Sunday, August 31, 2008

Religion is the Prozac of the People

The God Antidepressant

God, how I envy people who have a strong belief in God. As someone who has been prone to depression for almost my entire life, I see how the belief in God alleviates depression for others. I wish I could take this antidepressant, too. I've tried, but I've never been able to stick with it.

Twelve-step programs, which address addictions that generally arise out of depression or other emotional disturbances, understand this with their belief in a "higher power" (though they throw in there, to paraphrase, 'in whatever form you may understand it') but ultimately they're talking about "God." What they're acknowledging, in not so many words, is a rehashing of what was said by Karl Marx, that "Religion is the opiate of the people." So, if you have to have an addiction, something to which you turn to make you feel better, it might as well be God, and not Vicodins, marijuana or beer.

I take Marx's statement in a slightly different direction: while he equated religion with an "opiate" which I take to mean something which gets you high thereby giving you a temporary escape, I suggest that these days, religiosity actually acts more like an antidepressant and cures the depression, giving the believer a permanent tool with which to feel reasonably content.

What blows me away is that for so many people it works. I see examples of it all the time: people who would be seriously depressed, even to the point of not functioning, if they did not have God to turn to. Life is seriously difficult for many people, and even more so for those for whom the "ordinary" problems we all have such as illness, divorce, bills to be paid, etc., are compounded by poverty, single parenthood, being a grandparent caring for young children, disabilities, incarceration, drug addiction: the list goes on from the most horrific on down to the petty frustrations of every day, such as the mail delivering something urgent a day late, job related stresses, etc.

If people couldn't rationalize their pain and console themselves with the belief that whatever is happening is part of God's plan for them, many would be hard pressed to face another day. At least two people I spend a lot of time with turn to God for help many times in a day. They easily explain away painful events by saying that if God wants them to endure this then they will, because their faith is such that they put their full belief in Him. Even if they can't explain the reason for something now, they are sure God will make the reason known to them eventually.

God, how I've envied this. How much easier and more comforting it must be to believe that no matter how horrific something is, it's happening for a reason. It seems virtually impossible (proven by how relatively few atheists there are!) to accept that all the suffering I endure is purely arbitrary, unexplainable, and, ultimately, in the service of nothing.

A specific example of this is the very human need for justice. How many times I've heard my religious friends express the belief that people get what they deserve, e.g., "Don't worry. God will take care of so and so [who did something evil], if not in this life then in the next." They are alleviated of having to cope with people doing evil to them or their loved ones and nothing will happen to them. And, in the reverse, people (like them?) who are especially good, will get theirs too. While they may not win the lottery, they'll be rewarded in some way for their goodness, again, if not in this life, then in the next.

The next installment of this blog will address how things might be if as many people as do take the God antidepressant didn't.


Donna said...

Denise, that's so NOT true. There are many, many, many believers who suffer from depression. Belief is not a cure for depression by any stretch of the imagination.

Paul said...

"The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one." -George Bernard Shaw

Brian said...

I think when Marx accused religion of being the "opiate of the masses" he referred to the drug's suppressive effects, not to any enjoyment producing properties. It's easier to subjugate people who are constrained by mindless dogma than those who are free to think. That was true then and is now, and I think it's one major danger of religion--especially of the fundamental variety. I agree with Donna that belief is in no way a cure for depression. It may mask some of the symptoms, but it is not a condition to be desired.

wrongshoes said...

I think there have been studies showing depression can be reduced/reversed if a person has a regular practice of pointing out to him or herself things to be grateful for. Maybe it's not the belief in god, but rather the brain patterns that a belief in god can produce that can free a person from depression.

Also, regarding "justice" - I believe this is related to early childhood experiences, specifically being punished for bad behavior and rewarded for good behavior. A belief that this is the natural order of things is engraved in the brain from a very young age.

It would be interesting to do a long term study on people who are raised without punishments/rewards to see if they have the same expectations of justice as adults.