Dissecting a “Healthy Delusion”: Why I Don’t Talk To Volleyballs…and You Shouldn’t Either

Posted on August 11, 2010. Filed under: Atheism, Personal, Religion |

Note from George: This is a response to a comment over at my friend Kate’s blog Just Another  Inkling. She asks me why I want to take away her God, even if he is imagined.  What is the motive for attacking personal belief?

First To Dispense With The General Answer

I can understand the frustration felt by many theists when they encounter anti-religious sentiment on the internet:

“Even if I am wrong about God, what harm does it cause?”

“Why does it matter so much to you if I am a Christian?”

“Why do you need to question my personal beliefs when they do no harm to you?”

The answers to these questions are simple.

If it were as simple as a personal, internal belief system it would not really matter.  If you were suffering a delusion (and you may not be) that had no bearing on how I or others lived our lives then I would be less inclined to question it.  The simple answer is that it does have an impact on the lives of others, and we’re not just talking butterfly wings here.

The belief in a dogmatic religious system leads to an Us vs. Them dichotomy, where religions sow the seeds of xenophobia and moral superiority.  I am not moral, or less moral, because I lack a personal relationship with your God.

My feeling is that this comes from religion’s assertion that it has a monopoly on truth.  If a theist believes that theirs is the greatest truth, then anyone not accepting that truth must be faulty in some way.  When you agree that someone is faulty, it naturally leads to trying to describe those faults.

You can't argue with logic....

If someone had an “imaginary friend” but lived their life in such a way as to not let that interfere with their interaction with others, it is doubtful that they would find themselves in a mental hospital.  If your imaginary friend insisted that you shout obscenities at anyone who could  not see her, then you would likely find yourself in the care of medical professionals.

I am not saying God is necessarily imaginary, and I’m certainly not saying that God impels theists to shout obscenities at atheists.  I am implying that religion is not strictly “personal”.  It forces its own beliefs into the world I live in.  It asks that as a society we afford it special privilege in spite of expansive evidence to the contrary.  It asks us to maintain archaic moral judgments so as to not offend its believers.

The reasons to fight back are twofold:

  1. Atheists are questioning Christianity’s monopoly on truth; if Christians are put to task, the moderate ones are less likely to make sweeping assertions that affect us all.
  2. Atheists are fighting the battle to define themselves.  If the only reference a Christian has with which to judge an atheist is the propaganda of their church, we risk the demonization afforded to those who spoke outside of church doctrine before us.

…..And Now, For Reasons Completely Different

I thought I would get that brief discussion out of the way  before addressing this comment by Kate on her site.  I may have started off talking to her to satisfy both those goals listed above; but as with all people we come to consider friends, it is about more now.

From the comments section of her post I Repeat: Atheists are NOT Lacking in Imagination, I wrote:

I don’t want to come across as attributing thoughts to you, but I wonder if you really are a skeptic who has Stockholm Syndrome. You seem so willing to make every step toward agnosticism save the very last one. Like staying in a bad relationship because it is comfortable.

I mean this in the best possible way. I have rarely met a Christian so open to the idea that they may be wrong.  I respect Kate’s faith much more knowing that it is in some way subject to critical analysis on her part.  Her answer I find more surprising still:

Single White Male Seeks Same- I'm a man of few words but I'll take good care of you...I was born to serve.

Here is the thing. As Einstein needed that static universe in order to “be okay,” I need Jesus in order to “be okay.” This may not be an objective reason for my stubbornly clinging to faith in the face of a barrage of facts refuting it, but it is the way I keep functioning. Does that make sense? This world is far too large and vast, wasteful and lonely for me to divorce Jesus Christ, even if he is nothing more than the “Wilson” volley ball Chuck created while on that Island [from the movie Cast Away].

I need my “Wilson,” George…and I do come to the defense of my Wilson. Have you ever seen that movie? A grown man grievously sobbing at the loss of his imaginary friend of 4 or 5 years—a volleyball, for crying out loud!

That’s me. On the day I wake up and find my Jesus is gone, is the day I begin my grief and my own vigorous sobbing.

I need more than just someone more competent to train me in managing my life honorably, I need someone to go shoulder to shoulder with me through this, sometimes amusing, sometimes horrifying, sometimes peaceful, sometimes tumultuous thing called life. I am better for it.

Trying to prove to me that my “volleyball” is not real, but just an extension of my own ego feels like an assault upon my camp–even if you are wholly correct. I wonder, what is the point in destroying my relationship with a volleyball, if that’s what works for me? It just happens to be a volleyball who can teach and train me in the rigors of becoming a more honorable human being, who is finally humbled enough to fully trust to his care my entire being–my will and my life.

I accused Kate early on of arguing the deist perspective in favor of her obvious Christian faith (see Why I Can’t Imagine a Christian Skeptic and the nasty exchange in the comments, admittedly mostly my fault), yet now I am left with the other impression.  She seems to be arguing like an agnostic who sees some benefit to maintaining a delusion.

Kate asks me outright in her comments:

Trying to prove to me that my “volleyball” is not real, but just an extension of my own ego feels like an assault upon my camp–even if you are wholly correct. I wonder, what is the point in destroying my relationship with a volleyball, if that’s what works for me?

My answer is this.  Why would anyone want to have a delusional relationship with a volleyball?  Even if it serves some purpose for you, would not a better way to deal with these things lie within reality?  What possible advantage can a relationship that is unrequited save your fanciful imaginings be?  More importantly, and you mentioned this yourself, what happens when the ball pops?  If you invest too much in the imaginary, what detrimental effects await when reality sets in?

My second answer is this.  If you have been using “Wilson” to cope with a difficult world, and you can come to the realization that he’s only an inanimate volleyball, do you not see the consequence of that realization?  It means you were the one helping yourself, it means that all the meaning you invested in him actually lies within you.  It means that was important wasn’t “Wilson”, it was you,  what you made of friends he introduced you to and ideas he introduced you to.  You could have done all those things yourself, and if “Wilson” is in fact an imagining, you in fact did.

Even Healthy Delusions Can Be Awkward From Time To Time

Chuck created “Wilson” to deal with the mental strain of being isolated on an island.  It is doubtful that he would have continued that delusion had “Wilson” made the trip home with him.  I argue that “Wilson” is keeping you on a self imposed island; that opening your eyes to a bigger world beyond the sea that you have created is nothing to be afraid of.

I also don’t think that that takes anything away from “Wilson” as a mechanism to help you.  He was there when you needed him.  He may still remain, as you have mentioned.

I hope you won’t fault me for wishing better for you than a simple coping mechanism.  I would be angry if my friend “let me have my Wilson” if it kept me cast away.

I don’t talk to volleyballs, and you shouldn’t either.


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8 Responses to “Dissecting a “Healthy Delusion”: Why I Don’t Talk To Volleyballs…and You Shouldn’t Either”

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George, when you talk of religion sowing the seeds of xenophobia and moral superiority, I don’t think you’re describing it in strong enough terms. When I was a Christian, I was taught that ANY thought that did not line up to the Word Of God was literally from Satan himself. So for some Christians, discussing Jesus with an atheist isn’t a case of “us vs. them”, it is “Jesus and I vs. the devil!”.
Under such beliefs, evolution isn’t merely a scientific theory of origins – it becomes an attempt by Satan to undermine the validity of the Bible in order to steal children’s souls from God, and therefore, it must be resisted whatever the costs!
Of course, not all Christians teach or believe such things, but the extremists that DO follow those ideals are certainly the most vocal Christians.

Wilson is our friend, but more seriously he is indeed a metaphor for the psychology of isolation, companionship and attachment.

The word “healthy” is tricky. It certainly is more healthy to be attached to Wilson than to follow through with the suicide attempt that Chuck prepared.

But to instead find even better solutions, to meet the challenge of our emotions is of course best.

If we can feel safe with our friends, we won’t need Wilson. And if we need friends that never talk back (like Wilson) there is another problem.

So there are substitutes and there is the real thing. To love something imagined is not the real thing. I would guess that the main and proper substitute in many cases is to love and trust oneself.

Okay. Now you are getting somewhere. All that is left is that I need you to clear some things up for me. I’m going to do an audio address over on my blog about these things. IFF the Abrahamic God is and was invented, and is, therefore, a substitute for what is “left” for me to satisfy my emotional needs with, to bond with, to share companionship with, which would be my “self” and the others around me who are as limited or more so than my “self,” then I shall be ready to take the final step into agnosticism.

Here are the things which prohibit my abandonment of the god.

1. Although the tip of the reality iceberg can be haunting, vast, severe, wasteful, lonely–it also has a flip side. It is “Antitheses Strongly Marked” [to quote Dr. Martin Luther King]. There is also the incredible efficiency of metabolism in fueling cellular work. There is the aesthetic beauty of the night time sky, and the surprising benefit of being able to retain this breathtaking view, even when I leave to go into my house, and lie down on my bed to contemplate it.

There is friendship, which is a necessary absorber of much of the shock this life imposes upon all of us.

There is “story,” and all the other things which are associated with the pleasures of intellectual imaginings.

In short, [and I DO NOT STAND IN THE SAME CAMP AS THE Formal Intelligent Design community, whatsoever–I make this statement from other viewpoints altogether] I cannot fathom the intricate complex beauty of what I see apart from a mind behind it…a purpose and a meaning. It is not that I cannot survive psychologically if there is no intelligence behind it, it is that I cannot logically imagine there NOT BEING an intelligent, artistic, poetic, storytelling come to life, mind behind it all!

2. I cannot logically imagine the Jewish nation agreeing to pen what appears to me a “conspiracy against themselves.” If you read the story, it is largely “their story,” and it doesn’t make god out to be impotent, but it makes them out to be impotent AND a little schizoid, for that matter!!

I’m not downing the Jewish nation, I’m just saying that the facts don’t logically lead to these people who are well known for their sanity and intelligence to have invented a story which largely makes them look an ass!

3. If you could remove from reality the story of Jesus Christ, I think I should do just fine without a god, period.

You ever heard this quote?

“It is better to have never had money to begin with, for if you have it then you lose it, you are worse off than if you’d never had any in the first place.”

It is kind of like that with me. If Jesus Christ is a mere volleyball…or an extension of my ego, he was certainly not presented to me in such a manner. For, I was rich, and now I am about to “lose it all.”

It would have been better for me, had no one led me to read this story, for as soon as I read it I prayed this prayer,

“If it is true. If you are real. I want to be one of those men who you took fishing…I want to be one of your disciples, too…please…er, uhmm…thank-you and Amen.”

As to “A better way would be to deal in reality?”

That depends on the sort of machine you were assigned to run, kind sir. You can tell the guy who has a smooth running machine that actually works all day long and he’ll damned well salute you every time for it.

Tell that to the individual who is trying “in real time” to run or man a wretched machine he has to accept as the best he is ever going to experience in “reality” and he’ll likely tell you, “go to hell!”

Just the facts, no harm intended.


oh, and about religion sowing the seeds of moral superiority. Does this discount the existence of a morally reasoning God, if all his intentions were, were to lift us to something called “better?” I can’t speak for everyone, but I, for one, should very much like to enroll myself into the “boot camp of better,” if such a boot camp were to exist!

My dad used to buy old war medals from antique stores. I remember after he died I inherited those and the purple heart and medals of honor he, himself, had earned for his service to our country.

Here is how elaborate the “imagined” religion of Christianity is. They speak rumors of a decoration ceremony for all humans–as though we’ve all been “over seas” fighting in “the war.”

I tried three times to get into the Air Force as a youngster. I failed their entrance exams every time [wretched machine that I run]. But I wanted to, not so much BE HONORED, as to BE-COME HONORABLE, through the rigors of my own service to this country I happen to inhabit.

It is in this way like your cliche of the journey being more important than the destination. This is where you feel most alive. When you are actually working toward becoming something more honorable than you had been previously. Honor and Glory, I’m afraid [if these even exist] ought to be expected to be much more painful to achieve than the settled nature of “hell” ought to be.

In light of this, heaven is hell to enter into! It must be more severe and stern than any man-made image painted of hell. For, to enter hell ought to be to settle for the common destination of “good enough,” while to enter heaven ought to be to rise above all that…to sweat, to strive, to work…

…but even this, if we read and re-read the New Covenant, we need not “earn” through following a list of do’s and dont’s, but through entering into that “society of the god/divine” and allowing it to train us…allowing it to put us through the horrors of the rigors necessary to raise us from something, for some, as low as sub-human, for some as low as merely mortal…to all, raised up to something super human, in that it is rumored we should be “like Christ,” which includes atop the “human” aspect, a “divine” aspect as well!

Whew…whoever invented this! I salute them, hardily!


Hello Kate,

I hope you don’t mind me jumping into the conversation here. I haven’t followed the posts on both sites yet, so I apologize if I’m mistaken something or repeat points that were covered elsewhere.

As far as “moral superiority” goes, I believe that what was meant was that religion fosters the illusion of moral superiority. As a former Christian, I remember being repeatedly taught that non-Christians had faulty morales because they did not derive their values from the Bible. Most of the Christian writings that I have been exposed to up until now makes the claim that non-Christians, especially atheists, either have no morales, or have to “steal” their values from Christianity. From what little I’ve read from you, I doubt you share that opinion, but you can see how those claims are only a hair’s breadth away from demonizing non-Christians as untrustworthy, amoral people.

When I read the rest of your post regarding war medals and striving to become “more than human” (or Christ-like, as Christians might put it), I am reminded of that there is a huge cottage industry revolving around self-improvement, based on both secular and religious principles (be they new-age, Christian, Buddhist, etc), or a combination of the two. I would agree that most people have the desire to become somehow “better” or “honourable”, but really, who wouldn’t claim they want to become “better”? Unfortunately, what makes one “better” or honourable” varies according to whatever social constructs exist in the society that an individual grows up or lives in.

A pacifist wouldn’t view military service as a path to honour, any more than a Viking would view running from a losing battle as a way to enter Valhalla. Even the different sects of Christianity are unable to agree on what it means to be Christ-like. (I would argue that some of Jesus’ teachings conflict with each other, but I think that’s a rabbit-trail to be visited at some other time.)

Your last few paragraphs outline that living the Christian lifestyle can be difficult. I’m reading a book called Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me, and one chapter talks about how we become biased in our views based on the amount of difficulty we experience when working to achieve a goal. When a person suffers immensly when striving to accomplish something, the suffering greatly increases that person’s satisfaction in succeeding. It works in hazing for sororities (where a person has to suffer abuse and humiliation in order to gain entrance to a club or society), and in video games like World Of Warcraft (where a player can sacrifice hours of game time to recieve a certain item or achievement). It makes sense that religion, over time, would evolve to take advantage of such a bias built into the human brain. If you have spent years of your life struggling to achieve Christ-likeness, how much more difficult must that make it to discover that Christianity is not true, and to eventually walk away from it?

I suppose what I’m trying to say is, as an unbeliever, I see no need to posit God as the creator of the universe, and I certainly don’t require God to be my source of morality or personal improvement. In fact, I look back on my Christian life and see how religion and the Bible held me back in my quest for improving myself. With experience and investigation into my own beliefs and personality, I eventually found that God and Jesus became obsolete to me, just like my old 386 computer no longer meets my 2010 computing requirements.

Take care.


I am honored to have you jump in, actually. You are correct, I do not share the sentiment that all who are non-Christian either have no morals, or have to steal their values from Christianity.

On the contrary, I believe that all humans, Christian, Buddhist, Atheist, etc. possess a moral compass which is constantly being skewed by their passions.

[If the Christians think they are exempt—of which I am a follower of Christ, myself—I have several “events” I can recall from Christian history which refute this thinking].

None of us, however, lacks moral reasoning or capability, believer or unbeliever—I just believe our compass constantly being jacked with…does this make sense.

You had mentioned, “…unfortunately, what makes one “better” or honorable varies according to whatever social constructs exist in the society that an individual grows up or lives in.”

Here is my speculation on that matter. I have come to speculate that, if there exists a god, then this god must be social, and that if it is social it must be a sort of “Society of God,” or “The Society of the Divine.”

I take it that, if my intuitions prove one day to be correct, that within this “Society of the Divine” passions do not skew moral reasoning in the slightest.

All of this is mere speculation, but just because one believes pacifism—in black and white terms—to wholly and always the only righteous alternative a moral creature can take…well, this society has yet to have its community laid siege…it’s freedom or independence “threatened.” The conscientious objector has a quite soft view of “love,” in my evaluation. A more stern love from a more severe society says, “to hell with all that fluff and stuff, get my beloved the hell out of there…NOW…and, if need be, make war doing it!”

You all think that because morality varies between “human institutions,” therefore there is no moral standard with which we humans can measure or be measured against. I just happen to disagree.

Now, my disagreement’s support may be better left to the “fictitious narrative,” but my fiction is “better” than your reality, when it comes to “inventing” such things as gods, ideals, etc.

Hell, if you guys [which is increasingly meaning the whole free world, these days—I’m referring to the general direction in which modern thought is trending] think morality wholly relativistic, and without “somewhere” a common law, then we may as well all just remove the word “better” from our vocabulary…and from our Oxford’s. The word “better” and others like it are useless, unless you’re talking among the people or society which agrees with whatever you say the trend in virtue ought to be, for the day. I’d actually like to see how that plays out, over the next two thousand years?

You are correct the fully human Christian sects disagree on what it means to be Christ-like. Easy settlement. The society of God, if it exists, does not disagree upon what it means to “be like Christ.” Christ knows…and isn’t that more important, when the rubber meets the road? It isn’t what sect you choose, it is whether or not you followed “the man” himself, who was rumored to be just as divine as he was human…

I may argue that some of Jesus teachings conflict with each other as well.

Here is what Dr. King said, “…you must combine in your character antitheses strongly marked. You must be both militant and moderate. You must be both realistic and idealistic.” And this list could be attached to ad infinitum.

This is because, unlike you and I, Christ had developed beyond Lawrence Kohlberg’s 2nd [of six stages] stage of moral development [from human growth and development]. We see morality as more concrete than abstract, and more black and white, or as more of an “I’ll do for you, if you’ll do for me,” or a mere obeying of the law.

Christ’s moral intelligence superseded ours, in that his was based upon such things as conscience, as in the keeping of a promise due to personal conviction, etc.

Post a moral dilemma on some forum and you can sit with pad and pen, literally studying human moral reasoning, and Kohlberg’s stages of its development! The argument always ends up being, not about the dilemma, but about whose moral reasoning is more “justified.”

I’m not following your bias generated from frustration, save to relate it to the fact that man honestly cannot convince me that one truly comes to “faith” when all is well. It isn’t until all else has failed that he will turn to faith. And if, within that “all else” man finds something “good enough” to satisfy him, as you apparently have, then he “has no need for a physician,” to quote Christ.

I may be incorrect, but I speculate that if some society of God exists, that his ideas of “Better” are more than we are willing to suffer for. In other words, God may have in mind Olympic rewards for the suffering we endure or the suffering he imposes, for that matter. We, on the other hand, are a much more settling race of beings. We’d rather settle, than go the whole distance.

That is just my opinion, and it does not matter if you are Christian, Atheist, Buddhist, or any of that.

If you follow “the god of your pure, honest understanding,” then you are certainly dealing with a God who is hard as nails in his expectations and demands. The motive is not what you think. This society of God would not be hoping you would survive his exhaustive list of demands in order to satisfy his starving ego, as some assume. His motives would be to get you to a place where you would, as you had mentioned, “greatly increase your satisfaction in succeeding.”

Just because something [this bias generated from frustration] exists, does not automatically default it to having been evolved out of fabricated religion.

Your explanations and observations are keen, and I admit this, but you and I were not there when the earth’s foundations were laid. We don’t know, in other words, what “caused” the big bang…or the magnificent and complex unfolding of evolution, as we have come to discover it…or cell differentiation…or metabolism in fueling cellular work.

We can explain these to a degree, but we cannot really get to the bottom of these.

You say, it must be difficult to “discover that Christianity is not true, and to eventually walk away from it.” I say,

“How do I know it isn’t true? How big a gambler am I, anyway?”

Thanks for commenting, your post was very thought provoking.


Ooops, I meant “Sinned34”

A strong belief which is opposed to reality but which the individual steadfastly maintains despite all evidence of its untruth is called a delusions. Patients who experience persistent delusions are said to be paranoid.

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