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.

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On “Constructs” and Liberal Orthodoxy

One of the most annoying things about being an undergraduate was dealing with students who hadn’t been introduced to the idea that everything we deal with on a daily basis is a construct (gender identity, language, religion, take your pick).

One of the most annoying things about being a graduate student is dealing with students who have so embraced the idea of constructs that they use it to dismiss any point they don’t like. “Oh, ‘science.’ You know that ‘scientific facts’ are just a ‘construct,’ right?”

Of course it’s a construct, my dear. It’s constructs all the way down. (The picture of turtles all the way down, by the way, was pulled off of an NYTimes blog link that didn’t properly credit it, so I can’t properly credit it, either. If I find out who it belongs to, I promise to update this post with that information.)

Here are some of the constructs that never get called constructs because they conform to liberal orthodoxies:

1.) “Native American people are oppressed.” Well, yes. They are. But what exactly do you mean by “Native American people?” Are you talking about all peoples who were indigenous to the Americas, or just the peoples brutalized by the US government in particular? I’ve found that it’s usually the second of the two. Are you including people who were indigenous to Hawaii, which isn’t part of the Americas even though it’s part of the United States? Are you talking about people who have a stereotypical “Native American” appearance (whatever that might be in their part of the country) and are oppressed because of this, or are you talking about Native Americans who have so thoroughly assimilated that the oppression they face has more to do with how we specifically deny their connection to a cultural identity? How much of a lineage does a person need in order to claim Native American heritage, and why exactly is question offensive when an outsider asks it, even though tribal councils have set quotas?

Don’t get me wrong; I understand that, since I have white privilege, these questions, and the final question in particular, are not for me to ask of an indigenous person and never for me to answer. I’m presenting these elements to illustrate the failures of one of the constructs of liberal orthodoxy, not to attack or belittle a vast collection of peoples with whom I have had very little interaction.

I wouldn’t dare say any of this at school. I’d be eaten alive. This is one of the most beloved constructs out there.

2.) “The Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian Territories is wrong.” Well, yes. It is. But what do you mean by “Israeli?” What do you mean by “Occupation?” What do you mean by “Palestinian?” What do you mean by “wrong?”

Constructs, constructs, constructs, constructs. All the way down.

(Do you want to know why I say it is wrong? I have a very simple approach to Israel/Palestine, which I freely admit is my own construct: I’m on the side of whoever is dying. Not their nation’s side — their side. The people I feel solidarity for are the dead and the soon-to-be dead, because I absolutely do not want to die, and I have no reason to believe they feel otherwise.)

If I were to say this at school, I would almost certainly be assured that the Prince of Peace is on the side of the Palestinians, and I almost just as surely be eaten alive (once again) when I’d reply, “Who the [bleep] is the Prince of Peace?”

3.) “Science is a Western, Eurocentric paradigm. There are other ways of knowing.” Well, yes. Those things are both relatively true. A lot of science has been a project of Eurocentricism, and I know that I love my husband without needing the MRI to prove it.

But here’s the catch: “Western, Eurocentric” really just means exclusive. It doesn’t mean wrong. It doesn’t even mean bad. It means that other boundaries, outside of the project of science itself, have limited some people’s ability to access knowledge, resources, and positions of authority. It means that the image of a “scientist” is still almost exclusively male, because that’s what a “Western, Eurocentric” version of the human is gendered as. Those things are no good. The social structures around science totally suck…just like the social structures around religion, government, business, and every other aspect of the human project.

So what you are doing here, my well-meaning liberal friends, is to reify a vast and complex process known as “science” as a neat little “construct” which you are choosing to feel oppressed by, without considered that “ways of knowing” is equally constructed and equally exclusive.

They’re batty, all of them. Totally batty.

Fish in a Barrel? Nah…

I haven’t been posting much this quarter because I’m a kind and generous person. No, really.

You see, most of my interactions with my classmates this quarter have been over our school’s Canvas message boards. When people post on the boards, I have access to their comments for my entire graduate school career, unless they wise up, go back, and delete the comments.

This thorough documentation and permanent archive makes fisking just too damn easy. It isn’t even like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s like shooting a barrel that happens to already be full of dead fish.

However, now that we’re starting Week 8, the overall situation has gotten to be so ridiculous that I’ve stopped wanting to be a kind and generous person. Instead, I want to go back to being a science teacher so that I can help them understand the basics they’ve gotten wrong.

And then I want to use those to decimate my classmates’ theologies.

So, upcoming: A few posts about common mistakes seminary students make about science, and the real-world consequences thereof. Stay tuned.

Funny* Things People Say to Me

*Funny in the sense of mildly disturbing, not hilarious.

1.) From a classmate in Theological Anthropology: “The promise of Christianity is that if you stop sinning, you’ll become immortal!” I thought that the promise of Christianity was that if you confessed your sins and asked for forgiveness, God would sacrifice someone else.

2.) From a classmate in Intro to the Hebrew Bible: “Hagar got uppity.” Really, dude? You want to interpret Genesis 16, where Sarah whores out her Egyptian slave, Hagar, with the word uppity? Are you out of your goddamn mind?

3.) From a classmate in Ethical Perspectives on War and Peace: “I can keep secrets, so Edward Snowden should have been able to as well.” Lady, if the secrets you are keeping are about the end of meaningful forms of freedom, spill ’em, please.

Heard Today…

…from graduate students:

  • 9/11 was an inside job
  • The moon landing was faked
  • Morality is “moral on the quantum level”

This was all from one class, “Conflict & Religious Peacebuilding.”

Update (11:19 PM):

Having had a decent nap, I can now stand to blog about what these three conversations were like.

These are not remarkable examples of fuzzy thinking — not in and of themselves, anyway. These are common. These are easily debunked. Give me a discussion of the Historical Jesus any day. I just wasn’t braced to have all of these things thrown at me when I went to a class in peacebuilding. In some ways, though, it was a relief to show that being a “skeptic” doesn’t mean I’m skeptical about all of The Official Stories. Just skeptical that your god rose from the dead, really.

In a philosophical discussion of “truth,” I was advocating for small-t truth; there are things that are true in the world. I respect that people feel that they have their own capital-T truths, because I have those as well, although mine are derived from reason, evidence, and empathy instead of a Bronze Age text. I was directly asked how I would recognize small-t truth when I saw it, and I gave what I felt was a standard answer about externally verifiable evidence and testable, repeatable proof.

“Well, what about 9/11?”

Me: “What about it?”

“There are all these experts who say that the towers had to be demolished from the inside. They can give you externally verifiable evidence. Why are you ignoring them?”

At this juncture, I wish I had pointed out that, even if the conspiracy theorists were right that 9/11 was an inside job, different “truths/Truths” would still be mutually exclusive in that the preponderance of evidence can only support one conclusion, or else it wouldn’t be a preponderance. I ended up defining “preponderance” instead. I did not avoid the fight that resulted from pointing out that citing “experts” without citing their research is an appeal-to-authority fallacy.

From a second and third student:

“I have my doubts about the moon landing.”

Me: “Why?”

“Well, it looks so fake.”

Me: “Fake compared to what? What do you imagine that authentic pictures from the moon would look like?”

*crickets*

I did not get to point out that you can look through a telescope here on Earth and find the lunar lander on the moon’s surface.

And from the first student, once the question of the moral relevance of truth came up:

“What if things are moral on the quantum level?”

Me (assuming that this is a joke): “Let’s just assume that all of my statements about morality don’t apply at the subatomic level.”

“Well, I don’t think that’s true at all!”

Me: “…what?”

I’ve been mulling this over, and I’ve decided that defending compatibilism would have been the wrong action to take at this juncture; for starters, I bet I would have had to define “determinism” and contest whether or not our universe is deterministic at the quantum level. Clearly this student was coming at word “quantum” from a nonsensical, Deepak Chopra-like point of view, where “thoughts are quantum events!” (Deepak, everything is a quantum event.)

Here’s the thing about me ‘n’ morality: I’m a social constructivist all the way down. Yes, I’m engaging in moral relativism, in that it is descriptive moral relativism. People with different life experiences (we don’t even have to consider different ages or cultures for this to be true) can legitimately conclude that different actions are moral. Developing and exercising your moral compass is a life-long project; immorality is then, by definition, the abdication of that project — the abdication of reason, evidence, and empathy. Claiming that ours is a deterministic universe at the quantum level and that therefore morality is a valid inquiry to make of reality at the quantum level is just a pretentious way of abandoning your responsibility to exercise judgment. (Nota bene, I’m on board with Hannah Arendt’s view that thinking and exercising judgment are essential components of what it means to be human — not moral or immoral, but human.)

This are the absurd things I heard just from students. The absurd thing I heard from the instructor is a different post…

Anti-Vaxxer Sighting

(See the Anti-Vaccine Body Count for some insight into my staunch pro-vaccine stance.)

Fellow student: “Thank goodness that in Colorado you can turn down vaccinations as a personal choice, and not just because you are part of an organization with overarching by-laws!”

 

The best reason to get vaccinated — now and always — is because there are people with legitimate health problems who cannot be vaccinated and need herd immunity. Help provide it, please.