It’s easy to imagine there is some important difference between reasonable people and participants in the delusions we notice in the world around us. There must be something in our own nature, some clarity of thought, which defends against brainwashing, conspiracy theories, or groupthink. We owe this false assumption to the fact that it is all too easy to detect delusion in others.

Our knack for noticing delusion in others is promising at face value but comes with two serious hazards. First, it inspires misplaced confidence in our ability to detect delusion in ourselves. Second, it turns out there is a sole exception to the rule which spoils everything, namely that delusion cannot be detected, even in others, by those who share the same delusion. Individual delusions, therefore, tend to be far less stubborn, and their victims far less secure, than group delusions. Take two examples.

Claire and Kirk

Claire is self-obsessed, combative, and unpleasant, if you ask her peers. If you ask her, she is tragically misunderstood. She complains people unfairly assume she is at fault before hearing her side. They resent her, she says, because she has the courage to “tell it like it is,” which is slang for “tell it as Claire perceives it.” Everyone knows that in reality Claire is the source of most of her problems, yet to explain this to her is merely to incite her bad temper.

Kirk is a recent convert to the Church of Scientology. His loved ones witnessed each step of his conversion with painful clarity, powerless to interrupt the process. Absurd though his new beliefs are, he seems to have an answer for every one of his family’s objections. Try as they might, no one can get through to poor Kirk.

Both Claire and Kirk are deluded, yet Kirk’s delusion carries an additional hazard.

The Power of Participation

Everyone but Claire notices the tension between her self-image and actual character. This is a good thing because unless she is unusually stubborn and hard-headed, her self-image is liable to erode with doubt over time. Some do live in such delusion for a lifetime, but with no external reinforcement, she is likely to live and learn. Kirk is at a major disadvantage in this respect. As an otherwise reasonable person, there is no way Kirk would remain in error as the sole participant in his delusion. Those brave enough to make unique religious claims as individuals are just not taken seriously. As it happens, Kirk’s Scientologist friends, Dan and Sarah, are a great help. They relate their own conversion stories and offer him what the religious call “encouragement” (reinforcement is more accurate) when he needs it most. When Kirk leaves Church meetings with Dan and Sarah, he feels lighter, confident and at ease. His old relationships are tense and even contentious by contrast, and while he still enjoys evenings out with his siblings and a few work friends, nothing compares to the safety and comfort of his church family.

It helps that Sarah is exceptionally bright and Dan a successful executive. These are not the gullible simpletons one expects to find engaging in cult behavior. They are thoughtful, competent people you would trust to do your taxes or even care for your children. And that’s what makes their participation so powerful.

It’s no coincidence evangelical religions place such high value on attendance and group activity. They value it more than just about anything else required of them. And they should. Take an evangelical out of church services and functions for an extended period, keep her away from her church friends, expose her to other ideas, and watch her slowly emerge from the fog of delusion (they call this “backsliding”). It’s no wonder internal church pressures ensure that, short of kidnapping her, it is impossible to run this experiment.

Doubt as a Shield

Sarah and Dan notwithstanding, Kirk still has his doubts. The problem is that his doubts actually do him a disservice, for he feels reasonable for having them. Doubt can work as a kind of credential attesting to the supposed self-criticalness and open-mindedness of the believer. In reality, Kirk’s doubts are worse than useless; they grant him credibility he does not deserve and fail to do what doubt does best, which is root out false beliefs. Kirk’s doubts protect his delusions (along with a little “encouragement”) from outside criticisms by fooling him into thinking he has honestly considered them.

When worlds collide

The nature of these delusions makes “interfaith dialogue” a comedy to outsiders. I confess I have fantasized about introducing the devout Muslim version of a loved one to the devout evangelical version of himself. This is both too absurd and too optimistic a wish, as each copy of my loved one would undoubtedly leave the conversation believing he had just met the deluded version of himself. Group delusions like religion are just that resilient owing to the sheer power of participation, our misplaced confidence in our introspection, and our unwavering faith in our own reasonableness.

So, what does it feel like to be so deeply entrenched in such a delusion? From experience, I can report that it feels a lot like nothing, and that in fact the feeling of delusion is self-defeating. The moment one begins to “feel deluded,” the delusion begins to pass. Delusion is nothing more than this: strong conviction collides with conflicting reality, and nothing major happens.

It’s easy to be discouraged, even despair, at the thought that even a well-qualified person with the requisite time and energy would perhaps fail to dissuade Kirk of his errors. Anyone who has attempted to de-convert a victim of group delusion understands the term “exercise in futility.” I have focused on the religious here, but just try reasoning with an anti-vaxxer, evolution-denier, or conspiracy theorist. Are we therefore better off educating their would-be victims than confronting them directly? There is room for both, I think. As a former anti-vaxxer, evolution-denier, conspiracy theorist (and evangelical Christian, to boot), I’m reminded daily how dead wrong our intuitions on delusion are. The world is not divided into reasonable people and crackpots, and complaints that there is “just no getting through to so-and-so” are often premature and overstated.

The truth is, there is a little Kirk and Claire in all of us. We are all the face of delusion, and so if there is no hope for the deluded, then there is little for any of us. We are, as they say, in this together, birds of a feather, fallen from the same tree. Whether this comes as dire news or a profound relief is only a matter of perspective.

I earned my Bachelor's in English at the University of St. Thomas in MN with a minor in Philosophy. I'm a former evangelical Christian who enjoys reading and writing about evolution, psychology, and religious issues.

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