Religion: Faith: Healthy v. Neurotic

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Friday, Apr. 02, 1965

Religion: Faith: Healthy v. Neurotic

Theologically speaking, faith is a gift of God. But in the cold-eyed view of the trained psychiatrist, religious belief may also be a cover-up for deep inner anxiety and a cause of neurosis. Dr. Leon Salzman, professor of clinical psychiatry at Georgetown University medical school, argues that it is often difficult “to determine where religion ends and disease begins.” At the annual meeting in Washington of the Academy of Religion and Mental Health, a number of psychiatrists and clergymen tried to define the tenuous borderline between healthy and neurotic faith.

Church-Induced Guilt. Both clergymen and doctors agreed that authoritarian religion can be a major source of neurosis. Salzman noted some symptoms of unhealthy faith that often show up among new adherents to dogmatic churches: “an irrational intensity of belief” in the new doctrine, greater concern for form and theology than for ethical and moral principles, hatred of past beliefs, intolerance of deviation, and the desire for martyrdom to prove devotion. Jesuit Philosopher and Critic William F. Lynch added that neurotic religion frequently shows up among Roman Catholics as a denial of human feelings, a desire to find the will of God in every decision, and an unhealthy dependence on dogma as a means of obtaining absolute certainty.

More evidence that “legalistically structured” religion can produce neurosis came from Dr. Klaus Thomas, founder of Berlin’s Suicide Prevention Center. At the Center, he said, about 40% of 3,000 suicide-prone patients suffered from “ecclesiogenic neurosis” arising from guilt feelings—especially about sex—induced by their religious training. The church needs a “theology of eroticism,” he concluded, that would allow for what Luther called “sensuality governed by the Holy Spirit.”

Neurotic faith is not just a laymen’s problem. Dr. Leo H. Bartemeier of Baltimore’s Seton Psychiatric Institute suggested that ministers should be “as free as possible from delusions about their own omnipotence.” And the Rev. Edward S. Golden, secretary of the United Presbyterians’ Inter-Board Office of Personnel Services, argued that “there is a crisis in health with moral, physical and emotional manifestations among American clergy.” One sign of widespread disturbance among ministers, he noted, is that of the nation’s 8,500 United Presbyterian clergymen on pastoral assignment, 3,000 want to leave their churches, while 1,200 congregations are dissatisfied with their current preacher.

Humanity Breaks Through. Clergymen with emotional problems, both pastors and doctors agreed, usually come from homes with a weak father and a domineering mother. Unaccustomed to strong paternal authority, argued Golden, these ministers find their problems accentuated when they take over a parish, often to be overprotected by congregations that look up to them as Christ figures. Usually the symptoms of emotional distress are evident long before neurotic clerics are ordained, suggested Psychiatrist Robert J. McAllister, a consultant to Catholic University. Reporting on 100 hospitalized Catholic priests at the Seton Institute, he pointed out that 77 had serious emotional problems as seminarians; 32 ultimately became alcoholics. McAllister’ added that a conflict between their desire for perfection and their basic needs and desires can drive men to leave the priesthood entirely: “Suddenly their own humanity breaks through and they are gone.” One solution for the problem, suggested Dr. Bartemeier, would be for clergymen to submit to psychoanalysis. “If psychiatrists find it necessary, why not the same for the clergy?” he asked.

Perhaps the best definition of the frontier between health and neurosis in religion came from Dean Samuel Miller of the Harvard Divinity School. One measure of a healthy faith, he said, is “its ability to remain in relation to the threatening aspects of reality without succumbing to fear, shame, anxiety or hostility. An unhealthy religion runs away, becomes obsessed with a part in order to avoid the whole. The body is denied for the soul’s sake; the future becomes so fascinating that it blots out the present; all truth is limited to the Bible. A healthy religion unites existence, an unhealthy one divides it.”

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