we do the secular ones (a decorated tree and presents, chocolate at Easter) and celebrate the original purpose of the pagan festivals held at this time (the midwinter feast marking the beginning of the end of winter, and the spring feast marking the signs of new life).

DD will start school in September and as we are in England a daily act of worship is required by law. A lot of non-faith schools get around this by having daily assemblies where stories are told – stories from religions, stories such as Aesop’s fables and so on – and having prayers almost as an afterthought, or instead having a minute for being thoughtful. This will be DD’s first real exposure to organised religion (I’m not sure an annual Christingle service with my mum and sister really counts!) and I expect that she will have lots of questions. I just wish I had all the answers…

Mummy, what does dying mean?

DD and I made cakes earlier. We’d weighed out all the ingredients and were mixing them together when she paused, looked at me with a serious expression and asked The Question. The one we’ve been waiting for her to ask while fervently hoping she wouldn’t, not yet. The one about death.

DH and I knew this was going to come up at some point so we’d planned our approach. We’ve always felt that if a child is old enough to ask a question then they’re old enough to get a truthful answer, albeit somewhat simplified (this tactic was challenged recently when DD asked what a universe is. I struggled with that one a bit!). We had decided that we would explain death in a calm, factual manner, emphasising that it’s completely normal and nothing frightening. To start with it went something like this:

DD: Mummy, what does dying mean?
Me: (deep breath) Dying is what happens when your body stops working, stops breathing, and the the part of you that is you disappears.
DD: Oh. Did your Nana die?
Me: (relieved this is going so well) Yes, a long time ago.
DD: Did she know she died?
Me: Um…

I explained in a bit more detail, making sure to reassure her that dying doesn’t hurt (yeah I know, but she’s not quite 4) and that it’s just your body stopping.

DD: So dead people can’t move or talk or breathe?
Me: No, the bit that’s you inside your body isn’t there any more so the body can’t do any of those things.
DD: (indignantly) But dead people can talk, they talk with their hands!

At this point I took a moment to explain the difference between dead and deaf… Then DD asked if DH and I would die one day and I said yes but not until we were very old. After a moment’s thought she asked if she was going to die and when I said yes (but again, not until she’s very old) she burst into tears wailing “I don’t want to die!”.

This quickly passed though as soon she had another question – what happens to dead bodies? I took another deep breath and explained about coffins, funerals (all the person’s friends and family have a little party and tell stories about what the person was like) and burial. She even asked whether the body stayed in the ground forever so I briefly touched on the idea that the body would become part of the soil and help feed plants and insects. She quite liked this idea and decided it was time to resume our baking.

All the way through this conversation I kept thinking how much easier it would be (for both of us!) if I could tell her that when people die they go to heaven. But although my family are Christian DH and I are both atheists. The idea of heaven is a wonderfully comforting one but for us to tell her that it’s true would be hypocritical, despite part of me wishing that I could.

When DD gets round to asking what happens to the bit inside your body that is you, we’ll respond the way we do with all things relating to religion and atheism. We’ll tell her that different people believe different things, explain what the different beliefs are and let her make up her own mind as to what she thinks is true. We’ll do the same with DS when he’s old enough.

But for now DD seems satisfied with the answers I gave (although I feel like I’ve been put through the wringer!) and doesn’t appear to be worrying. I guess that’s the most important thing.

Why I won’t be teaching my children to be tolerant

Tolerance is a word often used in 21st century Britain. We are encouraged to be tolerant towards those of different gender, sexuality, nationality, race religion, politics and the myriad other differences that emerge in a society as large and varied as our own. A tolerant society is seen as evidence of a civilised society, with less tolerant groups seen as backwards.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines tolerance as “the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with”. To put up with it, in other words. The word “tolerance” is usually used these days when referring to the widely accepted idea that even if you’re uncomfortable around those who are different you should accept them and just keep quiet about it.

However this implicit muffling of views that mainstream society finds unacceptable can lead to the proliferation of unpleasant groups like the English Defence League and the BNP. It is a widespread belief that these groups are vile, racist, ignorant and inflammatory. Yet they must appeal to some people as they keep acquiring new members. And if we insist that tolerance is the way forwards, then shouldn’t we tolerate their views too? No matter how disagreeable we may find them?

Of course, this leads to a rather sticky problem. Where do we draw the line? Who decides which views and differences must be tolerated and which are unacceptable? Why is it ok to criticise someone for being racist but not to criticise someone for being tolerant? I don’t have a simple answer to this other than to say that it is the law, and that the majority of people in our society agree that this is right.

However I don’t want my children to grow up tolerating the differences that we all have, whether it’s someone’s religion, sexuality or anything else. I want my children to grow up embracing our differences, exploring them and learning from them. But I also want my children to have the confidence to confront and argue against views and attitudes they find abhorrent.

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