The Function of Religion in Mental Health Today

Religion is in the modern “westernized” world today a topic of contention, that sparked off ever since the era of the Radical Enlightenment that began in the 18th Century in Europe. The situation is somewhat reversed in Asia because the religion of Asia was not Christianity till after this era. Since the theme of this website is not focussed on Religion or History, we cannot completely separate these aspects of cultural anthropology from modern life.

Religion founds the value system of the person. In Psychotherapy, we view the person’s wholeness. This includes the patient’s cultural background and religion. Religion is an important factor of life regardless of whether the person admits it to him/herself or not.

This is the focus of this article: to connect religion in mental health, and to mention the similarities and dis-similarities between the mindset of the two institutions– Religion (Christianity, in particular) and Psychotherapy.

Religion and Metaphors

Religion is transmitted by spoken and written word. Some are also depicted through art. There is hardly any religion in this world that is not transmitted through texts. Literature and art are language of metaphors. It is because of the use of metaphors that the meanings and wisdom of the texts can transcend through time.

Metaphors are poetic. These poetry contain truths about human nature and relationships, truth about our existence, our humanness as part of nature, and wisdom (Carveth, 2017). These are valuable messages that we learn through our culture and hand down to our children.

Much of this poetry is also transmitted through art. Visual art and music. This is how we attain the feelings and the essence of the religious influence.

As part of being human, we gain much from being able to absorb the images, poetry and music and make meaning out of them.

Some of these metaphors are considered myths. Myths are the stings that connect people in a group (Bion on Groups).

This is also known in Cultural anthropology as symbolism.

When we use symbols, we are able to grasp profound meanings through the symbols. We do not just look at the symbol as an object for what it is.

For example, a dove may symbolize peace. When taken literally a dove is just a white bird.

 

Religion against Pathological Narcissism

Narcissism is a word that very much belongs to the world of mental health. To the psychotherapist, narcissism is the root of mental and relationship issues. Religion, in its roots, and psychotherapy share, in a way a common goal of weaning man out of narcissism. There is a differentiation between healthy narcissism and unhealthy narcissism. Healthy narcissism is a self-preserving instinct that help us excel and survive in life. In this context, unhealthy narcissism is being referred to. Unhealthy narcissism is a borderline-operated personality structure as defined by Kernberg.

Read also: Kernberg’s Model of Narcissistic Personality Disorder

The intrinsic value system most religions is one of denouncing self grandiosity, entitlement and the exploitation of others. In the beatitudes recited by Jesus, it is written in Matthew 5:1-12:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

In the beatitudes, Jesus lists out the qualities in a person’s character, and this aligns with Kleinian thought: that healing comes with the ability to mourn, accept one’s weakness, reconciliation (accepting others’ guilt and hence one’s own). Read also: The Manic Need to Control : Kleinian Theory

Religion against Idolatory

The grandiose self-image, and all the objects associate with this image (i.e. wealth, intelligence, looks…etc.) are the worshipped idols. The person is fixated on them, and has no time for anyone else. Idolatry is a projection of value on to external objects. It is a means of being a creator of something/someone greater than oneself. Underlying is the need to feel omnipotent, avoiding the shame of being small.

Religion against Self-Omnipotence, Pride and Oppression of Others

The narcissist lives in a state of constant need for omnipotence. No man is omnipotent, because we are vulnerable to the forces of nature. Eventually we get weak and die. The narcissist cannot deal with that and works against this dreadful thought by creating mental scenarios, idealization, demolishing others, envy, ambitions etc. Victimization of other persons by devaluing, discriminating against, bullying, alienating… is a means for the narcissist to deny his or her own vulnerabilities. He/she gets a taste of overcoming these vulnerabilities by annihilating the spirit of other people who he/she perceives to have these qualities.

Religious literature and art do teach us to overcome our self pride and grandiosity, and be kind and empathic to other beings.

Religion against Envy

Also a part of gaining omnipotence is the need to grab what is seen as good in other people. Read more about envy here. Religions tell us to “be thankful”. In many religions there is a kind of celebration of thanksgiving. Psychoanalysis mention too that gratefulness is an antidote for Envy.

Religion for Guilt and Reparation

Most religions have concepts of guilt and making reparations. Read about Guilt here. As human beings we often are tempted to do deeds that interfere with the wellbeing of others, and that our conscience tell us is not right. We feel guilt. Sometimes we feel guilt if we cannot fulfill our duties because we are human. Guilt is hence felt when we have humanity and compassion in us.

In pathological narcissism, guilt feelings cannot be felt by the individual. The pathologic narcissist has a mental issue that blocks out guilt feelings and empathy. When no guilt is felt, no reparation can be made.

Reparation is practiced in many religions. We are sorry and make up for it. According to psychoanalysis, reparation is the route to empowerment of the self. When we fall, we repair. We know then that we can overcome our failure and live stronger.

Read also: Making Reparation & Mourning as the Road to Mental Healing

The narcissist who cannot feel guilt and cannot repair becomes more paranoid.

Religion is our source for ethics, aesthetics, anthropology and should ideally be a cure for narcissism.

Religion and Magical Thinking

Religions also include what many may call “magical thinking”. Belief in “facts” we cannot rationalize. These are things that we will never be able to prove exist or doesn’t exists, and things that we leave to faith, because they are ungraspable.

While the wisdom and insights to human existence correlate overall in different religions, it is the content of this magical thinking that differ in different religions. This content that differs sometimes cause conflict between groups of people of different religions.

Julien Offray de la Mettrie
(1709-1751)

When Abuse of Religion cause Suffering

In today’s world, as it was in the days of the Enlightenment, people suffered because of abuse of religion by religious institutions. The ways people suffer because of religion:

  • Being oppressed by religion.
  • Being persecuted due to religion.
  • Being shamed by religion.
  • Being judged by religion.
  • Restriction of freedom /rights by religion. etc.

When this happens, we see the narcissistic side of religious institutions. The very act of omnipotence, grandiosity, pride and envy is enacted by religious institutions, and this causes immense suffering.

Psychoanalytic theory explains this as a phenomenon of the loss of ability of religions to separate the metaphors from the objects. The taking of metaphors literally. Seeing the white bird instead of peace in a dove.

In narcissist, this inability to symbolize is well documented. There is splitting of the psyche in the paranoid-schizoid position, and the person (in this case the institution) sees things in black and white. This split person is devoid of empathy and a sense of being one with humanity. Like a narcissistic person, a narcissistic institution idolizes and is concerned about its grandiose self image. It is against everything the religion it represents is about.

Put under the microscope, no religion is free from narcissism. Not even the so-called New Age or the Atheists!

Conclusion

Psychotherapists would often say that it is highly unlikely for a narcissist, especially a malignant narcissist or psychopath would ever show up for in their practice. It is usually the victims of these narcissists that seek help because of abuse. Pathological narcissism is a cause for suffering and environmental damage. It has been mentioned, that we live in a culture so terrified of tenderness, that we are drawn to pick up narcissistic traits ourselves. This too is the root of much of our mental pain.

Freud was quoted as saying that the cure for mental illness is the cure for narcissism, and in order for that to happen, one must learn to love. Melanie Klein says the antidote to envy is gratitude.

That said, I am not subscribing to adopting an attitude of accepting powerlessness, uselessness or total abandonment one’s rights. This kind of new-age mentality reflects also black-white thinking of the paranoid-schizoid position, and describes masochism, which harms more than it serves. There is, after all a concept of healthy narcissism and healthy use of envy, which serves to preserve the organism (self) and serve the environment (others).

Rather than deciding to be for or against religion, we could figure out for ourselves what works for us as individuals in the realm of spirituality and religion. We may also choose to look around us with unbiased eyes so that we can see what serves the world that we have and what destroys. This is probably our best guide.

 

Bibliography

Carveth, D. (2017). F&B 2017F Religion. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oeHOKh1NCqQ

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