Religion: Cherubims of wellbeing or Cerberus of illness?

Religion: Cherubims of wellbeing or Cerberus of illness?

"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." 

Though debates and discussions are rife with regards to the origins of religion, the foundations of religion, according to Einstein rested in one thing- fear. Fear of the unknown found solace in the unknown, where we worshipped God.

Religion, from its hypothesized origins at Mesopotamia has been an integral part of civilization and culture. Religion has been the core of our social identity. Religion fared from fear to benevolence. It shaped us and our history. Our psyche expressed and confined itself through religious motifs.

In almost all cultures, religion was closely tied to the ruling party or leader. Be it the Church of England and the ruling system or the regional rulers and their allegiance to a brahmanical hierarchy in India. Religion was a powerful tool to promote division and hierarchy. It was a weapon for hegemony and order, as much as it was a reason for wars and chaos.

It is interesting to explore the individual in this highly pervasive religious paradigm. An individual's religion has more influence than his being in this world. This is because, often times, religion can interfere in the possibility of a union of sex cells and the beginning of life in a world where communal violence is rife and honor killings are sadly common. That means it can be easily deduced as to how much religion is a core component of individual identity.

According to the social identity theory (Tajfel and Turner, 1986), an individual tends to switch between a personal and a social sense of identity based on the salience. The personal identity is established through the intra group comparison where the individual compares himself with other members of the group and the social identity is fortified through intergroup or between groups comparison. In both these spheres, religion is an important marker of a group and it plays a vital role in one's identity. This kind of a group also helps an individual meet their need for belongingness which is the highest of their deficiency needs so that they can focus upon their esteemed needs.

But ever since Charcot and Freud, the relationship between mental health and religion were on the rocks. In spite of a close association between mental health care and religious institutions in the medieval times (even though the quality of such care was questionable), the 20th century saw a clear separation between mental health and religion. Freud, who considered himself to be an atheist likened religion to be a form of neurosis, a kind of wish fulfillment and was highly critical of religion. Another pioneer, Albert Ellis, who developed REBT claimed that there was a strong causal relationship between religion and emotional & mental illness. Towards the end of 20th century, a new category called “religious or spiritual problems" was introduced in DSM IV. But an important factor that involved with all these developments was that the psychiatrists were relatively less religious when compared to their patients. Consequently, the amount of bias involved in the reported findings was questionable. It is in this light we must note that current research takes a neutral standpoint towards religion and its influence on mental health.

This perspective has provided a new set of findings hitherto rarely acknowledged in clinical literature. For instance, in his seminal work On Suicide, sociologist Emile Durkheim studied how religion acted as a buffer to suicidality. Similar findings cite the benevolent role of religion in mental health and emotional wellbeing. For example, a comprehensive meta-analysis of around 147 studies with over 1, 00,000 subjects by Smith et al found a significant inverse relationship between religious beliefs and depression. Another Canada based cross sectional study reported a negative association between religious beliefs and suicide attempts. Studies regarding the role of religion in anxiety are insufficient and the existing studies provide mixed and often contradictory findings. With substance abuse, the relationship with religious involvement is negative, that is, stronger the faith, lesser the chances to use various substances. As with schizophrenia, religious belief was found to be associated with poor adherence to treatment and cooperation. However, in this case, it is important to consider that the majority of studies about schizophrenia and its relationship with religion is based on the analysis of religious delusions and hallucinations with a religious theme.

But on the flip side, intense religiosity is also detrimental to mental health. Extreme religious beliefs are associated with obsessive personality, mass suicides, excessive reliance on prayer and superstition, poor adherence to clinical treatment, excessive rigidity and an emphasis on guilt and sin. All these factors, once they cross the line can become threatening to one's mental health.

Nevertheless, the influence of religion on human psyche and its ability to establish harmony with the environment has been ingrained into several forms of therapy. From borrowing concepts from religions and integrating it into certain forms of humanistic-existential therapies to therapies based on Biblical psychology, religion has been integrated into mainstream psychology as a powerful tool to harness optimal mental health and well-being. But on the other side, the fascism in the name of religion is a harrowing story which calls for further exploration of the heavily entrenched tangle between our minds and our Gods.

About the Author

Ananda Krishnan

My name is Ananda Krishnan. I graduated from Mahatma Gandhi College, Trivandrum and did my post

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