Hemant Fail

We have to be careful when we’re talking about crimes committed because of alleged demons, gods, fairies, etc. One thing we can’t ignore is the possibility of mental illness. Religious imagery is a common theme in psychosis. So when people say “the devil made me do it” they may be a religious true believer who convinced themselves (or used the excuse) that they were not under their own self-control, or they may be a person with schizophrenia or post-partum psychosis that was genuinely hearing a voice or having a hallucination that told them they needed to commit the crime for whatever delusional reason they came up with.

This is why I think it’s irresponsible to say that religion is to blame when crimes like this happen (as reported by the otherwise awesome Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta). The individual involved could have just as easily said that an alien told them to murder their child. Or some generic voice. Anything, really. So if they are found “not guilty by reason of insanity”, good. They probably are mentally ill and need the help they will get if they make this plea (because the majority of the time, these people are sent to hospitals where they belong).

“Guilty” in the law, as is my understanding, refers to your ability to tell the difference between right and wrong at the time of the crime. In the case of a person with a mental illness, it’s possible that their delusion was so convincing that it overpowered their sense of right and wrong. Sometimes the delusion involves doing something horrible to save their own life (so the voice says) so they legitimately believe that they must do this or they’ll die. So, technically, they are “not guilty” but it’s because they are insane, therefore they are sent to doctors to get the help they need. They aren’t typically just immediately let loose. So I’m not sure what the objection is here. Does anyone really think these people will do better in prison?

We can’t responsibly blame religion for (some of) these crimes. I think most events like these speak to the more relevant issue of the stigma of mental illness and the lack of recognition of warning signs before “odd behaviour” turns into “dismembering children”. People don’t “get” psychosis. People are also prone to brushing off odd behaviour and make the assumption that behaviour is always something people can control. Is that true? Can we always control our behaviour? The law says we can’t. And that’s why the plea “not guilty by reason of insanity” exists. These people don’t belong in prisons, they belong in hospitals to be rehabilitated so they won’t hurt anyone or themselves again. To ignore these aspects of law and society just because religion is involved is irresponsibly fundamentalist.

10 responses to “Hemant Fail

  1. Skeptigirl,

    Nice blog. I can partially agree, on the one hand, that religion wasn’t the direct cause of these killings. But on the other hand I have to acknowledge that religion promotes the kind of ideas in a schizophrenics mind that ought not be promoted.

    I wrote a little about that after George Tiller died here:


    Was this woman? No, she clearly suffered delusions and therefor she should be tried with that in mind. But when a delusional person is told that there is a real devil and that there is a real holy spook, specter or ghost etc… they’re being encouraged to act on the advice of that delusion. Especially since our culture treats priests and other religious liars as upstanding members of our society.

    Maybe the argument wasn’t framed that way, but I just thought I’d throw in my two cents. Thanks.

    • Kimbo Jones

      Thanks for your comment. I see what you’re saying [edit: and what Hemant is saying in his updated post], but delusional people are exceptionally skilled at interpreting ANYTHING in a way that encourages their delusions, regardless of acceptance/promotion in society or concreteness. The delusions could be based on something concrete (like “the man”) or magical (like religion).

      I had a patient once that was convinced that certain members of the staff were trying to kill her and would only let certain people talk to her. Anything the untrusted staff did was woven into her delusion as homicidal behaviour. No one was “encouraging” that thought and it’s not related to popular imagery such as aliens and religion. So where did the thoughts come from? Do you see what I mean? It’s the disorder, not the topic of the delusion that’s to “blame” for resulting behaviour.

      Would people still be schizophrenic if religion didn’t exist? If the answer to that question is yes, then people with schizophrenia would come up with something else to have delusions about. In fact they do, as in my example above. Religion doesn’t necessarily promote ideas in their minds more than anything else they come up with. So when someone happens to have a religious delusion, it’s irresponsible to “blame society” for that.

      To say religion, in particular, is exacerbating an existing disorder without evidence to support that claim is a relatively bigoted assumption. And to imply that people are getting away with something in regards to religious delusions when they get a plea of “not guilty by reason of insanity” is a gross misunderstanding of the justice system (not that you said that, but Hemant did).

      These people aren’t necessarily criminally insane (it’s possible they are faking) so I’m speaking in general here, assuming they are.

  2. whoops: should have read “Was this woman sane?”

  3. Kimbo Jones

    And if magical thinking generally DOES encourage delusions and make them worse, can we complain about religion alone? Should other magical thinking such as astrology, alien UFOs, conspiracy theories, etc share some of that ire?

    [Edit: Also I do agree with some of the comments on Friendly Atheist that point out that a major drawback to having delusions about things that are popular in society is that they will go longer ignored by others, but again I think that would apply to any popular idea and not necessarily only religion.]

  4. Hey Kimbo, haven’t been reading blogs as much lately but this one caught my eye. I agree with you and think that in many cases religion is simple used as an answer because it is easy…. it just isn’t right.
    If that makes any sense.

    Anyway, must go play catch up!

  5. “And if magical thinking generally DOES encourage delusions and make them worse, can we complain about religion alone? Should other magical thinking such as astrology, alien UFOs, conspiracy theories, etc share some of that ire?”

    Yes, of course, if people act irrationally based on them. However, the delusion in this case seemed to have been based on Christian imagery. I don’t blame Christianity, but I do think it shares so of the responsibility for encouraging a crazy person’s delusions.

    • Kimbo Jones

      I do think it shares so of the responsibility for encouraging a crazy person’s delusions.

      I’d have to see evidence before accepting that religion did in fact exacerbate an already present condition that could have manifested in a multitude of ways. And even then I don’t think that necessarily says anything bad about religion that doesn’t apply to anything else, so I see no need to point it out like Hemant did when he probably wouldn’t have done so if it were something else more “concrete”. It seemed to me like “devil made me do it” gave an exure [edit: excuse -- that was a wicked typo though] to bag on religion when it could have just as easily been “nondescript voice made me do it”. Usually he shows better judgement than that.

  6. I have to think that even if she wasn’t a religious woman, I have a case against religion here, and it’s not me just trying to blame everything on religion.

    If it’s the case that she wasn’t a particularly religious person, I can at least say that

    A) The devil is a religious, and particularly Christian, figure, so just the fact that she’s named her nondescript voice “devil” means she had some knowledge of what that character represents. And it’s possible that she believed that this mythical figure, which this culture treats as a possibly real figure, was telling her to do what she did.

    B) It may be the case that she didn’t hear a voice at all, or that she’s not being completely honest about what she thinks she’s experienced. If that’s the case, then it may follow that she’s knowingly blaming religion, as if, in her schizophrenic mind, the world may excuse what she did. I’d still point to that and say this case is evidence of religion promoting more bad than good.

    Btw, I’ve directed my readers to visit here.

    • I guess all I’m saying is: If there is valid criticism against religion, then the same criticism applies to any other prominent magical belief (replace “the devil” in your comment with “aliens”, for example). So these incidents aren’t a “case against religion” for me as much as they are a “case against the weird shit people believe in general, which in this case happens to be religion” and only if those things really increase a person’s level of psychoticism.

      Even if delusions are encouraged by magical thinking, we haven’t demonstrated that homicidal ideations are increased with religious-based delusions versus other delusions. Lots of delusional people don’t commit crimes and they may have religious delusions as well. So we haven’t demonstrated clearly enough for me that religion in particular is responsible. Rather it seems that there are levels of the illness that would have presented themselves no matter what concrete or magical-based delusion they chose, and the nature of the delusion secondary.

      [Edit: Also I think all this hoopla distracts from the issue -- the mentally ill are getting ignored once again so we can all bag on religion. What we should be worried about are issues related to early detection, people's willingness to seek treatment, an understanding in the general population about mental illness, etc. If magical thinking makes all that harder, then I think it should all equally be taken to task. When we single out religion, we just look like we're cherry picking.]

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