My contempt for religious answers to psychological issues
“We have the answer!”
“If you have any problem coping in any way, there is a quick and obvious fix. It is free. All you have to do, is just take it. Let it rule your life and you will be free. Compulsive thoughts? No problem, just pray. Depression? No problem, just fast and pray. Addictions? No problem, just learn a couple of New Testament letters off by heart. All the supernatural power outside the world is waiting for you. All you have to do is access it in this simple way. Of course, in former times we might have told you to flagellate yourself, but you don’t need to do that these days. We have moved on. And we do have the answer.”
There is a very interesting post by Lorena – Addiction Recovery: Can It Be Supernatural? – where she describes her contact with a Texan pastor who condemned her contact with a psychological counsellor for depression and recommended a behaviour modification program of prayer, fasting, and memorizing large chunks of the bible instead. Lorena explains her anger at this suggestion, and develops her reasons. So much of her experience and reasoning resonated with my own. It echoed my own anger at a religious faith which occasionally seems so blind to what it is encouraging people to believe and do.
Being a former evangelical church leader, and now a humanist and practising therapist, I think I can write about both of the worlds that Lorena describes with some insider knowledge. However, let me say at the beginning, in discussing the inadequacies of faith and religious ritual as a means of bringing about deep, lasting change in people, I don’t want to imply that therapy is necessarily THE answer either. It won’t solve all things for all people. However, in contrast to religious faith, many talking therapies have a rationale behind them that doesn’t involve talking to imaginary friends, and the one I am involved in (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) has a substantial basis in empirical research.
I am angry at the way some Christians treat all the psychological learning of the past 100 years with such suspicion and contempt and offer up something so illogical in its place. If you read and learn you are delving into the dark arts that will destroy you. For some, going to a secular counsellor is like making a pact with the devil. You might get some benefit, but your risk losing your soul. It is far better to go to biblical counsellors where they will tell you what the bible says about your problem (if you have been going to church for years, you probably know that anyway) – but at least you will be safe. And at least you will know THE answer, even if it ultimately proves worthless.
There are at least five reasons for my contempt for simple religious answers, and for the rejection of a more reasoned and empirically based approach to helping people help themselves move forward.
First, Christians are often inconsistent. Just as they reject parts of the bible they don’t like and only apply the parts that they do, so too they are happy to use learning and knowledge when it suits them, but not when they fear it might challenge what they believe. So, if you are a Christian executive, you will happily trust the modern knowledge that developed the aeroplane and allow yourself to be flown to the conference; and you will happily use what you learned about communication theory to maximize the impact of your presentation; but seeing a psychological therapist in order to help you explore your long-standing depression or your relationship problems could well be regarded as dangerous.
Secondly, religious people often present solutions that are simplistic. All you have to do is select any one, or any combination of the following: pray, pray, pray more, pray again, pray with faith, pray with persistence, pray without sinning, pray and believe that when nothing happens god knows best, pray, fast and pray, read the bible, learn the bible, pray, be holy, pray, give your money away, get baptised in the Spirit, pray, wear culturally strange clothing, pray some more etc.. Of course, many, many Christians and ex-Christians will tell you that they have been doing these things for years, and yet still have not found a way of adequately dealing with what is troubling them. Even if something goes away in the short-term, it doesn’t seem to last.
And such solutions almost seem insulting – insulting to the 67 year old woman who has prayed all her life and is still traumatized by the sexual abuse at the hands of her father over 60 years ago, insulting to the successful graduate business woman in her forties who is trying to understand why she destroys every close relationship that she engages in and has been told by her pastor it is sinful and has nothing to do with the horrendous childhood she experienced, insulting to the Christian research scientist who has been told that he must pray more and that he is sinfully lazy because for the past 30 year he has had to battle to get out of bed every morning and fight serious depression in order to go to work where he is highly respected and where he often stays late into the evening.
Thirdly, even when there is temporary change or improvement, Christians are sometimes unwilling to accept that there is a perfectly logical explanation for any change without the need to recourse to imaginary friends. As Lorena cogently argues, getting people to do religious things provides a temporary distraction and behaviour modification program that may result in short-term change. Talking of supernatural aid is only one way of interpreting the data. More straight-forward and rational explanations exist.
Next, whenever the simplistic solutions fail, they generate a guilt and a further sense of inadequacy. “Ok, I prayed, but perhaps I didn’t pray enough … I fasted, but I knew I shouldn’t have eaten that chocolate bar … Perhaps I should wear a hat in church … I knew that my conversion wasn’t real … ” Sometimes they encourage people to move from one destructive dependency to another. Addiction to drugs is replaced by addiction to religion.
And finally, any solution which encourages dependency on supernatural aid and looking to an imaginary friend discourages responsibility. And without responsibility people become infantalized and believe that they are powerless (and of course, they can always blame god).
Let me leave you with the wise words of Irvin Yalom, Psychotherapist, and Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford:
- Only I can change the world I have created.
- There is no danger in change.
- To get what I really want, I must change.
- I have the power to change.
Many therapists are working with people to help them realize and achieve the above.
– A Thinking Man