Abuse, Delusion, Faith, Health, Mental and Emotional Health, News and Current Events, Physical Abuse, Religion

“She wasn’t Delusional, Because She was Following a Religion”

A delusion held by one person is a mental illness, held by a few is a cult, held by many is a religion. —Robert T. Carroll

Five members of a religious group called One Mind Ministries are on trial in Baltimore this week for the murder of a 16 month old boy.  The five include the boy’s mother, Ria Ramkissoon.  According to the Washington Post, the group allegedly murdered the boy by relentlessly depriving him of food and water until he died.  They believed him possessed by a demon because he refused to say “Amen” at meal times.

After the boy died, the group prayed over his body for days, expecting him to be resurrected.  When he failed to be resurrected, the group packed his body in a suitcase with mothballs and eventually left him in a storage shed. That was about two years ago.

Ria Ramkissoon still expects her son to be resurrected.

The Court requested psychiatrists to evaluate Ramkissoon.  Yet, oddly enough, the psychiatrists concluded she was not criminally insane:

Her attorney, Steven Silverman, said the doctors found that her beliefs were indistinguishable from religious beliefs, in part because they were shared by those around her.

“She wasn’t delusional, because she was following a religion,” Silverman said, describing the findings of the doctors’ psychiatric evaluation.

It seems from Silverman’s account that the psychiatrists in this case accept the notion a delusion held by one person is evidence of a mental illness, but when the same delusion is held by several people it becomes evidence of sanity. Of course, without reading the psychiatrist’s report, it is impossible to say whether Silverman is accurately characterizing their reasoning, but to believe Silverman, you must believe the psychiatrists are absurd.  That may or may not be the case.

I don’t think every delusion is conclusive evidence of a mental illness.  If that were true, then kids who believe in Santa Claus would qualify as ill.  Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to suspect mental illness in the event of some delusions.  A mother who believes her dead son can be resurrected by prayer might be mentally ill — especially if she still believes that after two fruitless years of praying for it.

One wonders, though, how often it’s the case that a person, who we would normally consider mentally ill, is instead considered mentally sound because their actions seem inspired by familiar religious beliefs.  There was a girl in my high school who, among other things, heard voices and “spoke in tongues”.  She, her friends and her family thought she was quite religious.  But a couple years after high school, she was diagnosed schizophrenic. I think religion sometimes masks mental and emotional illnesses.  I just wonder how often that’s the case.  My hunch is many more people than we might care to believe turn to religion, rather than a psychiatrist, to treat an illness.

15 thoughts on ““She wasn’t Delusional, Because She was Following a Religion””

  1. It is very hard to define what mental illness is because it is a relative concept. The standards of normality are so varied between different cultures and generations that something once thought as normal, is now atypical and vice versa.

    Take the girl you were talking about. In the culture I grew up in, upper working class to middle class suburb in Eastern Scotland, her behaviour would have been put down to a mental condition very quickly. TO even suggest it was a religious thing would have been laughable.

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  2. Good point, Panda! What’s considered sane and insane does change from place to place and from time to time. On the other hand, schizophrenia seems to be a mental dysfunction regardless of whether or not people think it is.

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  3. Yes, I believe schizophrenia is linked to high levels of serotonin (or is it dopamine,can’t remember) though I think psychologists are still unsure whether this is a cause are an effect.

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  4. She pleaded guilty. Prosecutors agreed to let her out of the can if her baby came back to life. Really.

    I agree she is not innocent because criminally insane, but not because of her “religion.” I simply do not buy into “innocent because criminally insane.”

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  5. I think we’re butting up against a conflict between everyday use of the word “insane” and what it means in a court of law. To be legally insane means that the accused was incapable of distinguishing right and wrong. The psychiatrists didn’t evaluate whether or not she was mentally ill in a broad sense, only in the narrow sense of whether she could tell right from wrong.

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  6. Given that legally insane means incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, Silverman’s remarks on the reasoning of the psychiatrists seem to make even less sense than before. At least, to me. But maybe I’m missing something.

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  7. I think I agree with Jonathan, or at least I hope that’s what the psychiatrists meant to say.

    It’s clear to me, being closer to an agnostic than anything, that many religious beliefs do border on delusional. If that’s what you’re raised in, though, I suspect it’s very difficult to totally break away from that set of beliefs, even when you’ve begun to question them.

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  8. This is a tough one. Having once been a fairly conservative Christian, I’m still figuring out how to characterize god-belief – although I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it is delusional.

    Most religionists are not dysfunctional or dangerous, and they live normal, mundane lives – except for the fact that they believe some weird religious shit that influences their beliefs and actions in various degrees. And most of those people don’t do anything that is particularly harmful to either themselves or others. Consequently, western societies are willing to accept religious beliefs that appear to be relatively harmless and are reluctant to characterize such beliefs as delusional.

    But, it is not at all clear where one should draw the line between religion as a harmless delusion and religion as a delusion that causes real personal and social harm. It’s clear, in hindsight, that the people in this story crossed that line, wherever it is, a long time ago. Even looking at ordinary political situations, is religion a harmless delusion when millions of people are being deprived of the benefits of expanded stem cell research? Is religion a harmless delusion when the international leader of the largest Christian sect urges people not to use condoms to reduce the spread of deadly diseases? Is religion a harmless delusion when people seriously and sincerely accuse others of engaging in witchcraft? I’m reading Sam Harris’ The End of Faith now, so some of that may be influencing my current view. I think it’s a view that I will continue to hold and refine long after I’ve finished that book, though, because there is a lot of other evidence besides Harris’ argument to support the idea that religion is not just fantasy, it’s delusion.

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  9. @ Loren: I agree with the hope that the psychiatrists are ruling on whether she can tell the difference between right and wrong. That would be far more sensible that ruling her sane because — as Silverman seems to be suggesting — one is of the opinion that insanity is not insanity if enough people share in it.

    @ The Chaplain: The issue you raise — whether religion is a harmless or harmful delusion — is among the more pressing questions of our time. Like you and Loren, I think at least some religious beliefs are delusional despite their being widely held and even despite their sometimes being harmless. Of course, Harris makes a rather strong case for the notion that religious faith itself is dangerous, even when it appears benign. I am not yet totally convinced of Harris’s point, but I seem to be getting there.

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  10. During the first two years of college, I regularly attended an interdenominational Christian Fellowship, and found that there were a lot of people who had mental issues our chapter. Most of them don’t stay, or are so immersed in Christianity that they would never dream of going for help, nor do people point the problems of the individual out to them (holding them accountable). It is a huge problem.

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  11. I agree with the psychiatrists, but for a different reason. She’s not non-delusional because her ideas cannot be distiguished from ordinary religious views, but because her views simply do not qualify for the question ‘are these views delusional?’
    Only situations in which immediate observation and checking or testing can determine that the observed facts cannot be real, but are still observed, warrant the use of the terms ‘illusion’ or ‘delusion’. The former refers to a -real of suspected- external cause, the latter to a -real or suspected- internal one.
    ‘My son will be resurrected’ is essentially not different from claims like ‘at the end of times, the Mahdi will return’ or ‘the market will pick up again’. They’re claims about the future, which by definition cannot be checked against reality. They may be wrong, even insane or dangerous, but they’re not delusional.
    The same goes for the past. It’s not there any more, so the guy that claims Jesus was actually Julius Caesar, those that claim the pyramids were built 10 000 BC or the Temple Mount never had a temple on it, may be considerend, wrong, insane or even dangerous, but nobody calls them delusional.
    Calling those ‘delusional’ that hold different views from yours on the past, the future or realms that cannot physically be reached for checking your facts, belongs to a pre-modern, religious frame of mind in which all things have to be clear, determinate, logical and certain. In that frame of mind there is no room for the uncertainty that comes with different people dealing with reality differently.
    Those ‘differences’ may entail idiocy, insanity and danger, but that doesn’t mean they’re all delusional.

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  12. Odd thing in psychology: they do not consider certain things to be “abnormal” if they are deemed to be socially or culturally expected responses. I actually heard the example that a devout Latin-American Catholic woman who saw a Marian apparition is not said to be experiencing a hallucination because it is a cultural expectation for her to have such an experience. Now, they do this in order to try to factor out abnormal thoughts, behaviors, and sensations that are driven by social pressures. I am hoping that I misunderstood the nuance of it, but it seems as though, if the society that you are/were a part of doesn’t consider it abnormal, then it isn’t abnormal. Not that I particularly agree with that view as stated, but that’s pretty much how they roll.

    In this case, because the woman in question was simply sharing the beliefs of a greater (cult) community, the reason why we can’t call her deluded makes sense to some degree: because it may be a matter of conformity rather than actual insanity. And, I guess in this case, it makes sense to dismiss delusion as a possibility, because, just like you are innocent until proven guilty, you are sane until proven insane. With her beliefs being lockstep with other technically sane people, there is reasonable doubt as to her insanity, therefore, lock ‘er up.

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