Kathleen Taylor, a neurologist at Oxford University, said that recent developments suggest that we will soon be able to treat religious fundamentalism and other forms of ideological beliefs potentially harmful to society as a form of mental illness.
She made the assertion during a talk at the Hay Literary Festival in Wales on Wednesday. She said that radicalizing ideologies may soon be viewed not as being of personal choice or free will but as a category of mental disorder. She said new developments in neuroscience could make it possible to consider extremists as people with mental illness rather than criminals.
She told The Times of London: "One of the surprises may be to see people with certain beliefs as people who can be treated. Someone who has for example become radicalized to a cult ideology -- we might stop seeing that as a personal choice that they have chosen as a result of pure free will and may start treating it as some kind of mental disturbance."
Taylor admits that the scope of what could end up being labelled "fundamentalist" is expansive. She continued: "I am not just talking about the obvious candidates like radical Islam or some of the more extreme cults. I am talking about things like the belief that it is OK to beat your children. These beliefs are very harmful but are not normally categorized as mental illness. In many ways that could be a very positive thing because there are no doubt beliefs in our society that do a heck of a lot of damage, that really do a lot of harm."
The Huffington Post reports Taylor warns about the moral-ethical complications that could arise.
In her book "The Brain Supremacy," she writes of the need "to be careful when it comes to developing technologies which can slip through the skull to directly manipulate the brain. They cannot be morally neutral, these world-shaping tools; when the aspect of the world in question is a human being, morality inevitably rears its hydra heads. Technologies which profoundly change our relationship with the world around us cannot simply be tools, to be used for good or evil, if they alter our basic perception of what good and evil are."
[In related news: Atheism a 'suicide risk,' US Marine Corps warns]
The moral-ethical dimension arises from the predictable tendency when acting on the problem, armed with a new technology, to apply to the label "fundamentalist" only to our ideological opponents, while failing to perceive the "fundamentalism" in ourselves.
From the perspective of the Western mind, for instance, the tendency to equate "fundamentalism" exclusively with radical Islamism is too tempting. But how much less "fundamentalist" than an Osama bin Laden is a nation of capitalist ideologues carpet bombing civilian urban areas in Laos, Cambodia and North Korea?
The jihadist's obsession with defending his Islamic ideological world view which leads him to perpetrate and justify such barbaric acts as the Woolwich murder are of the same nature as the evangelical obsession with spreading the pseudo-religious ideology of capitalism which led to such horrendous crimes as the murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians in four years of carpet bombing operations by the Nixon administration caught in a vice grip of anti-communist paranoia.
The power to control the mind will tend too readily to be used as weapon against our jihadist enemies while justifying the equally irrational and murderously harmful actions we term innocously "foreign policy."
Some analysts are thus convinced that neuroscientists will be adopting a parochial and therefore ultimately counterproductive approach if they insist on identifying particular belief systems characteristic of ideological opponents as the primary subject for therapeutic manipulation.
On a much larger and potentially more fruitful scale is the recognition that the entire domain of religious beliefs, political convictions, patriotic nationalist fervor are in themselves powerful platforms for nurturing "Us vs Them" paranoid delusional fantasies which work out destructively in a 9/11 attack or a Hiroshima/Nagasaki orgy of mass destruction.
What we perceive from our perspective as our legitimate self-defensive reaction to the psychosis of the enemy, is from the perspective of the same enemy our equally malignant psychotic self-obsession.
The Huffington Post reports that this is not the first time Taylor has written a book about extremism and fundamentalism. In 2006, she wrote a book about mind control titled "Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control," in which she examined the techniques that cultic groups use to influence victims.
She said: "We all change our beliefs of course. We all persuade each other to do things; we all watch advertising; we all get educated and experience [religions.] Brainwashing, if you like, is the extreme end of that; it's the coercive, forceful, psychological torture type."
She notes correctly that "brainwashing" which embraces all the subtle and not-so-subtle ways "we make people think things that might not be good for them, that they might not otherwise have chosen to think," is a much more pervasive social phenomenon than we are willing to recognize. As social animals we are all victims of culturally induced brainwashing whose effectiveness correlates with our inability to think outside the box of our given acculturation.