Religious Insanity Claims Two Lives

Two more people have fallen victim to belief. A 17-month-old child is dead, and her mother will probably spend the rest of her life in jail. A woman who claimed to be "trying to get away from her spiritual past" killed her daughter to protect her from evil spirits. Dawn Serrena Young, 34, who is now charged with murder, is also bipolar. To me this story is worthy of note because it’s not even that rare of an event. We hear about deaths during exorcisms all the time, and it’s almost common in America that extremely devout people kill their kids. It’s been reported in the media several times a year in the past few years, and there are no doubt instances that did not make the press.

We may think these killings are simply indicative of mental illness. But I would point out that though most religious people don’t act so directly on their delusions, the delusions are dangerous nonetheless. Cognitive dissonance keeps most believers from violating social norms. (As discussed in my post Faith is Cold as Ice, it’s clear most religious people who are sane actually know their supernatural beliefs are untrue, they just don’t want to admit it.) Nevertheless, It is the belief in supernatural beings that ultimately leads to these crimes. Though we may punish the perpetrator, the real culprit in this case is religious belief itself.

Comments (17 comments)

Francois Tremblay / December 14th, 2005, 2:13 pm / #1

If religion did not exist, people would have no rationalization to get the courage to perform these atrocious acts. Another good reason to cleanse Christianity out of the public square (but then again, the fact that it promotes irresponsibility in and of itself is more than sufficient).

BlackSun / December 14th, 2005, 11:37 pm / #2

One thing we can be sure of, if there were a drug, movie, video game, or music album that got as many people to kill their kids as religion, it would in fact be banned from the public square.

Jon, the golden rule and the “thou shalt not kill” rule seem to be the rules religious people ignore the most often. Repeating a time-worn rhetorical question, when’s the last time anyone heard of an atheist suicide bomber?

Francois Tremblay / December 15th, 2005, 12:00 am / #3

“Fortuantly most religions have the “thou shall not kill” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” rules.”

Yea, that’s just great. Unfortunately, the rest of the damn religion is completely amoral and irresponsible, so what’s the point of those rules ? It doesn’t count if you don’t mean it.

Furthermore, “thou shalt not kill” is immoral, and the Golden Rule is collectivist.

Jon / December 14th, 2005, 11:04 pm / #4

Thats terrible. Fortuantly most religions have the “thou shall not kill” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” rules. The

Aaron Kinney / December 15th, 2005, 8:34 am / #5

Wow another one! These crazy events just keep happening. Ive already written posts about Dena Schlosser and Andrea Yates and others. I didnt expect another one to happen again so soon.

Looks like I underestimated the mental disease of religion. I think Im going to post about this one too. This is just too insane.

Good post Blacksun, and thanx for the heads up! We gotta keep ourselves aware of events like these.

BlackSun / December 15th, 2005, 9:31 am / #6

Francois, when you say “thou shalt not kill” is immoral, I’m assuming you mean that we have a right to kill animals, or other humans in self-defense? As per your post:

Francois Tremblay / December 15th, 2005, 10:51 am / #7

“Francois, when you say “thou shalt not kill” is immoral, I’m assuming you mean that we have a right to kill animals, or other humans in self-defense?”


Of course, they have to try to reinterpret it with “thou shalt not murder”. But if a Christian does that, he has to explain why scores of expert linguists disagree with him on that.

morgaine / December 15th, 2005, 2:19 pm / #8

Re:”real culprit is religious belief itself”. Not so cut and dry! Its absolutely critical to get a handle on the difference between an active phase psychotic mental disorder such as manic depression(aka bi-polar disorder) as an underlying cause in heinous problems such as in this article, and the cognitive dissonance and magical thinking of “average” ( non fundamentalist, non violent otherwise sane, ) religious people, whose “beliefs” you see nonetheless, as the ultimate underlying cause. There are fundamental differences between these two populations.The conversation around the fact that religious delusion often accompanies an active psychosis, is an interesting one and important to engage in, (and I think deserves further exploration/discussion) but it does not necessarily, or logically follow that , that the vulnerability to “belief” in non real events is or was in this case at the root.

Ask yourself this; do you think that had this woman been in an active psychotic episode of her illness, and happened NOT to have religious ideation as part of her symptomatology, would she have been less likely to kill? The facts don’t bare that out. The truth is major delusions during a pychotic bi polar phase originate in serious brain malfunction ..or neurochemical imbalance, and could just have easily manifested as the voice of Dick Clark on the radio , telling her to take her and her childs life…. or Gumby told her to do it.. It wasn’t her susceptablity to belief that led her down the road to murder, rather it was her organic brain dysfunction which created her paranoid delusions..A failure of the hardware… a glitch in the neurochemistry of the brain, was what led to murder! Yes very likely, her mental illness also opened the door to a deeping and literalizing of whatever beliefs she established prior to the onset of her illness, and that might otherwise have remained non violent.But thats an important distiction…otherwise non violent.

I am not argueing for belief here, I am arguing against rushing to conclusions. Again, even if her bi polar disorder wasn’t manifested or identified till later in her life, and she had a religious upbringing, there is no data to my knowledge associating religious upbringing or faith of any kind triggering diseases such as schizophrenia ,or major affective mental disorder(the endogenous..meaning chemically rooted kind). Had this woman been a middle of the road person of faith, with the concomitant cognitive dissosance, but lacking a neurological brain disorder , theres no evidence …….that she would have been any more prone to murder than your average atheist..(which i believe you even admit to in one part of your post, if I read correctly) Mental illness, of this nature, does not select believers over atheists. It can make the most otherwise rational person, murder, rape, ….you name it. If you want to be objective I think its important, that as you use examples involving mental illness to bolster your arguments against religion that you really look at all the angles before you jump..

As I said, this entire issue of the relationship between mental illness and religious delusion, the relationship between pychological development and cognitive dissonance, magical thinking belief, etc, is VERY complex ( for example; there are many well grounded studies indicating a positive correlation between belief and psychological health/ stability….one explanation out of many, being that belief lightens the burden of existential angst, which some people cannot cope with on pure reason and intellect alone..This is obviously not a question of right or wrong but a question of what does one do to encourage more reason in the world, when developmentally people are , like it or not, at different psychological stages, and hold varying levels of capacity to use reason, to use abstract thought…..This opens the door to a myriad other questions…like what is psychological stabilty ,and are there some evolutionary stages of development in which belief fosters a healthy psychological structure, as a prelude to later stages in which belief is placed in a clearer context, and the objective and subjective worlds are discerned more readily? What is ones sociopolitical origins and/or environment, and sense of power to act in the world ‘s relationship to one’s vulnerability to magical thinking.. vulnerability to fundamentalism yata yata..This can go on and on.. and obviously, so could I!! ;-)

Its tricky…. . The problems of fundamentalism…whether in Christianity, the New Age, Islamic fundamentalism. etc .. concern me at my deepest core. And I applaud you Sean on you and your blogs ever burgeoning efforts to create a forum for discussions that address the problem around belief etc, as stated in your goals. At the same time, I have to say once more, its important not to seize on every instance of irrational and destructive action as more evidence of a problem of “religious belief itself.”

Lastly, and further risking redundancy…(I had no sleep!) …Sorting out the questions mentioned above , as well as those stemming from them, are essential to suss out, IMHO , if its your desire to wake people up to a greater capacity for distinguishing the subjective from the objective…

P.s. funny, after your comment that i never post…an almost perfect bait, how could I resist?

Francois Tremblay / December 15th, 2005, 3:09 pm / #9

That’s a really long post there.

morgaine / December 15th, 2005, 3:38 pm / #10

no Sean, no atheist suicide bomber… but what about Lenin..Stalin.. Mao..????
Atheism is NO gauranteur of humane behavior, or psychological integrity.

morgaine / December 15th, 2005, 3:40 pm / #11

Long yes… have you read it? What are your thoughts?

BlackSun / December 15th, 2005, 3:53 pm / #12

Re: Lenin, Stalin, Mao, they had created a state religion. Statism is just as deadly as religious belief, and little different in practice. With Hitler, it was eugenics and the master race. All these systems required suspension of critical thinking. It follows that they consumed lives like cannon fodder.

Morgaine, more about the rest of your post later.

Francois Tremblay / December 15th, 2005, 4:14 pm / #13

“no Sean, no atheist suicide bomber… but what about Lenin..Stalin.. Mao..????
Atheism is NO gauranteur of humane behavior, or psychological integrity.”

Now I know not to take you seriously. Lenin, Stalin and Mao were just as religious as any fundie.

morgaine / December 15th, 2005, 5:20 pm / #14

That was part of my point Sean; that even self proclaimed atheists touting rationalism could behave as irrationaly as anyone. . You KNOW I am entirly against suspension of critical thinking (well except maybe at a good concert, or..;-) and of course, of course Statism is a version of religion, but I was simply speaking to the overall sentiment being expressed in response to this last post of yours which was focusing exclusively on religion as the sole culprit ,and not making any distinctions about mental illness in this particular case.

Re:If religion didn’t exist people wouldn’t have the courage to perform these atrociaous act? (What I am missing??) Is that rational? Come on folks, do you really believe only the religious commit crime?

Don’t jump to the assumption that because I play devils advovate , I am pro-religious! But even if I was, does that mean anything I would say would be out and out called crazy? Where is the critical thinking in that..or in casually disregarding my commentary (on the mental health aspects of this woman’s case) simply based on a question I asked Sean about these histoical murderers?

again, did you read this and do you have any thoughts ..other than not to take me seriously?

As I understand it,this forum is largely about promoting the use of critical thinking and the attempt to remove one’s subjective biases, in order to determine reality.. where’s the benefit in discounting material you haven’t even read?

BlackSun / December 19th, 2005, 3:24 pm / #15

(H/T Kill the Afterlife)

Hopefully this study will shed some more light on this phenomenon. We certainly cannot discount the bipolar aspect. But belief and its social support structure may help legitimize delusions. They may discourage someone from getting the treatment they need.

It’s clear that these situations are tragic, and I’m not trying to add more fuel to the fire. But I think more research is clearly needed to determine exactly how delusions contained in religious belief interact with more organic brain-based mental illness.

morgaine / December 19th, 2005, 6:22 pm / #16

Thanks for addessing this, and for the insightful article. Like it suggests, and like you say, more research is needed. Causal factors need to be distinguished from associations when looking at these relationships. And a clear definition of mental illness (especially given its wide range of manifestation and differing origins) is needed for us to effectively discuss the nuances and contexts of how faith and delusion, belief and mental illness, may (or, in certain cases may not)play on one another.

Aaron Kinney / December 20th, 2005, 4:48 pm / #17


I see what you are saying, but I think the argument that Blacksun made still stands.

What it is, (according tot he study linked earlier in the comments here) is that religion, even in the form of devotion to a “state” (think Stalin), can serve as a catalyst to push otherwise functional people over the edge of dysfunction or malfunction (is that a word?)

Blacksun and us other materialists arent jumping to conclusions. We are merely incorporating the conclusions that were already carefully arrived at by experienced researchers, i.e. the study that cites religion as a catalyst for violent psychotic behavior.

Now to commit such an atrocity you need a positive claim/statement to fuel your psychosis with. Positive claims like religions and statism and collectivism fill this need perfectly. However, negative claims like atheism do not. By its very nature, atheism is a negative claim or a lack of an ideology. It does not serve as the fuel needed to justify crazy behavior.

Now if a mother is absent of religion, and absent of religious-ish ideologies like statism, she will have no catalyst with which to enact on her crazy desires. In addition, being absent of religion, the woman (or those around her -assuming they are also absent of religion) will more likely recognize her illness for what it is rather than attribute it to imaginary evil spirits.

Religion allows one to conclude that “the voices in your head are coming from real entities,” but atheism can never be used to justify that stance.

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