R E L I G I O N A N D M E N T A L D I S O R D E R
RELIGION AS A HAZARD TO MENTAL HEALTH
The doctrines and source of institutional faith sometimes contain the seeds of psychopathology. Though most individuals who accept religious mandates live happy and fruitful lives, there are those who misinterpret and misapply the core elements of their faith. Others are, in a sense, victimized by parents, clergy, or influential others who misuse religion to gain power and personal gratification. This can happen when people deal with religious precepts in a rigid and inflexible manner.187 One study dealing with some mental disorder correlates of "rigid religiosity" is described in Research Box 12.7. Simply put, clinicians perceive strict religious upbringing as an element in the development of emotional disorders, depression, suicidal potential, and generally fearful response to life.188
The great reliance of orthodox groups on scripture may be one of those defenses. For example, it has been used to justify the abuse of women and children, and some officials in these churches have also supported such behavior.190 Partner and child abuse in these groups has been associated with much conflict about sexual issues and with the blaming of victims. These tendencies have been invoked to explain the claim of high rates of multiple personality disorder in families with fundamentalist religious backgrounds.191
Fundamentalist religion is often quite authoritarian in its structure, endowing its leaders with the image of having a special relationship with the deity. Control and suppresion of dissent are seen as the natural prerogatives of those holding high church positions. These factors have been used to explain the anxiety, "guilt, low self-esteem, sexual inhibitions, and vivid fears of divine punishment" noted among individuals who leave these churches.192 The argument is made that the absolutist structure and dictates of these churches produce a "fundamentalist mindset" that creates adjustment problems for their members.193 This has been further described as involving extreme dogmatism and a need for simplistic "quick fixes for problems involving marriage, children, sexuality, or society."194
Despite all of these unpleasant inferences, research supporting such ideas is rather sparse, and these claims have yet to be convincingly demonstrated. In fact, in Chapter 11, we have noted work suggesting the association of fundamentalism with an optimistic outlook on life.195 Similarly, recent research has failed to provide any evidence of any adverse effects on the ego development or adpative capacity of fundamentalists.196 When such contradictions exist, the only answer is to call for more research; however, we must keep in mind that this is a very controversial area, and objectivity is imperative.
Religious doctrines are rich sources of ideas for use by mentally disturbed persons. Southard has shown how identification with higher powers may help such individuals to deny reality and counter therapy; he described one patient who used hymn singing to frustrate psychotherapy.197 The presentation of miracles and other unusual occurrences found in religious writing can stimulate magical thinking that is suggestive of psychopathology.
Commonly, religious groups and doctrines offer their members meanings that make life bearable, but at a cost -- namely a "sacrifice of intellect."198 Complex matters are often simplified into a dichotomy of good versus evil. Difficult and intricate issues are denied attempts at understanding by references to such clichés as "God works in mysterious ways." At times, however, objective need and cognitive dissonance may cause individuals to challenge polarized beliefs and "stop thinking" phrases. The outcome in such instances may be a serious crisis of faith, extreme personal stress, depression, and the potential for suicide.
Religious systems affect the motives and behaviors of their followers. Just as they can strengthen moral commitments, they may stimulate disordered thinking and action.199 We see this in religion's concern with sin. A book chapter by O'Connell asks, "Is Mental Illness a Result of Sin?", and the well-known psychologist O. H. Mowrer attempted to bring the sin concept into psychotherapy.200 It was thus examined positively and negatively -- as a constructive control on behavior, and as an activator of guilt, depression, and distress. Obsession with sin and guilt seems to be a correlate of religious frameworks that stress moral perfection.201 An emphasis on perfection often incites feelings of low self-esteem and worthlessness, which can contribute to mental disorders.202 We also find the presence of sin and associated guilt in the motivation for mysticism, conversion, prayer, scrupulosity, confession, bizarre rituals, self-denial, and self-mutilation.203
The need to expunge sin and reduce guilt is a powerful motive, and one that may eventuate in serious mental pathology. McGinley's fascinating presentation of the behavior of saints abounds in examples of grotesque, brutal, and painful masochistic behavior, which today we would regard as indicative of profound psychopathology.204
Religious insitutions and leaders that demand absolute subservience and unquestioning obedience from followers frequntly use punitive threats and devices to eliminate individuality. Pruyser points out that those subject to such control must suspend any semblance of critical reasoning and substitute "unbridled and untutored fantasy."205 Blind faith of this sort requires in immature, if not extremely childish, denial of reality for its maintenance. The pathetic extremes to which such a belief may drive people have been evidenced many times in recent years. We need only consider such tragedies as the mass suicides and deaths of those in the People's Temple in Guyana, the Branch Davidians in Texas, and the Solar Temple group in Europe and Canada.
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