Mon | Sep 25, 2017

Michael Abrahams | Religion ... or mental illness?

Published:Monday | January 30, 2017 | 1:52 AM

Last month, The Gleaner published an article I wrote titled ‘Why I walked away from Christianity’.

I explained some of the issues that I have with organised religion, not just Christianity, and my reasons for leaving the faith.

Many Christians engaged me, and I fully appreciated the communication.

Among the responses, there was one that stood out. It was from a young woman who is a devout Christian. In her letter, which she posted on her Facebook wall, she took me to task about my piece, pointing out what she deemed to be flaws in my reasoning, while confidently declaring that I was “never a Christian” and that I “hate God”, both of which are untrue. Her dissertation was long (almost 4,000 words), rambling, circuitous, irrational in parts and smacked of arrogance, but at no point did I doubt her sincerity. I thanked her for her response, and posted it on my wall, tagging both Christians and non-Christians, and inviting them to share their thoughts.

Many persons, including some believers, found it to be difficult to comprehend, and most could not reading it in its entirety. The next day I received a call from a medical colleague who read the young lady’s response, and expressed concern, stating that she thought that the person may be displaying signs of mental illness.

This situation inspired reflection on my part, and again brought these questions that I often ask myself to the fore: How does one tell the difference between religious zeal and mental illness? Or, is the former a form of the latter? In other words, when does the line get crossed? These questions may be interpreted as an insult by some Christians, but it is an issue to be taken seriously.

The predominant religion in Jamaica is Christianity, and even many people who are not Christians will profess belief in the Bible, because of how we are socialised.

So, if someone says “I believe that God is with me”, most Jamaicans would have no issue with that. If the person says “I believe that God is with me, and this morning He spoke to me”, again, most of us would be comfortable with such a declaration. If the person elaborates “I believe that God is with me, and this morning He spoke to me at 2 a.m. and told me to go to my office and pray”, some would find it strange, but many would still consider this person to be a child of God who the Father has chosen to communicate with.

Now, what if the blessed and highly favoured believer were to declare “I believe that God is with me, and this morning He spoke to me at 2 a.m. and told me to go to my office and pray, and then dance around my desk seven times while singing ‘Jehovah Jireh’, before burning down the building because demons have defiled it and it must be destroyed in Jesus’ name?”

Most rational people would deduce that something is awry with this person’s brain circuitry, and that they urgently require psychiatric assistance. But, at what point does mental dysfunction appear? Is it with the singing and the dancing, or the belief that an invisible being cares about our existence? The problem is the significant overlap between religious fervour and mental illness, especially psychotic variants.

For example, the phenomenon of hearing voices is found in both. We accept a Christian saying “I hear God talking to me”, but if a non-believer says “I hear Tyrone whispering in my ear”, and Tyrone in is Finland, and the person heard him without the use of a cell phone, we confidently diagnose insanity and call the ambulance.

But why should they be treated differently? My concern arises because the co-existence of mental illness and religion is not benign. Religious leaders who are mentally unsound, and I suspect that there are many, can be a menace to society and a hindrance to progress. With the sheer number of churches in Jamaica, the statistical probability of a significant number of clergy and church leaders being afflicted with maladies such as personality disorders, bipolar affective disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and other types of psychosis is extremely high. When someone with a tenuous grasp of reality oversees a congregation, who are convinced that every word emanating from his or her mouth is a message from God, then we have a problem. Religion is not driven by facts, but by faith, and many congregants follow their leaders without question, sometimes with disastrous results, as we saw with Jim Jones (who killed more than 900 of his followers with poisoned Flavor Aid) and others. Looking back, Jones was obviously crazy, but what is disturbing is that many of his followers thought that he was not just sane, but divinely inspired.

The irony is that religious belief can be of benefit to us. Persons who attend church regularly, and believe in the existence in a being that looks out for them tend to be healthier than persons devoid of a belief in anything. But at the other end of the spectrum are the zealots who make life intolerable for others with their unrealistic, and often judgmental and offensive rantings.

Personally, I have no issue with persons who tell me that they want to walk in Christ’s footsteps and show love to others. But when people claim to hear God’s voice and, in 2017, believe in talking animals, flying chariots and people rising from the dead and ascending into the sky, I run for cover.