The Harms of Religion?

Stephanie Zvan over at Almost Diamonds recently wrote a post that claims to give at least an example of how even liberal religion is harmful. Her discussion of what the clearly harmful fundamentalist religions and what liberal religions have in common is this:

However, even religious sects and practices that are significantly looser in their scope can still cause damage. Even liberal sects still expect conformity to some rules. Even religious groups that focus on serving others still recognize a divine authority, even as they say that authority commands them to pro-social behavior.

As long as that authority exists, religion will continue to damage people. Yes, even liberal, non-fundamentalist religion.

So, essentially, she starts here by saying that even liberal religions have rules and have an authority, which is what makes them damaging. It’s a bit weird to talk about having rules as being a bad thing in and of itself. I’m guessing here that the main thrust of her objection is not that they have rules, and not that they have authorities, but that they have an absolute, unquestionable, divine authority that people are subject, and that even if that authority is telling them to do good things being subject to that overwhelming an authority is a bad thing.

Her main example is about religious-based counseling for mental illness, and how she thinks that religious authority could relate to that. Her first potential problem:

First off, I emphasized to my friend that, to the extent the patient had any “responsibility to get better” that responsibility was solely to the patient themself. I didn’t do this because of some notion that a patient has to want to get better in order for therapy to work but because the idea that a patient is responsible to someone else for the success of therapy can be toxic.

This is true in any therapy. The idea that someone with mental illness owes it to their family, for example, to get better can create unrealistic expectations for therapeutic outcomes. Instead of learning how to live with, manage, and work around their mental illness, someone may feel that the only successful therapy is the therapy that puts everything back the way it was before the onset of illness. It can induce pressure to get through therapy quickly rather than focusing on the process of therapy itself.

The idea that someone with mental illness who doesn’t get better through therapy is letting others down can also induce significant amounts of guilt. This is bad enough when the people “let down” are family or friends. When it’s God who wants to you to get better according to your therapist and your program, you’re failing at so much more if therapy doesn’t succeed. You’re failing in your duty to the divine, a divine that would not have commanded you to do the impossible.

But it seems that the toxicity of the responsibility comes from the idea that you do indeed have a duty to them to get better, and that you are letting them down if you don’t. With God, however, the idea would be that there is an entity that loves you and does love you (mostly) unconditionally. God wants you to get better, because God loves you. But I would assume that almost any religiously-based counseling program — and certainly a liberal one — won’t make it out to be a sin for you to not recover (unless your actions are a sin, of course, but even then seeking help would be seen as an unvarnished good). So without a duty to God to recover, you can indeed proceed without that sort of responsibility to recover that Zvan talks about. There is no reason to think that God doesn’t want you to be better, even if better doesn’t mean you go back to the way you were before.

And having that one loving figure constantly in your life can help, even as an authority figure, by giving you one entity that’s always supportive and loving pretty much no matter what you do. When you’re alone and feel unloved, and even feel unloved because of this mental illness, the structure of at least liberal religions is that God still loves you anyway. God wants you to get better, and would even want you to “Stop sinning”, but the liberal concept is that sin doesn’t make God stop loving you, and that God never rejects you no matter what you do. You can only be separated from God by rejecting him, and being in therapy with religious undertones is clearly not rejecting God. So, you always have support, which can be a good thing and something that might be hard to find outside of this sort of religious authority.

Which leads to the second point:

The other problem I cautioned my friend about was forgiveness. Yes, forgiveness. The relative going into therapy has legitimate reasons to be unhappy with the people around them. The way the world has treated them has contributed no small amount to their mental illness and to their capacity to work around that mental illness to have a productive life. Should they feel inclined toward forgiveness, they have a lot to forgive.

Now, there are good reasons they might want to reach a place where they can forgive the people who have injured them. There’s a small but respectable amount of psychology literature that suggests forgiveness can be therapeutic. Whether the effect comes from the exercise of empathy that forgiveness requires, from some kind of emotional relief due to forgiveness itself, or from some other factor isn’t clear, but the effect seems to exist.

However, while forgiveness is a good thing, pressure to forgive is not. As with pressure to “get better”, it adds stress and takes focus off therapy as a process rather than a pass/fail test. And again, this is only amplified when it’s a deity telling someone that they should forgive the person who hurt them.

Telling people that God wants them to forgive is still a strong element of even liberal, non-fundamentalist religion. The idea that God has a plan for you may entail more benevolent plans in a non-fundamentalist sect, but it still exists. Failing to live up to those plans still creates guilt at a time when the focus should be on improving life for someone with mental illness.

I find that a lot of challenges to the “forgiveness” portion of religion — especially Christianity — seem to somewhat misrepresent what forgiveness is, and reflect a modern or secular idea of forgiveness that’s a bit problematic. The general idea seems to be that you can only forgive someone if they didn’t do anything wrong in the first place and/or make amends for what they did. Without that, you can’t forgive them. What state you’re supposed to be in before that isn’t usually made clear, but based on experience seems to be that you stay in a state of anger, dislike and distrust until they do. In short, you stay hurt. What they did is then supposed to still bother you, and it isn’t resolved until they do that. Forgiveness is seen as resolving the issue, and it can only be resolved with exoneration or repentance. And if they are unwilling to do that, then they cannot be forgiven, and the issue cannot be resolved, even for you in your own mind.

Religious forgiveness, I think, is different. To forgive someone in the religious sense, you don’t need to decide that they didn’t do anything wrong. You don’t need to decide that they aren’t a bad person. You don’t need to decide that they’ve done sufficient repentance. Religious forgiveness is pretty much all about you. It isn’t something that they have to earn, but is something that you give. At the end of it all, it is you putting the issue behind you, and letting it go away. They did something bad. Accept that they did, accept that they are flawed as you are flawed — although they may be more flawed than you — and stop feeling hurt or expecting penance or plotting revenge or being angry at them or the incident. If they take your cloak, shrug and move on with your life. Don’t stay and harbour ill thoughts about them until they make amends. Don’t demand amends at all. Make forgiveness be a state of you instead of a state of the world.

In terms of mental illness, putting aside past wrongs and past issues can be key to many treatments. Forgiveness, in the religious sense, is essentially doing just that. So not only having that as a key virtue from the religious worldview, but having the example of the overarching authority figure who forgives unconditionally as long as we say “Sorry” — and even sometimes if we don’t — can strongly encourage that. And there is no reason to think that in the religious context these things can’t be processes. Liberal religions certainly don’t expect people to be perfect. And a good religious therapist that things that forgiveness is important will certainly structure it so that they highlight their own difficulties with forgiving while still holding onto the idea that forgiveness is something to strive for, because in all religions no one is perfect. Everyone’s a sinner — except maybe that guy — and so failing does not single you out as someone who is particularly bad. If you’re having a hard time forgiving someone or something, the typical religious response — especially for something really serious — is going to be “I can definitely see how that would be tough to forgive, but remember that God indeed forgives all of us no matter what we do”, providing the example to life up to while acknowledging that we aren’t expected to be able to do that all the time. It’s a lot harder for a secular approach to do that so clearly.

Zvan’s big push is that the authority turns the good idea into a demand, but that doesn’t follow from the examples she uses. Thus, it strikes me that the real issue is that she doesn’t like the authority and the idea of forgiveness found in religion. Which is indeed something that can be debated, but it doesn’t really work to try to use the examples she gives here as examples of the harms of religion without a) recognizing the benefits as well and b) ensuring that the harms she cites really do follow from the doctrines themselves in the way she describes. On deeper reflection, I don’t think they’re really there, and so are no better and no worse than an equivalent secular approach. Thus, not a harm from religion, specifically, at all.

One Response to “The Harms of Religion?”

  1. Héctor Muñoz Huerta Says:

    I think this is a case of extreme nit picking on her part.

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