What’s God Got to Do With It?

hands in prayer positiom

This post is only loosely associated with mental health, but it’s a topic I wanted to explore anyway.  I hope that this isn’t offensive to anyone, and my intent is not to criticize anyone’s belief system.

I was raised in an atheist family, and never set foot in a church as a child.  As I entered my 20’s and began travelling, I started to experience religious practice as a detached observer.  I would go into sites of worship, and observe religious services (always in non-English languages though).  I’ve been an array of churches, mosques, and temples of various sorts.  I’ve been to Jerusalem and seen the three major Abrahamic religions co-exist in an uneasy juxtaposition.  I’ve read the Quran and parts of the Old and New Testament.  And it all fascinates me.

I tend to be a left-brained, logical, scientific kind of person, and from that perspective, there just seem to be so many holes in the whole idea of religion.  There are all of these various monotheistic, polytheistic, animist, and other spiritual points of view held by people throughout the world, but for the most part it would seem they can’t all be true/right at the same time, so who’s right and who’s wrong?  If there is one God, wouldn’t he/she/it have everyone dancing to the same tune?  I understand that faith is supposed to be about belief, not logic, but I can’t help but see holes.

It also puzzles me when religions are highly prescriptive and proscriptive.  I’ll be completely facetious here for a second, but why would a spiritual belief system need to tell me that I should hop twice on the right foot, twirl around, and then do a two-footed hop?  If there is a higher power, does he/she not have more important things to do than ask me to do that little dance regularly?  And I’ll reiterate that this particular example is entirely ridiculous, but the point remains that I have a hard time accepting highly literal interpretations of holy works, particularly when they dictate individual behaviour aside from behaviours that are reflective of fundamental moral principles.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s talk a bit about religion and mental health.  It seems very clear that religion can be a good thing.  Religious beliefs that don’t condone suicide are recognized as a protective factor against suicide.  Turning to a higher power seems like a good way to find hope and establish a framework of meaning.  I’ve certainly read bloggers who have gained a great deal of strength from their faith.  But from what I’ve read, sometimes members of faith-based organizations will offer only a very narrow form of support to those with mental illness, like the argument that meds aren’t necessary and more prayer is the only way.  I would imagine there’s a great deal of variability not only among faith traditions but among individual community-level groups, and so the problem is likely not religion per se but what some particular groups choose to do with it.

To further complicate matters, religion is sometimes incorporated into people’s mental illness.  I’ve had various clients who thought they had a direct hotline to God.  My last boyfriend, who had schizophrenia, was not normally religious, but in the context of his illness he believed that he was able to interpret the bible in a special way.  Sometimes he would spend hours writing nonsense messages he thought he was receiving from the bible.  What does become interesting, though, is trying to tease apart genuine religious beliefs from religious-themed delusions or hallucinations.  In some cases hearing the voice of God may be considered religiously or culturally appropriate, and the DSM cautions that this sort of thing needs to be taken into account in determining whether someone is having experiences consistent with a psychotic disorder.

It’s highly unlikely that I’ll be signing up for any religion anytime soon, but I will probably maintain my sort of detached fascination with all of it.  What I do hope, though, is that all faith traditions will take advantage of the power they have to promote the healing journey of people living with mental illness.  Rather than blaming mental illness on things like lack of faith or prayer, religious organizations should step up to the plate and make sure they are part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Your thoughts?

28 thoughts on “What’s God Got to Do With It?”

  1. What an enlightening viewpoint. I personally, grew up in a very religion based household, and as I have gotten older, and battled my mental illnesses, I am finding that the religious ‘family’ that I once believed in, has become the most judgmental of all people. I do find myself still wanting to believe in the power of that higher being, God, but I also question the strength of the so-called religious unities.

  2. Regarding your thoughts on how there can only be one God… what do you say to those who subscribe to the idea that there are many ways to God?

    Religion, much like psychology, particularly talk therapy, is an art mixed in with precepts. I deliberately choose a believer in Christ, as a counselor, so there would be no sighing when i explained i had heard voices, i.e. God tell me things i could not have possibly known, seen visions, dreamt dreams, and experienced supernatural hugs and moments of laughter with friends… higher than a drug could produce. I am susceptible to the placebo affect and my brain is wired to be in tune mystically… and i am angry and very far away from God at the moment… but our relationship is healing meaning i am less apt to turn away from my beliefs. Too many coincidences in my life to try and explain away to not believe in spiritual matters. Thought provoking post. I like Buddhism sayings too! And certainly relate to all things spiritual. I just see one God being responsible for spirit… chaos is not a positive element in healing. This comment may come across weird… i have been told this many times. Oh well!

      1. Absolutely! Healing is the purpose of mental health care. How the healing comes about can be directed by others but each of us must pursue the course. I really did not want to heal… when i first took on talk therapy. Perhaps that is my reason to reject God. Why? I craved death and the absence of knowing… good or bad. All things felt the same… numb.

        I grew up with God. He was not a figment of my imagination. No i have not met Him. But i know Him. He makes Himself known. Who lets us make ourselves known? ❤️🎶✌🏼

  3. I’m agnostic, but I like to think that there is something out there. If there is, I think it is more likely just a kind of energy, kind of like “the force” in Star Wars or like Eastern belief systems like Taoism.

  4. What’s God got to do with it? Your perspective is logical and sensible. However, from what I’ve observed (my own perspective) faith isn’t always either of those things, sometimes neither of them. And “God” can be a variety of entities, depending on one’s religion or path in life.

    I’m Mormon (er, sorry A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as we’re told to call ourselves now). I’m also mentally ‘ill’ and my family, going back at least a couple of generations was too. I’ve seen amazing changes in how the LDS faith helps those of us with mental health issues. In my grandfather’s time, nobody (of any faith) recognized mental illness…one was ‘possessed by devils’ etc; in my mother’s time mental health illness was recognized, but nobody talked openly about it, and a lot of people were prescribed the wrong medication or given treatment that led to them having a horror of psychiatrists and therapists. That happened across the board, not just in a religious context. Today, my church discreetly helps. Offers qualified therapists, money (if the sufferer is poor), referrals, and the most important of all (IMHO)…understanding without judgment. Of course there are all sorts of people in ‘power’ in my church, and like any other group some of them fall short. And, again in my humble opinion, there is a narrower interpretation of what might be ‘wrong’…of course prayer and other religious ‘tools’ are expected to be part of a sufferer’s treatment and healing.

    I think that faith, spirituality and religion aren’t necessarily interchangeable…faith in my case stands by itself, I don’t need religion to exercise my faith and my faith in something more than what I see on this earth, a better outcome eventually at the end of my journey and a higher level of knowledge and understanding, acceptance and peace have seen me through my own darkest times. To think there is nothing else is, for me, so depressing that it would kill me.

    So what’s God got to do with it? He saved me. That’s all.

    Thanks for asking that pertinent question! 😀

    1. Very good points. I definitely agree about faith, spirituality, and religion not necessarily being interchangeable, and seeing them as potentially separate can contribute to healing.

  5. If there is one God, wouldn’t he/she/it have everyone dancing to the same tune?

    I don’t think it necessarily follows. There’s only one me, but I don’t like only one type of music. Maybe God prefers variety? (This is a Jewish answer, because we don’t believe in universal religion.) Anyway, what God wants and what people do are not the same thing.

    I think it’s a mistake to think religious commandments are to benefit the Deity. In Judaism God is perfect and can’t benefit from anything humans do for Him. The commandments are for our benefit, to guide us in our personal lives and to build harmonious societies.

    There’s a lot more discussion of mental health in the Orthodox Jewish community than there was even ten years ago, which is good, although there’s still a lot of stigma, particularly in the ultra-Orthodox world where it’s seen as something to hide for fear it will negatively affect one’s dating chances or even those of relatives. Plus psychology is quite a big thing in the Orthodox world – even though secular subjects can be viewed with suspicion at least in the ultra-Orthodox world, psychology is seen as positive and lots of Orthodox Jews work in mental health. (Plus, psychology has always been the Jewish science going back to Freud.)

    1. I see your point about who would be expected to benefit from religious commandments. Still, from an atheistic perspective some seem entirely arbitrary, and it’s hard not to wonder how much those commandments were shaped by the beliefs of the people at the time of writing of the particular religious text.
      I actually didn’t know that Freud was Jewish. Interesting that psychology would be viewed positively in the Orthodox world but views toward mental illness are slower to come around. It’s definitely good to hear that there’s more dialogue going on.

  6. The “religions” I’ve encountered that preached going off meds were actually cults. I’m hoping that major religions (Christianity, Judaism, et al) don’t preach that sort of baloney. I was raised Episcopalian/Southern Baptist. Mother is an atheist, but she likes the rituals of Episcopalianism and the friendships within the church. My dad is a Christian, but he doesn’t talk of it much.

    The people at the E church (it’s a hard word to type) were nice but sort of fakey. I’ve never been able to have real conversations with any of them.

    The people at the SB church were elitist snobs all the way. I regret my time spent with them.

    With that exposure I gained, I took it and made my own religion which is half Christian, half spiritual. I take what works from Christianity (namely Jesus) and leave the rest, while taking what I want from spirituality (spirit world between lives, divination like Tarot, astrology, astral projection) as well. I see life as a schoolhouse where there are lessons and also breaks like recess and friendships and bullies. In my weird belief system, we’re here to learn and evolve and pass through various levels. (E.g., a narcissist would probably be a young soul who hasn’t lived many lives yet, as are grossly immature people. People who serve others like Mother Teresa are old souls. Most of us are in between.)

    I think using religious beliefs to mistreat anyone is a defamation of all that is good. Young souls use whatever they can, but pure Goodness does exist.

  7. Ohhh I loved this post! Even though I’m more spiritual than religious (I don’t go to church but I do read the Bible once in a while) I do heartily agree that churches and organizations should have more options to help those that struggle with mental illness rather than blame it on not being spiritual enough (or not praying enough or having faith). It angers me that some religious people would think that mental illness doesn’t exist and whatnot. It was refreshing reading your post and I really did enjoy it ❣️

  8. I found this post to be interesting. As a child, I was always taken to Sunday School (not necessarily church service). For some odd reason, I couldn’t grasp any of it when I was a child.
    As I became older and things were falling apart at the seams within my family unit not to mention I was paying more and more attention to the news etc… I couldn’t understand a God who would allow bad things to happen to good people.
    I was more of the type of person who listened, watched, and decided for myself what my beliefs were. I certainly did not appreciate people pushing me into their own beliefs… That was a no, no.
    However, as time moved forward, and I was as low as low could get, I did beg God to take the pain away. I begged and pleaded not to survive.
    To this day… I truly believe that I was given a second chance.
    I still don’t attend church, but I feel that I am spiritual in a sense of believing in a higher power.
    One thing too… Is that it’s not just religious groups that look down on helping or even understanding mental illness, but it is also Alcoholics Anonymous. I am a recovering alcoholic and was frowned down upon because I took medication for my mental illness. This by far was such a shock to me. Here I thought I was amongst peers that were there for support… Sadly enough, I was told by one individual that if others within AA knew I was on medication, I would no longer be accepted as one of them.
    To say the least, that was the last time I went to an AA program.
    Excellent post, Ashley!

    1. Thanks! It’s unfortunate that AA takes that stance toward medication, and I know being on psych meds can cause difficulties trying to get into certain treatment centres.

  9. Mental illness is never caused by a lack of prayer. We’re all imperfect and that imperfection mixed with the stresses of everyday living and consuming polluted food and water i’m sure has contributed to a rise in mental imbalances. Although religious organizations are not a hub for mental health professionals, I do agree that they should provide more support than just prayer. I’ve found a lot of informative resources at http://www.JW.org. This religious organizations provides a lot of spiritual help but also practical assistance through well research articles. I have been helped personally by their support as mental illness runs in my family.

  10. Religion:
    I think everyone believes in a human spirit.
    Religion is the belief that after death the spirit persists in a spirit world.

    This is a belief in the supernatural, the basis of faith and religion.

    The monotheistic, proselytizing, messianic faiths, particularly Christianity and Islam, believe that this supernatural world of spirits is the realm of their God, the creator of life and the universe. In this realm also reside, not your ordinary spirits, but resurrected mortals with eternal soul.

    Religion is a scam of the supernatural with the hook of a delusional resurrection.

    We know that everything dies. We cannot know what happens to the spirit after the brain and body are dead and gone, so it is magical thinking to believe that something as improbable and implausible as resurrection occurs.
    The delusion is there are two lives when there is really only one.
    Religion is a mental illness, but can be held at bay with proper education and parenting.

    For those questioning existence of god(s) and the supernatural, I recommend getting to know Christopher Hitchens. GROG

    1. Regardless of what people choose to belief, it’s interesting how universal it is that people are seeking some sort of answer to that question of what happens after death.

  11. I am a Christian, so I was curious to see what others said about faith and mental health, given my own past mental health woes (as well as my own recent blog post on faith and mental health).

    I think that there is a toxic notion among some that it’s as easy as “praying the illness away” (and that there’s something wrong with you if you are unable to “pray the sick away”). While I certainly believe in the power of prayer, there are times when we need more than prayer, when we need support from friends, counseling, therapy, antidepressants, etc.

    Given that fact, I think it’s important for people like me to address those harmful messages about faith and mental health.

  12. My experiences and views of religion were nearly identical to yours, as a largely atheist and Protestant-in-name-only US person. Then I left the western world and moved to an Islamic country. Looking back, I can see now that in the US we use a largely Christian paradigm to think about religion. All that stuff about “belief” and what is in your heart? That’s very Christian. Most other religions, including Islam and Judaism, don’t focus on belief. They simply provide rules to live by. If you follow them, then you’re a Muslim or a Jew, as the case may be. I’m not trying to justify the particulars of these rules, some of which are a bit wacko. But my point is that what’s “in your heart” is largely your own problem. It is the Christians who keep knocking on that door and making it so personal, which is something I always deeply disliked as an intelligent person. My view of religion is quite different now. I don’t think religion is an intellectual exercise. I am not solving a puzzle. There is no key that makes it all make sense. Religion in its most basic form is a way of living, or perhaps a rule book for how to live. Kindness, inner peace, how you treat others, taking care of the poor, prayer, meditation, etc. This all comes from region. The fallacy of our modern world is that we think we’ve figured out “how to live life” and we view religion as some kind of add-on. As if going to work, exercising at the health club, and then watching Netflix was what it’s all about. Read the great books of religion. The guidance on living is in there. There is great joy in the simple practice of religion.

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