The biggest, grandest, most important mental patient ever

Amazing Stories, 1927

By English: Frank R. Paul Русский: Фрэнк Р. Пауль. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So you meet a guy in a mental hospital (never mind what you’re doing there). You get to talking with him and he tells you—quite seriously—that he communicates with the aliens who control the universe and who designed this planet specially for him. He knows that the aliens have set out a purpose for his life, and it’s his job to discover what what they want him to do. This is important business—people’s lives are stake, lots of people—but he’s not afraid, because they’ve told him he is immortal and can never truly be killed.

So he’s pretty delusional. But let’s say you bring him back to sanity (oh, so that’s what you’re doing in the mental hospital!). What does he do then? Does he thank you?

No. He’s all depressed.

“My life has no meaning,” he complains.

Well, OK, that makes sense. The poor guy went from thinking he was on a special mission to save the universe and now he finds out he’s just a guy who’s been wasting his time on some really crazy ideas. It’s going to take him a while to adjust.

But you’d think his recovery incomplete, wouldn’t you, if he never got past needing the delusion to make sense of his life? If he couldn’t see the value of the people around him, the people who love him, and all the real-life, here-and-now things he could do to make his and their lives better?

My point here isn’t subtle, but I’m not trying to be snide by comparing religious faith to a psychotic delusion. My point is merely to take a different look at a big assumption that we often make about life.

Most of us, for most of our lives, have been told in a thousand different ways that our meaning and significance comes from our place in some divine plan. On a personal level we say something was meant to be, or feel a calling to a certain role or decision. We might even seek God’s will on a matter. On a national level many of our countrymen believe in American Exceptionalism (just as our ancestors believed in Manifest Destiny), and the more devote are part of the Kingdom of Heaven. Being made in God’s image, we’re separate from nature, and most Americans still believe to some degree that we are a special creation and that the earth was made for us.

We no longer believe, as our ancestors did, that the earth rests at the center of the universe, with the sun, planets, and ‘fixed stars’ forming concentric spheres around it. As Galileo found out, a lot of people were profoundly unhappy to find out that one wasn’t true. If it all doesn’t revolve around us, then what are we?

Ptolemaic solar system

By Loon, J. van (Johannes), ca. 1611–1686. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.map-nk10241) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But we got over it.

We’ve heard grandiose delusions for so long and in so many ways that we’ve come to assume that meaning and significance must be found somewhere out there, on some grand scale, and not near at hand among the people we know and love. Religion has been relentless on this point: Your life has no meaning without the narrative that we alone can offer. Outside of this grand, sprawling, science fiction epic, your life and the lives of everyone you love are just matter in motion, zero plus zero. In this way religion tends to cheapen and devalue everything that’s precious about humanity in order to convince you that it isn’t enough.

But if you step back and look at it from afar, it’s crazy. I don’t mean the religious stories themselves (OK, they can be pretty crazy, too, but that’s not what I’m talking about). I’m talking about the notion lurking behind the stories, the idea that unless we become like my hypothetical mental patient, convinced that we’re getting messages from the aliens, then our lives are nothing but a worthless bore.

That, I think, is one of the big delusions of religious thinking, and it’s not a harmless one. It offers you the illusion of meaning in the hereafter, while blinding you to the possibilities of real meaning in the here-and-now.

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6 thoughts on “The biggest, grandest, most important mental patient ever

  1. Wow! Great post, especially the last sentence! Focusing on a reward after this life is what many religious do. It prevents them from appreciating and living the present life. I know because I have been there. I still believe in the after life, but I don’t maintain my hope in an after life alone, but instead try to live heaven on earth.

  2. Hi, Pretentious Ape.

    I wouldn’t argue that life would be meaningless on atheism, but I’m interested in your comparison of religious faith to the delusions of a mental patient. To me, that comparison seems extremely harsh. Perhaps you could elaborate on the similarities you perceive.

    For example, what if someone was brought up in a religious community and just never questioned their faith? I think you should classify them as mentally healthy, whatever else you might say about them.

    Regards,
    Occam

    • Hi Occam,

      Sorry, I wasn’t trying to be harsh–this is more of a thought experiment to take a different look at the claims that many religious people make about what’s necessary to have a life of meaning and significance. While I think those claims are unsupported, I really don’t think religious believers are crazy (in fact, I’m one of those people who were brought up in a religious community and never questioned my faith until well into adulthood…and just as you suggest I wasn’t crazy then–at least I don’t think so!).

      I will say this, though. Religion leads people to believe things that, in any other context, would be considered crazy. Something that Sam Harris wrote in The End of Faith stuck with me: “If you said a few words in Latin over your plate of pancakes and claimed they had turned into the body of Elvis, you’ve lost your mind. If it’s a plate of crackers and it’s Jesus they turned into, you’re a Catholic.” I wasn’t raised Catholic, but the same idea applies: tradition has a way of normalizing ideas that would otherwise seem implausible, or even kind of crazy.

  3. What a brilliant an tactfully written post! As a devout “unbeliever” who nevertheless cares for his family and friends who who still suffer from religious delusions, I have a hard time writing about just how dangerous I think said delusions are. But as one who’s also spent time on mental wards because of a clinical depression brought on, at least in part, by growing up surrounded by people I thought of as potentially dangerous lunatics, writing about the subject without sounding as harsh as I feel seems more than a little hypocritical. Hence my dilemma.

    Your tact is commendable, though I suspect it won’t count for much when the lunatics are burning us at the same stake.

    • Thank you – I’m glad you found it tactful. Another commenter felt I was being harsh because he took me to mean that religious people are crazy, but what I meant was that religion has the power to make smart, sane people believe crazy things, and that we don’t need these ideas to find meaning and significance (and I’m grateful to that commenter for prompting me to clarify). Writing about this stuff is tricky. On the one hand I don’t want to offend people unless I have good reason to do so; on the other hand, I think religion causes a lot of needless suffering and it’s important to call its bluff. And people who’ve been through religion sometimes come out angry… and then get beat over the head with “Why are you unbelievers so hateful?”

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