A mentally healthy person whether a believer or non-believer has to have these nine characteristics:
- Self interest,
- Self direction,
- Acceptance of Uncertainty,
- Scientific thinking,
- Risk Taking, &
- Self acceptance.
These characteristics are CONSPICUOUSLY ABSENT in Religious people. Let us see how this happens.
1. SELF-INTEREST. The emotionally healthy individual should primarily be true to himself and not masochistically sacrifice himself for others. For religion, first of all, is not self-interest; it is god-interest. The very essence of most organized religions is the performance of masochistic, guilt-soothing rituals, by which the religious individual gives himself permission to enjoy life.
Religiosity, to a large degree, essentially is masochism; and both are forms of mental sickness.
2. SELF-DIRECTION. He should assume responsibility for his own life, be able independently to work out his own problems, and while at times wanting or preferring the cooperation and help of others, not having a desperate need for their support for his effectiveness and well-being. He is not overwhelmed by the problems he has. He suspects that others might have bigger problems.
As someone wisely said: If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else's, we would grab ours back!
Problems are to be treated as challenges and not as signal points for praying to gods. But if he is true to his religious beliefs he must first bow down to his gods; to the priests and third, to all the members of his religious sect, who are eagle-eyedly watching him to see whether he defects an iota from the conduct his gods define as proper.
The religious person is by necessity dependent and other-directed rather that independent and self-directed. If religion, therefore, is largely masochism, it is even more of dependency. For a man to be a true believer and to be strong and independent is impossible; religion and self-sufficiency are contradictory terms.
3. TOLERANCE. He should fully give other human beings the right to be wrong; and while disliking or abhorring some of their behavior, still not blame them, as persons, for performing this dislikeable behavior. He should accept the fact that all humans are remarkably fallible, never unrealistically expect them to be perfect, and refrain from despising or punishing them when they make inevitable mistakes and errors.
Tolerance again, is a trait that the firm religionist cannot possibly possess. Democracy, permissiveness, and the acceptance of human fallibility are quite alien to the real religionist—since he can only believe that the creeds and commands of his particular deity should, ought, and must be obeyed, and that anyone who disobeys them is patently a scoundrel.
Religion, then, by setting up absolute, god-given standards, must make you self-deprecating and dehumanized when you err; and must lead you to despise and dehumanize others when they act badly. This kind of absolutistic, perfectionistic thinking is the prime creator of the two most corroding of human emotions: anxiety and hostility.
4. ACCEPTANCE OF UNCERTAINTY. The emotionally mature individual should completely accept the fact that we live in a world of probability and chance, where there are not, nor probably ever will be, any absolute certainties, and should realize that it is not at all horrible, indeed—such a probabilistic, uncertain world is most conducive to free thought.
If one of the requisites for emotional health is acceptance of uncertainty, then religion is obviously the unhealthiest state imaginable: Since its prime reason for being is to enable the religionist to believe a mystical certainty.
Just because life is so uncertain, and because millions of people think that they cannot take its vicissitudes (unpredictability & variability), they invent absolutistic gods, and thereby pretend that there is some final, invariant answer to things.
Patently, these people are fooling themselves—and instead of healthfully admitting that they do not need certainty, but can live comfortably in this often disorderly world, they stubbornly protect their neurotic beliefs by insisting that there must be the kind of certainty that they foolishly believe that they need.
This is like a child’s believing that he must have a kindly father in order to survive; and then, when his father is unkindly, or perhaps has died and is nonexistent, he dreams up a father (who may be a neighbour, a movie star, or a pure figment of his imagination) and he insists that this dream-father actually exists.
5. FLEXIBILITY. He should remain intellectually flexible, be open to change at all times, and unbigotedly i.e., without being dogmatic, view the infinitely varied people, ideas, and things in the world around him.
Just as religion is masochism, other-directedness, intolerance, and refusal to accept uncertainty, it also is mental and emotional inflexibility.
The trait of flexibility, which is so essential to proper emotional functioning, is also blocked and sabotaged by religious belief. For the person who dogmatically believes in gods, and who sustains this belief with a faith unfounded in fact, clearly is not open to change and is necessarily bigoted.
6. SCIENTIFIC THINKING. He should be objective, rational and scientific; and be able to apply the laws of logic and of scientific method not only to external people and events, but to himself and his interpersonal relationships.
In regard to scientific thinking, it practically goes without saying that this kind of brain-work is quite antithetical to religiosity. The main canon of the scientific method—as Ayer (1947), Carnap (1953), Reichenbach (1953), and a host of other modern philosophers of science have pointed out—is that, at least in some final analysis, or in principle, all theories be confirmable by some form of human experience, some empirical referent. But all religions which are worthy of the name contend that their superhuman entities cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, felt, or otherwise humanly experienced, and that their gods and their principles are therefore distinctly beyond science.
To believe in any of these religions, therefore, is to be unscientific at least to some extent; and it could be contended that the more religious one is, the less scientific one tends to be. Although a religious person need not be entirely unscientific, it is difficult to see how he could be perfectly scientific.
While a person may be both scientific and religious (as he may be at times sensible and at other times foolish) it is doubtful if an individual’s attitude may simultaneously be truly pious and objective.
7. COMMITMENT. He should be vitally absorbed in something outside of himself, whether it be people, things, or ideas; and should preferably have at least one major creative interest, as well as some outstanding human involvement, which is highly important to him, and around which he structures a good part of his life.
Religious commitment may well be better for a human being than no commitment to anything. For if he is truly religious, he is seriously committed to his gods or his creed; and to some extent, at least, he thereby acquires a major interest in life.
Religious commitment also frequently has its serious disadvantages, since it tends to be obsessive-compulsive; and it may well interfere with other kinds of healthy commitments—such as deep involvements in sex-love relations, in scientific pursuits, and even in artistic endeavors. Not all forms of commitment, in other words, are equally healthy. The grand inquisitors of the medieval catholic church were utterly dedicated to their “holy” work, and Hitler and many of his associates were fanatically committed to their Nazi doctrines. But this hardly proves that they are emotionally healthy beings.
8. RISK-TAKING. The emotionally sound person should be able to take risks, to ask himself what he really would like to do in life, and then to try to do this, even though he has to risk defeat or failure. He should be adventurous (though not necessarily foolhardy); be willing to try almost anything once, just to see how he likes it; and look forward to some breaks in his usual life routines.
In regard to risk-taking, it should be obvious that the religious person is highly determined not to be adventurous nor to take any of life’s normal risks. He strongly believes in unvalidatable assumptions precisely because he does not want to risk following his own preferences and aims, but wants the guarantee that some higher power will back him.
All religions worthy of the names are distinctly inhibiting—which means, in effect, that the religious person sells his soul, surrenders his own basic urges and pleasures, so that he may feel comfortable with the heavenly helper that he himself has invented. Religion, then is needless inhibition.
9. SELF-ACCEPTANCE. It can also be called self-reliance or self-sufficiency.
He should normally be glad to be alive, and to like himself just because he is alive, because he exists, and because he (as a living being) invariably has some power to enjoy himself, to create happiness and joy. He should not equate his worth or value to himself on his extrinsic achievements, or on what others think of him, but on his personal existence; on his ability to think, feel, and act, and thereby to make some kind of an interesting & absorbing life for himself.
It should again be clear that the religious devotee cannot possibly accept himself just because he is alive, because he exists and has, by mere virtue of his aliveness, some power to enjoy himself. Rather, he must make his self-acceptance utterly contingent on the acceptance of his definitional god, the priests or Gurus who also serve this god, and all other true believers in his religion.
If all these extrinsic persons and things accept him, he is able—and even then only temporarily and with continued underlying anxiety—to accept himself. Which means, of course, that he defines himself only through the reflected appraisals of others. Religion, for such an individual, consequently is self-abasement and self-abnegation.
If we summarize what we have just been saying, the conclusion seems inescapable that religion is, on almost every conceivable count, directly opposed to the goals of mental health—since it basically consists of :
- refusal to accept uncertainty,
- unscientific thinking,
- needless inhibition, and
In the one area where religion has some advantages in terms of emotional hygiene—that of encouraging hearty commitment to a cause or project in which the person may be vitally absorbed—it even tends to sabotage this advantage in two important ways:
(a) it drives most of its adherents to commit themselves to its tenets for the wrong reasons—that is, to cover up instead of to face and rid themselves of their basic insecurities like fear of death; and
(b) it encourages a fanatic, obsessive-compulsive kind of commitment that is, in its own right, a form of mental illness.
This is not to say that it is a black & white dichotomy. It is not as if secular people will score 10 out of 10 in each of these personality traits and the religious people will score 0 out of 10 in them. But the probability of scoring a consistent 6 or 7 is greater for Secular humanists.
HOW CAN WE CURE THIS SICKNESS IN PEOPLE?
By the time people become adults, it might be too late to do anything to reverse this mental illness. Prevention is far better than cure. So the onus is on the parents to encourage their children to cultivate these 9 traits right from childhood and since children learn more from the examples set by parents than the precepts preached by them, they should be exemplars & act like exemplary role-models.
It is a huge responsibility but if we want our children to be mentally & emotionally healthy & happy, you can't afford to be the usual religious person who is petrified to rock the boat. You will have to exercise your intellect and be a 'Trail blazer'.