Healthy and unhealthy religion (continued)

Continued from Healthy and unhealthy religion

Characteristics of unhealthy religion

Conversely, some obvious characteristics of unhealthy religion might include abuse, control, repression, coercion or bullying (including the use of guilt, fear and overly-strict rules); authoritarianism, dogmatism, self-righteousness, legalism, judgementalism and punitiveness.

There is likely to be exclusivism, with suspicion and hatred (even violence) towards ‘heretics’ and ‘heathens’ (outsiders); there will probably be bigotry, possibly including racism, sexism and homophobia. It’s likely that critical questioning will be strongly discouraged, with diversity of belief or practice seen as ‘disunity’. There may be an encouragement of blind faith and blind, unquestioning loyalty; and a curtailment of personal freedom (including freedom of thought, expression and choice).

Note though that all these are simply characteristics of unhealthy people and unhealthy people groups in general, but applied here to a group that is identified primarily by religion – by shared religious beliefs, practices and moral codes. A secular group could equally display all of these characteristics. Communist Russia under Stalin arguably operated in this way.

What makes a religious group with such traits more dangerous and deadly is that they believe they are sanctioned in their views and practices by the dictates of the Almighty; they believe they have divine justice and right on their side, and divine mandate to punish, kill, maim or whatever else they deem necessary to further their cause and to wipe out the infidel. C.S. Lewis said that theocracy was the worst form of government for this reason.

At the other end of the scale, overly permissive religion can arguably be almost equally unhealthy. Just as permissive parents can do as much damage to their children as harshly disciplinarian ones, so too religion with no real boundaries or moral guidelines can be deeply unhelpful. Healthiness always requires a dynamic balance of freedom and responsibility.

One other major form of religious unhealthiness is seen in superstition and fearful or magical thinking – the belief in powers (or a god) that must be appeased or manipulated through ritual and even sacrifice. This will need another post to look at properly, but I’ll just say here that I don’t think superstition is unrelated to these other forms of less healthy religion. Above all, it stems from a fearful and irrational outlook on life and from an unhealthy view of God as either capricious or else incapable of protecting us from harm, which may spring in turn from an unhealthy relationship with parents.

I would say that it’s almost impossible for an emotionally unhealthy person to have a healthy religion. A person can only be as religiously healthy as they are emotionally and relationally healthy. For such a person then, the most important thing is to address their emotional and psychological health, rather than simply trying to change their religious outlook. We shouldn’t judge but rather seek to liberate and help, gently and compassionately, recognising that we are flawed as well.

Healthy and unhealthy views of God

I said earlier that a healthy spirituality will be linked to, even based on, a healthy view of God.

Above all, a healthy and accurate view of God must be consistent with our deep moral sense of what’s good and right and true and real. I’ve said it several times before, but the bottom line both from the Bible and from all reason is that God, to be God, must be good and the source of all goodness; indeed must be the source of our whole moral sense of what is good and right. From both Christ and the Old Testament, we also discover that God is love. That God is good and God is love must surely be the foundation and cornerstone and test of all our theologies and practices of faith.

So I believe that a healthy understanding of God will see him as necessarily having characteristics of total goodness, love, reason, wisdom etc; an unhealthy one is likely to see him as hateful, harsh, vindictive and critical – or else just distant and aloof.

An unhealthy religious outlook will, I would say, almost always be based on or go hand-in-hand with an unhealthy view of God. This in turn will often stem from other unhealthy relationships, particularly with parents (or authority, which usually amounts to the same thing). God will probably be seen as harsh and punitive, vengeful, dictatorial, egotistical, unbending, aloof and distant, cold, callous, or even capricious. He’s likely to be a God who is primarily concerned with his own glory and status, and with smiting anyone who steps out of line.

I hope it’s clear that this depiction is really a monster, devilish rather than divine – a being that no sane or half-decent thinking person would consider worshipping were they not culturally or emotionally conditioned to do so. That some parts of the Old Testament do at least seem to present God in this light has, I think, far more to do with the cultural filters of a more violent and intolerant age than it has to do with the actual eternal character of God (see ‘Is God homicidal?’).

Even within the Old Testament we can see a God who cares passionately for people, particularly the poor and the outsider; a God who is ‘slow to anger and rich in love’; whose compassion frequently causes him to relent from carrying out punishments; whose laws are not arbitrary or harsh but are intended for the safety and wellbeing of his people.

Then in the New Testament we see Jesus healing the sick, feeding the hungry, touching the untouchable, befriending the outsider and outcast; culminating in his ultimate act of love, laying down his life for friend and enemy alike. In the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, we see countless lives transformed and renewed by the love of God revealed in Jesus.

All this leads to the insight that ‘God is love’; in his very nature and being, God is not anger or judgement but love. He created the universe and us in love; he nurtures and sustains us in love, leading us to where we can share and participate in his love – ‘the love that moves the stars’. This is true religion, healthy religion, religion worth believing and living for. (Unhealthy religion sees itself as worth killing for, but only healthy religion is truly worth living – sometimes even dying – for.)

I’m unhealthy, you’re unhealthy

After all this though, it would be a great mistake to imagine that we ourselves are emotionally or religiously ‘healthy’. Deep within each of us lurk hidden prejudices, perversities and personality flaws which we may be entirely unaware of. We’re all locked into cycles and patterns of thinking and behaving and relating which are damaging to ourselves and to our relationships.

‘I’ve not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance,’ Jesus said; and ‘it’s not the healthy but the sick who need a doctor’. We all have some sickness or blindness that we need healing of; faults and failings we need forgiveness for. ‘Are we blind then?’ asked the Pharisees, complacent in their own righteousness. ‘If you were blind, you would not be at fault’, replied Jesus, ‘but since you claim to see, your guilt remains’. We may not be able to see all our faults, but at least we can honestly admit that we can’t see; then we have a chance of change.

The church is not a community of perfect saints – not yet – but a motley assembly of forgiven sinners, slowly reforming addicts, people who are being gradually healed but who in the meantime are still liable to look and act like lepers a lot of the time. We’re all hypocrites to an extent, simply meaning that the values we aspire to are better than what we ourselves can usually attain.

There are also many traits of neurotic personality which can look superficially like saintly, Christian characteristics, and which people do often mistake for the genuine article. Some forms of humility, submissiveness and being ‘good’ are actually pathological and compulsive rather than truly free or healthy. These can of course be redeemed, but as they stand they are not signs of saintliness but of sickness.

I believe that Christ was the healthiest, most whole person ever to have walked the planet, and that the way of love and truth he left us to follow is the best hope we have of becoming fully human and fully healthy.  However, like his first disciples, we all in different ways fail to understand it and fail to follow it. It’s not Christianity, or even religion, that’s unhealthy; it’s us.


So, in conclusion:

  • Religion is a basic part of human psyche and society; even atheist ideologies display characteristics of religion.
  • Religion is healthier or less healthy depending on how much it promotes or inhibits human wholeness and emotional health.
  • Religious believers are healthier or less healthy largely on the basis of their own psychological health. A person’s faith can only be as healthy as they are; an emotionally unhealthy person will interpret and practice even the best religion in unhealthy ways that reflect their own poor self-image, relationship with parents etc.
  • Christ was arguably the healthiest person ever to have lived, and the way he calls us to follow is the one that best leads to a true and restored humanity. Unfortunately we all fail to follow it. Christianity isn’t unhealthy; we are.

Or as G.K. Chesterton rather more pithily put it, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried”.

1 Response to Healthy and unhealthy religion (continued)

  1. Pingback: Healthy and unhealthy religion (continued) | The Accidental Rabbi

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