There’s a refrain out there, frequently applied particularly to Islam. It says, “Religion isn’t the problem. Fundamentalism is the problem.” It’s wrong.
It isn’t wrong that fundamentalism is a problem. There’s plenty of stuff in religious texts that was never meant to be taken literally. There’s plenty that’s contradictory. Hewing to a strict literal interpretation of all of it is impossible. Demanding that others do so is abusive. Taking it a step further into theocracy, using political power to enforce the adherence of people who believe differently, is unconscionable.
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.
Let me tell you a little story. Not long ago, I had lunch with a friend who will remain nameless. (I apologize for the degree of generalization in this post, but some stories aren’t mine to tell.) My friend is religious but was concerned about a relative entering a religion-based counseling program for mental illness.
Not knowing much about the specific program, I was relieved to hear that this was one of a pair of programs that differed mainly in whether religious belief was incorporated in the program. I had been concerned that the program would substitute religious pressure and cheerleading for therapy. There was still no guarantee that there would be sound science behind the program’s methods, but I could worry about one less pitfall.
That left me with two major concerns. Both of those concerns centered on religious authority.
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.
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.
My friend will be prepared for these problems as their relative goes through religious therapy. There will be someone there to help watch for the pitfalls. However, the reason I know what to warn my friend about is that I’ve listened to the problems encountered by others whose therapy had a religious component.
The harm of religion isn’t limited to fundamentalism. It comes from a degree of authority mere people can’t bring to bear. Sometimes that authority demands things that are terrible in their own right, as is true in many fundamentalist sects. Sometimes the problem is that the addition of authority turns a desired outcome or good idea into a demand. Either way, the responsibility for the harm lies at the feet of religion.