A reader asks: ‘How do you approach religious issues with depressed or troubled people, since you’re not religious yourself, and since therapists don’t usually address religion anyway?’
I find a lot of people non-committal about religion. ‘I believe in God, of course. Doesn’t everybody?’ But they’re willing to question as well.
For example, there’s the whole issue of when ‘bad things happen to good people.’
In other words, some people take their life misfortune personally. I will often ask a person, ‘Who or what are you angry at, given that you’re angry?’ Sometimes the answer will actually be, ‘God. I’m not sure there is a God, and I don’t expect you to address that with me. But that’s how I feel.’
Belief in a God or supernatural realm of reality has psychological consequences, just like anything. One consequence might be that you will tend to take things that are out of your control—perhaps out of anyone’s control, such as an unavoidable accident or illness—personally.
I addressed this issue in my book, ‘Grow Up America!’ In that book, I discuss how some people look at reality (or existence) as having a will and consciousness of its own.
In other words, human beings are faced with struggles such as illness, natural disaster and the like. The more focused, scientific and rational or enlightened human beings become, the less vulnerable they are to these things.
Contrast the consequences of an earthquake in the United States with an earthquake of the same magnitude in Haiti, Mexico City or the Middle East, for example. In one location, the damage takes weeks to repair and dozens of lives are lost. In another, tens of thousands are lost and life is more miserable than ever. Human accomplishments and ingenuity make life safer and easier, and make everyone less vulnerable. (Interestingly, it’s usually God who gets the credit for all lives saved, not man’s scientific or economic progress.)
All the same, even in a society twice as advanced as the United States today, there will still be vulnerabilities. The presence of these vulnerabilities, and their lack of equal distribution, will again lead many people to think, ‘Why me? Why do bad things happen to good people?’
Religions usually teach that an individual must sacrifice for others. Self-sacrifice is the defining feature of virtue, according to most ethical codes. Many people at least attempt to practice this irrational and untenable policy in their daily lives. Aside from the problems it creates in their personal or business lives, it also leads them to wonder, ‘Why did this bad, unavoidable thing happen to me, and not to somebody else who isn’t self-sacrificing, like I am?’
Even if one doesn’t define goodness as self-sacrifice, they sometimes ask this sort of question when self-reflecting. ‘I’m a good person. I don’t lie or cheat. I don’t harm others. I leave them alone. So why did I get this illness? Why was I the victim of this theft? Why did my son or daughter die in this car accident, and not someone else’s?’
The very premise of the question is that there is some unseen force—call it God, or whatever you like—determining the outcome of events in the world. Kind of like a superintendent in charge of Reality. Maybe a Reality Czar.
Yet there’s no basis for proving there is such a thing. It’s all faith-based, by definition.
Fine, you can believe in supernatural forces all you wish. Some people say it gives them a sense of comfort and serenity. But if you’re going to believe in such a Force, you’ve got to go all the way. You cannot start employing reason regarding your supernatural beliefs.
In other words, you can’t start saying, ‘There is an all powerful and all just God. So why did this God give me cancer, and not this lousy person who deserves cancer?’ You cannot go there—not if faith is the standard. If reason and justice and other objective principles were the standard—sure, go there (although you won’t get very far). But you can’t have your faith and then eat it with reason. You can’t have it both ways.
The reason many people get depressed or otherwise emotionally troubled is that they bring these religious or religious-like expectations to the ‘table’ of life; and then they expect those supernatural beliefs to work rationally, logically and with human or natural, logical standards of justice.
Expecting these two incongruent approaches—reason and religion—to work in harmony inevitably leads to a sense of futility, frustration and ultimately even insanity. In short, you get depressed or otherwise mentally impaired.
Religious or not, you cannot take misfortune personally. There’s no unseen force in the world taking things out on you.
If you believe in a God, and you believe that God is just and benevolent, then you simply have to accept, on faith, that God has a plan for you.
If you don’t believe in a God, then fine. You’ll get no argument from me. But just the same, there’s no unseen force.
There’s simply the law of cause and effect, the natural order of things based on an objectively knowable universe.
In that context, knowledge is powerful. The more knowledge you gain, the more equipped you’ll be to deal with the world in which you live, and the more you’ll enjoy your existence for whatever time you have.
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