Healthy and unhealthy religion

A while ago, responding to Paula Kirkby’s ‘Atheism is the true embrace of reality’, I defended the apparent subjectivity of Christianity, arguing that we can only respond to the divine at the levels both of our own understanding and our own emotional health.

I didn’t mean by this that there was no objective truth or reality in matters of faith – that we can all just make whatever we like of God and the Bible. I strongly believe that some views of God and versions of Christianity are more valid than others; that some interpretations of the Bible are much truer to the sense and spirit of the original than others (and that the most literal, ‘fundamentalist’ interpretations are generally among the least true).

What I was getting at was that, given (1) our limited understanding and (2) our variable emotional and psychological health, it’s inevitable that we’ll draw different interpretations from the source material, some of which will be better and closer to the reality than others.

(1) Our understanding
– On a personal level, the extent of our own individual ability to understand the universe, and to understand the theology and tenets of our (or any) religion.
– On a general level, how we can reasonably judge between more and less authentic, accurate and reasonable interpretations of the source material (e.g. religious texts, religious experience).

(2) Our emotional/psychological health
– On a personal level, the measure of our own personal emotional health, which influences how we view God and practice our religion.
– On a general level, how we can judge what constitute healthier and less healthy views of God or the divine; what are healthier and less healthy religious beliefs and practices.

Religion then can be mistaken in all the ways that people are mistaken; it can also be unhealthy in all the ways that people are unhealthy. Unhealthy and mistaken are not the same thing of course. Nonetheless, it seems likely that healthier people will be better able to distinguish and choose more accurate and authentic versions of religion. In this post I’ll be looking mainly at (2) – healthier and less healthy views of God and forms of religious belief.

NB I’m using emotional health as shorthand for overall healthiness of someone’s personality and character – emotional, psychological, relational, moral – and the extent to which particular religious beliefs promote or inhibit this healthiness. It’s my belief (following M. Scott Peck) that spiritual or religious healthiness is strongly related to and influenced by emotional and relational health. In my view, you can judge what is healthy in religious belief and practice in very much the same way as you can judge what is healthy in human relationships and character.

Religion as part of the human being

Firstly though, how am I defining religion? In the broadest sense, I see it as a person’s or community’s understanding of and relationship with what might be called the Transcendent, the Universal, Ultimate Reality, the divine – or God (‘God’ essentially being a term for the Ultimate understood as a personal being).

I believe that religion is one of the fundamental and inescapable components of the human being and also (therefore) of human society, just as are sex and family and trade and politics. All of these things can be less or more healthy depending on the overall relational and emotional healthiness of the person or of the society as a whole. I don’t agree with the New Atheists that we can make society better by eradicating religion; we might just as well try to eradicate sex. But what we can do is seek healthier forms and expressions of religion.

Spiritual development and spiritual health

I’ve talked before about the idea of stages of spiritual development. The idea of spiritual or religious healthiness dovetails nicely with this.

Unlike the stages model, spiritual health is more a spectrum than a journey. However, most of us are at least aiming for greater spiritual healthiness and wholeness; that’s a large part of what the spiritual journey is about, though some get a lot further along than others. I also believe that a mature, long-standing faith which has faced difficult questions and survived painful struggles and doubts is likely to be healthier than a young and untried faith.

However, there’s clearly a distinction between unhealthy and merely immature faith. Everyone on the spiritual journey has to go through the early stages of faith, just as everyone has to go through the early stages of human physical and psychological development. Immaturity isn’t inherently unhealthy. It becomes unhealthy when an adult remains locked in immature patterns of thinking, behaviour and relationship that belong to childhood; and the same applies in the spiritual life.

One thing this means is that you can have healthy fundamentalism, which might be surprising to some. Fundamentalism is just a stage most have to go through in their spiritual development/growth, and you can be fundamentalist in healthier or less healthy ways. The same applies to being liberal, which is largely a ‘stage 3’ reaction to ‘stage 2’ fundamentalism. It’s not being conservative or liberal that is healthy or unhealthy per se; it’s in what spirit you approach and practice your conservatism or liberalism, and whether you remain locked in a particular phase beyond the point at which you would normally be expected to have grown out of it.

Religious, individual and institutional health

We can apply the idea of spiritual healthiness on three main levels:

1. The religion. Firstly we have the fundamental healthiness (or otherwise) of the whole religion itself, of its basic beliefs and practices and the extent to which these promote wholeness in its followers. For example, we could reasonably argue that a religion whose original tenets include human sacrifice, slavery or the subjugation of women is a fundamentally unhealthy religion.

Things normally aren’t as clear-cut as that though. Most of the world’s major belief systems (and indeed secular ideologies) are inherently open to being interpreted and implemented in healthier or less healthy ways. Looking at the original texts and tenets of, say, Islam, it can be hard to determine which is the more authentic version – the moderate and peaceful kind, or the hard-line jihadist variety. Here we need to go back to my original point (1) to work out what seems to be the most reasonable and accurate rendition of the original source material, though even then we’re often left with a degree of uncertainty.

I would say that with Christianity then, we go back to Christ and the most authentic records of his life, works and teachings to assess the healthiness of the faith he gave rise to. In my view, these reveal an extraordinarily high level of spiritual and psychological health.

2. Personal faith. At the other end of the scale we have the level of individual faith – an individual’s response to God (or the transcendent), and their personal interpretation and practice of the tenets of their religion. This is where subjectivity and personal emotional health come in. However good or healthy a religion might be in its original form or its basic teachings, less emotionally healthy people will tend to interpret and practice it in less healthy ways. A religion may unequivocally teach love, kindness, compassion and humanity, but you will still find professing believers (and even religious leaders) who are unloving, harsh and unkind. Christianity is no exception.

Conversely, even an inherently superstitious religion may have individual adherents who rise above the unhealthiness of its theology. In C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, Emeth has been a lifelong believer in the Calormene religion which worships the demon-god Tash. At his death, however, Emeth is welcomed into the Narnian heaven by the true Lord Aslan because his heart and deeds have been true and noble, and Tash can accept no good deed as worship just as Aslan can accept no evil.

3. Congregational level. In between the religion and the individual we have the institutional level – the spiritual healthiness of a church, congregation or community. This will be influenced both by the overall healthiness of the religion, and by that of its individual members. A spiritually-healthier church is likely to have spiritually-healthier members; though having said that, I believe that a truly healthy church is one that can welcome and integrate all types and levels, as Jesus did.

Hallmarks of healthiness

So what does spiritual or religious healthiness look like? I’ve said that in my view it’s strongly related to psychological and relational healthiness – to personal wholeness in other words.

Ten more-or-less emotionally and spiritually healthy people will all look very different; they will have a diversity of approaches and lifestyles and practices. But they will all share a number of key characteristics, hallmarks of healthiness if you like.

Spiritual healthiness then includes elements of personal character such as integrity, authenticity, honesty, self-awareness and acceptance of reality. It also includes relational elements such as kindness, openness and compassion, a readiness both to admit fault and to forgive others’ faults, the ability to listen and empathise and the capacity to love while setting appropriate limits.

There will be a welcoming acceptance and inclusion of others and a celebration of diversity and difference, rather than suspicion or exclusion; an openness to new ideas and a willingness to learn from others. There will be the capacity to see true worth and value in each person and in all nature and a commitment to work impartially for the good of all regardless of creed, race, politics, gender or sexuality. There will be the sense of being part of or belonging to something bigger than ourselves.

There will also be a clear ethical and moral sense of what is good and what is evil, but this is based not on arbitrary authority but on a mature humanity and understanding.

Finally – and crucially – there will be a willingness to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers or a monopoly on goodness and truth.

In the religious context, I believe that all of these are linked to (or based on) a healthy view of God, which I’ll come on to later.

As the original post was over 3000 words long, I’ve now broken it into 2 parts.
Continue to part II

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Heresy/blasphemy, Mental health, Psychology, Religion, Spirituality, The faith journey and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Healthy and unhealthy religion

  1. Eric says:

    Interesting post. However, I’d like to quibble with your definition of religion. The New Atheists make a big deal about whether a particular form of life-changing practice involves supernatural elements or not. Those that do are religions. Those that don’t (including New Atheism itself) are not. However, this really doesn’t match up with a reality where the difference between an avowedly theistic religion like Christianity, an atheist religion like Therevada Buddhism, a maybe-religion maybe-philosophy like Confucianism, and a statement loaded with powerful statements of abstract value such as “atheism is the true embrace of reality” grade together.

    Were I to be assigned the task of modelling the behavior of various people using a computer program it seems rather obvious that modelling the behavior of the New Atheists’ most vocal proponents would be easiest using the modelling tools developed for fundamentalists with some changes to the religion in question. When someone acts like an evangelist it makes most sense to label the system of ultimate, life-changing, society-changing values they are selling as a religion whether or not they claim (since they all do) that they are only telling the truth. Was communist Russia a brutal, secular state? Yes – but could just as easily be a termed a brutal, secularist theocracy where communism was the state religion. In terms of how people behaved the stance on the existence of gods simply doesn’t make any real difference.

    One of the reasons I think it’s important to draw out this commonality is because of what you discuss. Is a religion (really, any system of value by which one attempts to order their life) healthy? As long as you can claim that whatever you are doing isn’t a religion you don’t need to ask that question – which is useful when you’re a New Atheist since, unlike the Old Atheists, New Atheists seem to be all about unhealthy behavior patterns.

    (This is all part of a larger trend where New Atheism seems to be the final, purest expression of modernism, the reductionist impulse taken to the extreme, the unquestioning belief that there is one single all-important truth best expressed in textbook form, and the blindness to anything that might be termed “the inner life”. But I digress.)


    • Hi Eric, thanks for your comment – and I’m very impressed if you managed to wade all the way through what (even for me) was a horrendously long article! I’d been brewing this one for some time and it just kept growing – if I’d left it any longer it would have turned into a short book.

      I do take your point, and I’m certainly not trying to say that all would-be religions or philosophies are equal or equivalent. Nonetheless, I felt that for the purposes of this piece I needed to keep the definition as broad as possible, as I believe the principles of healthiness/unhealthiness apply across the whole philosophical and ideological spectrum. Indeed, the point you’re making about the New Atheists is broadly the same point I’m trying to make – New Atheism operates as a fundamentalist secular religion, and its healthiness or otherwise can therefore be judged in very much the same way as that of fundamentalist Christianity or Islam.

      So though I acknowledge huge practical differences between (say) Buddhism, Confucianism, Marxism and Christianity, I believe they all also share some important common characteristics – at least in terms of the psychology of their followers. And in practice even non-theist religions and atheist philosophies tend to have an element of transcendence or worship, however disguised, which often ends up effectively taking the place of a god (even if not a very good – or ‘healthy’ – one).

      To put it another way, it’s simply not possible to take the religion/worship element out of human nature, though it can end up sublimated or hidden. So even a secular ideology is often based on a disguised or unrecognised religious impulse, and can be judged helpful or harmful on the same basis as can religion.

      And judged on this basis, I believe that Christ offers the truest and healthiest, most fully human path for us to follow, as well as the best view of God.



  2. Eric says:

    I think we agree on this. I did read through the article and while I initially had thought you were defining religion so that it could include, say, Maoists it later seemed that you meant to exclude such “secular” groups. However, it seems that you are agreeing that really there’s not much point in pretending that one can’t be a devout follower of what is functionally a religion of Maoism, or atheism (not that all atheism is religious in character, but when you start to evangelize for it it certainly becomes that way), or, for that matter, beer, television, or anything else.

    “I’m certainly not trying to say that all would-be religions or philosophies are equal or equivalent”
    I didn’t think you were.


  3. Theothedog says:

    I’m afraid I tend to get around to commenting only when everyone else has moved on to the next topic – something to do with canines’ speed of thought, possibly. Anyway, there are three points I wanted to make briefly:
    (1) I don’t think you should underestimate the extent to which this blog is itself an examle of ‘healthy religion’. Your ‘checklist’ of healthiness (integrity, authenticity, honesty, self-awareness, acceptance of reality, openness and compassion) is to my mind both a good one and one which these discussions themselves consistently reflect. As someone who’s forever keen to point out discepancies between theology and practice, I feel I should draw attention to at least one case where they appear firmly in line!
    (2) I think the nub of your argument, certainly the part that rings truest for me is the statement ‘healthiness always requires a dynamic balance of freedom and responsibility’. Because it’s dynamic, it’s so often unmeasurable or unconscious; but the struggle for the kind of health you mention is, as they say, ‘the story of my life’ (and, I think of many others’ lives too).
    (3) To your section on the ‘congregational level’ I wanted to add the view that we all have a certain responsibility also to look out for, and to look after, the spiritual health of our leaders, not least of those who preach on a regular basis. In my experience, ‘a spiritually-healthier church is likely to have spiritually-healthier members’, yes; but it can’t function properly without spiritually-healthy leaders. There are few sadder constellations in church life than a potentially healthy, go-ahead congregation being held back by the personal hang-ups, un-dealt with frustrations or unhealthy theology of the person or people at its head.


    • I’m very much in favour of ‘late’ commenting – it’s always nice for me when someone picks up on an earlier post, particularly one that hasn’t had many comments yet! And all the more so when you’re saying such lovely things about me / the blog, which I shall blushingly but gratefully accept.

      Like many of my current theological ponderings, the ‘dynamic balance of freedom and responsibility’ probably originates from my ongoing struggles to be a reasonably good parent. The metaphor of God as father seems particularly resonant to me at the moment, and the likeness between children’s development and the spiritual journey is striking. That’s why I’m more a fan of Irenaeus (however you spell him!) than of Augustine – I find Irenaeus’s view of humanity as immature and needing to grow to maturity more helpful than Augustine’s original sin (though I’m sure both have some truth).

      Totally agree about the need to look after the spiritual health of our leaders, and the problems of a potentially healthy congregation being held back by an unhealthy leader!

      All the best,


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