Academics Increasingly See Christianity as a Sickness to be ‘Treated’

By William M Briggs Published on October 23, 2015

There is a trend in academia to seek materialistic explanations of religion, particularly Christianity. The efforts assume that belief in God and the desire to worship God are groundless. It follows that acts oriented toward the supernatural are in error, may lead to harm and must be rooted out.

There are “God centers” in the brain, some say. These centers can be “treated” with magnets, claim others. Religion is “child abuse” is another common trope. Lack of education, sheer mental incapacity and, as we shall see, indoctrination are put forward as plausible explanations for why many still “cling” to religion. Some researchers even suggest rancid smells drive people towards traditionalist principles.

Such explanations are becoming more and more public, with researchers asking us to assume that religion based on a transcendent reality is a pathology or a malady that requires treatment.

Take this typical example from Salon in the recent article, “The sad, twisted truth about conservative Christianity’s effect on the mind,” by Marlene Winell and Valerie Tarico, who assert that Bible-based Christianity is “toxic.”

Now some interpretations of Christianity, or of any religion, are, as Winell and Tarico say, “toxic.” Real and lasting harm is done to people by perversions to religion, including Christianity. About the examples Winell and Tarico give of the unfortunates forced or drawn into these gruesome sects, we are entirely sympathetic.

But Winell and Tarico do a poor job discriminating between the good and the bad on the landscape of religious practice, and make no effort to understand the subject they study. They ignore the two-thousand years of intellectual, theological and noble cultural achievements of orthodox Christianity. Consequently, their view is stunted and their research suffers accordingly.

For instance, they say, “The purveyors of religion insist that their product is so powerful it can transform a life, but somehow, magically, it has no risks.” Only someone blissfully ignorant of Christianity could say that. Have they not heard of martyrs? Far from promising an earthly paradise, Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily.”

Winell and Tarico also insist it is a “requirement for success as a sincere Christian” “to find a way to believe that which [sic] would be unbelievable under normal rules of evidence and inquiry.” The authors thereby declare that believing in Christ is irrational, that Christians consider it a virtue to believe in this way. That Winell and Tarico are describing extreme fideism, a very minority view in the Christian tradition, is apparently of no concern to them.

The authors make a place for religion, but only religion drained of the transcendent. They deride “variants of Christianity” that are “literal,” have “a view that humans need salvation, and a focus on the spiritual world as superior to the natural world.” But the authors applaud sects that have thrown off all this superstitious stuff, namely “liberal, progressive Christian churches with a humanistic viewpoint, a focus on the present, and social justice.”

Rather than actually investigating orthodox Christianity’s truth claims, the authors simply assume its falsehood and proceed accordingly. But if it is true that God exists and man is fallen, then he is in need of salvation, and therefore an unfallen spiritual world is superior, in some sense, to the natural world. And then surely belief in such things could be supremely rational. So their judgment is based entirely on their own assumptions, not on a careful look at the evidence.

The authors are also inconsistent. They fail to see that their own viewpoint, which rejects God, also sees mankind as fallen and in need of the “salvation.” It’s just that their salvation comes in the form of secular education and “social justice”.

What about religion being a malady? The authors say children are “indoctrinated” or are “targeted for indoctrination” to religions. “Christian teachings that sound true when they are embedded in the child’s mind at this tender age can feel true for a lifetime” [emphasis original]. They say, with evident disapproval, “To date, parents are afforded the right to teach their own children whatever doctrines they like.” That “to date” speaks volumes. They say if left alone and unbothered with the supernatural, children’s “amazing capabilities” will “emerge with the right conditions like a beautiful flower in a well-attended garden.” Purple flowers, doubtless.

Another illuminating passage: “In Bible-believing Christianity, psychological mind-control mechanisms are coupled with beliefs from the Iron Age, including the belief that women and children are possessions of men, that children who are not hit become spoiled, that each of us is born ‘utterly depraved’, and that a supernatural being demands unquestioning obedience.” At best, this is a cartoonish caricature of Christianity, a view borne out of ignorance. God does not demand “unquestioning obedience”, but He does ask for our love and He offers His freely.

The right-side-of-history fallacy is also there in all its glory, as it almost always is in secularist discussions of religion. It’s akin to the fallacy that an idea is wrong because it’s old.

The authors’ secular progressivism is even more on display when they say that “humanity has been going through a massive shift for centuries, transitioning from a supernatural view of a world dominated by forces of good and evil to a natural understanding of the universe.”

Their enthusiasm for this great “transitioning” is obvious as they pine for society to officially designate transcendent religion as mental illness. To hurry that day they offer “Religious Trauma Syndrome” as a candidate diagnosis. They explain that “religious trauma is uniquely mind-twisting” because of a “system” which “demands deference to spiritual authorities no matter what they do.” Of their psychological neologism, they say, “It is our hope that it will lead to more knowledge, training and treatment.”

And there it is: “treatment.” Applied to the wounded who escape cults, for instance, this is well and good, but Winell and Tarico mean more than that. The reason “religious harm goes unrecognized,” they say, is because “Christianity is still the cultural backdrop for the indoctrination.” Thus “trauma is difficult to see because it is camouflaged by the respectability of religion.” Hence they, like many, advocate a removal of orthodox religion from the public square.

Given current trends, they might just get their wish. In the mean time, they might want to visit North Korea or the killing fields of Pol Pot, or the gulags of the former Soviet Union. These were all led by new men cured of the transcendent.

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