Religion and Mental Illness

I’ve been thinking about it for awhile. Weeks. Months. Off and on. And I think I’ve come to a fairly solid conclusion, at least solid in my own mind. I don’t have any hard research to prove it, but I think religion causes depression….and anxiety. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that belief in God or a god causes mental illness. On the contrary, I think that is very much a reasonable and truthful proposition and belief (but not for the reasons much of Christianity would say that it is). What I am saying is that organized religion, and by that I mean mainstream Christianity because that is what I know but I suspect that other religions may have the same issues for similar reasons that I will discuss below) actually causes mental illness. So now that I may have made you angry stick with me long enough to hear my theory out.

The crux of my theory rests on this: systems of religion impose upon followers a “right” way of thinking and believing and behaving that is unattainable leading to an unsustainable cycle of repeated failure and frustration. Eventually followers come to a point of crisis. They decide that leaving the system of the cycle is too costly, too dangerous, and, therefore, decide to stay. Or, they decide that this is not working for them and never will and take the courageous step into the unknown. The first group, in my opinion, often eventually finds themselves depressed, anxious, defensive, angry, and coping. The second group I’ll bet more often finds themselves living in freedom and in a better spot. I’ll do my best to discuss in more detail, but realize that these things still feel a bit disorganized in my brain and that this is just my own theory that I am presenting here in “thinking out loud” form. The further I go in life and the older I get the more I think I feel that systematic religion does more bad than good for humanity. Again, I am saying nothing against a belief in God, only against forced systems of “right” thinking, belief, and behavior concerning that God.

 Any time someone decides to join a church, denomination, religion, there are two things that come into play. The first is what that group says about itself. What it has written down about what it believes and why. What you have to agree to in some form of proclamation or statement in order to become included in that group. But then there is also the culture of belief that exists within that group, and by that I mean how those beliefs get acted out in every day life. And I know from personal experience that the culture of belief existing within a group is often very much different from the stated beliefs of that group. That culture of belief can also often be much more powerful than the stated beliefs, and it becomes the thing that must be accepted and followed for one to be considered as included in the group. Here’s where it gets a bit dicey.

Within such a culture of belief, there is often not much room for honest questioning, honest doubting, honest searching because that sort of activity threatens to undermine the stability of the group, especially when it may be centered around a core stated belief but especially when it is around a core cutural belief. I think that is a fault of the institutional structure on which such groups are built. Here we have a system of belief that is delivered by a top down structure of governance. That governance has power and relies on money coming from the bottom of the pyramid for its existence. The authority figures, the people who hold power some of whom rely on the system for their income and some of whom do not, must buy into the stated beliefs at a minimum but also the cultural beliefs if they hope to retain their income and/or positions. It’s the nature of the institution. It may not be a blatant strategy and most of the time I’ll bet you it’s not. But the bias is there, and it taints the sytem. This system tells its members what the right way to believe and think of God is. Doubts, questions, contrarian ideas hurt that system and in essence are not allowed by the cuture. People with them are told, sometimes blatantly and sometimes subtly, that they are wrong and that they instead ought to believe and do this other thing.

People by nature have doubts and questions. It’s part of who we are. It’s part of being free. It’s part of being a human and not an animal. It’s part of our core. And when that wandering, that freedom, that exercise of who we are at our core is squashed, buried, told that it’s wrong, it is destructive to us. I suspect that everyone within a religious system of thought comes to a point where they have to make a decision. They have to decide that they are going to ignore their questions and doubts. That it’s too costly and too risky. That they risk exclusion. That they risk disfavor with God. And so they put it to bed. They give up discovering. They give up exploring. They quit listening to the voice inside themselves that says something isn’t right and that is screaming for them to choose to be free from someone else’s oppression. Instead they settle for answers like, “You just need more faith,” “You just need to believe more,” “You just need to pray more,” “Are you having enough God time.” Those answers, even though they sound nice and lofty, are not at all helpful. They’re junk. When a person puts part of themselves away like that, it destroys them. It depresses them. It’s unhealthy. It’s spiritual zombi-ism. And I think a ton of people, when they come to that point, decide, largely unconsciously because of the pressure to conform from the culture of belief, to become spiritual zombies. They write their own prescription for mental illness.

Green Day has out a new song which speaks to this crisis point, that point at which you realize you are fighting for the wrong thing. When you are at that point, it’s time to give up and change directions.

21 Guns

Do you know what’s worth fighting for
When it’s not worth dying for?
Does it take your breath away
And you feel yourself suffocating?
Does the pain weight out the pride?
And you look for a place to hide?
Does someone break your heart inside?
You’re in ruins

One, 21 guns
Lay down your arms
Give up the fight
One, 21 guns
Throw up your arms into the sky
You and I

When you’re at the end of the road
And you lost all sense of control
And your thoughts have taken their toll
When your mind breaks the spirit of your soul
Your faith walks on broken glass
And the hangover doesn’t pass
Nothing’s ever built to last
You’re in ruins

One, 21 guns
Lay down your arms
Give up the fight
One, 21 guns
Throw up your arms into the sky
You and I

Did you try to live on your own
When you burned down the house and home?
Did you stand too close to the fire?
Like a liar looking for forgiveness from a stone

When it’s time to live and let die
And you can’t get another try
Something inside this heart has died
You’re in ruins

One, 21 guns
Lay down your arms
Give up the fight
One, 21 guns
Throw up your arms into the sky
You and I.

I expect I’ll get a lot of opposition to my theory. I’m OK with that. It’s just a theory. May have a lot of holes in it. But, maybe not. There sure are a lot of depressed and anxious people at church these days. I can’t think that’s what God intends.
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25 responses to “Religion and Mental Illness

  1. i spend a lot of time up on the psych-ward talking with patients at CPE. so i dunno if i would say that religion causes depression and anxiety because i have seen it do the opposite. however, i do think that rigidly held and twisted beliefs do cause depression and anxiety. so do well meaning platitudes like “you just gotta give it to God, or have more faith or pray more” as you so asserted are useless. largely i see that as making the speaker feel better about their position than actually hearing and considering the afflicted.

    so maybe i’d say that “non-empathetic and inflexible religion devoid of context causes depression and anxiety.”

    good thoughts and well argued and i love the term “It’s spiritual zombi-ism.” also a great song! Green Day (and you) RAWKS!

  2. It is the way we think that brings on us the ills of this world. We are dominated by a thought process that stems from judgment – we consider, weigh up and position ideas into varying measures of good or bad depending whereabouts we stand on the continuum. This thinking pattern characterizes us into being somewhat ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ characters. We then pass this tendency into the gene pool, so the next generation of innocents carry the marks of their forbears. We cannot help ourselves and the more we strive to better ourselves, the more judgment we pile on ourselves.
    .
    We can only get out of this viscous circle by using an alternative SOURCE of thinking. This source is located within us. We discover it when we turn from our head-type thinking and allow the heart-mind time to reveal truth to us. Sometimes we ‘touch it’ accidentally when something occurs that suspends our head-thinking momentarily. We know when we’ve touched it because there is no judgment, it brings us together and we feel love joy and peace. It opens us to a whole new world that is pure and eternal. It is possible to live from this dimension and doing so connects us with REALITY, our true identity which is WHOLE.
    .
    We have been misled. It is how we think not what we eat that determines who we are.

  3. I think Luke has an insightful comment. Life never fits all the rigidly held beliefs people have. So When beliefs are rigidly held there is conflict between experience and those beliefs. However, when people discover faith in God it brings them hope in their darkeness, many for the first time.

    If religion caused depression then wouldn’t every religious person be suffering from it? But many don’t.

    I get the basic idea and think rigid religion is a depressor for many people. And there are many people who have just checked out on religion. Yet they are seekers of God. I’ve spent all my life in the church, so this is somewhat of a new conversation for me.

    I would also point out that Christian faith has been a base from which have come many good things. Many hospitals and schools of higher education were started by Christian movement.

  4. Perception is everything. So there will be some within the system that perceive it to be stifling and cause a level of depression and there will be others that are freed by that same system. I think the greatest damage caused by “Religion” is when it uses the ones who feel trapped. You see this affect in Martyrs. And all religions have them.

    It opens us to a whole new world that is pure and eternal. It is possible to live from this dimension and doing so connects us with REALITY, our true identity which is WHOLE.(AudreyNZ)

    Have you noticed how “religious” this sounds? Almost Jesus like. ;)

  5. I agree with your first statement, and it’s not just religion that causes pressure resulting in various types of mental illness, but social mores and expectations as well. However your last statement (above) is an odd-ball! The one person who showed the world how to live completely free of the judgments of this material world, was JC. Indeed because he connected constantly to his inner dimension he was able to restore life and health to those he touched.

  6. What you have written was/is definitely true for me. As I have written before I live with the cognitive dissonance of the evangelical Christian beliefs of the church I belong to every day. I was on anti-depressant medication for a number of years until between about years 2000 and 2005. There were other factors involved though so I can’t say it was just this. My Mum suffered with depression/anxiety on and off throughout her life and eventually took her own life. But in her case I don’t think it religion was the cause? But in the last 6 months of her life she stopped going to church so I thought that was interesting, but Dad says it was because she felt so tired all the time (insomnia). Anyway, I definitely think there are other factors involved in mental illness, including genetics, marijuana use, life situations like sudden loss/grief/trauma/abuse. So definitely not just religion. But in my case it is a factor.
    Anyway, I stopped taking anti-depressants and instead read Universalist blogs as my medication!!
    Love from
    Julia

  7. I am with you Doug. The challenge is that it is multidimensional – multiple chickens and multiple eggs but the result is perpetuation of the underlying anxiety that is behind the story called The Fall. Like then, our poorest and most unloving choices come out of anxiety and not out of peace.

    One take: How do people listen to all the tragic events that happen every day and even have the courage to get out of bed? One answer is that “normal people” draw up a “thick” illusion that blinds them to the fact that life is very fragile and reduces anxiety. Other people’s illusion is too thin and the risks of reality pokes through and anxiety follows. These are the people often labeled “neurotic” because they see too much reality. A natural response of the anxious person is to find a thicker illusion to push away reality. Some look for the perfect spouse, enough money, education, the strong leader who knows everything, the right religion, etc.

    Many churches are really selling an illusion and they can attract loads of anxious people. They over promise (“name and claim it” “health, wealth and success”) and under deliver the exemption from bad things happening. So people move from church to church seeking what it cannot provide.

    I do believe that healthy spirituality equips people to deal with reality rather than promise an exemption from it.

    Another take: Most of our examples of Christian “religion” wind up substituting a legal model of seeking assurance to quiet our anxiety instead of a intimate, loving relationship exemplified in the Trinity. (We don’t talk that way but it seems to become that model) The legal model assumes we need to be anxious about an angry God and find what we can do to change His mind about us. Then, some of our models build on the anxiety that we need to keep doing enough to keep His mind changed.

    Kruger says it well, “The framing of the gospel itself, in the legal model, teaches us that there is a side of God that does not like us at all, as side that would just as soon have us miserable and broken and enslaved to darkness as it would to see us whole and complete and living in joy. … (it) is incapable of producing peace, real hope, and abiding assurance in the human soul.” C. Baxter Kruger in Jesus and the Undoing of Adam p.51.

  8. The one person who showed the world how to live completely free of the judgments of this material world, was JC. Indeed because he connected constantly to his inner dimension he was able to restore life and health to those he touched(AudreyNZ)

    And its belief like this that begins “Religion”. Trust me, there is a whole host of people who showed the world how to live judgement free. And for the most part they stuck around a lot longer than JC did to help others.

  9. Christianity can cause poor self esteem I know that much! Think about it – we are labelled sinners and pretty much worthless and nothing we do means anything…except for that one sole decision to embrace God – that’s our value in most Christian denoms. It is not inherent – it is a ‘given/redeemed’ value…prior to that whatever we did was ‘dung’.

    However, I have found with the right focus within faith that a lot of good can come from it – and someone can become a much better person than they once were – open to new and better ideas of this world and humanity. If we reject having the focus I mention above.

  10. “And its belief like this that begins “Religion.” Trust me, there is a whole host of people who showed the world how to live judgement free. And for the most part they stuck around a lot longer than JC did to help others,”—Titfor Tat.

    Really? Who would these people be…who didn’t also start a ‘religion’ or profess to follow one themselves?

  11. Karmen

    My mother……… ;)

  12. I don’t doubt your assessment of her being a lovely person, but human nonetheless.

    Really, though? Judgment free? and, “constantly connected with her (his) inner dimension” to such a degree that “she (he) can restore life and health to those she (he) touches?

    My intent is not to diminish the affect her life has had on you and your family, but rather to suggest that that behavior has a source….whether we choose to acknowledge that source or each call it by a different name.

  13. I have been thinking about those I know who have lived with depression/anxiety disorders. I may have discovered a common denominator? CHANGE. In each case there has been involed either
    1) Dealing or coping with change
    or
    2) Fear of change
    In my current situation relating to FRT’s above post, it would dealing or coping with a change in my religious beliefs and fear of the consequences of the change in my religious beliefs.

  14. I keep writing too fast and missing letters and words. Will have to check before pressing ‘submit’ in future! Sorry.

  15. Karmen

    Ok, try this on for size. JC judges the moneychangers. When he supposedly heals the blind man, there is a requirement. In other words he doesnt just touch him and poof. All these things that people attribute to him are the same attributes we hear about other holy men or women. Why should I give him so much credence and the others not the same?

  16. The more I think about this the more I think it follows that principle of excess. When you get to many Ho Ho’s, you get fat. When you get too much cigarette smoke, you get cancer. When you get too much alcohol, you die of liver disease. When you get to rigid and dogmatic about your religion, you get oppressed, depressed, and anxious and fear you may be going to hell all the time. When you get too much of the bible, you start to worship it as if it is God. So in the end, many religions take themselves way too seriously. That is never a good thing.

  17. This post intrigues me.

    In the religious group I was a part of I was taught that I was worthless, disposable, and deserved to burn in hell. I was ‘a paper cup, and if I did not choose to let God use me, he would just throw me away and find someone else.’ Jesus was the vine, and I was one of the branches. If I didn’t bear fruit, God would cut me off and through me into the lake of fire (Book of John). This ‘unconditional love’ appeared to have many conditions.

    On the other hand there are people in my life who tell me I am valued, loved, worthy of love, a good person, and that in my own small way I make a difference in the world.

    Who is right? The result of believing the first group is anxiety and depression…how could one believe the first group and not feel anxious? The result of believing the second group is freedom and love.

    Looking at it logically, it seems ridiculous to believe the first group. Who would want to live life with that view of themselves. Who, as a parent, would convince his/her own child of what religious dogma would have us believe the loving Father would have us believe or ourselves. This is really, really wrong. Wouldn’t God want us to have healthy self-esteem, and a healthy, honest self-image in which we see and acknowledge our strengths and accept our weaknesses.

    Why then, if logically we would never believe the first group, do we find it so hard to believe the second group and so easily run back to the beliefs of the first group?

  18. Titfortat ‘All these things that people attribute to him (JC) are the same attributes we hear about other holy men or women. Why should I give him so much credence and the others not the same?’
    .
    But didn’t he say that we also could do the same as he and even greater works? He didn’t expect your credence, rather telling us that it wasn’t he that did the works but his Father. We have the same power and authority latent within us from the same Father, that life-giving joyful peaceful ability that brings us together like nothing else can. All we need to do is turn to it and allow it to work in our lives. You yourself have touched it – you wrote about this ‘moment’ in your blog about Heaven.
    .
    So where did that ‘feeling’ of togetherness come from? It was FROM YOU YOURSELF, a moment when you suspended your head-thinking and FELT from your heart. I bet you’ll never forget that moment because it is eternal. You touched the REAL YOU in that moment! Just as JC lived constantly from that inner dimension of REALITY, we can all begin to do the same, but firstly our ego needs to die!

  19. Sorry TFT for my slow response….busy football day yesterday. :o)

    Your question boils down to (at least to me), divinity. Am I willing to accept this one particular ‘holy man’ as different than other holy men and women? That has to be a question that every person decides for themselves. Even though there has been a lot of change in my/our lives, the answer to that question (at least for me) hasn’t changed.

    Call me simpleminded (lovingly, of course), but we all put our faith in something. I’m learning to trust my heart, which has been a very new thing for a ‘reforming sheep’ (who used to listen to everyone else, i.e. pastors, anyone in authority). We were taught to not trust ourselves. All that to say, living from my heart has made it even more clear to me (key word ‘me’) that following this particular Divine, holy, man is the right path for me….granted, much differently than before.

    I appreciate and can learn from ANY holy person, though. To me they are direct reflections of something so much bigger than us all.

  20. Wanderer….you ask some great questions.

  21. “Why then, if logically we would never believe the first group, do we find it so hard to believe the second group and so easily run back to the beliefs of the first group?” -Wanderer

    absolutely! we’d rather have the consquence of our actions than forgiveness. we’d rather have to “face the music” than to actually tune up and join in. We’d rather have a God we’re fed TO than fed BY.

  22. “Wouldn’t God want us to have healthy self-esteem, and a healthy, honest self-image in which we see and acknowledge our strengths and accept our weaknesses.” (Wanderer)

    I am right there with you on this point! If religion/faith cannot produce these things that make a person healthier – that religion has to seriously considered being abandoned altogether.

    It’s funny that churches teach some of the stuff they do – depending on where you are and what denom – some places hate self esteem, only see us as sinners in need of help (never the helper) – can offer nothing to God – yet created as the greatest creation…we are meant to be meaningless to make God’s importance shine all the more. That kind of religion is depressing and, to me anyways, a betrayal of what is in those books and letters.

    On a side note, I would advise against people with actual mental disabilites from attending the aformentioned type of churches…drives them into even more instability and fear.

  23. That culture of belief can also often be much more powerful than the stated beliefs, and it becomes the thing that must be accepted and followed for one to be considered as included in the group.

    Yes, exactly right ! You describe my experience to a tee with this paragraph:
    I suspect that everyone within a religious system of thought comes to a point where they have to make a decision. They have to decide that they are going to ignore their questions and doubts. That it’s too costly and too risky. That they risk exclusion. That they risk disfavor with God. And so they put it to bed. They give up discovering. They give up exploring. They quit listening to the voice inside themselves that says something isn’t right and that is screaming for them to choose to be free from someone else’s oppression.

    And that is as a lay leader. It must be vastly more difficult for someone paid to be in the ministry. Though from what I have seen, the opportunity as a lay leader to brush shoulders with those making decisions and those more knowledgable about the denomination and doctrine, etc, is a powerful draw to maintain belief in the system.

    You just need more faith,” “You just need to believe more,” “You just need to pray more,” “Are you having enough God time.

    “Just trust” was the one I hated the most. You left out, “Listen to more Christian worship music CDs”!

    I will say for all you wrote, and for the freedom I have experienced leaving the system, I am more depressed now than when I bought into all that because of the relational difficulties in parting ways and becoming an outsider.I definitely feel I have come out ahead in the equation and things will get better, but the depression thing can cut both ways. Overall, I totally agree with your analysis and know people who I am sure would be better off outside the system of organized religion. Thanks for writing this post, I read it when you posted and just didn’t get to commenting until now.

  24. Tit for Tat, has anyone written a book about your mother yet? Because I would be interested. What’s her name? Does she have any followers other than yourself yet? Can others experience the benefits of following her? :^)

  25. LOl @ attr

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