Demons and Heathens: Mental Health is an Atheist Issue

During spring quarter, which happened to also be the final quarter of my program, I took a class called Sects, Cults, and New Religious Movements. As with most of the classes in my Methodist seminary, we didn’t really spend much time on the non-Christian point of view, even though a pretty sizable percentage of cults and new religious movements are non-Christian. Instead — as was typical for at least 80% of the courses I took in graduate school — we spent time talking about how uncomfortable the Christian students are made to feel by non-mainstream Christian beliefs, non-Christian beliefs, and (non)believers themselves. There was a lot of…how should I put this? Well-meaning liberal Christians feeling the crap out of their feelings. (The one evangelical Christian in the class was my buddy, but that’s a different post about how sometimes an honest enemy is the best friend you can have.)

I’ll be honest, it was boring. Until it was infuriating.

One day, a student got up on his little soapbox to talk about his time interning as a hospital chaplain. Both the internship and the soapbox are extremely common experiences in seminary; it wasn’t at all surprising that this man — let’s call him Gus — had worked in a clinical setting and wanted to preach about it. It was a little bit unusual for Gus to discuss working with psychiatric patients, though. Seminarians share the biases of the wider culture, and in general, we’re all terrified of talking about mental illnesses.

Gus, as it happens, had a different point of view. He had been counseling a patient who was being treated for, in his words, demon possession. It was her third hospitalization and medical science was obviously not helping because it was not treating the underlying spiritual cause. According to Gus, this patient believed (and he agreed) that there was no point in continuing hospitalization when the needed treatment involved getting right with God. Brimming with righteous anger, Gus told the class that the doctors ignored him or laughed at him when he brought the need for an exorcism to their attention.

In the discussion which ensued, I learned that perhaps only 25% of our classmates believed in demons; probably fewer believe in actual possession. But it turns out that they all fervently believed in spiritually-integrated care that addressed the possibility, however remote it was seen to be, of demonic possession. Mainline Christian conclusion: Doctors have no business telling a patient with psychosis that the symptom can be treated with biomedical interventions if the patient would rather go to a priest or a faith-healer.

My contribution to this discussion was sadly limited by my classmates’ general disagreement with the facts I tried to offer, such as the correct medical definition of psychosis or the fact that types of religious preoccupation can very often be manifestations of an underlying disorder (which is not to say that having religion is a mental illness; it isn’t, and atheists need to stop saying it is). My experiences as a mental health advocate were voted down in the low democracy of the graduate classroom.

Looking back, I regret not taking a more aggressive stance. My diplomacy got us exactly nowhere. I should have said: Demons are fiction. Your mental illness is no more caused by demons than it is caused by a tiny troll living in your stomach.

I don’t have a romanticized view of medical science, and I certainly have no illusions about involuntary hospitalization, which is the least effective way to combat a mental illness. Involuntary treatment is and should be the treatment of last resort, and only should be used in cases where there is obvious risk to the self or to others. The fact that patients with mental health conditions are trapped in the jaws of a medicolegal system wherein psychiatric advance directives — one of the few ways to anticipate how one will be treated in the case of involuntary hospitalization — are abrogated at the whim of the clinician is nothing short of a crisis. Defensive medicine is not helping anybody, and neither is the 17 year lag it takes for new research in mental health to make its way into medical practice. In short, we’re talking about a very serious, very complicated problem.

But…let’s talk about adding demons to this mix. We’ve spent the last 300 years trying to get demons out of medicine. Evidently we haven’t had much success with the church-going rank-and-file, but, thank the God I don’t believe in, we’ve had better luck with the doctors. We know we’ve had better luck with the doctors because, as just one example, an anticonvulsant is the first treatment for epilepsy (or, if you live in a civilized place, you can try MMJ), and skull trephination to let the demon out is not.

To say that we — as graduate students, as doctors, as religious leaders, or whoever — should treat mental illness as though it is spiritually different from other bodily maladies is, to say the least, infantilizing. To say the most, it is criminally irresponsible and will lead to unnecessary human suffering. In extreme cases, you will continue to see children killed by their parents by either neglect or by smothering/stabbing/beating to eradicate the “demon.” Those of us who know that demons aren’t real have no business tolerating this belief, damn that it’s “sincerely held.”

Because I realize that demons aren’t real isn’t the argument that will carry the day with mainline Christians, let me make the Christian argument as well: Jesus of Nazareth came so that you may have abundant life. People who are suffering are not living abundantly. People who claim that their suffering is in the service of Jesus are misinterpreting the Gospels they hold so dear.

An Atheist Looks at Systematic Theology

What is Systematic Theology?

Systematic theology is exactly what it sounds like — a system for studying theology. There aren’t many world religions where the holy book or revealed word or whatever comes in neatly organized volumes (although I’d appreciate the pitch, “If you buy all five angelic volumes, you’ll be the proud owner of a year’s supply of Turtle Wax!” because then you’d be getting something out of it). I mean, I’ve studied the book of Ezekiel and I still think it’s describing the floor plan of a sacred delicatessen. Clearly all the relevant content is in other books, hence the need for a system.

Look, you sign up for a program in a seminary, you have to get to know the lingo. I’ve accepted that. I’ve also decided that some of it is useful. Here are some of the areas commonly included in a study of systematic theology, and what I think we can do with them.

Christology

Christology is also just what it sounds like — the study of the nature and person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus was rad. He hung out with all the worst people, helped ’em out, and didn’t hate. Whether or not he was real is a good historical topic. Whether or not he was divine is a different topic altogether, and one that has caused Christian churches to schism more than once in the past two thousand years. Obviously, atheists are in good company (or at least plenty of company) when we doubt this man’s divinity.

Potential for Social Change: Jesus said, “I want you to live abundantly.” (That’s my paraphrase of John 10:10.) That is great advice! Abundant life is NOW, not in a future kingdom, not in an afterlife, not after you have gambled on salvation only to discover that salvation is only in this life. I for one want to have life abundant. I want to provide other people with life abundant. I wish that Trayvon Martin or Troy Davis could have had a chance at life abundant, and I hope you wish the same.

Eschatology

The final events of history — or at least, human history — constitute the topic of eschatology. It is an absolute HOOT that the can’t-wait-for-the-Rapture Christians think they have the market cornered on eschatology. There are plenty of humanist narratives of destruction. Nuclear winter. Global warming. Genocide. We know what to be afraid of. There are also narratives about the real end of time, such as the predicted heat death of the Universe.

“Judgment” is usually wrapped up in eschatology. Ugh, judgment. Judgment appears in the de-conversion stories of many, many atheists. Lots of us had a day when we decided that we haven’t done anything deserving of divine judgment.

Potential for Social Change: I already alluded to it, but let me say it again: Nukes, greenhouse effect, genocide. The world ends every day, for someone. If you’re willing to sit back and accept that, you’re a pathetic excuse for a human being.

Hamartiology

Hamartiology is the study of sin. For Christians, this involves a lot of talk about “original sin” and other nonsense like that. Christian sin is like a weird combination of an STI (transmitted through sex, obviously) and a Ponzi scheme (invest, or be damned!).

Potential for Social Change: Listen, sin is real. 1.) Sin is a metaphor. 2.) Metaphors are structures in our brain. 3.) Our understanding of “sin” is embodied. We can’t intellectualize our way out of this by saying that sin is just an offense against a deity.

Of course sin is not an offense against a deity. There are no deities. Sin is an offense against just relationships between human beings. When people die in the Sonoran Desert because of Operation Gatekeeper, that is sin. When children are deported and sent back to violence, that is sin. When people languish on death row or are slowly tortured to death on a gurney, that is sin. When teens are cast out of their families because they’ve come out as queer, THAT IS SIN.

I am an atheist, and I have no desire to stop talking about sin. If anything, we should talk about sin much, much more.

Pneumatology

Pneumatology is the study of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit (who used to be a Ghost). As an atheist, I find pneumatology to be one of the most frustrating theological subjects. The triune-god doesn’t even make sense to many Christians, so how can you expect it to make sense to atheists? Three can’t be one, because three is three. Three is one and one and one, not just one.

There isn’t supposed to be a hierarchy, and yet, unless your Christian church is Pentecostal, the Holy Spirit is basically ignored, trailing a distant third behind Father and Son.

Potential for Social Change: If we can bring the Holy Spirit back into the Trinity as equal-to and of the same Stuff as Father and Son, we could seriously think about what that equality signifies for human society.

Soteriology 

Soteriology is the study of doctrines of salvation.

Potential for Social Change: I have nothing to add here. I don’t need to be saved from anything. Your princess is in another castle.

Theodicy

Theodicy, or the problem of evil, asks why an omnipotent, omnipresent, all-loving God would let bad things happen. Atheists cut this Gordian knot right down the middle.

Potential for Social Change: I have no trouble admitting that certainly people and acts can be characterized as evil, and I have no trouble admitting that this is a problem. What I see missing from philosophical texts on the problem of evil is a serious consideration of the problems of sexual violence and gender-based violence. I think theodicy looks very different when you prioritize women and gender-variant people.