Are Religious Fanatics Insane? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Are Religious Fanatics Insane?

Are Religious Fanatics Insane?

By Nathan Siegel


Because committing murder in the name of anyone — even God — is about as insane as it gets.

By Nathan Siegel

There are better ways to impress a lady than to assassinate the president. Apparently nobody told John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan and wounded three others in 1981 in an attempt to court actress Jodie Foster. The schizophrenic Hinckley was famously deemed not guilty by reason of insanity.

A thought experiment, dear reader: If killing for Foster meets the legal definition of crazy, why shouldn’t killing for God? Religious zealotry — at least the kind that drives you to harm others — should be in the eyes of the law a mental illness and therefore eligible for psychiatric treatment, not punishment. Plenty of murderers who have cited God as their muse should be locked behind padded white walls instead of steel bars. Consider when an Algerian Muslim stabbed an Orthodox Jew 20 times on a London bus in 2002, claiming that the voice of a woman named Jennifer made him do it. He was later acquitted by reason of insanity. It shouldn’t be different if he claimed that God had told him to kill instead of Jennifer. 

Most courts don’t accept religious fervor on its own as grounds for insanity. It’d be a slippery slope that could slide into judges making calls on whether religion is valid at all, says Joseph Hoffmann, a law professor at Indiana University. Put plainly: “Religion is not a disease.” Fair. We wouldn’t argue that faith alone makes you clinically nutty (even though Freud himself called religion a “mass delusion”). Harming others for faith is another question. 

Of course, most murders sit somewhere along the spectrum of “mad” to “bad,” says Harold Bursztajn, co-founder of Harvard Medical School’s Program in Psychiatry and the Law. Many murders have elements of both, and it can be tough to separate rational from irrational motives. To be judged insane in court, the accused must have had reasons for acting that no rational person could plausibly believe, and have had no appreciation for the wrongfulness of their actions, says Hoffmann. 

Don’t call me crazy, but that doesn’t sound so different from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who will soon go on trial for the Boston Marathon bombings. Or maybe even the recent Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria.

What do you think? You can let us know in the comments below.

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