A few days ago, I got into an argument with a number of LGBT advocates on Twitter over one of my tweets. Here it is:
I was responding to the above tweet by Zack Ford, a gay journalist who writes for Think Progress. Zack is also an atheist, so it is no surprise that he echoes their complaints against religion: religion is superstitious and incompatible with science, and for this reason, is harmful to human well-being. Zack agrees with the New Atheists, particularly Sam Harris, that we all need to be more scientific. All of us—especially those terrible Christians—need to do a better job of examining our own beliefs scientifically.
But certainly if it’s a good idea to be scientific, then it’s good advice for everyone, and that includes gays. My tweet was an invitation to Zack to look—scientifically—at the soaring rates of mental illness in the LGBT community.
And for that I got tarred and feathered with every epithet in the book that is reserved for ornery Christians like me. “Abusive!” “Fundamentalist!” No—actually I was just taking Zack’s advice. I was being scientific.
There’s a load of new research that shows that spiritual practices promote good mental health. The research is widely accepted, even by New Atheist Sam Harris who wrote an entire book devoted to the topic. In that book, he recommends spirituality for its well established mental health benefits. An atheist has looked at the research and concluded that people need to be more spiritual. Pay attention, people!
The implications here are dramatic. Since research suggests that spiritual practices promote mental health, then poor mental health among gays could be due to a poor spiritual life. That’s not fundamentalism, folks. And nor is it bigotry. That’s a very reasonable and verifiable scientific hypothesis.
And it is this hypothesis that I explore in my book, The Immoral Landscape (of the New Atheism). Specifically, I study the connection between Christian spirituality and the mind, and I argue that Christianity is the essential key to mental health and the development of our fullest human potential.
Traditional Christianity has always taught that fidelity to Christian principles promotes mental health, and, in some ways, is even necessary to it. This was the position both of Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. And it is also the subject of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. According to this theory, the spiritual origin of mental disorders has three chief sources: original sin, actual sin, and overindulgence of the passions.
And as I show in my book, there is a lot of empirical evidence to support the Christian theory of mental health. People who pray and regularly attend church services, for example, enjoy better mental health (and live longer) than those who do not. Keeping the Ten Commandments is also associated with superior mental health.
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If this theory is true, it means that the loss of Christianity in society should be accompanied by a corresponding rise in mental illness. As I show in my book, this is exactly what we are seeing today. A widely discussed Pew study just released last year shows that, in the United States, affiliation with a church or formal religious institution is the lowest it has ever been. If my book’s thesis is correct, we should be seeing a corresponding rise in mental illness.
And that is exactly what we do see. In a very important book, Anatomy of an Epidemic, Robert Whitaker shows that the number of Americans who are disabled by mental illness has skyrocketed. Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine summarizes the data in an article for The New York Review of Books entitled “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why”:
It seems that Americans are in the midst of a raging epidemic of mental illness, at least as judged by the increase in the numbers treated for it. The tally of those who are so disabled by mental disorders that they qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007—from one in 184 Americans to one in seventy-six. For children, the rise is even more startling—a thirty-five-fold increase in the same two decades. Mental illness is now the leading cause of disability in children, well ahead of physical disabilities like cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, for which the federal programs were created.
A report just published this year shows that mental illness on our college campuses is also increasing. In fact, multiple studies have consistently reported a growing epidemic on college campuses. And in the most under-reported research of the year, a new study just published by the CDC this past April shows that suicide has increased dramatically in America.
Thus, multiple indicators now point to the undeniable fact that mental illness in this country is the highest it has ever been at the same time that religious affiliation is at all-time lows. And neuroscience demonstrates that this is no coincidence. Numerous studies have been able to document the physical changes that spirituality makes on the brain and that account for its healthful impact on the mind.
Thus we have a very credible theory to explain soaring rates of mental illness among gays and in the national population in general. Mental illness is up because we are bad Christians. It turns out that scientific evidence supports this very religious conclusion: the key to restoring mental health in America and in gays is simple—it is repentance.
And this is my answer to those would-be reformers of Christianity like Nicholas Kristof who think Christianity is too anti-gay. Traditional Christians are anti-gay because they are anti-sin. Gays would do well to pay attention. And so should we all. Our collective national sanity may depend on it. At least that’s what the science is telling us. JG