religion and health

You cannot talk about religious belief without talking about mental health. Religion is a cultural system that functions as a purveyor of meaning: it tells us that life has a purpose and provides a source of meaning for believers.

For C. Geertz religion is a unique category of symbols and significations that makes suffering, intellectual bewilderment, or irresolvable ethical paradoxes tolerable. Compared to science, art, common sense, or other ideologies, religion has been very effective in encouraging thought and behavior to deal with such intense and radical nonsense.

Religious symbols are very powerful because they generate moods and motivations to organize life and that are related to the ultimate ideas and questions that a human being can ask himself about the world: “What am I doing here?”, ” Is there life after death?”, “Why is there suffering?”, “How to explain evil?” To answer these questions, religion offers believers ideas, norms and values ​​to think and behave accordingly. That is, a method for life. The question is: does religion bring well-being and mental health? For better or worse?

Religion –the organized form of belief in supernatural beings– and spirituality –the personal relationship with a higher power– have many components that promote mental health: religious assistance, beliefs, prayer, reading sacred texts. In Christianity, rituals such as baptism, the Eucharist or the laying on of hands provide well-being.

The participation of an individual in a religious community provides very detailed descriptions of religious experiences such as the feeling of connection with God or with a higher power: “hearing the voice of God”, “talking with the Virgin”… Well-being and mental health They are verified in the physical, emotional and spiritual benefits, as well as the intensification of the harmonious relationship within the community of the believer.

Create healthy lifestyles

the anthropologist Victor Turner in its work among the Ndembu of Zambia it emphasized how religious healing repaired the social fabric as well as the body, mind, and soul of the sick. For Cohen and Koenig both religion and spirituality generate healthy lifestyles, greater social support from the group and less drug use.

The studies show the positive impact of religion and spirituality on mental health, social harmony and social integration. Religious faith promises rewards that would be difficult to achieve otherwise. Religion can be healthy and is associated with both positive mental and physical health outcomes and positive emotions: joy, wonder, happiness, contentment, purpose, hope.

The element of emotion in religious experience provides a solid foundation for one’s belief. From a sociological point of view, religion promotes the cohesion of society and brings comfort to sick or depressed people, reduces anxiety, helps to overcome vital crises or to face death. Its function seems to be more on the side of altruism than egoism, and as a social lubricant it avoids an absurd society, Durkheim pointed out in suicide.

As a consequence, the believer’s social integration can be more solid when he understands that life has meaning, there is a purpose, there is comfort, there is life after death, the promise of reuniting with loved ones or universal justice. All of which prevents possible mental disorders.

Negative consequences

But religious institutions and doctrines, in some cases, may have negative health consequences. Religion, for some, constitutes a psychological illusion that activates magical thinking, like the belief in miracles in Christianity. In the same way, it can become an instrument of power and control over the mind of an individual who blindly believes the traditional authorities.

Religious people can start from the inability to grasp what may be freedom, secular and scientific values. The fear of losing a guide for this world leads to sacrificing intellect and rationality by creating dichotomous visions and clichés such as: “these are the good guys and these are the bad guys”.

A clear example of this possible radical drift is the complete obedience and servility demanded by the leader of the sect of the Davidians of Waco in Texassame as him collective suicide of the members of the Order of the Solar Temple and the acolytes of Jim Jones in Guyana. All of this shows how easy it is to eliminate individuality and fall into a bizarre, fanciful, and reality-denial psychopathological state that can even cause death. Religion, paradoxically, can be an antidote or a catalyst for suicide.

Aerial view of the compound of the Koresian branch of the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, in flames on April 19, 1993, after 51 days of siege by the FBI and law enforcement and 79 deaths.
Wikimedia Commons/FBI

Doctors know from experience that religion can be used to harm mental health. The religious experience contains the germ of psychopathological states, especially when beliefs are experienced in a dogmatic, rigid and inflexible way.

Resorting to high-powered supernatural beings in many cultures can cause an individual who already has mental problems to exacerbate their distorted vision of reality, even if it is legitimized by divine powers. The movie Spot light investigates the real case of abuse of minor children by priests in Boston in 2002, as well as the psychiatric imbalances of the accused Catholic priests. Therefore, religious beliefs can become negative, leading to miscommunication and misunderstandings. And also, sometimes, they provide simplistic solutions to problems.

Its relationship with obsessive-compulsive disorders

States of psychological illusion and religious hallucination are for T.Luhrmann the way in which culture and religion affect our most fundamental mental experience. The mind is shaped by religious belief and experience. In fact, religious concerns are common among people with obsessive-compulsive disorders (including fears of sin or God), the acolyte and religious fundamentalist who prays 20 times a day, or the psychotic patient who believes he is God, Jesus, and the devil.

Religion can also be harmful to the person with depression and who is overwhelmed and obsessed with guilt, believing that they have committed an unforgivable mistake. Certain religious and moral mandates in relation to the conduct required of an individual, such as the deadly sins in Christianity, can lead the individual to an obsession in search of perfection; and, by not achieving this perfection, falling into stress, depression and suicide. It is not by chance that Freud described religion as a form of neurosis close to madness: the obsessive acts of the neurotic would be equivalent to religious practices.

Is religion natural?

All these explanations seem only psychological. Meanwhile, the anthropologist Pascal Boyer Surprisingly, he maintains that “the difficult thing is to be an atheist and the natural thing is to be a believer.” Our mind, due to human evolution, is preprogrammed to accept these kinds of irrational and supernatural explanations that defy our intuition.

It is not religion –a phenomenon that originates with the advent of Neolithic societies–, but the widespread belief –without theology or doctrine– in spirits as invisible agents that intervene in the lives of human beings, which has characterized hunting and gathering societies for thousands of years. And this process of the evolution of the homo sapiens It has configured our mental architecture.

Religion is a natural fact, it is inherent in the human condition. But it is a matter of customs and culture. The new generations do not grow up culturally influenced by religion In their lifes. The process of secularization and modernization in the West causes that religion is in decline. Meaning or consolation is increasingly found outside of religion.

religion and health