This whole health care battle has me thinking about the structure of knowledge and how we know what we know. As a preface, when dealing with someone who is clearly psychotic, it can often be very difficult to separate out cultural and spiritual beliefs from delusions. Does a person who claims "I am psychic" believe that because it's true (somewhat rare), because they come from a culture where psychic ability is expected and they were raised to believe its true, or because they're delusional? Does a person who believes they have a direct connection with God believe that because it is part of religious teachings, or because they are hearing voices and need to have their medications readjusted? In a religious society, this is a very thorny question.
There are two ways of "knowing" things, through observation and critical thinking, and through faith and trust in authority. Most of us, as rationalizing animals (who fool ourselves into believing we're rational), use some combination of the two systems of knowing, even when we believe we are purely "rational" and using only the first system of knowledge. There can be pitfalls in the first way of knowing, simply from lack of information/data and resulting mis-characterization of the problems and solutions, but the system of knowledge from faith and authority is particularly susceptible to a variety of huge issues.
First of all, all faith boils down to trust in authority, whether that is trust in a book written by humans, or in the direct word of humans considered to have more knowledge or wisdom than oneself. There is an inherent danger that the authority has no more actual knowledge or wisdom than you do, and cannot actually provide you with useful guidance, or that the authority is deliberately leading you astray for purposes of their own.
Even in the sciences and social sciences, arguments from authority creep in, simply because there is far more knowledge available in the world than there is time or energy for any one person to build a complete knowledge system alone. In the sciences and social science, we largely fill this gap between direct observation and authority with rules of critical thinking, including vetting of resources and analysis of data sources, learning how to distinguish a reliable/valid source of data from an unreliable/invalid source.
The way of knowing through faith/authority, by contrast, deliberately subsumes one's own knowledge and critical thinking to the presumed knowledge and critical thinking of the authority in which we are expected to have faith. In many faith/authority systems, critical thinking and questioning of authority is not only a negative, but a dangerous negative with the disastrous result of being shunned or even killed.
As no human being is wholly rational or wholly faith/authority based, there is a long spectrum of data points from those who consciously reject all authorities other than their own senses and critical thinking,which can be disastrous if their senses are defective and/or their critical thinking is faulty, and those who consciously reject all critical thinking and rely only on their authorities of choice, usually faith leaders and books of faith, which can be disastrous if the faith leaders or books of faith are deliberately or accidentally encouraging their followers to believe things that are dangerous to believe (such as that global warming is a myth) or harmful (such as that some classes of human beings are categorically inferior to others in an absolute sense).
This brings me full circle to the psychology of ways of knowing. Some of the most effective methods for helping people recover from serious mental illness, in addition to correction of chemical imbalances in the brain, are simply instructions in how to utilize critical thinking skills. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), for instance, is a highly effective short term therapy course that is extremely effective at addressing the rumination and distress of mood disorders such as major depression and bipolar disorder, as well as simple therapy for disruptive life events. It teaches people to structure knowledge about themselves and the world around them in a way that is subject to fact checking and reality testing, concepts that have often, and sadly, never been taught to the people who obtain this therapy.
And now we're back to delusional disorders and their relationship to faith/authority based knowledge systems. One of the traits most prevalent in the population of people with delusional disorders is a sort of free-floating anxiety/fear that someone/something is bad or out to get them. Those with delusional disorders who are most effective at managing those disorders develop a sort of fact-checking protocol to deal with their hallucinations, and build constant reminders to check their data into their daily routines. This is understandably very difficult when the data of one's senses is notoriously unreliable, but when achieved, those who have hallucinations and delusions can function extremely effectively.
What is startling to me about "faith based" belief systems that reject critical thinking, is that people without defective brain chemistry appear to deliberately induce over a lifetime of rejecting the evidence of their senses and denying their own brains' authority, a state that is remarkably similar to that of a person with a severe delusional disorder -- that what they "know" is in direct opposition to what their senses tell them. This necessarily with it induces the free floating anxiety/fear (and often the rage that goes with feeling threatened) that someone with full blown, unchallenged delusions lives with.
I have said all this to say that in the last few months, and especially this August, I have been particularly struck with the evident fear and anger of those who are fighting against the health care reform bills working their way through congress. Their desperate clinging to disproved assumptions and deliberate lies promulgated by their authorities (mostly political in this case) in the face of overwhelming evidence by any rational standard that they are fighting against their own interests (unless they are insurance company CEOs) indicates a chronic and severe induced state of delusion. It is particularly striking how, in the absence of argument against health care, certain buzz words have replaced rational thought: "socialism" "Obamacare" "fascist" (that one blows my mind, especially when juxtapositioned next to "socialism"), etc. so that those who have been taught to not use their own minds can be brought into an induced emotion with what amounts to a cue card.
I have to say that it is a fascinating, and worrisome, commentary on the sophistication of the corporate/political establishment understanding of mass psychology and the usefulness of encouraging a populace to deny their own ability to think in favor of authoritarianism.
* Just to be clear, I am not claiming that religious belief per se is inherently pathological, nor am I saying that it is necessarily pathological to rely on authority for some portion of one's knowledge. What I am saying is that when one rejects the evidence of one's senses and critical thinking stemming from that evidence wholly or mostly, in favor of a purely faith based system, there is a HUGE inherent risk that the authority one is relying on is going to lead one away from knowledge and into a state of mind where reality becomes unknowable and fear becomes a constant companion.
** Also, there are good arguments against specific provisions being proposed in the various bills working their way through congress. Those, however, are not what is being addressed in the vast majority of anti- health care protests. The majority of the anti- health care protests focus on the person of the President of the United States and of Congress, on poorly understood and incomplete arguments against "socialism" and "fascism", and on outright lies and misinterpretations of provisions in the bill designed to heighten primal fears.