I stumbled on this post by Helen Pluckrose, which was written in 2013. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to re-blog it and share it with a wider audience. I’ve posted before about Biblical Condemnation and Religious Trauma but Helen’s post asks the question, rightly so: Is there a link between religion and mental illness? Readers, do you agree with her?
(Original blog post is here – images below added by me).
Is there a link between religion and mental illness?
I would argue that there is and intend to demonstrate this by showing the way children are raised in the Christian faith, giving statistical evidence of the correlations between Christianity and social problems and detailing the mental illnesses which exist only in relation to religion and especially Christianity. I am an atheist with personal experience of religious OCD and have also worked in caring and nursing roles in psychiatric hospitals, homes and clinics. Mental health, for me, came with atheism. I am active in forums for religious debate and also supportive forums for OCD sufferers and those with general mental health problems.
Many atheists, most notably Richard Dawkins, have likened belief in a god to a delusion but of course this is not a clinical diagnosis. People with religious beliefs are not psychotic but have been taught or have chosen to suspend disbelief in just one ofthousands of gods for whom there is no evidence whilst rationally assuming the non-existence of the rest. However, this self-delusion can lead to harmful neuroses in anumber of ways.
Christianity is the most common religious belief in the West and its unfounded tenets have great cultural acceptance here. A mother recently accused me of being cruel by telling my child her grandfather was gone forever and insisted that the concept of Heaven is very comforting. I told her about two older teenagers I have spoken to who had recently become atheist and have suffered deep grief on realising that they were not immortal. Neither of them found any support from friends or family. Those who were Christian advised them to pray and those who were atheist found their grief a ridiculous overreaction. They should not have done so. To be led to believe that you are immortaland then realise that you are not has an impact similar to finding you have a terminal illness. A teenager or adult learning this will have great difficulty adjusting their view oflife whilst a small child will be temporarily distressed to realise we all die but then form their world view around this. A good parent will help their child through this in the same way as we help them deal with starting school or having a new baby in the family.
This same unhealthy conditioning can be seen in the concept of original sin and Satan. Children are taught they are inherently sinful and that Satan may tempt them into sin. They are taught to feel shame for existing at the same time as learning to externalise it onto this mythical demonic figure. This makes it very difficult for children to learn self-awareness and personal responsibility. I frequently speak to Christians suffering from guilt for enjoying supernatural thrillers and having a sex drive (even when it is not acted upon.) The other side of this is that they may then attribute genuinely negative behaviour to having been tempted by Satan and seek forgiveness from Christ without everaddressing the real cause of their behaviour and learning from it. An example of this is ayoung woman I spoke to who has a drug abuse problem – in her attempts to resist Satan through prayer and bible reading she never recognises her own emotional problems which stem from her childhood and never gets any stronger or more able to fight her addictions.
Christians will frequently argue that their children are given a good moral grounding through religious teaching but what is this morality? My daughter, attending a state school in England where Christian worship is compulsory, was taught that God flooded the world killing nearly everyone, that he turned rivers into blood and killed all the first born sons. She was six. In addition to this, she was told that this god still exists todayand that he should be worshipped and loved for this behaviour. I was forced to remove her from religious education classes because she became so upset but this reaction ofhers is surely natural and positive? Is it not more alarming if children accept this? Christian parents will often teach their children that Pol Pot was an evil dictator but that the violence of the Christian God is a positive thing. They will teach their children that Hitler was a genocidal sadist but that God will send not only all Jews but also Muslimsand Hindus and atheists etc to be tortured for eternity because he is a god of love.
Does this teach children how to treat their fellow man and make good life decisions? Statistics from the world’s most Christian country, the USA, suggest not. 99.8% ofprison inmates are theists and more than 80% of them Christian. (1) A recent in-depth study shows that religiosity correlates negatively with societal health. (2) Teen pregnancy is highest in states with the most evangelical Christians. (3) Divorce rates are highestamong evangelical Christians. (4)
In addition to general social problems connected to Christianity, there is a whole gamut ofmental illnesses related to religion. Hyper-religiosity is a recognised mental illness – an obsession with religion to the detriment of the rest of the individual’s needs. (5) Religious scrupulosity – an anxiety disorder in which people agonise over their every action, concerned that they may have been committing a sin, until they can no longer live anormal life is a form of anxiety disorder for which psychiatrists are consulted. (6)
Most common of all is thought to be religious OCD although it is hard to know how many cases of this there actually are because it is unethical for psychiatrists to diagnose someone with a mental illness if their fears are supported by scripture or doctrine. Sufferers will be unable to prevent themselves thinking blasphemous thoughts, denying the holy spirit or imagining having sex with Christ and will then feel the compulsion to pray endlessly or recite bible verses multiple times to repent of the thought. The thought will keep coming back until their entire lives are swallowed up in thinking the thought and going through the penitence rituals. John Bunyan is the earliest recorded sufferer.
‘one morning, as I did lie in my bed, I was, at other times, most fiercely assaulted with this temptation [i.e., sinful thought], to sell and part with Christ; the wicked suggestion still running in my mind, Sell Him, sell Him, sell Him, sell Him, sell Him, as fast as a man could speak; against which also, in my mind, as at other times, I answered, No, no, not for thousands, thousands, thousands, at least twenty times together….. Oh, the diligence of Satan! Oh, the desperateness of man’s heart!..’ (John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (London: George Larkin, 1666)
Religious OCD is almost impossible to treat because the therapy works by allowing the thoughts to come and refusing to allow them to bother you. This takes away their power but is very difficult for a Christian to do. Jesus said that thoughts are as sinful as actions, that everyone who has ever felt angry is guilty of murder and everyone who has ever felt lust is an adulterer and no-one who denies the Holy Spirit will ever be forgiven. I am currently in touch with two young women with this form of OCD. Sufferers rarely receive support with the psychologist’s advice from religious leaders. Instead they are told theyare sinning, that they must pray for help to resist Satan, thus giving the thoughts more power and setting up more ritual compulsions. Some have even been exorcised, futilelyof course, and are still believed by family members to be possessed. This is not anaberration from mainstream Christianity – it is a consequence of a sensitive or introspective person believing that they are sinful and weak and that the devil is real and must be resisted. In the words of the wonderful ‘OCD Dave’:
‘What is the difference between General OCD and religious OCD? I would define the differentiating factor thus: A sufferer of general OCD is usually aware of the inappropriateness and strangeness of their actions, as well as their unreasonable nature but continues to engage in such actions because of the overwhelming mental anxiety brought about by the mental obsessions. A sufferer of religious OCD is generally notaware of the inappropriateness and strangeness of their actions, nor their unreasonable nature, instead believing such actions are at the core of their right relationship with God.(7)
This is the problem in a nutshell –‘ the sufferer is not aware of the inappropriatenessand strangeness of their actions nor their unreasonable nature’ because all of this seems real and normal to the individual brought up to believe they are inherently sinful, that they are being judged at all times by an omnipotent being and may be cast into eternal torture. To be a thoughtful, devout Christian who accepts all the tenets ofChristianity is to accept the strange and the inappropriate and the unreasonable and toattempt to live your life by it.
How can this possibly lead to mental health?Helen Pluckrose. (https://twitter.com/hpluckrose)