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William Hamblin and Daniel Peterson: Is religious faith a disease to be cured?

Professor Sigmund Freud, 82-years-old Jewish “inventor” of psycho-analysis, arrives at Victoria station in London on June 6, 1938 from Paris.
Eddie Worth, AP Photo

Many of the most prominent formative figures in the psychoanalytic movement have been vocally anti-religious. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Albert Ellis (1913-2007), for example, regarded religious belief as an illness, a threat to the mental and even physical health of humankind that should ideally disappear.

In his 1907 book on “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices,” Freud identified repetitive rituals as the essence of religion. On the basis of that rather odd claim, he described the compulsive behavior commonly associated with neurosis as “an individual religiosity” and then, by logical extension, identified religion itself as a “universal obsessional neurosis.”

“Religiosity,” Ellis asserted, “is in many ways equivalent to irrational thinking and emotional disturbance.” “The elegant therapeutic solution to emotional problems,” he declared, “is to be quite unreligious.” “The less religious they are,” he said, “the more emotionally healthy they will be.”

These anti-religious positions have not held up especially well. A more or less random selection of very recent articles in the prestigious international Journal of Religion and Health, which was founded in New York City in 1961, will illustrate that fact:

• In “Religion, Spirituality and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Matched Case-Control Study and Meta-Analysis,” for instance, a large team of researchers based at Duke and Oxford universities as well as at academic institutions in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia examine the association between Islamic religion and spirituality, on the one hand, and coronary heart disease, on the other. They find that increased levels of religious involvement and spirituality are associated with significantly decreased risk of coronary heart disease.

• In “Christian Spirituality and Smartphone Addiction in Adolescents: A Comparison of High-Risk, Potential-Risk, and Normal Control Groups,” a paper based on the doctoral dissertation she submitted to Chongshin University in Korea, Jung Yeon Shim argues that, at least in her sampling, the adolescents at highest risk for smartphone addiction showed unusually low levels of spiritual well-being and held a less than normally positive image of God. Conversely, teenagers who rated as spiritually “well” and who had a positive image of God were at less risk for such addiction.

• In her “Celebrating Sabbath as a Holistic Health Practice: The Transformative Power of a Sanctuary in Time,” Barbara Baker Speedling, a health care worker in Minneapolis who studied a small group of women in her area, contends that “Sabbath-keeping enhanced self-awareness, improved self-care, enriched relationships, developed spirituality (and) positively affected the rest of a Sabbath-keeper’s week.” She also argues that “reviving the best parts of Sabbath-keeping is an effective, accessible, holistic practice that can contribute to the well-being of individuals (and) communities.”

• Four authors affiliated with the University of Oklahoma and with Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, report, in “Associations Between Depressive Symptoms and Religiosity in Young Adults,” on their survey of nearly 800 students at universities in the American Southwest. Their results, they say, “showed a significant inverse association” of young adult depressive symptoms “with levels of organizational religious activities, levels of non-organizational religious activities, and intrinsic religiosity.” In other words, “Overall, religiosity beliefs and practices appeared to be associated with fewer depressive symptoms.” Therefore, they suggest, “Inclusion of religious/spirituality-oriented strategies may be important for mental health interventions in emerging adulthood.”

The four articles that we’ve cited above come from just the most recent (August 2019) issue of the Journal of Religion and Health. We have space here to briefly cite only three articles from the previous issue, which appeared in November 2018:

• In “Religious Attendance, Healthy Lifestyles and Perceived Health: A Comparison of Baby Boomers with the Silent Generation,” Anyuan Shen of the State University of New York argues that the fact that aging baby boomers are more vulnerable to mental and physical health problems than their parents’ generation “may be partially attributed to lower religious attendance in the baby boom generation.”

• Two medical researchers based at Iranian universities claim, in “The Assessment Effect of Spiritual Care on Hopelessness and Depression in Suicide Attempts,” to have found evidence that what they call “spiritual care” makes “a significant difference” in rates of depression among suicidal people.

• Several prior studies have suggested that religious involvement, including attendance at religious services, is associated with healthier biological functioning in later life. “Religious Attendance and Biological Risk: A National Longitudinal Study of Older Adults,” written by researchers at Duke and the University of Arizona, extends and confirms those earlier studies.

Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.