Does religion help cure insanity?

by Ritalin1 min read27th Mar 201413 comments


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I get papers cited at me, (the first is about "religion and spirituality", the rest about specific meditation disciplines) about but I can't tell whether they're well-done or not. I believe LessWrong is the ideal place to ask about this because there's a healthy combination of interest for self-improvement techniques and solid skepticism against quackery. I thought it would be a solid enough topic to merit its own thread rather than a discussion in Open Thread.


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Three of your four papers are about meditation. Is that really what you're asking about?

[-][anonymous]7y 7

An analogy: you are told that a medicine has been shown effective in treating mental illness. You learn the medicine goes by many names. Then you learn the medicine can include any ingredient, is delivered in any means conceivable, in any dose. As long as the medicine is called one of its brand names, everything counts as that medicine. Your confidence in that medicine might guide your confidence in religion being effective in treating mental illness. What is religion? Whatever somebody says it is, especially if they are sincere or violent. What is spirituality? A quiet claim that whatever religion might be, it is bad for geese but good for ganders.

Medicines that work that way do exist in reality.

I'm not sure if I'm arguing with you, or summarizing you.

That's a cool post, I up-voted and everything, but could you, like, summarize it more prosaically? I'm not sure I parsed it just right.

What exactly do you mean with "insanity"? Do you mean schizophrenia?

Good question. The first article allegedly argues for the merits of religion/spirituality) in psychotherapy, but it doesn't seem to say anything about any specific illness (or religion, for that matter). The research it cites is, I find, weak and inconclusive, and its conclusions are so tentative as to be utterly worthless. It's proving to be a very frustrating read.

The articles about meditative practice cite depression specifically, among others, though.

I'm confounded by this stuff (i.e. religion's value in treating psychological problems) when it is used as an argument in favor of religion.

Charismatic Evangelical churches teach people that the creator or the universe is madly in love with them. It tells them they have a unique and special purpose. It tells them they are no longer accountable for their previous mistakes and misdeeds because God provided a means for them to be forgiven and be cleansed "white as snow". It tells them "perfect justice" will be doled out by their perfect "heavenly father" so that all their enemies will be punsihed and they will reap rewards including a mansion in eternal paradise where there is no pain or hunger or sickness or anxiety or depression.

If you can people to believe this stuff—that God is on their side provided they meet a few simple criteria—then they are going to be markedly happier. I'd also posit it could help many with specific depressive and anxious tendencies—the type that lead to many psychological diagnoses of "mental illnes".

So, yes. Obviously "religion" can help. It can be very pyschologically sustaining. So can lots of falsehoods.

In the same way methadone helps heroin addicts I would expect.

Can you elaborate?

... takes up the insanity receptors with something relatively benign?

Hi Ritalin (and everyone else as this is my first response).

My own personal opinion on this would be that your are grouping a person with "x" type insanity with a group of people that suffer from a mass version of "y" type insanity. My apologies if I offend here, but religion in particular, if it were performed by one person, would be considered insane. We only view it as not insane because so many people do it. So what is happening here is you are putting someone that is already suffering from some type of insanity into a room of people speaking with an invisible person somewhere while dancing around, eating, socializing, and generally bonding to that group. Also consider that religious groups will accept most anyone to their flocks, as it allows them to increase their size. So now, even this person with his/her insanities is accepted amongst the group as a brother or sister. Not trying to traverse over much, but I think it would follow that the person would more than likely show some progress. Although, you have to wonder if that type of progress is necessarily a good type of progress.

I'm not sure about the usefulness of grouping the kind of vague spirituality and religion mentioned in the first paper with the discussions of meditation in the other papers. As the last paper argues, I also would think it would be worthwhile to distinguish different forms of meditation. My general understanding of the state of the literature was that studies of the benefits of "spirituality and religion" were all over the place (it being an incredibly vague category). I also was under the impression that there have been a lot of studies of meditation specifically, and that it was common for them to find substantial benefits, but that there remained controversy over why, over whether some methods were better than others, and over whether meditation was superior to relaxation exercises. I'm certainly interested in all of that research on meditation myself, but it seems to me to be in a different category from other kinds of "spirituality and religion" research.

Religion can change your outlook on life, and give you a social support group. Falsely joining a religion might increase your sense of guilt and stress from maintaining your cover, so it might have different effects on your health.

Although many religions include meditation, meditation is not an inherently religious activity. IMO including meditation benefits under religious benefits is similar to claiming that a religion that involves wild dancing rituals, helps you lose weight via religion.