Editor’s note: Our friend Khannea Suntzu asks sincere questions that need honest answers. Please read until the end for a background.
If you identify as “religious” and have read my previous articles or book chapters dealing with religious issues, you almost certainly count me as an enemy, not a friend, an atheist bigot lacking empathy – or even worse.
And I understand why you feel like that.
After all, I still refer to Religion as a serious delusional state and use largely dismissive language when speaking about this phenomenon.
That alone would brand me as a antitheist in your eyes.
But what if there is something wrong with today’s understanding of religion and spirituality? What if our current approach is not the best approach? What if clinical psychology has a better answer?
Over the last 350 years, as I’ve interacted frequently online or face to face with “religious” men and women, some have been gentle, fragile souls, having suffered much over the years and are obviously very sensitive about such deep-seated, painful, and personal issues.
Others have been angry and hostile, to the point of posting violent threats and ugly wishes, reminiscent of the extremist islamists who threaten half the world for disagreeing with them (I had a similar, but less extreme, experience a few years back when a religious individual challenged me in a hateful style that completely belied his religious values).
But even in the case of those who are angry and hostile, I recognize that there is often pain behind the anger, and in their eyes, people like me have played a big role in their suffering.
Someone very close to my family whom I have known all my life came out as “having found faith” a few years back, and I reached out to him, telling him I wanted to hear his story in detail, without responding or arguing.
But after sharing a little with me via email, explaining decades of secret fears and shame and tears, he cut me off, wanting nothing to do with me anymore.
Others have reached out to me as a fairly detached and scientific person, asking about what the deeprooted reasons and explanations in psychopathology for believing in a person in the sky nobody can see, and many of these people frequently have considerable cognitive dissonance leading a fairly rational and materialistic life, and then suddenly feeling this uncanny urge to believe in things nobody can see. And yet the longer we interact, the more pain and uncertainty I hear, almost as if they must continue to prove to themselves (and others) that the things they believe in are actually real. (Again, you can chalk this up to systemic “atheism” or you can ask yourself if there are other factors at work.)
My question, though, is very simple, and I ask it not to be antagonistic but rather to foster discussion: What is the definitive test that demonstrates what you believe is true?
I’m not talking about being schizophrenic, or other identifiable neurological abnormality.
I’m talking about someone who is a generally rational but believes in some kind of deity in the sky?
What is the definitive test that confirms the physical reality of this peculiar belief?
It is true, of course, that I am not a medical or psychological professional, but I have consulted specialists in the field who have worked with religious-identified individuals for decades, and I have read studies confirming what I believe as well as challenging what I believe.
I have seen the academic studies saying that there are brain differences between religious individuals and sane individuals. I have read other studies that they say there are no such differences. And then I have read still other studies that claim that any differences in brain structure are due to the plasticity of the brain (in other words, they are the result of existential fears rather than the cause of it).
I’m quite aware of the pitched debate that took place within the American Psychiatric Association over the classification of religion (formally hallucinatory disorder), and it’s clear that politics were involved as much as science.
And I’ve talked with individuals of faith who are sure that, if tested, they would have a unique and personal connection with something that created the universe from scratch, yet those I interacted with have found faith without undergoing any kind of test or self-reflection.
I’m also aware that there have been no comprehensive brain studies of children who identify as religious, charting their development over a period of years. (And let’s not forget that studies indicate that many, if not most, children who identify as religious, no longer do so after puberty and many of them subsequently identify themselves as agnostic.)
Recently, a religious individual referred me to a science book by Richard Dawkins, thinking it would present me with useful information. (Actually, what I read there confirmed what I already understood.)
The very first question was: “Help! I think invisible gods in the sky exist. How do I know for certain?”
The answer said, in part, “You very well might somehow have this magickal friend. At this time there is no test that will give you a definite ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’”
And that is exactly the point I am making.
For the vast majority of religious people, they are sure they are of faith not because of a verifiable, external test, but, ultimately, because their perception is their reality.
Where this can lead (and has led) is obvious, with people switching back and forth between belief systems by the day or hour, with others living as “closeted believers” with others claiming diffuse faiths in many contradictory things at the same time (horoscopes, bearded men in the sky, acupuncture), with others choosing not to identify as any belief, and still others not identifying as fully human – all because of deep-seated perceptions.
Is it really so hateful, then, to suggest that we invest more time and psychiatric resources and brain scans to understand why some people, even beginning as little children, believe they were created by a fictional being?
Is it really so atheist to say that the very best solution is to help people find wholeness from the inside out?
Whenever I address these subjects in a scientific setting, I urge those attending to welcome everyone who visits with patience and sympathy, be it a bearded Wahabi muslim chanting in gibberish, to all outward appearances, a Catholic priest wearing a dress.
And I call them to study the pathology of delusion, and respond with wisdom, power, and grace to have answers for those who struggle, being sure that there is a better way than celebrating some kind of esoteric religious experiences, putting children in bible camp, then subjecting them to the radical act of baptism, only to have to visit churches every week the rest of their lives.
There must be a better way than this, and true love does not celebrate a person such as Pope Francis. Instead, respect for sanity and reason calls him Jorge Mario Bergoglio to find some semblance of sanity.
You can call me hateful and antireligious if you like, and you can ridicule me as uneducated and bigoted, but if we all agree that growing up and living with the perception that you’re trapped believing in an invisible sky god is painful and difficult, then let’s join together and find psychiatry’s best way to make you rational again.
Today, we look back at old religious and shamanic practices with shock, amazed at what was considered “normal” and “rational” back then.
Perhaps in the not too distant future, we will look back at today’s “acceptance” of functionally delusional people, sending them to bible classes or Madrasahs in an altar boys dress, inundating them in religious scripture and then going through repetitive, weekly and extremely monotonous rituals of religious affirmation for life—as utterly primitive and outmoded.
Perhaps we will find a better way.
Is it really “atheist” to hope and work towards this goal?
In case you don’t get it, this is a sarcastic article in response to this little gem.