Religious Fundamentalism, Scientific Rationality, and the Evaluation of Social Identities


[Excerpt from Chapter 10 of Madness and the Demand for Recognition (2019, OUP)]

Referring to religious fundamentalism, Gellner (1992, p. 2) writes:

The underlying idea is that a given faith is to be upheld firmly in its full and literal form, free of compromise, softening, re-interpretation or diminution. It presupposes that the core of religion is doctrine, rather than ritual, and also that this doctrine can be fixed with precision and finality.

Religious doctrine includes fundamental ideas about our nature, the nature of the world and the cosmos, and the manner in which we should live and treat each other. In following to the letter the doctrines of one’s faith, believers are trying to get it right, where getting it right means knowing with exactness what God intended for us. In the case of Islam, the tradition I know most about, the Divine intent can be discerned from the Qur’an (considered to be the word of the God) and the Traditions (the sayings) attributed to the Prophet (see Rashed 2015b).[1] The process of getting it right, therefore, becomes an interpretive one, raising questions such as: how do we understand this verse; what does God mean by the words ‘dust’ and ‘clot’ in describing human creation; who did the Prophet intend by this Tradition; does this Tradition follow a trusted lineage of re-tellers?

We can see that ‘getting it right’ for the religious fundamentalist and for the scientific rationalist mean different things – interpreting the Divine intent, and producing true explanations of the nature of the world, respectively. But then we have a problem, for religious doctrine often involves claims whose truth – in the sense of their relation to reality – can, in principle, be established. Yet in being an interpretive enterprise, religious fundamentalism cannot claim access to the truth in this sense. The religious fundamentalist can immediately respond by pointing out that the Divine word corresponds to the truth; it is the truth. If we press the religious fundamentalist to tell us why this is so we might be told that the truth of God’s pronouncements in the Qur’an is guaranteed by God’s pronouncement (also in the Qur’an) that His word is the truth and will be protected for all time from distortion.[2] Such a circular argument, of course, is unsatisfactory, and simply points to the fact that matters of evidence and logic have been reduced to matters of faith. If we press the religious fundamentalist further we might encounter what has become a common response: the attempt to justify the truth of the word of God by demonstrating that the Qur’an had anticipated modern scientific findings, and had done so over 1400 years ago. This is known as the ‘scientific miracle of the Qur’an’; scholars interpret certain ambiguous, almost poetic verses to suggest discoveries such as the relativity of time, the process of conception, brain functions, the composition of the Sun, and many others. The irony in such an attempt is that it elevates scientific truths to the status of arbiter of the truth of the word of God. But the more serious problem is that science is a self-correcting progressive enterprise – what we know today to be true may turn out tomorrow to be false. The Qur’an, on the other hand, is fixed; every scientific claim in the Qur’an (assuming there are any that point to current scientific discoveries) is going to be refuted the moment our science develops. You cannot use a continually changing body of knowledge to validate the eternally fixed word of God.

Neither the faith-based response nor the ‘scientific miracle of the Qur’an’ response can tie the Divine word to the truth. From the stance of scientific rationality, all the religious fundamentalist can do is provide interpretations of the ‘Divine’ intent as the latter can be discerned in the writings of his or her tradition. Given this, when we are presented with identities constituted by doctrinal claims whose truth can, in principle, be established (and which therefore stand or fall subject to an investigation of their veracity), we cannot extend a positive response to these identities; scientific rationality is within its means to pass judgement.

But not all religion is purely doctrinal in this sense or, more precisely, its doctrines are not intended as strictly factual claims about the world; Appiah (2005, p. 188) makes this point:

Gore Vidal likes to talk about ancient mystery sects whose rites have passed down so many generations that their priests utter incantations in language they no longer understand. The observation is satirical, but there’s a good point buried here. Where religious observance involves the affirmation of creeds, what may ultimately matter isn’t the epistemic content of the sentences (“I believe in One God, the Father Almighty …”) but the practice of uttering them. By Protestant habit, we’re inclined to describe the devout as believers, rather than practitioners; yet the emphasis is likely misplaced.

This is a reasonable point; for many people, religion is a practical affair: they attend the mosque for Friday prayers with their family members, they recite verses from the Qur’an and repeat invocations behind the Imam, and they socialise with their friends after the prayer, and during all of this, ‘doctrine’ is the last thing on their minds. They might even get overwhelmed with spiritual feelings of connectedness to the Divine. In the course of their ritual performance, they are likely to recite verses the content of which involves far-fetched claims about the world. It would be misguided to press them on the truth of those claims (in an empirical or logical sense), as it would be to approach, to use Taylor’s (1994a, p. 67) example, “a raga with the presumptions of value implicit in the well-tempered clavier”; in both cases we would be applying the wrong measure of judgement, it would be “to forever miss the point” (ibid.).[3]

And then there is the possibility that the ‘truths’ in question are metaphorical truths, symbolic expressions of human experience, its range and its moral heights and depths. Charles Taylor (2007, 1982) often talks about the expressive dimension of our experience, a dimension that has been largely expunged from scientific research and its technological application. Human civilizations have always developed rich languages of expression, religious languages being a prominent example. The rarefied language of scientific rationality and its attendant procedural asceticism are our best bet to get things right about the world, but they are often inadequate as a means to express our psychological, emotional, and moral complexity.

To judge the practical (ritualistic) and expressive dimensions of identities in light of the standards of scientific rationality is to trespass upon these identities. Our judgements are misplaced and have limited value. My contention is that every time we suspect that we do not possess the right kind of language to understand other identities, or that there is an experience or mode of engagement that over-determines the language in which people express their identities, we have a genuine problem of shared understanding; we are not within our means to pass judgements of irrationality on the narratives that constitute these identities. Now I am not suggesting that the distinctions between doctrine and practice, or between understanding the world and expressing ourselves, are easy to make. And neither am I suggesting that a particular case falls neatly on side or the other of these distinctions. But if we are going to adopt the stance of scientific rationality – given that we have to adopt some stance as I have argued earlier – then these are the issues we need to think about: (1) Is the narrative best apprehended in its factual or expressive dimension? (2) Are there experiences that over-determine the kind of narrative that can adequately express them?


In Defense of Madness: The Problem of Disability

By developing a perspective on the social model of disability and by appealing to the concept of intelligiblity, I respond to arguments against Mad Pride activism. You can access the articlm_covere HERE.

Abstract: At a time when different groups in society are achieving notable gains in respect and rights, activists in mental health and proponents of mad positive approaches, such as Mad Pride, are coming up against considerable challenges. A particular issue is the commonly held view that madness is inherently disabling and cannot form the grounds for identity or culture. This paper responds to the challenge by developing two bulwarks against the tendency to assume too readily the view that madness is inherently disabling: the first arises from the normative nature of disability judgments, and the second arises from the implications of political activism in terms of being a social subject. In the process of arguing for these two bulwarks, the paper explores the basic structure of the social model of disability in the context of debates on naturalism and normativism, the applicability of the social model to madness, and the difference between physical and mental disabilities in terms of the unintelligibility often attributed to the latter.

Mad Activism and Mental Health Practice

On the 6th of August 2018 I delivered a live webinar that was part of a Mad Studies series organised by Mad in America. The aim of the webinar was to explore ways of incroporating ideas from Mad activism into clinical practice. The full recording of the webinar and the accompanying slides can be found below.


More Things in Heaven and Earth


For a few months in 2009 and 2010 I was a resident of Mut, a small town in the Dakhla Oasis in the Western desert of Egypt. My aim was to become acquainted with the social institution of spirit possession, and with sorcery and Qur’anic healing (while keeping an eye on how all of this intersects with ‘mental disorder’ and ‘madness’). I learnt many things, among which was the normalness with which spirit possession was apprehended in the community: people invoked spirits to explain a slight misfortune as much as a life- changing event; to make sense of what we would refer to as ‘schizophrenia’, and to make sense of a passing dysphoria. It was part of everyday life. The way in which spirit possession cut across these diverse areas of life got me thinking about the broader role it plays in preserving meaning when things go wrong. To help me think these issues through I brought in the concepts of ‘intentionality’ and ‘personhood’. The result is my essay More Things in Heaven and Earth: Spirit Possession, Mental Disorder, and Intentionality (2018, open access at the Journal of Medical Humanities).

The essay is a philosophical exploration of a range of concepts and how they relate to each other. It appeals sparingly, though decisively, to the ethnography that I had conducted at Dakhla. If you want to know more about the place and the community you can check these blog-posts:

The Dakhla Diaries (1) : Fast to Charing-X, Slow to Hell

The Dakhla Oasis: Stories from the ‘field’ (0)

The Dakhla Diaries (3): Wedding Invitation

Old Mut, Dakhla

The Dakhla Oasis: Stories from the ‘field’ (I)

And this is a piece I published in the newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly (2009) voicing my view on some of the practices that I had observed: To Untie or Knot


On Irrational Identities

(Excerpt from Chapter 10 of Madness and the Demand for Recognition. OUP, 2018)

In Chapter 7 I raised and examined the distinction between failed and controversial identities. I began by pointing out that every demand for recognition – all gaps in social validation – involves the perception by each side that the other is committing a mistake. Given this, I formulated the question we had to address as follows: how do we sort out those mistakes that can be addressed within the scope of recognition (controversial identities) from those that cannot (failed identities)? The implication was that a failed identity involves a mistake that cannot be corrected by revising the category with which a person identifies, while a controversial identity involves a mistake that can, in principle, be corrected in that way. The issue I am concerned with here is no longer the identity-claim as such but the validity of the collective category itself; the question is no longer ‘what kind of mistake is the person identifying as x implicated in?’ but ‘is x a valid category?’. This question features as an element of adjudication for the reason that some social identities can be irrational in such a way that they cannot be regarded as meriting a positive social or a political response. As Appiah (2005, p. 181) writes:

Insofar as identities can be characterised as having both normative and factual aspects, both can offend against reason: an identity’s basic norms might be in conflict with one another; its constitutive factual claims might be in conflict with the truth.

For example, consider members of the Flat Earth Society if they were to identify as Flat-Earthers and demand recognition of the validity of their identity. They may successfully demonstrate that society’s refusal to recognise them as successful agents incurs on them a range of social harms such as disqualification. Yet it is clear that their identity does not merit further consideration and this for the reason that it is false: Earth is not flat. A similar predicament befalls some Creationists; Young-Earth Creationists, for example, believe that Earth is about ten thousand years old and was created over a period of six days, a belief that stands against all scientific evidence. It is not unreasonable to suggest that neither the Flat-Earthers nor the Young-Earth Creationists ought to have their identity-claims taken seriously, as the facts that constitute their identities do not measure up to what we know to be true, given the best evidence we now possess. To put it bluntly, whatever else might be at stake between us and the Flat-Earthers or Young-Earth Creationists, the shape of the Earth, its age, and the emergence and development of life on it are not.

Who does ‘us’ refer to in this context? To those who regard scientific rationality as an important value to uphold in society. By scientific rationality I mean an epistemological and methodological framework that prioritises procedural principles of knowledge acquisition (such as empirical observation, atomisation of evidence, and non-metaphysical, non-dogmatic reasoning), and eschews substantive convictions about the world derived from a sacred, divine, or otherwise infallible, authority (see Gellner 1992, p. 80-84). In rejecting the demands of Flat-Earthers and Young-Earth Creationists, we are prioritising the value of scientific rationality over the value of an individual’s attachment to a particular identity. We are saying: we know that it matters to you that your view of the world is accepted by us, but to accept it is to undermine what we consider, in this instance, to be a more important value. Note that such a response preserves the value of free-speech – Flat-Earthers and Young-Earth Creationists are free to espouse their views. Note also that refusing to accord these identities a positive response is a separate issue from taking an active stand against them (an example of the latter would be government intervention to ban the teaching of creationism in schools).[1] What we are trying to determine here is not who should receive a negative response but who is a legitimate candidate for a positive one. Owing to the irrationality of their constituting claims, Flat-Earthers and Young-Earth Creationists are not.

At this point in the argument someone could object to the premise of assessing the rationality of identities. They could object on two grounds: they could say there is no stance from where we can make such assessments; or they could say that even if such a stance exists and it is possible to determine the rationality of an identity, such a determination is always trumped by the demand for recognition and by individuals’ attachment to their identities. Both positions could further argue that as long as an identity is neither trivial nor morally objectionable, it ought to be considered for a positive response. We can recognise in the first position a commitment to cognitive relativism; in the second position we can recognise an extreme form of liberal tolerance. Both positions are problematic…

[1] For an example of what an active stance would look like in such cases and the problems it raises, see Appiah (2005, pp. 182-189) for an ingenious thought experiment based in the mythical Republic of Cartesia. The regime in Cartesia encourages the creed of hard rationalism and actively seeks to transform any deviations from rationality among its citizens.

The Identity of Psychiatry in the Aftermath of Mad Activism

[Introduction to an essay I am working on for a special issue of the Journal of Medicine & Philosophy with the title ‘The Crisis in Psychiatric Science’]




 Psychiatry has an identity in the sense that it is constituted by certain understandings of what it is and what it is for. The key element in this identity, and the element from where other features arise, is that psychiatry is a medical speciality. Upon completion of their medical education and during the early years of their training, medical students – now budding doctors – make a choice about the speciality they want to pursue. Psychiatry is one of them, and so is ophthalmology, cardiology, gynaecology, and paediatrics. Modern medical specialities share some fundamental features: they treat conditions, disorders, or diseases; they aspire to be evidence-based in the care and treatments they offer; they are grounded in basic sciences such as physiology, anatomy, histology, and biochemistry; and they employ technology in investigations, research, and development of treatments. All of this ought to occur (and in the best of cases does occur) in a holistic manner, taking account of the whole person and not just of an isolated organ or a system; i.e. person-centred medicine (e.g. Cox, Campbell, and Fulford 2007). In addition, it is increasingly recognised that the arts and humanities have a role to play in medical education, training, and practice. Literature, theatre, film, history, and the various arts, it is argued, can help develop the capacity for good judgement, and can broaden the ability of clinicians to understand and empathise with patients (e.g. Cook 2010, McManus 1995). None of the above, I will assume in this essay, is particularly controversial.

Even though psychiatry is a medical speciality, it is a special medical speciality. This arises from its subject matter, ordinarily conceived of as mental health conditions or disorders, to be contrasted with physical health conditions or disorders. Psychiatry deals with the mind not working as it should while ophthalmology, for example, deals with the ophthalmic system not working as it should. The nature of its subject matter raises certain complexities for psychiatry that, in extreme, are sometimes taken to suggest that psychiatry’s positioning as a medical speciality is suspect; these include the normative nature of psychiatric judgements, the explanatory limitations of psychiatric theories, and the classificatory inaccuracies that beset the discipline.[1] Another challenge to psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality comes from particular approaches in mental health activism. Mad Pride and mad-positive activism (henceforth Mad activism) rejects the language of ‘mental illness’ and ‘mental disorder’, and rejects the assumption that people have a ‘condition’ that is the subject of treatment. The idea that medicine treats ‘things’ that people ‘have’ is fundamental to medical practice and theory and hence is fundamental to psychiatry in so far as it wishes to continue understanding itself as a branch of medicine. Mad activism, therefore, challenges psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality.

In this essay, I argue that among these four challenges, only the fourth requires of psychiatry to rethink its identity. By contrast, as I demonstrate in section 2, neither the normative, nor the explanatory, or the classificatory complexities undermine psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality. This is primarily for the reason that the aforementioned complexities obtain in medicine as a whole, and are not unique to psychiatry even if they are more common and intractable. On the other hand, the challenge of Mad activism is a serious problem. In order to understand what the challenge amounts to, I develop in section 3 the notion of the hypostatic abstraction, a logical and semantic operation which I consider to lie at the heart of medical practice and theory. It distinguishes medicine from other social institutions concerned with human suffering such as religious and some therapeutic institutions. In section 4 I demonstrate how Mad activism challenges the hypostatic abstraction. And in section 5 I discuss a range of ways in which psychiatry can respond to this challenge, and the modifications to its identity that may be necessary.

[1] These are not the only complexities; there are, for example, well-known difficulties and controversies surrounding the efficacy and risks of anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medication. In addition, psychiatry faces distinctive ethical complexities arising from the fact that mental health patients can be particularly vulnerable which raises questions of capacity not ordinarily raised in other medical specialities (see Radden and Sadler 2010).


Madness & the Demand for Recognition

mandess cover

After four years of (almost) continuous work, I have finally completed my book:

Madness and the Demand for Recognition: A Philosophical Inquiry into Identity and Mental Health Activism.

You can find the book at the Oxford University Press website and at A preview with the table of contents, foreword, preface, and introduction is here.

Madness is a complex and contested term. Through time and across cultures it has acquired many formulations: for some, madness is synonymous with unreason and violence, for others with creativity and subversion, elsewhere it is associated with spirits and spirituality. Among the different formulations, there is one in particular that has taken hold so deeply and systematically that it has become the default view in many communities around the world: the idea that madness is a disorder of the mind.

Contemporary developments in mental health activism pose a radical challenge to psychiatric and societal understandings of madness. Mad Pride and mad-positive activism reject the language of mental ‘illness’ and ‘disorder’, reclaim the term ‘mad’, and reverse its negative connotations. Activists seek cultural change in the way madness is viewed, and demand recognition of madness as grounds for identity. But can madness constitute such grounds? Is it possible to reconcile delusions, passivity phenomena, and the discontinuity of self often seen in mental health conditions with the requirements for identity formation presupposed by the theory of recognition? How should society respond?

Guided by these questions, this book is the first comprehensive philosophical examination of the claims and demands of Mad activism. Locating itself in the philosophy of psychiatry, Mad studies, and activist literatures, the book develops a rich theoretical framework for understanding, justifying, and responding to Mad activism’s demand for recognition.