Discover more from The Freemen News-Letter
Therapy is Not a Religion
Humans need more than counseling.
Some secular individuals see religion as a form of mass therapy. Prayer serves the purpose of comforting believers in critical periods of their lives. Priests and rabbis console the grieving, give explanations to the suffering, and mediate disputes. The body of a church helps people scratch that innate desire for community and social interaction.
Religious people, including myself, might respond in a number of ways. One would be to point out that religion has more important purposes in the lives of human beings than merely helping people navigate loss, heartbreak, anxiety, depression, and trauma (as important as those things may be).
Prayer is not merely about personal emotional healing but about intercession, duty, obedience, reverence, repentance, and the proper ordering of one’s life (among other things). Ministers and deacons often counsel members of their flock, but they also perform rituals which churchgoers actually believe have deeper significance and import beyond this world.
And when it comes to the church offering community to human beings, one has to consider whether the order is wrong: perhaps the church exists not to give community to humans, but rather, human community exists in order to allow individuals to come together in fellowship to worship the Almighty God.
But one might also respond to the secular view of religion as therapy by turning it on its head—perhaps it isn’t religion that is a form of therapy for believers, but therapy that serves as a form of religion for some secular people.
Almost twenty years ago, the sociologist Christian Smith coined the term “moralistic therapeutic deism” to describe the loose set of beliefs held by many American young people. At the time, America was somewhere between a Christian society and a truly secular one, so the term seemed to fit the zeitgeist. The basic idea is that a god exists somewhere, and he mainly wants people to be good and nice to each other (and people are generally good unless they harm others), and he comforts people in pain.
As weak and insufficient as this may seem to practicing Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, in the last fifteen years, we seem to have dropped the moralistic deism, leaving many Americans (culturally speaking, that is) with therapeutism (to coin a term). Many people aren’t sure, to say the least, about the existence of a deity, but they definitely don’t like the moralistic part.
It seems so arbitrary and unfair that God would tell us with whom we could and could not have consensual sex (and, besides, if humans are basically good except when they harm others, what could be the harm in the pleasure of sex…?). And if morality is culturally relative, who are Christians to say that other cultures are wrong in their ideas about right and wrong?
And yet, this empty relativism (in which the only purported virtue is tolerance) resulted not in a universal attitude of live and let live but rather a harsh moralizing based upon new presuppositions and ideas (as was predicted decades ago by those who understood the import of historicism/postmodernism).
It turns out that human beings need to believe in some sort of morality. Jonathan Haidt, building on the work of David Hume, argues that humans have an innate moral sense—it may or may not lead them to the correct decisions, but it exists. And, if that is so, many of the options on offer that lack a deity somehow fall short compared to those that don’t. When you get to the ground of grounds, and there is nothing beyond this world upon which to rest your morality, it’s hard not to justify to yourself taking what you can from those who can’t fight back and doing whatever is expedient.
Morality is intrinsically linked with that other thing that religion offers, that thing therapy purports to help with but cannot beyond a limited degree—meaning. So many of the questions that cause us anxiety—why is there suffering in the world, why am I suffering, is there a purpose to my life, what is the solution to existential angst, why do I long for something for which I cannot put into words but which presents itself in wistfulness, etc.—really point back to the question of what is the meaning of human life.
Worldly things offer us some satisfaction, and we can even find meaning and purpose in some of them. But nothing in this world can ever truly satisfy—not sex, not drugs, not therapy, not romantic love, not work, not even family or country or community. Lasting satisfaction only comes when we do not try to find ultimate satisfaction in the things of this world (i.e., things which are not ultimate). Much of the great unhappiness in the world comes back to the fact that nothing in the world, not the bad things and not even the good or the very good things, can replace the human need for meaning beyond this world.
This need for meaning has led many to generalize out of the particular—to extrapolate the specific context of therapy and trauma into a complex system for understanding the world. The human mind is incredibly resourceful and can convince itself of all kinds of things. When faced with an insoluble problem, such as the problem of deriving transcendence from something that lacks transcendence (not because it is bad, but because it isn’t holy), the mind invents elaborate explanations for why there is something complex and transcendent here.
One must not mistake this resourcefulness for what it is not: a brave attempt to create meaning in a meaningless universe and, therefore, something to be celebrated. It is a fiction intended to cover up the lack of meaning in order to provide comfort to the mind that would rather not confront existential emptiness.
I find it interesting that in recent years, intelligent scientists and proud atheists—who in any other context would refuse to believe there was any explanation for a phenomenon other than the material one—have taken psychedelic drugs and proclaimed to have discovered transcendence.
In what can only be described as “1960s déjà vu,” prominent researchers and secularists have had psychedelic experiences which they claim revealed profound truths about the world and human life.
They will say this even as they acknowledge that we understand from a scientific perspective exactly how the chemicals they ingested physically rewired physical parts of their physical brains—which, if you think about it, probably would have felt extraordinary and deeply meaningful to anyone undergoing it. Somehow, it fails to occur to them that this physical rewiring might be all that was going on.
Interestingly, psychedelics such as ketamine and psilocybin are increasingly finding their way into (you guessed it) therapeutic practice. Now, I am open to the possibility that such substances do help chronic sufferers of severe mental and emotional pain (such as veterans with PTSD) to improve their conditions, just as medical marijuana relieves some of the physical pain of those suffering from chronic illness.
But I draw the line at the idea that all human beings should experiment with hallucinogenic drugs to help us deal with the “trauma” of living, breathing, and walking around on this earth. And I find the attempt to replace God with drugs and therapy repulsive.
Therapy From Religion
Some, no doubt, would balk at the characterization of therapy as a form of religion, or a replacement for religion. They will complain that this is unfair, that the majority of people who go through therapy do not treat it as a religion (just as the majority of people do not treat their favorite sport, their favorite hobby, their political ideology, their job, “science,” or environmentalism as a religion, even though a few people do).
But there are some people who not only accept the idea that therapy should replace religion, but celebrate it. Therapy, to them, is a means to the end of curing people of the “mental illness” of religion. Religions, especially the more traditional varieties, are viewed as repressive (usually of sexual desires, among other things) and oppressive (in that they exclude non-believers and typically involve some belief in divine punishment for the unrepentant).
Those of us who are believers can either take this characterization of our belief (as a form of mental illness) as sinister or comical. By far, the best route is the latter. There is much to laugh at about the belief that religious worship—with its emphasis on tradition, divine authority, and natural hierarchy—is a mental illness.
But there is also something sad about it. We live in a world where more people than ever are suffering from unhappiness, anxiety, existential angst, depression, and loneliness. Such feelings are often the direct result of a lack of deep spiritual meaning and theological context (lack of community, hunger for sanctity, loss of sacred ritual, desire for explanations for suffering and death, questions about the meaning of life, etc.). It is disheartening that there would be those who encourage doubling down on solutions that cannot address the root of the problems while at the same time rejecting that which actually can (and does).
One has to laugh in order not to weep. Fortunately, there is something we can laugh at which is even more absurd than the idea that humans need therapy to cure them of the mental illness of religion.
That something is the idea that we need therapy to cure us of the mental illness of political conservatism.
Ben Connelly is a writer, long-distance runner, former engineer, and author of “Grit: A Practical Guide to Developing Physical and Mental Toughness.” He publishes short stories and essays at Hardihood Books.