November 2003

How Do You Distinguish Between an Unorthodox or Bizarre Faith and Delusion?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“Critical examination of the lives and beliefs of gurus demonstrates that our psychiatric labels and our conceptions of what is or is not mental illness are woefully inadequate,” says Anthony Storr inFeet of Clay. “How, for example, does one distinguish an unorthodox or bizarre faith from delusion?

“Gurus are isolated people, dependent upon their disciples, with no possibility of being disciplined by a Church or criticized by contemporaries. They are above the law. The guru usurps the place of God. Whether gurus have suffered from manic-depressive illness, schizophrenia, or any other form of recognized, diagnosable mental illness is interesting but ultimately unimportant. What distinguishes gurus from more orthodox teachers is not their manic-depressive mood swings, not their thought disorders, not their delusional beliefs, not their hallucinatory visions, not their mystical states of ecstasy: it is their narcissism.”

In a recently published book,Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer discusses violence among the followers, present and past, of the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith. Martin Naparsteck, a reviewer forThe Salt Lake Tribune says, “The violence in the Church’s early history, in Krakauer’s exploration, results from a belief that the LDS Church alone is the conduit to salvation and truth, which led its early leaders to rationalize whatever they did, including lying and violence, as sanctioned by God.” Modern-day cultists, excommunicated or otherwise excluded from the LDS Church, have justified murder from this belief. An example extensively described in the book is the case of the 1984 murders of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter by Brenda’s brothers-in-law, Ron and Dan Lafferty.

Chapter 23, “Judgment in Provo,” describes how psychiatrists dealt in court with the question of Ron’s sanity or insanity. Peggy Fletcher Stack, religion writer forThe Salt Lake Tribune, states, “Saying that anyone who talks with God is crazy has enormous implications for the world of religion. It imposes a secular view of sanity and means that all religions are insane.” The entire Mormon faith is based on talking to God.

Ron’s behavior in the pretrial hearings served to underscore his lawyers’ contention that he was mentally incompetent. He addressed the judge with obscene expletives. He wore a cloth sign attached to the seat of his prison jumpsuit that read, EXIT ONLY. His attorneys explained that he wore the sign to ward off the angel Moroni, who he believed was an evil homosexual spirit trying to invade his body through his anus.

Called as expert witnesses for the defense, three psychiatrists and one psychologist testified that, after examining the defendant, they were utterly convinced that he was deranged. Dr. C. Jess Groesbeck based his diagnosis on the fact that Ron’s bizarre beliefs could not be changed “with reason” and are so fantastic and so beyond any kind of rational acceptance by anyone in the culture, that they would be categorized as delusional. When Ron’s wife had left him, he had suffered “a total loss of self-esteem or self-image,” which prompted him to compensate “by creating a new but unreal view of himself and the world”

“He can’t even evaluate the reality of, for example, the case the state has against him. And I think that even when he can hear a few of those facts, his delusional system is so strong for example, he absolutely believes that every piece of evidence that has been brought against him had been planted. And I think that’s a product of his delusional thinking. And because of that in my opinion he does not meet the criteria of being able to appreciate the charges.”

Reasons given by other defense witnesses were: He didn’t understand why he was being tried by the state instead of his own family. He considered the issue of his guilt or innocence “a family matter” that could be resolved by having him “duke it out with Allen, the husband of the deceased woman. He sometimes heard Christ speaking to him. He heard a buzzing sound when spirits were present. He saw sparks shooting from his fingertips.

But prosecution expert witnesses threw cold water on the notion that such behavior demonstrated Ron was crazy or unfit to stand trial. Dr. Noel Gardner of the University of Utah Medical School admitted Ron’s belief in “travelers,” evil spirits, reflector shields, and the like was due to very odd, strange ideas. But “in an in-depth exploration of where these ideas came from, and how he uses them and thinks about them, it is very clear to me they are not psychotic ideas [They are] very consistent with things he’s learned as a child.” Gardner explained that Ron described “travelers” as being spiritual entities with the ability to “inhabit different bodies at different times.” This belief wasn’t really very different from the notion of reincarnation, and Ron simply “used some very unusual labels” for a “rather conventional set of ideas. There are millions, literally, probably billions of people who believe in a spirit world.”

Although Ron talks about reflector shields, warding off or defending against evil forces, which might suggest a psychotic, paranoid set of ideas, he actually “‘describes these forces in very much the same kind of language that ordinary religious people would. For example, I asked him how these spirits were alike or different than the ideas of guardian angels, and I said I grew up in a family where we believe in guardian angels.”

Ron responded that his “reflector shields” were very much like guardian angels, which struck Dr. Gardner as “very non-psychotic.” It seemed nearly identical to the ordinary Christian concept of erecting defenses “against the temptations or influences of Satan. It’s not all that different in many ways than a common New Testament text And it’s real clear that many of his ideas have come from his early Mormon teachings.”

Utah Assistant Attorney General Creighton Horton asked, “Are people who believe in divine guidance, or believe God sends guardian angels to protect us, mentally ill?”

“I would hope not,” Gardner replied. “Certainly the majority of the people in our country believe in God And while the labels that Mr. Lafferty uses are certainly unusual, the thought forms themselves are really common to all of us.”

Do travelers enter humans? “The idea that Christians should pray to have the Holy Spirit fill their lives, to come in and control their lives, possess them is a very common notion.” A number of religions still engage in exorcisms, to remove evil spirits that have taken possession of individuals. “A false belief isn’t necessarily a basis of mental illness.” Most of mankind, Gardner points out, subscribes to “ideas that are not particularly rational,” for example, trans-substantiation, the belief that the bread and wine in the Mass become the actual blood and body of Christ, or the idea of the virgin birth.

What makes Ron’s religious beliefs “so striking,” says Gardner, “is not that they are somewhat strange or even irrational, because all religious people have irrational ideas,” but “that they are so uniquely his own.” He had constructed his own idiosyncratic theology “in a very non-psychotic way He created it by whatever feels good to him. He says, ‘It just gives me a sense of peace, and I know it’s true.'” Ron’s beliefs are rooted in things he was taught at an early age.

Psychologist Richard Wootton said Ron’s beliefs were bizarre but no more so than many notions held to be true by religious folk, including Mormons. Many things accepted by one culture would appear crazy or extreme to those outside the culture. Psychologist Stephen Golding said whether Ron’s beliefs were true or false was irrelevant in determining whether he was mentally competent. His “approach to the world is no different than other kinds of political or religious zealots in this country, in Iran, in Montana, in a variety of places A zealot is simply someone who has an extreme, fervently held belief” and is willing to go “to great lengths to impose those beliefs, act on those beliefs.”

Why had the Lafferty brothers’ religious beliefs turned them into ruthless killers? Dr. Gardner told the court that, although Ron was not psychotic, he suffered from a psychological affliction called narcissistic personality disorder, which is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy indicated by five or more of the following:

  1. An exaggerated sense of self-importance.
  2. Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  3. Believes that he or she is “special” and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high status people.
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement.
  6. Selfishly takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
  7. Lacks empathy.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty, patronizing, or contemptuous behaviors or attitudes.

The causes of narcissism are not known for sure, but there are various theories which attempt to explain why it occurs.

The jury agreed with the state, and it is expected that Ron will exhaust his appeals and be executed as early as 2004.

David Blackbird

Member Spotlight

Women should love David Blackbird because he thinks they’re smarter than men. It’s possible to trace his peculiar belief back to his childhood. His father sadly died in an automobile accident when David was ten, and his single mother raised him and his brother. Then another exceptional female entered his young life when his Dallas high school class valedictorian played his wife in a one-act play that won first place in the Texas state competition. He continued his association with the stage in college in Lubbock and met his future wife, who was so smart he thought she was a graduate student, when they were both involved in a Shakespeare production. She, however, like David, was in her final semester as an undergraduate.

David Blackbird

Upon graduation in 1951 with a BA in government, he received his Air Force commission and married. He was called to active duty a few months later and eventually served as an administrative office in Korea. After the truce in 1954, he returned to Oklahoma and although he had only a four-year commitment as a reservist, he applied for flight training and a “regular” commission. He eventually flew the Boeing stratocruiser refueling tanker, but he found it tiresome waiting at Goose Bay, Labrador, and bases in England, Spain, Germany, Morocco, and the Azores to refuel bombers during the cold war, and so after thirteen years he was sent to the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1964 he received a Masters in Public and International Affairs. This began seventeen years as an intelligence officer, both stateside and in Vietnam and Europe. He retired in 1981 as a colonel.

Along the way he had four children, two girls and two boys, and he faithfully performed his PTA and Cub Scout duties. He and his wife divorced in 1985. He followed another woman to Salt Lake City, “foolishly,” he says, when he met his current wife, Leona, at a singles bridge group he was running. They continue to play bridge there, which is now called the Mostly Singles Bridge Group. As still another intelligent woman in David’s life, Leona, of course, continues to teach David a lot about bridge and other things.

Consistent with his view on the superior intelligence of women, he is one of the few male members of the League of Women Voters. He finds the women very bright and loves the good they do. He’s a political junkie and has found the LWV one of the few places where he can get into an intelligent discussion about politics.

Finally, he’s a Unitarian Universalist as well as a humanist, believing with Leona that humans invented God many years ago. Presumably men.

–Earl Wunderli

Of Humanism and Religion

The November 2003 issue of Dialogue, a publication of the American Ethical Union, contains an article by Joe Chuman, the Ethical Culture leader of Bergen, NJ, discussing humanism and religion. I want to share with you some of his comments.

“In the modern era, religion no longer requires an affirmation of a transcendental realm. If values and ideals serve to focus life, lift individuals beyond their self-interest and animate life with meaning and purpose, such beliefs may be construed as religious ones.”

“It is a long-standing canard that people must believe in God, especially a God that rewards and punishes, in order to be moral, with the implication that humanists, agnostics and atheists are immoral. We see no empirical evidence for this. An absence of belief in a God would not inhibit people from giving to charity or loving their children, nor would it transform warm-hearted individuals into misanthropes.”

“Humanism doesn’t worship human beings. It reverences ethical ideals, which we human beings yearn for but recognize we can never reach.”

“The supreme importance of recognizing, respecting, and eliciting the dignity of human beings is the most important idea in the world.”

Joe Chuman teaches philosophy at Columbia University and was my mentor when I was a student at the Humanist Institute.

–Flo Wineriter


Author Chester Dolan (Religion on Trial, second edition, page 157) is adamant about the necessity of humans taking personal responsibility. With his permission I quote:

“The universe is indifferent, not capable of caring about us one way or another. There is not now nor has there ever been the slightest evidence that the universe can dispose or propose, that purpose plays any part in the goings on beyond the nervous systems of sentient beings. The universe has not motive nor means, and produces no intended effects. The universe just is, that is all. The universe is not out there to get us nor to favor us. We are in command, and we must make every effort to improve the ways we do that which we do.”

–Flo Wineriter

Rethinking Jefferson

Recently, a gentleman by the name of C. Odell Kay (no relation) wrote a letter to the editor as follows: “Senator Ted Kennedy has a lot to say about President Bush. He manages to sidestep the glaring fact that 9-11 didn’t happen overnight. Mistakes were made a decade ago by the previous administration.” The following quote is from Thomas Jefferson: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Far be it for me to try to improve on Jefferson’s writing but I wish he had said something like, “I hope that someday the tree of liberty will not have to be refreshed by the blood of patriots and tyrants but by the tears of joy and happiness of all mankind”

–Rolf Kay

Marion Craig Fund

Marion Craig left Humanists of Utah a very generous gift as part of her estate. We have invested the money in the Vanguard Fund in order to generate funds so that Marion will be remembered in perpetuity. She was a teacher in our public schools so we decided to use her chosen career to honor her.

This year we are sponsoring an essay writing contest for high school students in the Jordan School District. If it is successful we hope to make this an annual event and expand to schools throughout the state.

We are offering $1000 prize money to winning essays on the subject of The Bill of Rights.

Just for Smiles…

From the October 2003 edition of the CDHS Humanist: A group of humanists found these bits of fortune-cookie wisdom following a recent Chinese dinner:

  • You have had many travels; you have seen more than you remember; and you remember more than you have seen.
  • You can fool some of the people some of the time–including yourself.
  • Man who say he has found Jesus should put him back.
  • You will take a long journey. You will meet many infidels–if you are lucky.
  • Woman who go crazy in church has Methodist in her madness.
  • Atheist in coffin at funeral is all dressed up with no place to go.
  • A theist believes in god. An apatheist is indifferent as to whether or not there is a god and is too lazy to find out.
  • An agnostic is not sure there is a god. A diagnostic is not sure there are two gods.
  • Many who say he is born again should now grow up.
  • You have well-concealed charm and intelligence.
  • There are no words to describe your innate talents.
  • Confuse-us say: It is virtually impossible to overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.
  • George Carlin say: Most people don’t know what they’re doing, and a lot of them are really good at it.