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Gullible Skeptics by Thomas S. Szasz

The following essay is reproduced here by permission of Sheldon Richman, Editor, Ideas on Liberty [formerly The Freeman].
Ideas on Liberty is published by The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, NY 10533.
Szasz, T. Gullible Skeptics.The Freeman, 49: 26-27 (May), 1999.

Gullible Skeptics


Thomas S. Szasz, M.D.

"... the reason why liberty, of which we Americans talk so much, is a good thing is that it means leaving people to live out their own lives in their own way, while we do the same. If we believe in liberty, as an American principle, why do we not stand by it?"
--William Graham Sumner (1840-1910)

Webster's defines a skeptic as "one who doubts... a person marked by skepticism regarding religion or religious principles." Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary states that a sceptic is "One who doubts the validity of what claims to be knowledge in some particular department of inquiry (e.g. metaphysics, theology, natural science, etc); ... an unbeliever in Christianity, infidel."

Webster's and the OED both emphasize that skeptics are likely to be especially skeptical about matters pertaining to religion. Why should this be so? Because skeptics, like most Americans, think they love liberty and seek to "liberate" people from what they regard as "religious oppression."

However, as the OED also states, a skeptic is a person who is skeptical about "some particular department of inquiry" -- hence, he may not be skeptical about some other department of inquiry. Indeed, we could not go through life without being unskeptical about many things, accepting them on "faith value" -- for example, that diabetes is better treated with insulin than with aspirin.

I want to show that although contemporary skeptics pride themselves on disbelieving the theology of traditional religions, most of them ardently believe the theology of the Therapeutic State -- the alliance of Medicine and the State -- epitomized by Psychiatry. Although most educated people doubt what they regard as false claims, they do not call or consider themselves "skeptics." Most self-styled or professional skeptics (Skeptics) are not only obsessed with agitating against what they regard as false religious claims but act as if such doubting were a daring, modern attitude.

Actually, skepticism about religion is as old as religion itself. Adherence to religion A implies skepticism about religion B, and vice versa. Since the Enlightenment, the debunking of religion, especially Christianity, has been a veritable growth industry. Nevertheless, religious belief remains widespread. In the United States, support for religious belief as "truth" and as a political agenda is associated with the so-called Christian Right.

Skeptics are best viewed as their dialogic partners and political adversaries. Typical Skeptical essays appear under titles such as: "The Improbability of God" or "A Bill of Rights for Unbelievers." By targeting the Religious Right as their adversary, the Skeptics ally themselves -- sometimes tacitly, often explicitly -- with the Psychiatric Left. The result is that Skeptics are among the leading supporters of the dominant "religious" fraud and oppression of our age, Psychiatry.

The United States has a National Institute of Mental Health, but it has no National Institute of Religion. Every state has Mental Health Laws, but none has Religious Health Laws; indeed, none has Physical Health Laws. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Americans are deprived of liberty on psychiatric grounds; not a single American is deprived of liberty on religious grounds. I will not belabor my view that mental illnesses, like ghosts, are non-existent entities and that psychiatry, like slavery, rests on the state-sanctioned coercion of innocent individuals.

Persons engage in actions. There is no psychiatry without psychiatric acts: the paradigmatic psychiatric acts are civil commitment and the insanity defense, both euphemisms for depriving people of liberty. Civil commitment is preventive detention of the innocent. The insanity defense or, more precisely, the insanity disposition, is the punitive detention of criminals classified as "mentally ill" in prisons called "mental hospitals."

One need not be a devout skeptic to doubt that John W. Hinckley, Jr. is really innocent of his crime (although such is his official "diagnosis") or that he is really being treated for a bona fide illness" (in a building "diagnosed" as a hospital). I submit that Hinckley's non-existent illness and psychiatric torture is emblematic of a large class of phenomena that Skeptics are not eager to be skeptical about. They have good reasons for their selective skepticism. We live in a Therapeutic State: the person skeptical about religion is acclaimed as humane and scientifically enlightened, whereas the person skeptical about psychiatry is reviled as a heretic denying science and a cruel reactionary to boot.

As there is no psychiatry without psychiatric acts, so too there is no madness without mad acts. Acts we deem "mad" are either non-criminal, like depression, in which case the Skeptic rationalizes imprisoning the person in a mental hospital as saving his mind (as the inquisitors rationalized burning the heretic as saving his soul); or such acts are criminal, like murder, in which case the Skeptic basks in self-approval by demanding that the offender be "treated," not punished. In short, the Skeptic clings to the idea that mental illnesses are "real diseases" which the "sufferers" would want "treated" if only they recognized their true interests.

Why are so many Skeptics gullible about psychiatry? Mainly, I surmise, because psychiatrists tend to support the Skeptics' claim that religion is an "illusion." Which raises the rhetorical question, Are Skeptics more interested in the differences between true and false beliefs or in differences between consensual and coercive actions?

Psychiatry is an instrument of the coercive apparatus of the status. Separate Psychiatry and the State -- abolish civil commitment and the insanity defense and prohibit using taxpayer moneys to fund mental health "services" -- and Psychiatry, as we know it, would melt like snow under the hot sun. Skepticism about psychiatry would then become as politically correct as skepticism about religion is now.

Consider the contrast between Freedom of Religion and Unfreedom from Psychiatry. Religion as false belief -- religious relations between consenting adults (regardless of the actors' beliefs) -- harms no one, except possibly the believer, who "deserves" to be helped or harmed by the exercise of his free choice of self-regarding religious conduct. Only Religion as political power -- as violence against others masquerading as help (and the use of tax money to support Religion) -- is dangerous to others. We have no Religious Health Laws; hence Religion is not a danger to anyone.

Mutatis mutandis, Psychiatry as false belief-- psychiatric relations between consenting adults (regardless of the actors' beliefs) -- harms no one, except possibly the believer, who "deserves" to be helped or harmed by the exercise of his free choice of self-regarding psychiatric conduct. Only Psychiatry as political power -- as violence against others masquerading as help ((and the use of tax money to support Psychiatry) -- is a danger to others. However stubbornly true believers in Psychiatry insist that "mental illness is like any other illness," the truth is that we have no Physical Health Laws, but we do have Mental Health Laws. Hence, Psychiatry is a danger to everyone.

Organized religion qua religion is separated from the American State by the Constitution as well as by custom. Organized psychiatry is not: Religion qua Psychiatry is the danger that now faces us. It is Psychiatry -- not Christianity -- that is lavishly supported by the State and is empowered to use its coercive apparatus. It is Psychiatry -- not Christianity -- that is the grand deception of our age. It is Psychiatry -- not Christianity -- that Skeptics ought to unmask, ridicule, condemn, and combat.

Copyright 2001, by The Foundation for Economic Education

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