Reasons to Believe

Mental Illness not Acknowledged by Church?

There's no way to dress this one up. Here's the first paragraph of a recent report titled, "Church Pastors Dismiss Mental Illness."

In a study of Christian church members who approached their church for help with a personal or family member's diagnosed mental illness, researchers found that more than 32 percent were told by their pastor that they or their loved one did not really have a mental illness.

The problem was solely spiritual in nature, they were told.

Does such an apparently callous attitude provide evidence for atheists' claim that belief in the Christian God leads to all sorts of backwardeven dangerousthinking? Note that these are diagnosed mental illnesses, not merely supposed afflictions.

Also, the dismissive clergy have told people to stop taking their medication. The article cites other studies showing that people first seek clergy, rather than mental health experts, to help them in times of psychological stress. Gee, nice help.

From an atheistic perspective, you can imagine a pastor saying, "You can't trust secular science. You need to stand firm on God's Word. You're battling demons or perhaps you've got some unconfessed sin in your life."

Is that the best the church can offer?

Maybe this cynical view of mental illness stems from a reaction to various studies that espouse a genetic basis for "sinful" behaviors (alcoholism, homosexuality, adultery). We've explored the scientific and moral implications in this column before and many of your comments can be summarized thus:

Despite a biological explanation for objectionable behaviors, we are still morally responsible. We might be compelled by biology, but we're impelled by a God-given moral compass. We have a choice.

The Andrea Yates case comes to mind. You might recall the shocking news in 2001 of the Texas woman drowning her five children. (First a caveat: this Average Joe can't begin to understand what really happened there. It's a very complicated case.) Some of the volatile ingredients for disaster in that tragedy included: bad doctrine from an itinerant preacher, mental illness, failure to heed medical advice, and refusal to take medication.

Is it any wonder an atheist might see this current study and hearken back to the Yates case? This survey seems to feed the religion-is-dangerous mantra popularized by the new atheists.

Your thoughts?