Like all animals, we humans have evolved certain preprogrammed behaviors. Some of these we call instincts but they can also be thought of as just the tuning of our pattern-recognition systems. For example we have an instinct for detecting when we are being stalked and hunted. This is a pretty valuable instinct. It is essential that our pattern recognition systems are tuned to detect some agency following us. We are in fact tuned to err heavily on the side of false-positives. That is, better that you think a tiger is following you when it is not than that you miss a real tiger stalking you. False-positives are unlikely to do you any real harm but you will be unlikely to survive even one false-negative.
But like an overly-sensitive sense of smell or hearing, a pattern-recognition system that is tuned so as to detect a huge number of false positives becomes debilitating. We call this condition paranoid schizophrenia. People suffering from this delusion think they are being stalked all the time. Their pattern recognition system signals continual red-alerts, constantly detecting patterns of stalking, even when there is clearly no actual threat.
Naturally these people feel 100% confident that their instincts, their very perceptions, are real. Everyone around them tells them they are mistaken or even deluded. But it does not feel that way to them. They remain alone and isolated, questioning their own sanity or the sanity of everyone else. They are fairly numerous in the population, but not numerous enough to find many others who believe as they do.
Then the Internet appeared. Now for the first time these paranoid schizophrenics can find each other quite easily online. They can now communicate, discover that others believe as they do, support each other in their delusions, align the specifics of their delusions so that they appear to have an extraordinary degree of internal consistency, be reassured that they are not the crazy ones, socialize between each other and avoid formal or informal intervention, and become politically active to legitimize their delusions and to force public policy to accommodate them.
This is exactly what is happening. According to a New York Times story (see here) growing numbers of schizophrenics, or “targeted individuals” as they call themselves, believe they are constantly stalked by “operatives” disguised as ordinary people pretending that they are simply going about their own business. They decline mental health services and instead band together in insular groups who support each other’s delusions, raise money, host international conferences, and even take legal and legislative action in accordance with their beliefs.
Last year one such group persuaded the Richmond CA City Council to pass a ban against space-based mind-control weapons. These people form an “echo chamber” of paranoia, and are told that anyone outside their group, even family and mental health professionals, are likely in on the conspiracy. Members of these groups are not relegated lives of to destitution. Members of these groups span all aspects of social and professional life. Your lawyer or doctor or boss may be part of a growing cult of paranoid schizophrenics, hiding their delusions from you believing that you are also an operative of the conspiracy against them. They can’t let you know they know you are stalking them.
It sounds fantastic doesn’t it? It seems incredible that people with such a profound delusion could function in our modern world, let alone band together into a self-reinforcing and self-sustaining political action groups that can force our government to craft policies and laws in accordance with their delusions.
But I ask you this. How is this any different than organized religion in any substantive way whatsoever? I maintain that there is not a sliver, not a single iota, of difference.
Like paranoid schizophrenics, religious people hold delusional beliefs that arise from an overly-developed pattern recognition mechanism – the instinct to assign agency to patterns we see around us. That is, to assume that shadow in the woods could be a living thing that is watching us. When these people see agency where there is none, they band together to fabricate a mutually reinforced set of shared beliefs not at all unlike the formalized beliefs of paranoid schizophrenics. And like paranoid schizophrenics in the age of the Internet, religious people band together to force social and political policies to conform to their group delusion.
Both syndromes arise from an overly-tuned pattern recognition system for agency detection. Both are reinforced, amplified, and propagated by grouping behaviors. One sees both local agents (operatives) and a global presence (government) that are watching them and ready to punish or reward them. The other sees local agents (angels) and a global presence (god) that are watching them and ready to punish or reward them. Religious and paranoid delusions are fundamentally exactly the same syndrome with differences only in the details.
The main reason religious delusions seem so much more reasonable to many is that the religiously deluded have been grouping together for a far longer time and are far more organized and prevalent. Just give the paranoid schizophrenics some time to catch up and they will be building tax-exempt fortified citadels with satellite-killing laser defenses.
The sooner we see religious delusions exactly the same way that we see paranoid delusions, the sooner we can arrive at the sanest, the most effective public policies and educational methodologies to protect individuals and society from these contagious mental illnesses.