Book Review - Useful Delusions

ICSA Today, 2021, Vol. 12, No. 3, 31-32

Book Review - Useful Delusions: The Power & Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain

By Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler

Reviewed by Joe Szimhart

W. W. Norton, 2021. ISBN-10: 0393652203; ISBN-13: 9780393652208. Hardcover, 264 pages (paperback, $17.95; Kindle, $9.18).

Obviously, humans lie a lot and make stuff up whether by intent, delusional and grandiose thinking, or repetition of biased influence games. Camouflage and deception rule in the survival games within the animal kingdoms, so why not among the human realms? The evidence provided by Shankar Vedantam1and Bill Mesler in Useful Delusions… confirms the obvious: Natural selection in human evolution does not care about the truth—It cares about success, survival, and what works. Whether we know it or not, we are hardwired genetically to act instinctively, even as our social, moral, and ethical rules hold us to stop and think before we do so.

When I first traveled through India and learned to bargain for souvenirs, jewels, and trinkets in 1981, I soon understood the game: If the merchant tricked me into paying 100 rupees for an item that I could have purchased for 10 rupees, then god or the universe willed it to be so in his mind! No guilt. It was merely business. A young Indian educated in an American college explained the bargaining game to me. One of my final purchases before leaving India was a handcrafted cobra flute that a 10-year-old boy tried to sell me for 400 rupees outside of my hotel. I was not interested in the item, but his final offer was one I did not refuse: 20 rupees. The bargain worked for him and for me. Now I could better imagine hypnotizing a cobra just like the fakirs did. Of course, the sound of the flute has nothing to do with transfixing a cobra. The melody entertains and tricks the audiences into thinking the mesmerizing sound has something to do with it. Science reveals that cobras have little interest in flute music but will respond to the swaying of the instrument. The music attracts the audience, not the cobra. Kind of like religious music that is supposed to be praising a god.

The authors of Useful Delusions… point out that humans operate between logos (reason) and mythos (imagination), the two guiding ways of thinking coined by ancient Greeks. Both the rational and the fanciful have value. The authors do not mention Plato, but Plato in The Republic called the mythos aspect the noble lie, or a pious fraud, which is necessary for a polis2 to function well. In other words, honoring the man-defined gods and an invented government makes sense, because they create social and psychological order that benefits all. The natural orders of tooth and claw alone do not work for human beings: The fear of the wrath of Zeus has value for the moral order. As young Catholics, we would say that the angels must be bowling when thunder rolled in the clouds. Yes, it was a joke, but the joke functioned to affirm the reality of guardian and messenger angels that were part of the mythos of the Church. On page 60 of their book, the authors point out that many scholars today have found that mythos and logos are interdependent and necessary. Hard-core atheists have argued that delusions about God and myths in religion are harmful to human development. Nevertheless, this book argues that religion has functioned as an organizing force that has enabled tribes and nations to flourish. In other words, how we apply religion, not religion itself, is the problem.

Useful Delusions… exposes the flaw in the atheist position. Delusions can certainly be harmful and destructive when unhinged from virtue, morals, and rules of social order; but delusions can also be life-enhancing. For example, religious people within the healthier functioning movements tend to live 10 years longer than nonreligious folks. For example, on page 191 we read, “…teens who became more religious as a result of peer exposure turned out to experience fewer mental health issues than teens who happened to have fewer religious peers.” The placebo effect is real and leads to positive thinking strategies that can be beneficial in health and business when used in reasonable ways. Unreasonable and dangerous positive thinking can be deadly when we consider newer emergent movements such as Christian Science and the politics of New Thought, wherein a politician or voter can hold no negative thought about their political party. Strict totalitarian rulers will declare dissidents insane or criminal for saying something negative about the Party.

A centerpiece discussion in the book focuses on men who fell into con-artist Donald Lowry’s Church of Love, which he and a few others invented as a love-letter cult. The cult activity reached its peak in the 1980s, until Lowry was convicted of fraud and sent to prison in 1988. The Church did not exist, but male participants believed it did through advertisements and personal letters sent to them by women called Angels who lived in an idyllic commune called Chonda-Za. The false women had been rescued from horrible abuse situations and lives of substance dependence. They lived a spartan existence, submitted to the rule of Mother Maria who had mystic powers, and carefully leaked out their private lives of abuse while titillating men to be together with them someday in the Chonda-Za commune. The male correspondents received pictures of pretty women that had been sent to them to enhance the reality of the imagined relationships. The social structure resembled a Masonic club, with members achieving Temple Master status. Lowry and his assistants wrote and sent multiple copies of the same letters to thousands of correspondents who might send money and gifts as love offerings for the cause. Lowry’s church, which had no use for the gifts, resold them. Lowry was a master manipulator who understood that you do not trick victims directly, but you do set up the conditions for victims to trick themselves. Lowry became extraordinarily rich before he went to prison.

Talk shows such as Geraldo made fun of the men who, after falling for such a silly scheme, dared to appear on television in the late 1980s during the publicized Church of Love scandal. Shankar Vedantam interviewed many of the former members for this book decades later and found another story. Many of the men continued to feel positive about their Church of Love experience, reporting how the Angels they fell in love with saved them from depression, loneliness, and suicide. Of course, some were rightfully angry and felt foolish for sending so much money. But the point here is the same one we can apply to all religious and social inventions: Perhaps, “love for any time at all is worth the price you pay to fall” (the last line from “December Dream” by The Stone Poneys [sic], with singer Linda Ronstadt, 1967). Lapsed Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Mormons often have good things to say about their religious experiences, despite crushing realizations about their religions being based in myths, delusions, and lies.

Useful Delusions covers a lot of social-science territory that I think the reader will enjoy. For example, “the dance of complicity and deception” (p. 57) works best when neither party acknowledges it. Self-deceptions have led to some of the “crowning glories of civilization” (p. 160). The afterlife myth entombed by the Great Pyramid at Giza, the psychological richness of the gods within temples on Mt. Olympus, and the beauty of worship places such as the Chartres Cathedral and Hagia Sophia are examples of myth- or delusion-driven architecture.

Nation-states and languages are based on myths and social agreements, while “languages are dialects that have armies” (p. 166). The authors look at Terror Management Theory and something called “mortality salience” (p. 178), based on the insights of Otto Rank, Ernest Becker, and Sheldon Solomon, to help explain why we need to deceive ourselves with useful delusions to make life and death feel more meaningful and tolerable.


[1] Shankar Vedantam is the host of Hidden Brain, a popular podcast.

[2] Polis refers to a city state in ancient Greece (Oxford Dictionary).

About the Reviewer

Joseph Szimhart began research into cultic influence in 1980, after ending his 2-year devotion to a New Age sect. He worked professionally as an intervention specialist from 1986 through 1998. He continues to assist people with cult-related problems including consultations via phone and Internet. In 2016 he received an ICSA Lifetime Achievement Award at the Annual Conference in Dallas, Texas. Since 1998, he has worked for an emergency psychiatric hospital as a crisis caseworker. He maintains an art studio and exhibits professionally. His novel, Mushroom Satori: The cult diary, was published in 2013.