When Religious Beliefs Are Psychological Symptoms
How working through psychological issues can help open up our experience of God
Posted Sep 06, 2015
Today’s posting continues a series on spirituality, religion and psychology. Most readers can discern a clear support on my end for the religious and spiritual worldview. I have written repeatedly that someone who feels a smaller part of a larger whole and who experiences their life imbued with meaning will be, overall, healthier psychologically than someone who doesn’t.
This has triggered comments from skeptical readers, people who believe such a religious/spiritual narrative is the wishful thinking of the deluded and that to lean on such beliefs is to lean on a shaky reed. Obviously I don’t agree with this view or I wouldn’t be religious myself.
But when are religious beliefs a problem, from a psychological perspective? When do I think to myself, when I hear someone’s religious views in my office: “I have to try to help this person”? Or more broadly, what do I mean when I say I see my work as helping people with their psychological issues so they can worship God more fully?
I think there are two instances when my help is needed. The first is when someone has suffered some kind of psychological trauma that has created a severe distortion in how they view the world and God. The second is when someone is capable of a broader and deeper understanding of life and the world but doesn’t yet know it and so grips tightly to a more narrow religious world view than is healthy for him or her.
As an example of the first instance, imagine a man who as a child was raised by a punitive, angry father who would use a belt on him for the slightest infraction: a toy left lying out, an A- instead of an A on the report card, not finishing his broccoli. This beaten child grows up, finding solace in his church and its liturgy, but the fear and anxiety he once felt with his father is now transferred to the fear and anxiety he feels with his Father. God becomes an all powerful source of punishment: the slightest infraction on this man’s part triggers anxiety and fear that he will be punished by God. If he misses church one Sunday, if he doesn’t put enough in the collection box, if he fails to say “yes” to his neighbor who needs help moving: all of these he believes might cause divine retribution. He might get sick, something might happen to one of his children, he might lose his job. Or when one of these things happens he looks retrospectively to see how he sinned and brought this punishment on himself.
This is the carrot-and-stick version of God so many secular people use to caricature the religious. Unfortunately this kind of god does exist in some people’s psyches, and when I can help a person heal some of the pain from their childhood their experience of God shifts perceptibly.
The second kind of issue described is more general than the first and may be more difficult to trace. In other words, there might not be such a direct cause-and-effect relationship between an angry father with a belt and an angry Father with a stick. Rather, there is a diffuse mistrust of the world in general and oneself in particular. A clear notion of right and wrong – it is good to know it’s right to help others and wrong to murder them after all – has devolved into an ever more restricted notion of right and wrong, so that religious practices become fetishistic and anything outside the constrictions of the permitted becomes suspect.
This is a more challenging situation. A person must learn to hold the simultaneous understanding that there is right and wrong in the world and that it is necessary to stay open to ideas and opinions different than the teachings of one’s particular denomination. How can one walk one’s walk while staying open to the beauty of another’s path? If they’re right, how is my path also right?
To someone outside the religious world this should seem self evident and easy. But if you are one of these people who doesn’t understand the feuding within the religious world, than I would challenge you to find what is right in the path of those you think mistaken, whether they be Republicans/Democrats, liberals/conservatives, or anyone you believe passionately is wrong headed. That is where you will get a taste for what those with strong, but overly narrow religious people are up against. How do you maintain your beliefs and your openness simultaneously? And I mean real openness, not politically correct, polite openness. If you are a Democrat, list 10 things in the Republican position in which you see real wisdom and from which you think Democrats could benefit. If you are Republican, flip the exercise.
This is a very rich and rewarding enterprise for everyone, but it is with the religious that I find my work so rewarding. There is nothing more gratifying for me than witnessing truly religious people be able to have a deeper religious experience resulting from loosening their grip on the narrow belief systems that had been suffocating them.