The Sin of Treatment for Religious Fundamentalism

MP900177811Faith, conscience, and religious expression have long been matters of choice; in fact, religious choice and expression are protected freedoms in our country. But it has recently been posited that “religious fundamentalism” may soon be treatable as a mental disorder. Kathleen Taylor of Oxford University recently addressed the Hay Festival in Wales and asserted that “radicalizing ideologies may soon be viewed not as being of personal choice or free will but as a category of mental disorder.” Among the applications for such treatment are mentioned radical Islamists, subjects of cult indoctrination, and parents who believe that it is ok to beat their children. As the author of a new book on the subject of brainwashing, Taylor’s comments were in response to a question from the audience about the future of neuroscience. The biggest surprise in neuroscience, she stated, may be that we begin to “see people with certain beliefs as people who can be treated.”

I appreciate the tone of caution that I got out of reading Ms. Taylor’s comments in the articles I linked to. But I am always concerned when thoughts or beliefs begin to be criminalized or made pathological in some way.

Belief has to be examined on its own merit. Christians have done some horrible things. But those horrible things do not represent Christianity, even if the people that do them claim to. Before someone can be treated for religious fundamentalism, I think you would have to know if what they do actually reflects the religion they claim to represent. There is a danger in “treating” religious fundamentalism based on someone’s opinion of what a religion teaches. Who is to decide if a particular malignant belief truly represents a specific religious faith?

Belief has to behave. I think it is important to measure belief based on behavior. Regardless of one’s beliefs about Islam, someone should not be jailed just for being Muslim. I think we recognize this. It is the commission of some act that may infringe on other’s rights or safety that would determine if a crime has been committed. The reason the United States has prospered under a law that reflects Christian values and teachings is that the resulting behaviors are good for society. So what would be the trigger mechanism for beginning a treatment for “religious fundamentalism- a belief someone states or appears to follow, or one that is acted out to the detriment of others?

Behaviors have to be somehow harmful to society. If a person willingly comes to be treated because some belief adversely affects him individually, this is no different than any other case of willful treatment. And if an offender in involuntary treatment is being treated due to an infraction against someone else, then the treatment is going to be focused on the way the behavior impacted others, regardless of the belief system that is purported to have spurred the behavior. So who is to deem what religious views are systematically harmful to society, as opposed to those that an individual uses to justify harmful actions?

I work with parents who cite religious reasons for many practices that seem to be counterproductive, or at the worst, harmful to their children. Would it be my place to judge their religion, or to help them find more effective ways to parent their children that would work within their conscience? Can I diagnose that the reason for their crisis at home is their religious belief? I have seen direct effects of skewed religious belief on behavior, cases in which spiritual guidance by an appropriate party was needed due to the harmful effects of a perception about a religious belief. For the most part, parents and loved ones just have to find a more nurturing way, a more appropriate way, to interact with their children, so they can be true to their beliefs while achieving greater effectiveness and reducing conflict with their children.

In the book The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog,” by Dr. Bruce Perry, the author chronicles his work with the child survivors of the Waco, TX tragedy at the Branch Davidian compound. As these children were treated and transitioned to the community, a number of them went to live with family or acquaintances that believed in the doctrine of the Davidians but who did not live in the compound. Through strong connections and relationships, these children thrived as well as others that went to live with families that did not believe in the Davidian’s doctrine. One could argue that these Davidian believers were not fundamentalists if they did not perish in the compound with the rest of the cult. What is certain is that their behaviors did not indicate pathology and in fact did foster positive relationships that helped children.

That religious fundamentalism can be changed is not new. People change their beliefs, sometimes radically, sometimes slowly, sometimes very quickly. That those who feel their religion has fostered negative beliefs can seek out therapy and change their thinking is also not new. Seeking out professional help to change negative beliefs is the basis of voluntary treatment (quite commonly cognitive behavioral therapy). Determining religious fundamentalist beliefs that require psychiatric or neurological interventions to correct? That’s not necessarily new, but it is extremely dangerous. It’s rigid and inconsiderate. It is fraught with the opportunity for ethical and moral abuse, on par with the issue of cloning in the biomedical world. It favors homogeneousness, squashes diversity, ignores unique narratives, assumes that people cannot act in the best interest of themselves or others, and would open the door to intrusion of individual freedom to a degree not ever seen before, except perhaps in the USSR, North Korea, or Nazi Germany. so why breech the threshold and attempt to treat belief? Abraham Lincoln said it best when he stated,

Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Copyright (c) 2013 Glen Gaugh


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