By Martin Lynch
I read something in the news the other day that disturbed me pretty profoundly. It was a brief report on MSNBC.com summarizing a recent study led by a team from Baylor University and published in the journal, Mental Health, Religion, and Culture.
The study found that 32% of Christian Church members who approached their pastor for help with a mental health issue were told they did not have a mental illness. Notably, these were people who had already been diagnosed by a licensed practitioner as having a serious disorder, such as depression or schizophrenia. The reason this disturbs me is that when pastors (or celebrities) suggest that mental illness is not ‘real’ (for now, let’s agree that ‘real’ means ‘worthy of attention’) people suffer – for example, mothers with post partum depression go untreated, – and it’s not clear who if anyone benefits in the end.
For over a century the human soul (psyche in classical terms) has been the object of turf wars between the religious clergy and practitioners of the various mental health professions (chiefly psychiatry and psychology), with each side on occasion denouncing the other as frauds and charlatans. Those who represent the religious establishment have sometimes viewed the emerging mental health professions as a threat, both to the faith of their flock and to the practice of pastoral care. In part this is understandable, given that psychological theory from Freud onward has often defined itself in opposition to religious belief, claiming that the latter is ‘backward,’ ‘neurotic,’ and – here’s the deadliest and at the same time least defensible claim – ‘unscientific.’ In the early years, especially, the new ‘doctors of the soul’ often spoke about their theories with a dogmatism that rivaled that of their most fundamentalist religious counterparts. Many were quite articulate about seeing psychotherapy as taking the place of the confessional. (One of Freud’s patients quipped that the new ‘talking cure’ was in the hands of the therapist what confession had been in the hands of the Catholic clergy.)
In this light, it perhaps comes as no surprise that some among the clergy are less than enthusiastic about sending their parishioners to nonbelievers for therapy.
So here’s the problem with all of this, as I see it: there is no irreconcilable difference between religion and psychology, between religion and therapy.
At an intellectual level, the problems that have historically divided religious and mental health practitioners have to do with one’s anthropological starting point: what does it mean to be human? Are we body, mind (soul), spirit? Which of these, ultimately, is ‘real’ (again, ‘worthy of attention’)?
At an emotional level, it’s all about protecting one’s ‘turf’ (the care of souls) and one’s truth-claims (the soul is eternal versus the soul is an epiphenomenon).
In point of fact, however, the dichotomy is a false one. Psychologists who state that religion is an irrelevant illusion or, worse, a harmful delusion may be speaking accurately when referring to specific cases they have seen in their clinics. But they step outside the bounds of scientific rigor when they argue from the specific to the general, and imply, as one of my psychology professors did many years ago, that there is no God, and therefore those who act as if there were are psychologically unbalanced. (The problem with this claim is that science cannot either prove or disprove the existence of God.)
But the days when such remarks could be made in the classroom unchallenged are largely over, and not only for reasons of political correctness in a litigious society. This is, as we say in the business, an empirical question, but I am quite certain that many mental health professionals would self-identify (though perhaps not to their colleagues, but one step at a time) as religious believers, perhaps even regular participants at religious services. Indeed, studies are being conducted and books are being written and college courses are being taught about the many fruitful intersections between religion and psychology. Scientific psychology no longer denies the (what to many was self-evident) importance of the religious dimension in human life. At the same time, many religious leaders and religious bodies openly recognize the reality of emotional distress and the importance of treating it by those properly trained. (The question of whether mental illness itself is ‘real’ or ‘constructed’ goes beyond the scope of these initial remarks, but again, let’s agree that ‘real’ means ‘worthy of attention.’) In any case, many of those sitting in the pews remain untouched by the turf wars of their elders and continue to frequent both the confessional and the therapist’s couch, making their own implicit decision about the anthropology of human nature.
What do you think? Are you as energized by this issue as I am? Are religion and therapy inherently at odds with each other? What if anything are we in the mental health professions doing wrong that we still engender such fear and mistrust by some in the religious community?