“How can you tell the difference between appropriate religious belief and psychopathology?” It was a [insert sophisticated synonym for “ballsy”] question, I know. I was eating lunch with my friend, a psychiatrist. Over the course of time that I’ve known her, I’ve noticed that she is cynical about religion. Her attitude is subtle, but I recognize it when we’re around others who speak openly about faith. Her eyebrows rise almost imperceptibly. A corner of her mouth twitches upward, giving away what might be amusement. Her expression is whispering what her voice will never say—she needs a better poker face. When I first met her, I didn’t want to speak for fear that she would psychoanalyze every word out of my mouth. I quickly realized a few things: 1) I don’t need to speak for her to psychoanalyze me, 2) Compared to what she sees every day, I’m probably not interesting enough to be worth much of her mental bandwidth, and 3) Even though I’m quirky already, I’ll probably come across as a lot weirder if I pretend to be someone I’m not. So I’ve always been myself around her, and it seems to be working out. She’s a straight shooter and appreciates the same, so I finally asked the question I’ve been wanting to ask—even though I realize that it reveals a lot about me. Where is the line drawn between a healthy religious belief and mental illness?
Her answer put words to her non-verbal expressions. “If you ever figure that out, please let me know.”
I truly don’t mean to offend. I’m not saying that religious people are crazy. I’m just saying that many religious beliefs contradict others, and some of these must be false. If a delusion is a fixed false belief…
Some would argue for a more thorough definition of the word “delusion.” The Oxford English Dictionary adds a qualifier to the end of the definition above: a fixed false opinion or belief with regard to objective things. Any belief that demands faith does not lend itself well to objective study, so it may be unfair to discuss whether or not such a belief is a delusion. My friend the psychiatrist isn’t so concerned with definitions. She expanded on her initial statement—“I actually don’t have a big problem with faith, as long as it doesn’t affect someone’s ability to function in society.” She explained that when she applies her field’s definitions to matters of faith, it often sounds like psychosis—but that it is possible to have a type of physiological psychosis (not her words—just my interpretation of them), a pattern of thoughts and behaviors that actually reflects culture more than it indicates a mental health problem. “I would even say it can be beneficial for some people,” she continued, “although in my field you’re likely to see it do more harm than good.”
My thoughts about this conversation have spanned many miles. I do most of my thinking when I’m running—if my struggle with faith has had one obvious benefit, it has been to help me achieve excellent cardiovascular fitness. What do I think about when I run? Who do I think about? I think about my dad, who overcame drug addiction because of faith in a God who redeems lives from the pit. I think about my husband’s grandparents, who wouldn’t support his parents’ marriage (or even come to the wedding) because of their faith in a God who calls a previously divorced woman an adulteress. I think about myself and how I overcame a childhood that can only adequately be described as “fucked up,” because of my faith in a God who allured me, who restored what had been destroyed, who turned a valley of trouble into a door of hope. I think about my mother who uses faith in God to justify hatred for those who believe differently than she does. I think about my brother (not blood-related, but I care about him more than some of the ones who are) who was healed from a two-year battle with psychosis after praying the most humble of prayers. He wrote to me about this in a 21-page letter, at the end of which he said, “I’m exhausted but content. I know that God is real. I know that scripture is reliable.” Rescued from one mental illness with the healing power of another one? It seems extraordinarily unlikely, and his story is one of the few things that still puzzles me—I’ve re-read parts of that letter over and over again this week and still can’t find an answer. I do think that my father and my friend and I all had physiological faith. My husband’s grandparents, my mother, and many of my psychiatrist friends’ patients have faith that is sometimes pathological—that sometimes harms more than it heals. How can we tell the difference when we’re walking through life? Where does reality end and my imagination begin—and how much imagination is acceptable?
If my faith is physiological and brought me out of darkness, why give up the fight? I did a book report in 7th grade on the book She Said Yes about the Columbine shooting where Cassie Bernall was reportedly martyred after responding affirmatively when asked by her killer if she believed in God. As an impressionable teenager, the book empowered me. I wrote about this in journals—“God, let me die that way. My death may not be peaceful or painless or at the end of many decades, but if it brings more people to you than my life ever could—so be it.” I would have died for my faith. Less than three years ago, if someone had held a gun to my head and asked if I believed, I would have said yes—even without proof. I wouldn’t have said “I’m almost positive,” or even “I do believe, but I can certainly understand that there are other plausible explanations…”—I would have just said “Yes.” No hesitation. Not even humility. That is not physiological faith. I could have lived my whole life with a functional faith that improves its quality, only to trade my life at the end for the sake of a verbal confession to an insane person with a weapon. Is any confession of belief—no matter how likely or unlikely—worth my life? Can anyone who would make such a confession at gunpoint be said to have a faith that allows for healthy function in society? I wouldn’t be confident in telling you my own name at gunpoint—much less asserting that the unknowable is truth. Would a good God demand that? Should the maniacs win?
I feel like I’m struggling to get my point across to my Macbook, so I know my human readers are getting lost. I’ll wrap it up by saying this: I see unyielding confidence as a sign of a weak mind rather than a strong one. If someone is willing to die for a belief, I question their ability to rationally discuss it. On the other hand—if it isn’t worth dying for, is it worth living for?
That’s why I give up the fight. I don’t think I could ever again believe it enough to die for it—I might be wrong, and my psychiatrist friend would definitely call such a death a harmful outcome of faith. And if my faith has a potential end, I don’t see much purpose in giving it a lifespan at all—did faith that could end ever have a beginning? If the line between faith and delusion is blurry, I’ll run as far from the line as I can.