Religion and Mental Illness: A Personal Evaluation

Some might say that religion is just a manifestation of mental illness (I’m looking at you, Richard Dawkins), or literally call your religious beliefs “crazy.” When you think about it, it is actually pretty crazy to literally believe that a man can walk on water, or that G-d speaks through a burning bush, or that your prophet ascended to Heaven, horse and all. Or… you know… an evil alien overlord blew up billions of of people in volcanoes with nuclear weapons, not that anyone really believes that. (Wait, what? They DO??? Wow, I just made that s$&t up! There’s gotta be money in a scam like that!)

I’m not saying that these are outright crazy beliefs to have, since, after all, we’re talking about an omnipotent being here, and that means they could literally do ANYTHING. The question this brings up to me, however, is whether or not it really is “crazy” to believe in these things, and if our mental illnesses make us more prone to religious belief because of experiences we cannot otherwise interpret.

I started out my life as what I would describe to be relatively stable and sane, given that I was lucky enough to be born to a history of mentally unstable people in my mother’s family. She was an abusive and unstable pothead, and later, alcoholic. When my sister and I were taken to a court ordered therapist after my Dad got custody of us, I was eventually told I was “the most well adjusted 13 year old” he’d ever met.

The relevance of this was that through my life up through my very late teenage years, I really had zero belief in any sort of higher power. I was a full blown atheist, and exceedingly proud of this fact. With some retrospect, I find now that the beginnings of my belief in G-d, or at least the sense of some sort of undefined presence coincided with becoming 19 years old. I think, in fact, that I was pulled from that very moment to Judaism.

Over the intervening years, those feelings have really only ever gotten stronger. So too, however, has my mental illness. While I feel strongly that my mental health issues peaked not long after starting hormone therapy, objective evidence suggests that I was a miserable bastard before that. Ask my ex who dumped me, and my dwindling social circle, all of whom would likely attest that I failed at being human.

So, if my mental health is under better control now, why is it that I still believe? Well, for one, I don’t logically just chalk up my religious beliefs to pure mental illness. I’ve never had my own burning bush (well, not that kind, anyway), and I honestly have nothing that I would say was outright suspect. I simply have slight nagging feelings, and a sense of emptiness that is cured by my weekly “singing” (I don’t know if that’s the word you should use for what I do) to G-d.

Another is that while those feelings of a presence and fulfillment were simply the hallmark of my own internal Crazy, one would conclude that they would disappear. They have not. Meanwhile, my “sense of dread” in my basement or back yard at night has largely vanished with my advancing treatment. While both are irrational in the sense that they are simply not rational (observable, defined, informed), my feelings about religion and G-d have not been shaken.

Finally, there is the last defense of the defenseless: Faith. Faith is the continued belief in something for which there is no proof and is defined as being unverifiable. I believe, and as I was often quoted as saying when I was younger (and an atheist), “I would rather my children grow up having faith than be like me. It is good to have something to believe in when nothing else is enough.”

It seems I was right, at least for me.

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