Yesterday, I watched a rerun of Law and Order that was fascinating for its depiction of a righteous, devout, sincere Roman Catholic woman who is put on trial for murder after a botched exorcism kills a teenaged girl. Interestingly, the woman had been a nun before leaving the convent to follow her “gift from God.”
The assistant DA was sent to interview the woman’s former Mother Superior. The Mother Superior informed a surprised DA that the former nun’s intense belief in the devil proved that she was more obedient to her faith than other people, not less so.
In the show, everyone agreed that the woman’s faith was sincere. In court, she testified in a calm, persuasive voice that she had a gift from God, and that the archangel Michael had commanded her to beat the devil out of the rebellious girl. She had obeyed St. Michael. She had failed in her mission not because the divine command was flawed, but because she wasn’t strong enough to overcome the devil. The girl had died when the devil took her soul. She regretted her personal failure to save the girl’s soul, but she didn’t regret the attempt. She had cared about the girl, and she’d been trying to do the right thing.
Fiction? Exaggeration? Misrepresenting the facts in order to make good TV?
Not really. In fact, the show didn’t go far enough in showing the reality of this kind of religious mindset, and the damage these “sincere, devout, faithful” people cause with their beliefs.
Just last week, the Globe and Mail published a brief article about three cult members in Baltimore who have been convicted in the death of a toddler (“U.S. Cult Members To Be Sentenced For Starving Child,” The Globe and Mail, May 18, 2010). Says the article, “Prosecutors say cult leader Queen Antoinette told the mother that denying food would cure her child’s rebellious spirit.” What had the child done? He had refused to say “Amen” after meals.
The article also includes this eye-popping fact: the child’s 23-year old mother (who is already in a residential treatment program) made an unusual plea bargain “in which her plea will be withdrawn if the child is resurrected.”
If the child is resurrected?
Many members of today’s church would like to distance themselves from this kind of bizarre thinking, and would like to pretend that church teachings on the devil, on Judgment Day, on bodily resurrection of the dead, and on exorcism aren’t really real. But these teachings are real. And they continue to create terrible suffering in the world today.
Let me be clear. I’m not saying that the devil is real. I’m saying that the teachings about the devil are real.
The teachings are still official church law. If you’re a righteous Christian — a sincere, devout, faithful believer in the church’s teachings — you’re supposed to believe in all this apocalyptic b*llsh#t.
Mind you, apocalyptic b.s. is not new to the world, and it’s not limited to Christianity. Scholars aren’t sure when apocalyptic religious claims first surfaced, but they know that plenty of bizarre apocalyptic claims about God and the devil had been circulating long before Jesus of Nazareth lived. There’s a lot of raw apocalyptic material in Plato’s writings, but Plato wasn’t the only one to make dualistic claims about good versus evil. There’s a long track record for this kind of scary religious belief, and it’s found all over the world.
Why is it found all over the world? It’s found throughout history and throughout the world because — radical thought, this — because serious mental illness is found throughout history and throughout the world.
Human beings all share the same basic DNA. Part of our human DNA package includes a susceptibility to major mental illnesses such as unipolar depression, psychotic depression, bipolar disorder, psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, not to mention addiction disorders, personality disorders, and psychiatric symptoms that are secondary to primary medical disorders. (For instance, sepsis — systemic blood poisoning — can cause sudden psychosis). Certain kinds of major mental illness are known to lead to certain kinds of recognizable — but highly dysfunctional — thinking patterns.
Apocalyptic thinking patterns are dysfunctional. I do not care that apocalyptic beliefs have been enshrined in many different major world religions. I do not care that I’m supposed to fully honour and respect everybody’s religious beliefs. I refuse to honour any religious belief — whether it’s Christian, Kabbalist, Muslim, animist, or whatever — if that particular belief system is founded on teachings that emanated from mental illness. So I don’t care what somebody’s revered prophet once said, if that prophet showed clear signs of mental illness. Apocalyptic teachings are a clear sign of mental illness.
The human genome hasn’t changed much over the past few millennia, and that means that prophets who lived and taught 3,000 years ago had the same DNA as you and I, and they had the same vulnerability to biologically-based psychosis as you and I. The difference between then and now is that we finally have the tools to recognize these major mental disorders, and we finally have some good treatments for them — such as SSRI’s and olanzapine.
I have no patience and no sympathy for people who tell me that all religious traditions are equally worthy of respect. They are not. Religious traditions founded on dysfunctional, dualistic, good versus evil thinking are not worthy of respect. This means I believe that some aspects of the Christian tradition are not worthy of respect. I also believe that some aspects of certain other religious traditions are also not worthy of respect.
I’m not going to apologize for this. Religious leaders have a moral duty to reexamine the traditions of their respective faiths to weed out all teachings that originated in mental health disorders, teachings that continue to contribute to mental health disorders, teachings that create great harm in the world today.
The church must take responsibility for its past failure to work closely with scientific researchers who have been trying to show that bizarre, abusive behaviour is a medical, social, and educational issue, not a spiritual or religious issue involving evil forces.
The church needs to “grow up.” It’s not helpful to anyone — especially to those who have a genetic vulnerability to major mental illness, and are therefore easily traumatized by teachings about evil forces — for us to pretend that we can all happily and lovingly accept every “religious belief.” We can’t. Each world faith must start to take responsibility for its own doctrinal garden. Each world faith must begin to weed out the destructive teachings that have grown in its garden over the centuries. Each world faith must plant new seeds that can close the current and utterly inexcusable chasm between science and faith. Each world faith must begin to cherry-pick amongst its own teachings, and keep only those teachings and traditions that allow people to enter into a full, loving relationship with God based on the values of trust, courage, devotion, and gratitude.
This is what Jesus was trying to say 2,000 years ago. Maybe it’s time we listened.
Once upon a time, long, long ago and far, far away, there was a certain man who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He fell into the hands of robbers who were led by a man named Saul. They stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half resurrected.
Now by chance an orthodox Western priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a universalist ecumenist, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
But a woman who came from a distant land and had also once been beaten and left for dead by her kinfolk came near him; and when she saw him, she was moved to pity. She bandaged the wounds that had been bleeding for 2,000 years, and she took him to the local women’s shelter. There the little children knew him, and those who were like the little children knew him.
The man who was just a man happily died.
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers led by Saul?