When I wrote my book, “Belief in Science and the Science of Belief,” I intentionally treated belief as just – belief. I tried to soften any characterizations that might be excessively inflammatory and personal. But one must ask whether the word belief is far too weak and benign, even inaccurate, to describe many of the assertions of the Religious Right.
Remember the formal debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham on evolution? Ham challenged Nye to a debate on creationism vs. evolution and the lengthy exchange took place on February 4th in 2014 at Ham’s Creation Museum. You can find the debate here if you missed it. If you are old enough, you might recognize Bill Nye as the amiable “Science Guy” from his highly-regarded science show that ran from 1993 through 1998. Mr. Nye continues to be a passionate advocate and popularist of science. His challenger, Mr. Ham, is the President of the Answers in Genesis ministry and a tireless evangelist for young Earth creationism. Mr. Ham is a key principal behind the Creation Museum in Kentucky – a Biblical-themed amusement park that you may have glimpsed in the film Religulous by Bill Maher.
As I listened to the specious and even ludicrous arguments put forth with such severe certainty by Mr. Ham during that debate, I could not help but wonder whether belief is far too cowardly a word for what Ham and those like him suffer from. Perhaps delusion is a far more accurate word to characterize his kind of thinking and perhaps we should not be so very reluctant to call it delusional.
Now, before the psychologists amongst you get all up in arms that I’m diagnosing my fellow human beings, let me assure you that I use the word delusional purely in a lay sense, not as any kind of clinical diagnosis. My own familiarity with the concept only goes as far as the Wikipedia page on delusion. But according to that page, a delusion is defined as follows:
“A delusion is a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary. As a pathology, it is distinct from a belief based on false or incomplete information, confabulation, dogma, illusion, or other effects of perception.”
That definition establishes a clear distinction between belief and delusion. A belief is simply an unsupported conclusion based on insufficient or incorrect information. A delusion is a belief that persists regardless of any amount of evidence to the contrary.
In the case of Ken Ham, his creationist views go far beyond a mistaken belief based on false or incomplete information. He maintains his unalterable convictions despite incomparably superior evidence to the contrary. No doubt, he would argue that the evidence for evolution is not actually superior, but any delusional person would similarly deny all evidence contrary to their delusion. An objective person could not help but conclude that the evidence for evolution goes far beyond merely superior to overwhelming and that the convoluted arguments that Ham puts forth to deny this evidence are utterly irrational.
Delusions are generally categorized into four distinct groups. According to Wikipedia again, a “Bizarre Delusion” is defined as follows:
“A delusion that is very strange and completely implausible; an example of a bizarre delusion would be that aliens have removed the reporting person’s brain.”
It seems clear that the thinking of Ken Ham and other evolution deniers should be fairly categorized as a Bizarre Delusion. Their creationist view is certainly “completely implausible” and it would be considered “very strange” if it were not so commonplace.
Words matter and they should be used accurately. In principle, if a more accurate word is available it should be used. It seems undeniable that delusion is a far more appropriate word than belief to describe the thinking of Ham and others. But words also have power, and we should avoid words that convey implications or elicit reactions we would like to avoid. So even if the bizarre thinking of Ham and others like him is in fact delusional by definition, what value is there in labeling it as such? Doesn’t that just necessarily alienate those you would like to bring around to a less delusional way of thinking?
Even considering those intangibles, the word belief is neither accurate nor helpful. It is not merely polite and non-confrontational but it actively helps enable these delusions. It suggests that such thinking is harmless and even reasonable and acceptable when placed under the protective umbrella of other more rational beliefs. But delusions are seldom harmless and never reasonable or acceptable. Calling this kind of delusional thinking “belief” gives it more legitimacy than it deserves. If we were to consistently refer to this kind of thinking as delusions rather than as beliefs, we would more accurately communicate the true nature and real-world implications of this thinking.
Certainly using the word delusion instead of belief would elicit a much more visceral response by opponents and allies alike, but I for one would welcome that reaction. I say call a delusion a delusion and stand by the implicit assertion that such delusional thinking goes way beyond mere belief and that it is irrational, unacceptable, and harmful. Calling a delusion a delusion may be just the hit of reality that these deluded people need, or at least those influenced by them need, to honestly reconsider the soundness of their reasoning. At the very least, it may give some people pause in associating themselves with these delusional ideas.
So the next time someone espouses delusionary thinking, consider calling it out (nicely) as delusion. Instead of responding with the customary “I respect your beliefs but I don’t share them,” you might say something more provocative like “sorry but I can’t give any credence to such delusions.” If the other party questions how you dare characterize their belief as a delusion, you should be able to give them a very clear and compelling justification for your use of that word. Or just refer them to Wikipedia.