Not Just Fundamentalism

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.

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Not Just Fundamentalism
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16 thoughts on “Not Just Fundamentalism

  1. 1

    I am not a professional (although I’ve been seeing professionals for years), but I think I see a caveat to your remarks. Everything you say is true, but…

    …isn’t it equally true of any norms, including secular ones? For example, suppose you’re treating someone who has experienced abuse from women in his life, and who consequently harbors all sorts of misogynistic demons. Wouldn’t it be counter-productive to pressure him to respect women, or shame him for his misogyny? If therapy is successful, then presumably he will be able to release his fear, distrust, and hatred of women, and stop being (such a) misogynist. That’s a given. But pressure and shame aren’t going to address the underlying problems.

    How is that different from a religious patient (and therapist), for both of whom “forgiveness” or “loving your neighbor” is considered a core value? Those things might be a desirable outcome of treatment. Pressure to conform or shame for non-conformity would be badly counter-productive. Everything is exactly as you say. But it’s no less true of any patient whose condition includes anti-social tendencies, whose therapist presumably considers their opposite to be a core value.

  2. 2

    There are three differences in your scenario and what this post discusses.

    1. The authority that’s the point of the post. It is much easier to reconsider bad ideas when you’re pitting human authority against human authority than it is pitting human authority against divine authority.
    2. Blaming your experiences on a whole group of people is stereotyping, not a mental illness. While mental illness absolves you of some of the responsibility for your behavior, prejudice does not.
    3. Prejudice, particularly when paired with power, causes damage to people and to society. That gives people a justification to assert their own interests to some degree. That’s what the social pressure you object to is, people asserting their own interests and rights to be free from certain kinds of harm.

    These really aren’t analogous situations.

  3. 3

    Prejudice, particularly when paired with power, causes damage to people and to society… That’s what the social pressure you object to is, people asserting their own interests and rights to be free from certain kinds of harm.

    Please don’t misunderstand me; I get the impression you are misunderstanding me.

    First, I get the difference between bigotry and mental illness. I specifically offered a hypothetical in which a person is psychologically scarred by a history of abuse, where misogyny is one of the manifestations of that mental illness. I’m not talking about any randomly-selected misogynist off the street. I could have used a hypothetical abused woman who experiences fear or hatred of men, or fear and hatred of authority figures, or something else. Please don’t let the fact that I picked misogyny lead you to confuse anything I said as an apology for misogyny.

    Second, I sure as hell do not “object to social pressure” against misogyny! Jebus fuck! I unequivocally and heartily endorse it, full stop. I wasn’t talking about that, let alone objecting to it. I was talking about a therapist using pressure and shame on a patient, to try and force them out of a cognitive distortion, instead of treating the underlying condition feeding the distortion.

    And third, I most certainly do get the difference between ideation and action. If a patient is going around assaulting women, then you have a duty to report them, and they should be imprisoned. You can go ahead and treat them in prison–that works for me. I wasn’t talking about that, either.

    I was talking about a mentally ill victim of abuse, who harbors cognitive distortions that manifest in distinctly antisocial views, such as misogyny, or racism, or hatred of authority figures, or obsessive jealousy over a spouse, or whatever. You may be tempted to attack their views, because their views are disgusting. But as a professional–and assuming they aren’t going around committing crimes–you don’t. You address their mental illness, which might involve focusing on something else entirely than their abhorrent views, or might involve probing some of their cognitive distortions, but should not involve trying to guilt and shame them into conformity.

  4. 4

    Post #2 aside,

    The authority that’s the point of the post. It is much easier to reconsider bad ideas when you’re pitting human authority against human authority than it is pitting human authority against divine authority.

    Are you saying that you are less committed to feminism, say, than a religious person is to forgiveness or whatever core value of theirs is at stake? Really? So when you’re dealing with a mentally ill patient who has anti-social ideation as a symptom, you somehow have an easier time overlooking that and pursuing your treatment plan, than a religious person would? Because there’s no god telling you that women are equal to men, which makes equality a debatable thing?

    I don’t believe it. Equality is not debatable. Adding a god to the equation is unlikely to increase your conviction on that point–it certainly couldn’t increase mine. I don’t know if you’ve had such a patient; for that matter I don’t know how many actually have this hypothetical symptom. But I think you would find it challenging to pursue a course of treatment with such a patient, without resorting to the shaming or social pressures that you would apply to a random misogynist you might encounter.

    You seem to be saying that, to a religious believer, the imperative to forgive (or whatever) is so much more compelling than your own belief in social justice, that they are compelled to do everything they can to force the patient to forgive their abusers immediately, or something. That may in fact be true of some religious therapists, but it’s a bit of a caricature of how religious belief works. Lots of believers are perfectly capable of exercising patience. They are able to grok the concept that getting to the objective takes time, and that some means of getting there are unlikely to be beneficial.

  5. 5

    Inducing shame is not considered a therapeutic practice. Your question relies on a hypothetical that should never happen. If you really want to talk about feminism, come up with real-world examples. What might happen in therapy is that a therapist would discuss misogynist views as being counterproductive and damaging to others. That’s not the same as shaming.

    No, I’m not talking about anyone trying to force a patient to do anything. I’m talking about the patient accepting the authority of a divine figure.

  6. 6

    Although the role religion plays in therapy might be worth critiquing and close evaluation, there is one reason to include small doses from an empirical standpoint. When therapy is considerate of how patients think and view the world, it is somewhat easier to help them. I am thinking about how cognitive behavioral therapy in its original, logic based form works well for atheists-it’s just so rational, but seems less potent on Christians though sprinkling on Christian ideas has made it more effective on them. The therapies that seem to rely almost exclusively on religion and emphasize forgiveness and such are another matter-alcohol anonymous is a major failure. The standard should be evidence based practice and the inclusion of anything religious should just be regarded as a form of cultural competence to increase receptiveness. Even though religion has problems and is irrational, getting into a debate with a Christian patient would be a distraction.

  7. 7

    Inducing shame is not considered a therapeutic practice. Your question relies on a hypothetical that should never happen…

    Um, YOU raised the prospect of a religious therapist introducing “pressure.” I added “or shame,” yes, but I’m still talking about your hypothetical: a therapist who feels sufficiently strongly about X, that they are willing to violate proper treatment in order to influence the patient concerning X.

    If you really want to talk about feminism, come up with real-world examples.

    Ugh. I’m NOT fucking talking about feminism. I’m talking about therapists finding themselves tempted to violate proper treatment in order to influence patients about X. You claimed that this is a particular problem for religious therapists, where X is “forgiving your abuser” or some such. I am replying that there are other values of X that are applicable to a secular therapist, rather than a religious one, and I picked one more or less at random as an illustration.

    From the top:

    You claim that religious people have high-priority values, that they will be tempted to impose upon patients, in violation of proper treatment and professional ethics. You cite this as an inherent problem of therapists who are religious.

    I claim that all people have high-priority values, that they will be tempted to impose upon patients, in violation of proper treatment and professional ethics. I cite this as an inherent problem of therapists who are human.

    I make no claim that religious therapists are less, more, or equally prone to the problem. I make no claim whatsoever in this regard.

  8. 8

    This isn’t a question of “temptation”. This post talks about therapy that is explicitly religious. No one has to be tempted to incorporate religious principles and ideals. They’re there by design. This post explains why that’s a bad idea.

  9. 9

    No, I’m not talking about anyone trying to force a patient to do anything. I’m talking about the patient accepting the authority of a divine figure.

    OK, this is a good time to repeat the disclaimer that I am not a therapist. But I really want to ask: what the fudge? That makes no sense at all.

    When I started therapy, I was a fundamentalist. During the course of therapy, I deconverted. As a fundie entering therapy, yes, I accepted the authority of a divine figure. But what the fudge does that have to do with the suitability of my therapist? What does your post have to do with “the patient accepting the authority of a divine figure”?

    You’re talking about religious therapists, not patients, and you’re specifically calling out the possibility that they might “substitute religious pressure and cheerleading for therapy.” For example, that the religious therapist might encourage the belief that the patient must forgive the people who injured them, or that they owe it to their family to get better. You are talking about pressures placed on patients, by therapists.

  10. 12

    This post talks about therapy that is explicitly religious. No one has to be tempted to incorporate religious principles and ideals. They’re there by design. This post explains why that’s a bad idea.

    Poorly, IMO. It was not at all clear–and maybe this is my reading comprehension at fault–that that’s what you were talking about. In fact you specifically said, “this was one of a pair of programs that differed mainly in whether religious belief was incorporated in the program,” which I took to mean that one of the programs did not incorporate religious belief. You are now saying the program “incorporate[s] religious principles and ideals [but not beliefs?]… by design.” I’m left with no clear conception what you are complaining about. The best I could tell, you were complaining about therapists who are religious.

    Perhaps, being a professional, you have a clear and bright distinction in mind, but it wasn’t coming through in your post (at least, not to me).

  11. 15

    AMA: I’m really not sure where your problems with comprehending the OP lie. On the other hand, you’re bringing up derail after derail in order to save your concocted scenario. To answer your core question… or what I think your core question is, it’s all pretty, well, muddy in there… yes, shame and pressure used by a therapist are counter-productive. What does this have to do with religion causing harm (mentioned right there in the post title)?

    Frankly, your scenario smacks of a bad tu quoque.

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