The following is a paper I wrote this past semester for my abnormal psychology class.
Religious doubt is a universal human phenomenon that has been extensively written about since the dawn of history. It has been discussed both in formal philosophical treatises and throughout the world's literatures. Everyone, from devout Catholics such as Mother Teresa, to ardent Atheists such as John Paul Sartre, and even the average everyday citizen, has either experienced or will experience some type of religious doubt in their lives. This religious doubt can have deleterious effects on a person's mental health and can lead to such psychological disorders as depression. Psychologists and other mental health professionals should educate themselves on the issues confronting such clients, using the same multicultural framework that guides their approach to different races, nationalities, etc, so that they will be better able to treat such clients in an ethical and humane manner.
Many people think that religious doubt is the hallmark of the times in which we live, living as we do after the age of the enlightenment, but nothing could be further from the truth. Religious doubt has been a part of the psychological and emotional struggles of mankind ever since the beginning of recorded history. This religious doubt can be a positive aspect in one's religious life, as many philosophers and theologians through the ages have argued (Krause & Wulff, 2004, p.3).
Rene' Descartes, one of the world's greatest philosophers, thought that doubt was an essential aspect in the search for truth, believing that a person can grasp the truth only by doubting and calling into question everything one knows (Krause & Wulff, 2004, P.3).Developmental psychologists have also given credence to the claim that doubt can be beneficial, maintaining that "growth and cognitive development are driven by doubt and uncertainty" (Krause & Wulff, 2004, P. 3).
But religious doubt can also have an ugly side, in that sometimes before one can get to a point of growth and inner development they have to first travel through hell. This can cause a person to experience marked psychological distress and, if severe enough, can even lead to diagnosable psychological disorders related to anxiety and depression.
Religious doubt can be defined as, "... a feeling of uncertainty toward, and a questioning of, religious teachings and beliefs" (cited in Krause & Wulff, 2004, p. 2). Religious doubt really just means that a person is not particularly sure of his/her beliefs, not 100% confident in their particular version of the 'truth'.
It was Thomas Paine, in his Age of Reason, who said, "… it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe" (Paine, 1795, Part I, Ch I, para. 9). A person may be able to fool others and to outwardly express certain beliefs, but a person can not fool themselves for long, without causing the sort of internal wrangling that can lead to psychological distress.
Probably one of the earliest and most famous doubters in recorded history was Socrates. His infamous proclamation, that the only thing that he knew for sure was that he in fact knew nothing, along with the added charge that he was corrupting the youth, was ultimately what got him killed. He did not doubt the existence of God, believing very much in God and the immortality of the soul.. What he doubted was the claim that any man, in himself, knew anything and was therefore wise. In "The Apology", one of Plato's Dialogues, Socrates says that,
"Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is - for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him (Plato, para. 7)
Religious doubt can actually lead ultimately to Atheism and/or Agnosticism. Atheism means "the lack of belief in God or gods. Atheists tend to subscribe to either strong atheism, the belief that God, or gods, do not exist, or so-called weak atheism, the lack of belief in a supreme being" (D'Andrea, 2007, p.4).
Agnosticism on the other hand, as originally exemplified by such people as Socrates, and later Huxley, is merely the notion that humanity is incapable of certain knowledge about metaphysical questions and that therefore the only honest answer to the question of whether or not there is a God, is to say that one does not know. As T.H. Huxley (1907) says, in his "Aphorisms and Reflections",
"In matters of the intellect follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration... and do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him"( #142).
It is not though just the unbelievers who experience doubt. As was noted earlier, doubt is a universal phenomenon. Even such famous devout Catholics as Mother Teresa have had, "fundamental difficulties with faith" (King, 2007, p. 1). As Thomas King goes on to show, unbelievers struggle with their unbelief as well. "The atheist Jean-Paul Sartre also struggled—to believe there is no God" (King, 2007, P.1).
The phenomenon of religious doubt can cause mental and emotional stress on a person, and it is this stress which can lead to such psychological disorders as depression and anxiety. It is incumbent upon psychologists and other mental health professionals to be aware of these issues, so that they will be better equipped to both understand their clients cognitive processes and to be able to develop a coherent treatment plan that is both ethical and respectful of the dignity of each human being's search for whatever meaning and truth they are able to find in the world.
There is considerable disagreement within the literature about whether religion has a positive or a negative effect on psychopathology. Most of the studies that have been done have shown a positive correlation between those who are religious and their psychological health. However, there are also numerous studies to show that religion can have a deleterious affect on psychopathology.
Steger and Frazier (2005) say that, "The emerging consensus is that the link between religion and wellbeing is consistent and positive and that the next step is to establish why that link exists" (p.1). They go on to postulate that one of the reasons can be provided by the notion that religion provides it's adherents with meaning in their lives (Steger & Frazier, 2005, p.1).
While religion is generally regarded as conducive to mental health, the opposite can also be the case. As a matter of fact, before delving too deeply into the methodology of their research, Steger & Frazier (2005) say that, "We focused on college undergraduates because it is important that counselors working with college students recognize religion as both a resource and potential source of students' presenting complaints. In fact, almost one quarter of a large undergraduate sample reported considerable distress related to religious and spiritual concerns" (p.2).
The prevailing consensus about the effects of religion on psychopathology has gone back and forth over the years. According to Loren Marks (2006), for most of the past 150 years, most social scientists shied away from these types of questions, although there were a very vocal few who didn't (p.1). Karl Marx was the one who famously quipped that religion was the opium of the masses. It was Nietzsche who said that God was dead. "Albert Ellis referred to religion as a form of psychopathology and, in his early work, Freud categorically defined religion as the universal obsessional neurosis. In fact, Freud once called religion an "intoxicant," a "poison," and "childishness to be overcome" (Marks, 2006, p.1). There has been a considerable body of research since Freud and Marx, though, to show a positive correlation between religiousness and mental health, culminating in one of the changes from the DSM-III, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, of the 1990's, to the present DSM-IV, being the removal of several "malignant references to religiosity and religious belief (Marks, 2006, p.1).
Previous to the modern era there were many social scientists who saw religion as a liability rather than an asset, William James, who wrote "Varieties of Religious Experience", being one notable exception, who saw religion as a way to human excellence (Wulff, 1996, p. 43). Another notable exception was Carl Jung, ironically one of Freud's protégé's, who saw religion as a way to wholeness. James Leuba categorized religion as irrationality and pathology. BF Skinner saw religion as reinforced behavior. George Vetter said religion was a response to unpredictable situations and Freud saw religion as infantile wish fulfillment (Wulff, 1996, p. 43).
There is now a large group of psychologists who take the middle ground that religion can have both negative and positive effects on mental health (Schumaker, 1992, p. 4). Schumaker quotes one such study which concluded that, "religion has the potential to be a 'therapy' but that religion itself can 'sponsor the expression of psychological abnormality'" (p. 4).
One of the areas that can cause considerable problems is in the area of religious doubt. If those who are religious experience better mental health, then it stands to reason that when a person begins to have religious doubts, that mental health issues can arise, depression being just one of them.
One way in which in this can obviously be the case references what was said before about religion providing meaning in life (Steger & Frazier, 2005, p.1). If a person begins to have major doubts about their religion and/or about the existence of God himself, that person can start to feel as if their life in fact has no meaning or purpose. This can actually be quite debilitating for some.
William E. Cross, Jr. (2001) tells about some of the things that have shaped his worldview. He says, "The other 'frame' that eventually guided my observations on change was a religious de-conversion I experienced in college. Entering DU, I was profoundly, if not obsessively religious, but in trying to make sense of American slavery and the 'meaning' of the destruction of the Jews during WWII, I intellectually concluded, in accord with existential philosophy, that there was no God, religion was an illusion, and all belief systems were social inventions…The discovery that God was dead caused a hailstorm in my soul. I briefly became suicidal in the face of life's meaninglessness, and in pulling myself together, I systematically crushed any inclination toward 'belief' and religion" (p. 32).
This corresponds quite nicely with the Humanitarian theoretical perspective of abnormal psychology that says that people have an inherent need to strive for self-fulfillment and meaning in life (Halgin & Whitbourne, 2008, p.111). It was Maslow who developed the notion of self actualization, "the maximum realization of the individual's potential for psychological growth" (p.112). Meaning and purpose in one's life would seem to be a requirement for obtaining self actualization. When one begins to have serious issues with their faith, and when they begin to lose that sense of meaning and purpose, they are not self actualized persons and accordingly can experience depression, among other things.
Another way in which people having religious doubts can present with the signs of psychopathology, is related to the sociocultural perspective, which "emphasizes the ways in which individuals are influenced by people, social institutions, and social forces in the world around them (Halgin & Whitbourne, 2008, p. 114). Within the sociocultural perspective is the family perspective, which "sees abnormality as caused by disturbances in the patterns of interactions and relationships that exist within the family" (p. 114). If a person comes from a particularly religious family, and then subsequently begins to have a crisis of faith, then obviously there are going to be issues within the family. The family may be worried for the destiny of their loved one's soul or the family may try to make them feel guilty by telling them that this was not how they were raised, that they were raised to know better. "You used to believe, what happened?" the family may wonder aloud. This definitely has the potential for detrimental effects on one's psychological well being and can lead one into depression.
Not only is it just a good idea for psychologists to become aware of these issues, it is actually an ethical obligation to "obtain competency in religious and spiritual diversity" (Richards & Bergin, 2000, p.5). No discussion of religious diversity could or should be complete without at least touching on those without religious belief or those having a crisis of faith. As Amy L. Reynolds (2001) says, "I believe multiculturalism is about creating a new world where all people BECAUSE of who they are (as differentiated from regardless of who they are) are welcomed, appreciated, and celebrated…. We must transform our world view in order to move beyond our very real human and spiritual limitations" (p. 104).
As regards professional ethics, the volume Ethics in Psychology says that, "Therapists unfamiliar with the social, economic, and cultural pressures confronting women, minority groups, and the poor may fail to recognize the contribution of such stresses in creating or exacerbating psychological problems… neglecting to consider the external forces that help to shape the client's behavior. The counseling of clients of culturally diverse backgrounds by psychologists who are not trained to work with such groups has been cited as unethical" (Koocher & Spiegel, 1998, p. 81). Indeed, the APA guidelines do state that "Psychologists respect clients' religious beliefs and values…since they affect world view, psychosocial functioning, and expressions of distress" (APA, 2001, p. 612).
Many times, the cognitive dissonance created by religious doubt can be severe enough to cause all kinds of psychological distress, including anxiety and depression. It would be prudent and indeed even ethical for psychologists and other mental health professionals to educate themselves on not only the multicultural aspects of different religions, but also on how multiculturalism applies to those who either have no religion or who are wrestling with their religion. This will aid in not only their own development but will also help them to be better able to create and administer a treatment plan for all of the clients that they may come across in their practice. Along with this, there is a need for much more research to be done in the area of depression and other psychopathologies experienced by those who are either wrestling with their faith or who have lost all faith.
"Clinical literature on multiculturalism in psychology tends to focus almost exclusively on ethnicity…ignoring many minority populations facing special cultural issues and related needs, for example religious minorities" (Koocher & Spiegel, 1998, p.84). Atheists, Agnostics, Secular Humanists, Free-thinkers, and the non-religious all make up a large part of this religious minority. It is incumbent upon psychotherapists and other counselors in the field, to educate themselves on all the different client backgrounds that they may encounter.
All of this is very important as regards multicultural counseling. One may not think of this in these terms, and indeed, much of the literature does not either. Whole books devoted to religion and psychopathology fail to make even one mention of the needs of those experiencing a crisis of faith, or those who may be Atheist or Agnostic. This is a bias that even well respected psychologists can fail to see in themselves. They can talk about diversity and the need for learning how to counsel those of diverse faiths, but then they talk of God or a creator as if everyone shares this belief. It is almost as if they are totally unaware that Atheists even exist, or if they are aware, then it is as if they do not see it in terms of multiculturalism.
"The lack of behavioral science research about members of specific religions and spiritual traditions is a glaring deficiency in the field (Richards & Bergin, 2000, p. 487). There is also an even bigger deficiency in the field, it seems, as regards research related to those without religious beliefs, or those who are experiencing a crisis of faith. To have a greater understanding of these issues within the psychology field would be "a major step forward in the quest to promote healing and mental health for all sectors of the human family" (Richards & Bergin, 2000, p. 487).
"Religious diversity is a cultural fact, and most mental health professionals will encounter it in their practice" (Richards & Bergin, 2000, p. 5). Richards and Bergin (2000) go on to state that psychotherapists "have an ethical obligation to obtain competency in religious and spiritual diversity" (p.5). For some reason though, these same sources don't seem to be able to see Atheists and those experiencing religious doubt as falling underneath the same umbrella terms of diversity and multiculturalism.
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