Is religion bad for our mental health? Popular atheists often say so. Some go as far as to say that teaching children religion is really a form of abuse — at least any religion that teaches a doctrine of sin and divine punishment. They claim such teaching heaps a load of guilt on people, and then traumatizes them with the terrible fear of the threat of hell. How could this not psychologically damage people?
If atheism is true, it makes sense why humans are nearly universally religious: a “God delusion” helps people cope.
I’m glad the question is being raised, especially by those whose own worldview demands that people come to terms with their ultimate existential meaninglessness: that life is fundamentally a brutal fight to survive and pass on one’s genes. That love, compassion, and psychological well-being are at root naturally selected adaptations to encourage one to preserve DNA. That good and evil are only human psychological constructs. That all our frenetic activity and gene-passing is ultimately futile since sooner or later homo sapiens will undergo species extinction. And that the cosmos cares absolutely nothing about any of this.
Life is a genetic conveyor belt toward extinction — and this promotes psychological well-being? If atheism is true, it makes sense why humans are nearly universally religious: a “God delusion” would help people cope with a hopeless reality.
In fact, it’s hard to overstate how important hope is to human mental health. In this light, we need to ask what worldview gives people the most mentally healthy hope. Because the human psyche’s need for hope, while not itself a proof, is a pointer to ultimate reality.
Why Things Fall Apart
To address this, first we need to begin with a different dichotomy. Drawing the line between religion and non-religion is simply a way for atheists to frame the argument to their own advantage. The line needs to be drawn between truth and falsehood.
I think we can all agree (except, perhaps, extreme postmodernists) that believing any false worldview is going to have a detrimental psychological effect on us, because our worldview shapes how we live and relate to others. So, any false worldview belief — religious or nonreligious — is going to damage us. If atheism isn’t true, and there are powerful arguments against it and growing scientific evidence weakening its claims, it still leaves a world of diverse and contradictory religions to discern between.
Asking the question about mental health really helps at this point because, again, what best addresses our psychological needs may not prove a worldview’s validity, but it’s pointing to something. And if we had to capture in one word what makes us, in all our psychological complexity, most mentally healthy, it would be this: hope. The human psyche is designed to operate on hope. The more hopeful we are, the more mentally healthy we are. The less hopeful we are, the more things fall apart for us.
Healthy Pointer of Hope
Our psyches, our inner selves, our souls, are hope machines. Our psyches burn hope like our bodies burn energy. And like our bodies grow faint when we run low on energy, when we run low on hope we start feeling discouraged, even desperate. All the wonderful things that have happened to us in the past will not fuel our hope if our future looks bleak. We can be grateful for the past. But we must have hope for the future in order to keep going.
“The human psyche is designed to operate on hope. The more hopeful we are, the more mentally healthy we are.”
When we’re hopeful, the world is full of wonder and possibilities. We have drive and curiosity. We don’t want to waste our lives. We take on challenges and see adversity as something to be overcome. But when we run low on hope, the world becomes a fearful, threatening place, full of chaotic futility. Hopelessness saps our desire and drive. It robs us of interest and appetite. We just want to curl up and protect our inner selves, our souls.
This makes the mental health of hope a powerful pointer to reality. It means we are designed to be hopeful. And hope is what we feel about the future. But the only way we can have hope for the future is if we believe the future is promising. Which means, we are designed to believe in promises.
Designed to Live by Faith
In other words, we are designed to be creatures who live by faith. And this is where atheism really falters as a pointer to ultimate reality. All it has to offer by way of mental health is autonomy. You’re free to do as you wish, but you must build your autonomous house, in the words of Bertand Russell, on “the unyielding foundation of universal despair.” This does not work for us psychologically. Those who believe God is a delusion, then, must construct some kind of hope delusion, or suicide will become increasingly appealing.
What keeps us going is hope in a future fueled by promises about the future. We, by nature, are not designed to “live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). So, from a general human-mental-health standpoint, the issue becomes, What promises give us the most healthy, robust hope?
We Long for Redemption
That question is not hard to answer. It courses through us every day, and runs through the myths, legends, stories, songs, and poems we have loved most in all cultures and in every era: redemption. We long for good to triumph over evil. We long for justice to triumph over injustice. And we long for personal forgiveness and freedom from guilt — not guilt that man-made religion has heaped on us, but guilt from the depravity inside us and the things we have done, said, and thought that we would be mortified for anyone else to find out.
“The human heart is designed to love God most, and is never happier than when it does.”
The doctrines of sin and divine punishment are only psychologically damaging if they are false. But if they are true — if God exists, and we are sinners, and God is going to bring the triumph of good over evil and the triumph of justice over injustice, including giving us sinners what we deserve — they are not damaging, but they are urgent necessities.
And no religion or system of beliefs in the history of mankind addresses human depravity and injustice in ways that so align with our experience of reality — while at the same time holding out such hope to us in such wonderful, almost incredible, precious promises — as Christianity.
Christianity names us as what we already know we are: sinners. It tells us what the wages of our sin deserves — and that our sins are even worse than we thought because our Creator is far holier than we thought. It tells us that our Creator is not only holy and perfectly just, but that he is gracious beyond our comprehension and has made a way for us to escape his righteous judgment against us by himself paying the debt of our sin and himself absorbing his wrath, making it possible for us to have what every one of us longs for: redemption and eternal life, free from sin and in full, restored fellowship with our Creator and Redeemer.
Christianity turns out to be the greatest, most beautiful story of redemption ever told. It addresses all our greatest and deepest needs and longings. It offers all of us the most hope, no matter who we are and how horrible we’ve been. When holistically believed and consistently lived, Christianity produces the most mentally healthy people history has ever known.
Heart of Mental Health
The heart of our mental health is found here: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23–24).
And here: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31–32).
And here: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5–6).
And here: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).
And here: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1).
And in hundreds of other hope-giving promises in the Bible.
Unhinged from God
It’s not religion that damages us; it’s unbelief. Things fall apart for us when we disbelieve God because the foundation of our hope erodes. Unhinged from God, our hearts, minds, and bodies are restless. The more unbelief is operating in us, the more disordered and mentally unhealthy we become. But the more we trust God, the more we abound in hope — no matter what our circumstances are, no matter how bleak things look at the moment (Romans 15:13).
“When consistently believed and lived, Christianity produces the most mentally healthy people in history.”
The human heart is designed to love God most, and is never happier than when it does. The human soul is designed to find its rest in the promises God himself makes to us. The human psyche is designed to find its security in the unconditional acceptance and love of its Creator. And the human body is designed to work best when the heart, soul, and mind are functioning in a harmonious love for and trust in God.
The proven path to our soundest mental health is a robust, holistic trust, in everything and every circumstance, in the triune Christian God.