When religious beliefs are used for antisocial behavior, is it fair to call it mental illness?
My father has a saying about some religious people: “That person is so heavenly minded he’s no earthly good.” He’s referring to people who can’t have a conversation without inserting Bible verses, or adding, “Praise the Lord,” or some other religious sentiment. I heard it all my life growing up in the Pentecostal church. Those types of word fillers are actually pretty common in denominations where faith is experiential. Feeling God is “proof” of one’s relationship with Him and His existence. Speaking the language often serves as evidence of that faith, in addition to solidifying one’s belonging to the community.
I had one pastor tell me he didn’t think I was a Christian because of how I prayed. I generally tried to avoid “Christian-ese” and mimicking the cultural lingo, which I struggled to find relevant in real life. He perceived that to mean I wasn’t committed to God.
I know a lot of great people who happen to be people of faith. In spite of what some people think, based on my writings, I don’t have a problem with people of faith…until they say something stupid. Faith and belief are not excuses for a lack of education. Nor are they excuses to mistreat, exclude, judge and dehumanize others. In today’s political environment of religious freedom laws, however, people seem to have gone stark raving mad. Are these people clinically insane?
Faith and religious beliefs are part of the human experience. In 2011, Oxford University released a 3-year analysis, which included 20 countries, 57 researchers and 40 studies. They found that humans are naturally inclined to believe in gods and an afterlife. The way belief is expressed has much more to do with the culture in which people are raised. For example, Middle Easterner’s are more likely to believe in a Muslim God, Westerner’s believe in the Christian God, etc., and expressions of faith are nearly as varied, as there are people.
The project’s co-director, Justin Barrett, said, “This project does not set out to prove God or gods exist. Just because we find it easier to think in a particular way does not mean that it is true in fact.” Roger Trigg, the project’s other co-director was quick to add that both atheists and religious people could point to the study to argue their particular points of view.
Believing in God or being a person of faith is generally accepted in most societies. Humans look for patterns and explanations of those patterns. Our brains actually reward us with dopamine when we find patterns, and chemically confirm we’ve solved the puzzle, regardless of whether or not our explanations are true, or even logical. All of this generally falls into the category of “normal,” human behavior. Evidence even suggests, “religious involvement is generally conducive to better mental health.”
In the book, Why God Won’t Go Away, the authors state how brain scans show low activity in the part of the brain they dubbed the “orientation association area.” That is the area of the brain that distinguishes our selves from our surroundings. When the neurons “go to sleep,” such as in prayer or meditation, the line between reality and delusion become blurry.
The authors purport this to be evidence that “the natural” is making a connection to “the supernatural.” Regardless of the subject’s faith or beliefs, when this “spiritual connection” is made, the brain activity is the same. While the authors’ critics say their conclusion is a leap of faith in itself, researchers are willing to overlook momentary bouts of delusion in support of religious experience when believers are not harming themselves or others.
Where religious beliefs tend to go awry is when the person who holds them becomes anti-social, and/or the believer, as my father says, becomes “no earthly good.” These people mostly disconnect from reality. Their belief in the Supreme Being becomes a shield from dealing with life around them. Psychiatrist Simon Dein says:
“Negative psychological effects of religious involvement include excessive devotion to religious practice that can result in a family breakup…Religion can promote rigid thinking, overdependence on laws and rules, an emphasis on guilt and sin, and disregard for personal individuality and autonomy.”
I have a family member who, when given the chance, will talk about her belief in God, how He reveals things to her, and even her belief that animals could talk before the fall (when Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden), but won’t address her marital issues, or the alcoholism that runs rampant in her family. When questioned about her bizarre claims, she condescendingly smiles at the person who just doesn’t understand what it’s like to have the kind of relationship with God she has.
There is sometimes a fine line between religious belief and mental illness. I believe what we’re seeing more of these days is a socio-political movement of fear, packaged in a religious wrapper. People use religious beliefs to justify their discomfort and ignorance. When pastors or religious leaders tell them what “God says” about specific subjects, they have a convenient excuse for “rigid thinking, overdependence on laws and rules, [and] an emphasis on guilt and sin.”
Let’s face it, education and critical thinking skills are not priorities in the United States. Our current political system has out priced education for the common person, and the media tells people what to believe. While people may feel something is wrong, generally speaking, they don’t have the skills to think or reason through the facts. Lack of education with rigid religious zeal is the recipe for social fraction, particularly in a nation already divided along political and racial lines. That kind of environment practically screams for mentally ill leaders fueled by religious anarchy, speaking on behalf of God.
An April, 2014 study published in the Journal of Religion and Health, “showed that people who believe in an angry, vengeful god are more likely to suffer from social anxiety, paranoia, obsessional thinking, and compulsions,” says Macrina Cooper-White. Though, this begs the question of which came first: the chicken or the egg? Do people with poor mental health see an angry, vengeful god, or do people who see an angry, vengeful god tend to be in poorer mental health?
Either way, the result is the same: God, or religion, is used as the excuse to disregard human experiences, which do not validate or share the religious person’s beliefs. Once people’s experiences have been dismissed, those people become “others,” not like them, and not worthy of human dignity, or respect. It’s easier to deny “those people” the use of a restroom, or the courtesy of serving them a meal. And if “God” validates that kind of inhumane treatment, the behavior not only becomes acceptable, but admirable. Perhaps even “Christian.”
Mental illness isn’t a label most mental healthcare professionals are willing to slap on people with religious beliefs. Since most of us came from religious backgrounds, we cringe at the thought of being labeled mentally ill. Our beliefs seem perfectly normal – if not noble – to us. Moreover, because we feel so strongly that our religious beliefs are right (because we wouldn’t believe them if they weren’t), we even experience righteous indignation at the suggestion of being mentally ill. Perhaps the others are, but not us.
Photo – Flickr/Dwayne