Zach Rawlings, MA, LPC

Licensed Professional Counselor

The religion debate: Is it helping or hindering our mental health?

Gun control, immigration reform, deportation, and terrorism are the hot topics candidates are rallying behind this election season in an attempt to bolster their poll numbers and gain public support. And why wouldn’t these topics be talked about? Just check out some of the most recent current happenings in the world:

In November, over one hundred people were killed in multiple mass shootings across the city of Paris. ISIS later took credit for that act of terrorism and claimed that anyone who worships any other God besides Allah must be punished severely.

Later that same month, a shooter made his way into a Planned Parenthood in Colorado and killed four people. His alleged reason was to “be a warrior for the babies.” Many have blamed Christian right-wingers who actively advocate the pro-life cause for creating an environment that caused this man to believe his actions were grounded in Christian faith.

And just one week later, sympathizers to the ISIS movement unleashed more gun violence at Inland Regional Center’s holiday party in San Bernadino. It’s assumed their attack was motivated by a desire to please Allah.

Such acts of terrorism have become regular speaking points by today’s politicians—usually to incite fear of some sort in citizens. Perhaps Donald Trump is the most infamous for this kind of rhetoric. He has infuriated and polarized large parts of our country by his recent verbal attacks on Muslims. His recent call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. has led many politicians and citizens alike to state that such bigoted speech creates unnecessary fear about Muslims and plays into the hands of ISIS’s tactics to incite fear.

These are only a few of the events that have caused fear and dissension in recent months. And they also beg an important question: is religion causing people’s mental health to suffer? All of these instances reflect people committing or supporting atrocious acts in the name of religion. It seems plausible from these and other events that the culpability falls on the religious system itself. Does this justify religiophobia? Do major religions like Islam and Christianity foster atrocity?

The impact of religion on mental health has been the subject of psychological research for some time now. And the results overwhelmingly indicate that religion and spirituality are generally helpful for people’s state of mind. Practices such as meditation and prayer activate brain structures that regulate emotional responses. Those who turn to God or another higher power in times of stress generally find great comfort in the belief that an entity cares for them. And religion also benefits people by helping them construct a system of meaning for the world.

However, other studies have found that those with depression actually felt more oppressed and experienced lower life satisfaction due to being devoutly religious. Some aspects of religion caused people to experience inner conflicts that led to increased psychological distress and more mental health problems down the road.

So what causes such different results?

It comes down to the view of God that someone has and the view of God that a person’s religion teaches. If a person’s religion teaches an abandoning of God’s love or a fierce, punishing God, then mental health struggles will most likely arise. People who believe in an angry, vengeful god are more likely to suffer from paranoia, obsessional thinking, social anxiety, and compulsions. There has even been a link to an earlier risk of death for people who hold such views.

On the other hand, those who practice a religion that teaches and focuses on God’s love and care usually have stronger mental health. In these cases, religion actually aids flourishing and happiness.

So what should we do with this information? I have a few ideas for those attempting to figure out if their religious views are helping or hindering their mental health. Consider these questions:

1.     What’s your primary view of God? Are you mostly afraid of your God or Gods? If you answered yes, then you have a proclivity toward psychological distress and depression because of your religion. What evidence do you have to support your view of God is correct? Is there a possibility that you are misinterpreting something that is leading to a faulty view of him or her? Remember, all religions have one thing in common: to give instruction that leads to morality and increased enlightening. If your religion isn’t doing this, then there’s a high chance you’ve made an error in your understanding of it somewhere along the way, or that it is being taught to you in a skewed manner.

2.     Does your religious group or church emphasize exclusion and punishment over love, compassion, and acceptance? If so, then you’re most likely part of a group that is fostering an environment that will create higher mental health problems among its followers. Again, remember your religion’s primary purpose. Clarify it in your mind. If the punishing aspects of the religion outweigh the teachings on kindness, compassion, and acceptance, then you are involved in something damaging.

3.     If you’re having difficulty identifying if you are part of a religion that is harmful, notice the emotions that you feel after attending your religious services or events. Do you feel mostly positive, relaxed, and peaceful? Or do you feel primarily tense, anxious, and fearful? Again, if the primary emotions you experience are negative, you are most likely part of something that isn’t going to further your enlightenment or religious understanding. Check in with your body regularly and listen to it after attending religious events.

Remember, it is people operating on damaged religious views that carry out events like the Planned Parenthood shooting and the ISIS attacks. These perpetrators have significant mental health struggles because they didn’t recognize early enough that they were aligned with a warped spirituality. Take caution to understand how your particular views are influencing the way you see people in this world. Align with groups that encourage you to foster greater compassion, empathy, and acceptance. These are the key ingredients to superior mental health, enlightenment, and wellbeing.