Speaking Thursday afternoon at the Hay Literary Festival, neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor sparked controversy when she claimed that religious fundamentalism could be classified as a mental disorder — a disorder that could one day be cured by science.
She explained, “Somebody who has for example become radicalised to a cult ideology — we might stop seeing that as a personal choice that they have chosen as a result of pure free will and may start treating it as some kind of mental disturbance.”
“I am not just talking about the obvious candidates like radical Islam or some of the more extreme cults,” she continued. “I am talking about things like the belief that it is OK to beat your children. These beliefs are very harmful but are not normally categorized as mental illness.”
In some ways, Taylor argued, this could be a positive development, as there are no doubt certain beliefs that inflict great harm on society, but she acknowledges that such a shift in cultural assumptions has dangerous implications. Scientists need “to be careful when it comes to developing technologies which can slip through the skull to directly manipulate the brain,” she says. “Technologies which profoundly change our relationship with the world around us cannot simply be tools, to be used for good or evil, if they alter our basic perception of what good and evil are.”
While history and recent world events have shown us that religious fundamentalism has the potential to do great damage, such scientific innovation raises the question: At what point does the cure become more dangerous than the disease? Who determines what’s extreme? Or what’s a disease? At what point does the classification of religious fundamentalism branch beyond fundamentalism to religion at large? Or to go even further, if child abuse is a mental illness to which homosexuality has been compared by many conservatives, is being gay a disease? Until 1973, the American Psychiatric Association said it was.
For those with creative imaginations, the idea of mind-altering treatment has "Orwellian apocalyptic nightmare" written all over it (I’m frankly surprised Tom Cruise hasn’t already starred in a movie about this). But as science really does progress to a place where such things become possible, it’s crucial to begin the debate now, because, as Taylor argues, once the process of altering our collective moral compass begins we won’t be able to stop and decide objectively as a society where to draw the line. And when only 40 years have passed since homosexuality was medically classified as a mental disturbance, it’s important to note that our ethical evolution as a society doesn’t always keep pace with our technological one.
Moreover, if we truly believe that the only legitimate political system is one in which the people have a right to voice their endlessly diverse spectrum of beliefs, it’s hard to say exactly what place such innovations can have in a democracy.
So while it’s a comforting notion to think that we could one day rid the world of child abuse — even religious terrorists — it only takes a moment before the uncomfortable ethical and political questions surrounding such a technology begin to stack up.