Are Religions Sociopathic?

The United States Supreme court has long struggled with the definition of personhood and the associated rights. These include basic elements such as free speech or rights to own property. Recently, there has been more movement by the courts in the direction of defining corporations as “persons” particularly in the realm of speech. I think it might be useful to assume that corporations and organizations are persons and apply other personality models to them. These rights don’t apply simply to for-profit organizations, but to any organization including Churches. Given the central position Churches are given in the United States today as moral authorities, it is particularly interesting to inquire into the character of Churches as people. In other words, if Religions were persons what kind of person are they?

Being a person is not just about rights of ownership or rights speech, but being a person in society is marked by how one interacts with other people around them. People can be giving or otherwise contribute to the general well being of society. But people can also be selfish, destructive and abusive. Personality disorders can thus disrupt society as a whole. “Psychopathy” is not a clinical term, however the more technical terms “sociopathy”, “Dissocial personality disorder” or “Antisocial Personality Disorder” are used to describe the behaviors associated with this vernacular. The World Health Organization in ICD-10 defines the condition of sociopathy as have at least three of the following traits:

a. callous unconcern for the feelings of others;
b. gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules and obligations;
c. incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, though having no difficulty in establishing them;
d. very low tolerance to frustration and a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence;
e. incapacity to experience guilt and to profit from experience, particularly punishment;
f. marked proneness to blame others, or to offer plausible rationalizations, for the behavior that has brought the patient into conflict with society.

What if we apply these criteria to the behaviors of religions and churches? What if we were to look at these characteristics in light of how religious interact with society and other “persons”.

callous unconcern for the feelings of others:
Religious belief and membership is one of the elements most strongly associated with identity. This is especially true for identity that is measured as being something that is different and unique from the rest of the world. Religions tend to mark this identity in stark contrast with those they consider to be the “other”: the infidel, the non-believer, the-heretic, the atheist, the great Satan. Religion’s message is universally clear: everyone else is very wrong and they should pay for their wrong belief either in this life or the next.

Even religious sub groups of the same faith such as Catholic vs. Protestant or Sunni vs. Shite do not care about honor or sustaining the beliefs of the other. The feelings of those who do not hold with the faith need not be a concern because the devil influences those people. Only the believers have God’s favor and thus the non-believers point of view need not be honored.

gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules and obligations:
This is a fascinating one. Because from the inside it appear that religions are the enforcers and those responsible for social norms. But this quickly deteriorates when we take a global view. Religions often like to have strong cultural markers that are different than the social norms. Hats, burkas…Indeed it is important that adherents look and act differently and by definition that must buck some sort of social norm. It is true that once a religion becomes predominate it will set the social norms, but this is generally for a relatively short period in the long scheme of things are there are many other religions bouncing themselves off of those norms to gain distinction and identification.

As to rules and obligations. Religions make their own. They may ignore the norms of the society yet fill a compulsion to enforce their own internal rules on others. In fact, much of the social friction between religions and surround groups comes from this effort to enforce their own social rules, such as blue laws, on those who don’t share their values.

incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, though having no difficulty in establishing them:
Religions in general are happy to seek adherents. The more aggressive ones actively proselyte. They race the anthropologist to newly discovered people. They set up missions and armies of Jesuits or white shirted young men aiming at ingratiating themselves to local cultures in order to ultimately gain members. They seek many to join in favorable relationships including all kinds of charity services, outreach, and community good will. But these relationships are quickly dissolved when the participant no longer wants to play by the rules established by the religion. For those who choose not to adopt every law and practice (up to and including giving large sums of money) the individual engaging the religion faces public shaming, excommunication, denial of communion or being forbidden to wear or display vestiges.

very low tolerance to frustration and a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence:
Religion has time and time again shown itself to be on the edge of violence to enforce its laws and norms. While not all wars are caused by religion a great number have been and virtually all take on some for of religious right or protection as sides fight under the banner of God. For those who choose even simple heresy, torture at the hands of inquisitors, banishment from community or plain and simple bombing or stoning.

But even religious that practice peace often have at their heart a narrative where there will be an eventual settling of the score. They look forward to a time when God will rain down death and horror on those who have not sided with the religion and look for a vindication of the righteous that will come from the blood of the non-believers.

incapacity to experience guilt and to profit from experience, particularly punishment:
When looking at this point, we must not look at the guilt and shame that religions use as a tool to control adherents. Rather, this is guilt and experience that comes from interaction with the world and with outsiders. History has shown that when religious sub-groups behave in anti-social ways, they are more likely to flee or engage in endless war then to learn and change in a way that creates a greater cohesive society.

If some pattern of belief or practice doesn’t work, it is often as likely to result in further entrenchment and alienation from neighboring or parent societies. Punishing Zealots is just as likely to create future generations of zealots even more bent on violent retribution.

marked proneness to blame others, or to offer plausible rationalizations, for the behavior that has brought the patient into conflict with society:
Religions define themselves as the in group and the rest of the world as the out group. But they do so in a manner that pushes this definition to the limit. For religions, the in group is blessed and sanctioned by God or by other mystic powers. And those who who are not part are devils and taken in sin and madness. Because of the loathsome nature of the non believer, all evil in the world is to be set on the shoulders of those who choose not to follow the teachings.

Indeed, religion pushes not just a belief that others are evil, but justifies violence, force and discrimination against those who do not follow. The blame of evil on the non believer extends to a degree that will often motivate the believers to acts of violence and desires to eliminate outside cultures and peoples even to complete annihilation.

And in the final irony, the cycles of violence and hate are blamed squarely on the non-believers and the evil in the world that is caused by their non belief. Any and all conflict is seen as a result of the conflict between good and evil. Of course, the believer embodies only the good. The believer cannot be blamed for perpetuating cycles of violence and hate because the conflict is never their fault.

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