Religion and Mental Health

Dr. Scott Braithwaite’s recent Education Week talk has gotten me thinking about what psychology can teach me about my own mental health as an active Mormon. I was interested to learn from psychological research that being religious can have a highly polarizing effect on my mental wellness. Religiosity either supports or detracts from my mental health, depending on who I am and what situation I find myself in. Being religious is related to lower depression and greater life satisfaction, and religious communities can prevent psychological distress by strengthening families, improving our coping skills, and offering support during times of crisis. Religious communities also have the capacity to overcome traditional healthcare access issues by delivering holistic support directly to their members. In addition, religious populations experience lower counts of substance abuse, live longer, and have lower levels of suicide and divorce.

It’s important to know, though, that some aspects of faith can magnify or even cause mental illness. If a religious community thinks mental illness is caused by sin, lack of faith, or an individual’s personal failings, stigma and ostracization follow. One third of families in religious congregations report feeling they have to manage issues of mental illness on their own. And being religious makes us more likely to experience psychopathology, to encounter problems with sex, to experience guilt, and to fear death. The treatment an individual receives within a religious community is highly consequential: it either can cause or heal mental illness.

I bring up the polarizing influence of religiosity because I think it is important context for Dr. Braithwaite’s presentation. I appreciated his mention of the stages of faith, of the dangers of perfectionism, and of the trouble with falling into an “us vs. them” mindset with nonmembers. I think Dr. Braithwaite was spot on when he talked about the problems with a “black and white” binary that casts the Church as all good and the world as wicked or threatening. The research is clear that rejecting such attitudes leads to increased mental wellness.

I disagree, however, with Braithwaite’s admonition to separate “cultural Mormonism” from “doctrinal Mormonism” because it reinstates the very binary he challenged earlier. The implication of this imposed binary is that the church’s doctrine is perfect, that it is “all good” and that those who find trouble with it must necessarily be wrong or, at best, confused. Braithwaite’s “pure doctrine vs. faulty culture” binary thus stigmatizes people who are experiencing a faith crisis by implying that the problem lies with them: they must have confused “culture” with “doctrine.” I contend that it is virtually impossible to distinguish between “cultural Mormonism” and “doctrinal Mormonism.” People’s experience of religion is inseparable from the culture they experience it in. How, even theoretically, is one supposed to access perfect, pure theology except through a culture which communicates it to them? What exactly is doctrine? What is culture? Where is the line? Who gets to say? And what do we do when the line moves? Until we can answer each of these questions the “culture vs. doctrine” binary needs to be skeptically scrutinized.

The biggest threat that comes from the “culture vs. doctrine” binary is that it has the danger of creating the sort of social situation within a religious community that compounds emotional distress rather than alleviating it. Though Dr. Braithwaite seems to be sincerely trying to destigmatize people who are in faith crisis mode, his “culture vs. doctrine” binary accomplishes exactly the opposite. The “culture vs. doctrine” binary creates a comfort zone for believers at the expense of the questioners. It does this by shifting any trouble, dissonance, or complexity away from the actions, history, or beliefs of the LDS Church and sets them squarely on the shoulders of those who are reconsidering their relationship with it. When we put the blame for confusing doctrine and culture onto the questioners we create the perfect environment for the types of rejecting behaviors that do so much damage. Since membership in our religious communities is a highly consequential experience that either hurts or heals, any false binary—including “black vs. white,” “us vs. them,” and “doctrine vs. culture” — that threatens rejecting behaviors towards the most vulnerable among us should be roundly rejected.


4 Replies to “Religion and Mental Health”

    1. Ah-now you’re talking ontology. 🙂 I agree that all is culture, but to understand this without being threatened by it one has to understand and accept the socially constructed nature of our reality. Since this foundational philosophy is at odds with the neo-Platonic, post-positivistic view held by most members of the LDS Church, I thought going right to the jugular might not be the best approach.

  1. Thanks. Good perspective. But:

    “I think Dr. Braithwaite was spot on when he talked about the problems with a ‘black and white’ binary that casts the Church as all good and the world as wicked or threatening. The research supports these attitudes as being stances that lead to increased mental wellness.”

    Don’t you mean decreased mental wellness?

    I think anything we become fanatical about tends to make us mentally unbalanced.

    1. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify: What I meant was that refuting these binaries, or understanding the problems with black and white thinking leads to increased mental wellness. I agree that seeing the Church as completely good and the world as all bad leads to decreased mental wellness. I think fanaticism definitely leads to an unbalanced life.

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