The Psychoanalysis of Richard Dawkins

Sound bytes from the bestselling, God-despairing, non-sequitor promoting book by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, still echo in pop culture nearly a decade after it first hit the New York Times bestseller list. It’s influence is undeniable even though many have demonstrated that the philosophical assumptions of the book fall flat. As Notre Dame University prof Alvin Plantinga quipped, he would call it sophomoric but that would be an insult on his sophomore philosophy students.

Of course no one is accusing Dawkins of being a philosopher—let alone a good one. But then again, his thesis that religious belief is delusional doesn’t stem from his work in biology either. It is a psychological claim. So how does his manifesto stand up against the evidence?

Andrew Sims has considered Dawkins’ assertion from the perspective of psychiatric research. Sims’ credentials are impressive, he’s the former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Professor of Psychiatry in the University of Leeds, editor of the journal Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, and founding editor of Developing Mental Health. I would imagine that Dawkins, who uses the word “evidence” more than most, might not mind having his own thesis measured against contemporary research.

For starters, research demonstrates that religious faith is correlated with:

“Well-being, happiness and life satisfaction; hope and optimism; purpose and meaning in life; higher self-esteem; better adaptation to bereavement; greater social support and less loneliness; lower rates of suicide and fewer positive attitudes towards suicide; less anxiety; less psychosis and fewer psychotic tendencies; lower rates of alcohol and drug use and abuse; less delinquency and criminal activity; greater marital stability and satisfaction.” (218)

It’s findings like this that leads to Sims’ general conclusion:

“This research is concerned with correlation, a fixed relationship between two variables, and finds that, overall, there is a positive relationship between religious faith and practice and better mental health.” (219)

But what if the research pointed the other way, in Dawkins favor?

“The advantageous effect of religious belief and spirituality on mental and physical health is one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry, and medicine generally. If the findings of the huge volume of research on this topic had gone in the opposite direction and it had been found that religion damages your mental health, it would have been front-page news in every newspaper in the land.” (221)

Sims’ book Is Faith Delusional? Why Religion is Good for Your Health is a great resource for anyone in the position of responding to questions and accusations inspired by Dawkins’ decade-old bestseller. While Dawkins’ title might be provocative, it is actually a clinical statement regarding religious belief that doesn’t stand up to the evidence. As Sims demonstrates, had the research pointed the other way it would have been front-page news. Instead it has been quietly neglected. Maybe it’s time we get the word out. Or, in keeping with the correlations drawn from  the research, perhaps this is a truth best attested to by our lives.