Why shouldn't I call religious people delusional, since their beliefs are irrational?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: Let me start this off with this definition of a delusion: "a belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is accepted as reality or rational argument." So, how does religion not fall under this definition? As a second question, what makes Christian mythology any more valid or sensible than ancient mythologies now generally accepted as mere fables, such as Greco-Roman mythology, Norse mythology, or any of the many old world pagan mythologies? It would be great if you could avoid answering these questions with something along the lines of "it’s a faith thing", but if you do, I have a third question: why is faith a good thing? Please understand that I am not meaning to be hostile. I am simply curious about your rationale. Also please note that quotes from the Bible should probably not be used as arguments in your answer, for obvious reasons. I would greatly enjoy an answer and I thank you for your time. 

Answer: It will be my pleasure to respond to your comments today. First, let me assure you that I sense no hostility in your query; in fact, I sense respect. Second, let me commend you on such a clear presentation of your issues and objections. I will do my best to respond in kind. I will make one amendment, however, and this out of respect for the true objectivity which you seek.

Per your request, I will avoid using the Bible as the primary textual tool for this answer, but I cannot remove it from consideration altogether — not and be objective also. Why so? You are asking me for comments on history and culture… yet you are asking me to dismiss the most significant piece of literature in the history of humankind out of hand. That, my friend, is intellectual book burning.

But since I sense that you are an earnest seeker, I’ll respect you enough to keep all resources available for discussion. In my opinion, it would be particularly dishonest to dismiss the documents that have impacted culture more than any others have merely because the culture has wearied of them. In fact, how could we do this and still claim objective scholarship? Instead, let us remain open to all germane data, and let us begin our discussion from a position of scholastic openness rather than restricting it to a favored bookshelf.

Are people who subscribe to religion deluded? First, I accept your definition of delusion, and I agree that many religionists are indeed deluded. But I do not agree that there is an objective truth that makes religion unreal or irrational. Perhaps the strongest contender for that position of “truth” would be Materialism, whose calling card directly opposes the core of the theistic religions. So, let us consider that worldview for a moment to see if we can find justification for calling its opponents delusional.

Materialists do not subscribe to the supernatural — and especially as it relates to the creation of life. They assert that all phenomena may be explained through material, energy and time as opposed to the actions of an intelligent agent who is working out a design. But they have this huge problem: everything looks designed — and it’s a tough fight to convince people otherwise. Therefore, it is a common theme in their literature to concede the appearance of design… and they have to because it’s plain old there — but then deny the fact of design, citing that looking designed is not necessarily equivalent to being designed, which is true.

Materialism has its own bible, which, like ours, has many books. It has its own characters, too. We have Moses; the Materialists have Richard Dawkins — the poster-boy and one of the spokesmen for its cause. But Dawkins could get no further than the title of his book The Blind Watch Maker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design before attempting to explain Materialism’s way out of the appearance-of-design pickle. But what does this have to do with delusions?  Materialists are fighting against human intuition and consensus.

Our species is very sensitive to “agency1,” and we understand that the specified information necessary for design infers intelligence2. The notion that a collection of purposeless (albeit favorable) mutations is the agent of our creation is counterintuitive; no one subscribes to that without a lot of indoctrination, and this is the continual battle of the Materialists — and this is my point: the fact that they fight this fight is evidence that the opposite views are the normal views… and you cannot consider a person delusional who acts normally.

Those who respond to data in the same way as a good portion of the population are not (by definition) an anomaly. Furthermore, compliance with the norms is one of the hallmarks of being a well-adjusted person. Therefore, since intelligent design is plausible, a common interpretation of the empirical data and a core understanding of theistic religions, I cannot consider its subscribers deluded — even if they happened to be wrong.

If anything, it is the Materialists who are deluded. It is they, and not the intelligent design advocates, who must “adjust” a not so well-adjusted worldview against the pressures of the empirical. Now, some of the Materialists may indeed be delusional, but I cannot call the group so because mental or emotional defect has not touched every disciple. Unwisdom has, however, so I will call them unwise instead.

The watchmaker argument referenced above is more formally known as the Argument from Teleology, one of several extra-biblical arguments for the existence of God. I have written a separate article that gives an overview of the popular ones. You can find this article here.

In the above section, I have compared religion-in-general to Materialism-in-general to answer your specific query. But this leaves the impression that religion-in-general is a good idea…but it’s not. Religion-in-specific is. Christianity is the only good idea. Biblical Christianity is the only religion that corresponds to objective truth. But this means that since true biblical Christianity is relatively rare, the vast majority of persons who practice religion are practicing the non-true type. So, would our ministry consider them deluded? No. Surely some who have a clear picture of the Gospel are choosing to believe a lie and live that lie forever do so because of mental or emotional sickness, but others merely lack the information or are in the active process of seeking truth.

From a Christian perspective, delusion cannot be defined until the end of the game, because while there is life there is hope that a person can prove himself non-deluded. Every person who still draws breath has the potential to access salvation through the Truth himself, Jesus Christ. Something good has indeed come out of Nazareth… which is neither a delusion nor a myth. That being said let us move on to mythologies.

As for comparative mythologies, we would have to begin with the Bible’s newer documents rather than its oldest, and here is why. The New Testament is a highly tested history that interprets the Bible’s older histories. Its documents are stellar — exponentially beyond its nearest rivals in number, quality, veracity, scholastic review and the like — but it is not Christians per se who make this claim; it is the scientists (paleographers) who study these ancient documents, their languages and their culture who have reached this conclusion.

The New Testament stands as Everest among ancient documents while the others are mere molehills, and it is this New Testament that is our primary source for information about Jesus Christ, the central person of Christianity; it is he who connects us to the Old Testament in his teaching, in biblical typology and in fulfilled prophecies. The veracity of Scripture rests on Jesus Christ — and I am a Christian because of this — because of his veracity, and because of his working in my life and in my mind for the 48 years of my adult life.

There is a lot of talk that the Bible is just a myth among other myths… but it’s just that…talk. I see an ongoing problem in scholastic circles where people who are credentialed and accomplished in biblical textual criticism have only a passing familiarity with the other documents that they use in their comparisons. In this, they lose their credibility. Let me give you a man who has spent his whole life saturating himself with the other documents — the erudite, deeply credentialed and prolific author, C.S. Lewis.

Like me, Lewis was not a Christian during his formative years. He came to Christ gradually through his reading, conversations, observations and thinking. So, he did not spend the years of his academic growth narrowly plying the Bible, but he read broadly — and with a particular hunger for mythology dating back to his youth. As such, he is eminently qualified to speak about the Bible as it relates to mythology. The following are merely two of his comments.

“All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job. And I am prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are either legend or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff” (C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, 209)

Lewis was not afraid to “call people out” on their error, fraud or plain old wrong thinking — even when uttered by “the best” scholars. He was very direct in these criticisms…and in their implications. My point is that you “hear” many things about the Bible (like, that it is a myth, etc.) that are simply wrong, and the fact that these opinions are offered by people who seem right is meaningless—because a thing is either true of it is not. The only thing that I can offer you at this point is that I trust my scholars over your scholars and that my own studies support biblical veracity. That being said, hear Lewis again:

“In what is already a very old commentary I read that the Fourth Gospel is regarded by one school as a ‘spiritual romance’, ‘a poem not a history’, to be judged by the same canons as Nathan’s parable, the Book of Jonah, Paradise Lost ‘or, more exactly, Pilgrim’s Progress’. After a man has said that, why need one attend to anything else he says about any book in the world?” (Emphasis mine) (Lewis, C. S. (2014-05-20). Christian Reflections: Modern theology and Biblical Criticism)

This ends my contributions concerning delusions and myths, and I’ve met your requirement for not giving an answer like, “it is a faith thing.” But I will still take the “punishment” and say a word about why faith is indeed a good thing.

Other than the fact that faith is the coin-of-the-realm for heaven and an absolute requirement for salvation, faith is also intellectually satisfying. Indeed, a life of faith has been the position of thinking men for millennia — and not just because they did not have all the information that we have today. There are many men like me who prefer to think their way through problems who find faith congruent with truth—with true science and with true philosophy.

There is an unfortunate subculture of faith, however, where some people assume that the more ignorant they are that the more faithful they are. But God will have none of this. Being ignorant-on-purpose insults God and it is anti-scriptural. True faith is based on the facts that God has given us in his special revelation (the Bible), his general revelation (his creation) and the testimony from within ourselves — which is from our soul and spirit (or our moral center, if you will). True faith is intellectually honest. It deals with the empirical; it does not gnash its teeth at every moment of progress and discovery.

So, if you’d like to know what a thinking man thinks about how to get to heaven, why don’t you review my article that has all these details. Visit this link.

Either way, I have enjoyed this discussion — and I thank you for your time.

Note 1: Learn more about how infants perceive agency in Born Believers: The Science of Children's Religious Belief, Justin L. Barrett

Note 2: Learn more about the impact of information on the origin of life theories in Signature in the Cell, Stephen C. Meyer

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