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January 1, 2015

Religion and mental health

The Canadian Charger

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The relationship between religion and mental health is complex. And because mental health and physical health are interconnected, the issue becomes that of the relationship between religion and health generally.

To begin, religion must be seen in two aspects, the community and the theology.  These may be intricately connected, but they are not the same thing.  Let’s start with the community.

Belonging to a community can be a source of strength, whether that community is religious or otherwise.  It can provide a reference point for one’s life and give meaning.  Even if one is alone, away from coreligionists, that tie may still serve as an important reference point and source of comfort.  On the other hand, leaving or being expelled from a community, including a religious community, may have a negative effect on health. 

A young man for whatever reason his family disowned him.  While he seemed to be doing fine, it is not hard to imagine the possible impact that being disowned might have.

It is reported an Anglican minister who, with his congregation, left the denominational body because they rejected the church’s ordination of gays and lesbians.  When asked about how his fellow Anglican clergymen treated him since the break, he replied that just a couple of them had called to ask how he was doing.  That was all.

We have been looking at the impact of belonging.  The impact of particular religious beliefs is another matter.  To take the obvious, a Jehovah’s Witness needing an operation requiring blood transfusions is going to have a serious religious dilemma. A Christian Scientist refuses to take medication for his condition and he was unable to function in that setting because of his behavior without the meds. 

The form that mental dysfunction takes is in part culturally determined and may change as culture changes.  Take the psychiatric condition known as conversion.  This is not religious conversion.  Rather, it refers to a physical manifestation, a translation from a psychological conflict or condition. 

Religions that emphasize a belief in human sinfulness, especially ones that hold that humans can do nothing to gain God’s grace, may have a negative impact on mental health.  Religions that emphasize God’s wrath and a hell that punishes sinners, potentially the believer, may have negative impacts on mental health.  But all of this must be taken with considerable caution.

We are more than our religion, and most people in the West today take their religion more lightly than people did 25, 50 or more years ago.  The question becomes one of how salient religion is in a person’s life.  And we face the issue of adherence to the religious community versus acceptance of the religious doctrines.  Many Roman Catholics who go to mass regularly also use contraception.  Just look at the size of their families.

Then there is the matter of doctrine versus sexual identity.  A homosexual or transsexual may face major emotional problems in a religion which denounces his sexuality.

So far we have identified problematic features in relating religion to mental health and hence by extension to health more generally.  What are the elements of religious belief that are positive for health?

Such a religion or other belief system accepts humans as being able to do good.  It accepts mistakes and recognizes the ability to make amends.  It focuses on a loving God and/or our place in a universe that is understandable and able to be influenced and changed by human effort.  It is prepared to accept others whose beliefs and practices are different from ours.  And it should allow us to continue to accept and love those who for whatever reason leave our particular faith.

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