Saturday, April 21, 2012

Problem #4: God Is a Mental Health Liability

In the introduction to this section, we touched upon aspects of God-psychology which are undoubtedly positive for people: comfort, security, sense of purpose, strength, hope, and so on. And for someone who merely believes in a personal God, a loving Creator with no major strings attached, the potential cost (even if this belief is a delusion, pure wishful thinking) is not terribly high. We all live under a certain degree of delusion, and in many cases it helps us to better function in the world.

However, to walk around believing that not only is there a God, but that this God created the world in six days, literally according to the Creation story, flooded the entire earth save Noah and his Ark, caused the sea to split before Moses, came down in smoke and lightning on Mount Sinai and issued eternal instructions in the form of the Torah, rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those who do not, reigns on high in the celestial kingdom atop the Throne of Glory, surrounded by angels adorning the heavenly court, that there are talking snakes and donkeys, people who once lived hundreds of years, that the universe is only 5700+ years old... To believe all this (or even a portion of it), when there is either evidence against it, or at the very best an utter lack of positive evidence for it, that is a level of delusion comparable to living in a fantasy world.

Now, there is a time and place for living in a fantasy world. For children, it is a completely normal part of development, a healthy way to exercise their imagination. Children can believe in supernatural beings, miracles, fantastic abilities which defy all reason and experience, and we liberally allow them this leeway, not wanting to prematurely place the limitations of adult, real-world thinking upon them. And yes, even for adults it is perfectly healthy and appropriate to indulge the imagination at times, but as a child grows older, she/he is supposed to develop the reasoning to distinguish between the real world and the world of fantasy. As the above beliefs (that is, Biblical literalist/fundamentalist beliefs) testify, the normal processes of reasoning and maturation are stunted by normative Orthodox theology.

Connected to this is magical thinking. Children commonly ascribe to themselves powers they do not possess (e.g., laser vision used to strike down foes on the playground), and this again is quite normal. Indeed, adults also employ magical thinking at times (e.g., blowing on dice before throwing them). But a normal, mentally healthy adult engages in such thinking with a grain of salt, knowing full well that it is pure superstition, and is capable of distinguishing between magic and reality.

Consider the institution of prayer. Of course, there is prayer as catharsis, as gaining clarity about one's wants and needs, as instilling compassion, hope and gratitude in the person praying. There is the comfort in knowing that one is being prayed for. Yet these are all reducible to psychological phenomena. However, the belief that one can affect others at a distance (via God or in conjunction with a Rabbi, living or deceased) involves magical thinking. Until there is evidence for human telepathy or telekinesis, the notion that one's thoughts and words (no matter how sincere or fervent), said in private, can travel across the world (or even across one's house) to have a direct effect on someone or something else, is pure fantasy. To indulge in such fantasy when in the throes of a dire situation is understandable. But to do so day after day, and to believe that by reciting certain words in a certain formulation, and by having certain "kavanot" (intents), this will affect celestial realms and influence events here on earth - that is grandiose thinking, a sign that the person lives in a world of magic.

True, magical thinking and fantasy, in and of themselves, can make for a perfectly pleasant existence (albeit highly deluded). However, there are aspects of traditional Orthodox belief which can be less than pleasant, and whose psychopathology brings with it much suffering. Examples are guilt, neurosis and anxiety.

Guilt is something we have come to expect from religion. One who believes that God is watching at every moment and has a highly specific and ambitious set of expectations of them, and who believes that "spiritual damage" is caused whenever she/he steps out of line, is certainly liable to feel guilty for even the most innocent or minute infractions. All the more so for intentional, repeated infractions, this can produce an intense guilt that weighs heavily on a person, to the point of inducing depression, self-loathing, and a deep sense of shame.

Becoming neurotic about the performance of mitzvot is an all-too common malady in traditional Orthodox circles. The "fear of Heaven", or the fear of creating a disturbance in the "celestial plumbing" (the Kabbalistic/mystical mindset), can cause a person to become obsessive-compulsive in ritual performance, caught up in the most minute details, not being satisfied until utter perfection is achieved (which quite often is an impossibility). Yes, there can be something positive in training oneself to be dedicated and detailed, but when the implications are eternal and cosmic, it can turn obsessive, impairing a person's ability to function properly or happily, bringing an immense amount of stress upon themselves and others, such as family members whose physical performance of mitzvot lacks sufficient "attention to detail" and is met with disappointment, frustration or outright anger.

Neurosis is really part of a wider class of disorders related to anxiety, of which living in a God-reality provides no shortage. Take for example the prevalent idea that "everything God does is for the good". It sounds positive enough, and in fact such belief can provide tremendous comfort for some people at times of tragedy or loss. When one is struck with a devastating loss, left shocked and confused, unsure about how to piece life back together, the idea that God has a plan that is beyond human comprehension means that the person does not have to figure it all out, does not have to carry the burden - that can be left to God. However, when absolutely everything that happens is believed to be a product of the will and plan of God, as having divine purpose and meaning - and for the believer that certainly includes whatever happens to them, this has the potential to make a person positively paranoid. "God must be testing me... cleansing me... sending me a message... But what is the test? What is the message? Why am I being cleansed? What did I do wrong this time?" The same feeling of "being held" can easily morph into the feeling of being squeezed, choked or strangled: "Help! I can't take these tests anymore!"

Remove God from the Torah system, and we will have effectively eliminated needless guilt, neurosis, paranoia, stress, and the pain of disillusion that God could possibly be so cruel. We will also train ourselves to appropriately distinguish between fantasy and reality, as any mature adult should. Yes, we will have to learn to live without the psychological and emotional "crutch" that God provides, but that too is part of learning to be a mature adult. Orthodox theology has the capacity to infantilize people - "Does Hashem let?" "Let me ask my Rabbi if I can." "My Father is watching over me and protecting me - He says everything's going to be okay." The hallmark of adulthood, on the other hand, is making one's own decisions, being willing to take responsibility for one's actions. An adult knows that not everything has a "reason", and not everything will be "okay". A psychologically robust adult can live with hard truths and uncertainty.

And when we are faced with pain, loneliness, fear, desperation and confusion, this is what our fellow human beings are for... to stand alongside us, cry with us, share the feeling of uncertainty, and in so doing, to give us the comfort and strength we need to stand tall and move forward - and to help others in need.

This is the path to achieving a strong, mature, robust and positive mental health profile - and is yet another example of what is wrong with God.


  1. Really enjoying your posts, and looking forward to reading more :).

    I have also been thinking along these lines lately. In part triggered by a Greta Christina post (, it occurred to me that I have never felt the meaninglessness that religious people often use to describe what they imagine atheist existence must be like. I find their (religiously induced) perception a reflection of something rather sad: They cannot imagine life to be meaningful in the absence of their imaginary friend and bedtime stories. There is so much to live for with or without religion . . . to not see/understand that also seems like a very unhealthy mental state to me (akin to depression, perhaps?).

  2. Hi CL,

    I read your comment and Greta's article when you posted it 2 months ago, and I'm just noticing that I forgot to reply to you - sorry! BTW, did you see that she has a new book coming out? I'm actually not a huge connoisseur of atheist literature (nor do I identify with the "atheist community" particularly), but I am curious to check her book out.

    On the topic of "meaning", I had a conversation with a friend who said she couldn't let go of the supernatural side of Judaism, primarily because it would mean that life and the universe "had no meaning", and for her it would be simply too jarring/frightening to go there. I asked what about "subjective" meaning? Isn't it enough to derive meaning from the myriad experiences we encounter in life, from triumphs and challenges, from relationships, work, learning, creative endeavors, and so on? And the answer was flatly "no".

    This is coming from a very thoughtful, open, real, non-dogmatic person. So I think it's not so much the need for "bedtime stories" for some people, so much as a deep need for there to be Purpose to the universe, that we - and our lives - are part of a bigger picture. God has a plan, and we figure into it.

    I have no such need whatsoever. It doesn't bother me at all if there is no "objective meaning" to things. I'm not saying that I'm "better" for it - it's just who I am. What I'd like to know is what causes the difference? Any ideas??

    Best, AJ

    1. I wrote a short post a while ago on Greta Christina. It links to her video - worth watching -IMO - if you have a chance.

      re: the need to believe in a higher purpose.

      I also have no such need, and am genuinely puzzled by people who do. Maybe it's just a personality thing. Some people are introverts, others are extroverts, some need a greater universal meaning, others are simply content to exist. Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things has been on my list of things to read for ages . . I'm hoping it might provide some insight to this question.

    2. Thanks for the video link - I look forward to watching!

      And also for the book link. If you glean any gems on this topic (or others), let me know.

  3. AJ -

    Once again, I'm not sure what you're trying to say. For the moment, I'll ignore everything you had to say about psychiatry and mental health, as I think you realize that belief in God is not recognized by experts as a mental illness. It is not listed in the DSM as a mental disorder. One recent study concluded that "Religion is an important psychological and social factor that may serve either as a powerful resource for healing or be intricately intertwined with psychopathology." My suspicion is that you have no problem with anything I've said so far.

    My guess is that this post is really addressing your ideal for human self-conception. You wrote that "the hallmark of adulthood ... is making one's own decisions, being willing to take responsibility for one's actions". Evidently you believe this hallmark to be consistent with atheism, but it seems to me that you're not talking about God at all. Instead, you are talking about our relationships with other people.

    As you've pointed out, God is not present in the world, ordering us about, and telling us what to do. The only beings issuing us orders are other human beings. True enough, some of these human beings purport to speak for God, but as you've pointed out, God does not act to confer any authority on these human beings. If what you desire is a world full of autonomous and self-responsible people, then the obstacle that stands in your way is not God. Your obstacle are those people who act in this world (without any need for miracle) to deny the autonomy and self-responsibility that you so desire.

    You may argue that the authority of the autonomy-deniers comes from belief in God, and that this authority will disappear once belief in God disappears. I disagree. First of all, belief in God is not going to disappear, so atheism is a terrible strategy for combating autonomy-deniers. Second, God is not the only source of authority for those who would seek to rule over us. The recent history of Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. demonstrates the potential power of a Godless tyranny.

    AJ, the problem you describe is not a problem with God. It is a problem with certain humans that we have set up as human authority. If you want to solve this problem, attack it at its human source ... and (and I say this with all due respect) stop blaming God for the evil that we do to each other.

    1. Larry,

      God is not recognized by experts as a mental illness

      Just to be clear, I really didn't suggest that it is - what I said is that certain forms of belief in God constitute a contributing factor to mental health issues.

      If what you desire is a world full of autonomous and self-responsible people...

      I'm not sure if that's what I desire exactly, but I do think that more individual autonomy in certain populations would be a good thing, yes.

      ...then the obstacle that stands in your way is not God. Your obstacle are those people who deny the autonomy and self-responsibility

      You have to go after people, without a doubt. But we also have to realize that there are certain ideas which people wield to gain power and control over others, and God is one of them. So sometimes doing a bit of disempowering/disarming can go a long way.

      The recent history of Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. demonstrates the potential power of a Godless tyranny.

      Agreed - God is not "always" the problem.

      If you want to solve this problem, attack it at its human source ... stop blaming God for the evil that we do to each other.

      This is reminding me a bit of a "guns don't kill people - people kill people" discussion. Clearly BOTH are the problem.

      Thanks for the feedback!

  4. AJ, gun control is based on the idea that people who feel the urge to kill other people will succeed less often if they don't own a gun. Yes, there are other ways for people to kill each other, but guns are particularly effective at killing.

    Do you think people who feel the urge to behave badly towards others will succeed less often if they don't believe in God? Because I see no evidence that atheists behave any better than God-believers.

    Putting this more precisely in your terms, let's assume that there are power-hungry people who want to exercise control over others, and that God is an idea that these power-hungry people can use to gain power over others. You've acknowledged that there are other such ideas out there. If God-belief were to disappear overnight, do you imagine that these power-hungry people would succeed less often than they do now?