Defining Religion & Spirituality
Since you clicked this article, there is a chance you may have had to deal with religious fanaticism in your family. Or, maybe you are coping with a mental health issue that has challenged your faith, or perhaps you are curious about the overlap of religion and mental health.
As someone who was raised as a non-denominational Christian and who is a non-religious, spiritual person, I have asked myself how do I maintain faith and hope in the future without subscribing to world views, beliefs, and practices that I personally disagree with?
My relationship with God is rooted in my body and mind and has often been felt but not seen. When I have seen God, it has been in nature, other people, and coincidences that I refer to as “God’s timing.”
I was raised in a fundamentally Christian Black home. Not only did our family go to church on Sundays, but we also went to bible study on Wednesdays, and I went to Christian school K-12.
Although I am not a religious expert or a theologian, I have seen much through my Christian career, from the good to the bad, the joyful to the traumatic.
To comprehend religious fanaticism, it is crucial to understand the basics of religion and spirituality. The effects of religious fanaticism on mental health are in a symbiotic relationship. There often appears to be a fine line between what is beneficial to a person’s mental state and what is accepted as appropriate to religious beliefs.
Since primitive times, humans have had a sense of religion; that there is some all-powerful being or force that put us on this planet. We have often heard stories of ancient groups of humans worshiping elements. As time passed, so the concepts of religion and worship evolved.
A quote by Joseph Campbell, late-American professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College who worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion, sums up this phenomenon well, as below.
Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result, we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.
Many people, whether they are religious or spiritual, discover comfort in knowing that there is something larger in life and that there is a purpose to mankind’s existence. Often, the shared goal of purpose and peace is lost. In some cases, mental barriers and suffering are the outcome.
Who Is at Risk for Mental Challenges?
A study done in 2014 by the Journal of Religion & Health showed higher rates of mental health issues in those who worshipped a vengeful God, than those who followed a deistic or kindly god. Respondents suffered more from social anxiety, paranoia, obsessive thinking, and compulsions.
This becomes an issue when people turn to their belief system to be healed rather than seeking out professional medical advice. My grandfather was a great example of this. Despite needing a triple bypass, he refused to get a heart operation and relied solely on prayer for a cure. Although this was his personal right, he died. Some would debate it was his time; some would debate there is no debate about his choice; some would see this as problematic.
I am also someone who has struggled with social anxiety. As I described, I am no stranger to religious environments, and I do believe in meditative prayer. But I have also been impacted by a level of anxiety that has taken me to the hospital. My personal answer has been a blending of spiritual, non-religious practices with practical medical advice and application.
Psychiatry professor Dr. Harold Koenig, from the Medical Center in Dukes University, North Carolina, studies the effect of religious beliefs and practices on mental, physical, and social health. In his article, Religion, spirituality, and psychotic disorders, Koenig suggests “that one-third of patients with psychoses experience religious delusions.” Koening also asserts that “identifying with religion or spirituality alone does not influence health, but it is sincerity and commitment of belief and action that matters.”
If it’s not apparent, the topic quickly becomes a slippery slope.
Medical answers and personal choice seem to be at odds with each other, depending on the conditions and factors that create the choice.
Why Does It Matter? Religion: Resource or Liability?
Religious fanatics may turn solely to their religious leaders and Gods for healing rather than medical professionals. This can lead to things like schizophrenia being ‘diagnosed’ as demonic possession or a physical ailment being a punishment for lack of faith or wavering devotion. Without proper treatment, mental health issues can become problematic to the individual and their loved ones and can create barriers to accessing purpose and peace.
A family member of mine ticks the list of schizophrenic symptoms yet often refers to themselves as possessed or in need of spiritual cleansing. They also resort to crystals and sage as the only source of relief. It is not only exhausting to cope with on a personal front, but I also feel like the family member is at some risk or danger of hurting themselves. So, perhaps it is not religion itself that is the source of negative health effects, but, instead, how a person understands and applies their spirituality to themselves.
Psychiatry professor Dr. Koenig also suggests, “While religious beliefs and practices can represent powerful sources of comfort, hope, and meaning, they are often intricately entangled with neurotic and psychotic disorders, sometimes making it difficult to determine whether they are a resource or a liability.”
The notion of “lack of faith” is so prevalent that the American Psychiatric Association has had to develop a guide to send out to religious leaders. Its purpose is to help the leaders identify the difference between devout believers and those suffering from mental health issues or mental delusions.
Examples of Fanatical Religious Teachings
It’s important to note that every religion has extremists, every religion has moderates, and every religion has people that follow without purpose.
· Historically, when Roman Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem, they killed people of all religions, including native Christians, in the name of their God. The Roman emperor, Constantine I, suppressed nearly all non-Christian religions during his reign, with many more being destroyed after his reign as Christianity and its variants swept the globe.
· A modern example that has been propagandized in the U.S.A. and beyond is Islamic extremism. Fanaticism and extremism have been prevalent in Islam since the seventh century; however, in recent years, through leaders like Osama Bin Laden and Sadam Hussein, radical jihads have taken over the media in the U.S.A. despite the actual teachings of the Qur’an opposing the beliefs that are being endorsed by these leaders.
Religious Trauma Syndrome
One of the most damaging effects of religion is religious trauma syndrome (RTS). It is often compared with PTSD and C-PTSD and refers to people who suffer trauma relating to their religion, especially those who were indoctrinated into it and believe that God is vengeful.
The easiest way to understand religious trauma syndrome is by observing how LGBTQ+ members are told that God condemns their identity and that their sheer existence is a ‘sin,’ or the idea that they are ‘broken,’ or ‘unworthy’ of God’s love.
A child absorbs these messages and indirectly, or directly for some, internalizes fear and shame around their identity, which could lead them into risky behaviors and beliefs as adults, including suicide.
Religious trauma syndrome was identified by Dr. Marlene Winell, who used the term to describe the trauma experienced by people who have fled authoritarian type religions and cults. RTS symptoms can negatively affect cognitive ability, emotional development, socialization, and culture. According to Dr. Winell, RTS is a combination of ‘toxic theology’ and ‘authoritarianism’ and often occurs throughout a person’s life with constant reinforcement in places such as school, church, or in the home.
RTS is not yet officially recognized as a mental health issue, but this is slowly changing as a result of the research Dr. Winel has pioneered. With more and more people adopting the term, and many who have experienced RTS finally having validation for the trauma they experienced, the medical field is able to help patients cope with RTS.
How Does Religion Positively Impact Mental Health?
One 2005 study showed that adults in poor health were less likely to succumb to depression if they held religious beliefs. This can be attributed to a number of factors, including:
● A sense of community: For many religions, there is a strong sense of community and congregating together around a shared belief. Religious communities tend to be rich in music, food, and fellowship. With many religions preaching love and compassion, many believers do do a lot of good by helping people. World Vision is one of my favorite organizations that pairs people from North America to children in poorer countries and allows you to sponsor a child in financial need.
● Structure and routine: When a person is suffering from depression, having a religion that gets you out of the house to worship can be incredibly beneficial to health.
● A sense of belonging: With mental health being incredibly isolating at times, having a place where they feel they belong can often help people. Knowing that there is something greater going on in the universe and that there is a reason behind suffering.
How to Coexist with Differing Ideas and Opinions
Life is complex and colorful. There are 195 sovereign nations in the world and 6,500 languages. Adherents estimate there are 4,300 religions in the world, with Pew Research reporting the top five religions as Christianity, Islam, Unaffiliated, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
Diversity is what makes culture and living rich experiences. The scope of life experiences and environments is infinite, but there tends to be competition for resources and influence over the love that we all need and seek.
Religion has, and always will be, a sensitive subject. All we can do is be respectful, humble, and mindful of a person’s beliefs, especially if we are aware that they are (1) struggling through hardship or (2) possibly struggling with a clinical health issue.
Compassion and understanding go a long way in the world. It’s the only way, and that includes dealing with subjects of religion and mental health.
Previously Published on Medium