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Leisure • Psychotherapy

Why We Need Therapy When We Give Up on Religion

It’s an intriguing detail of history that at the very moment when psychotherapy came into being, religious attendance started to go into decline. Just as people began to consult therapists in large numbers for the first time, fewer people than ever before (in the Christian West at least) looked upwards for relief and assistance. Interest in psychotherapy went – from a chronological point of view – almost hand in hand with a repudiation of religion.

The two developments may not be coincidental. Both religion and psychotherapy deal with very similar issues. Both are responses to suffering. Much of the sorrow that people used to take to religion would nowadays be highly familiar to psychotherapists:

— An impression of foreboding and dread.

— A sense of being unworthy. 

— A conviction of having done something wrong. 

— A sense of shame, especially around sex.

— A desire for forgiveness and acceptance. 

And to these religions had some highly pertinent responses:

— A terror of the future could be appeased by an evocation of god’s providence.

— A sense of being unlovable could be dampened by reminders of divine love.

— Feelings of sinfulness could be interpreted as symptoms of an ongoing battle between the forces of Christ and Satan.

— The difficulties of personal love could dissolve in contact with the promises of heavenly love.

Painting of Joseph handing the infant Jesus to his mother, Mary.
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The Holy Family, 1660

Leaving wholly aside the issue of whether religion happens to be true or not, we can see that it was – in many contexts – certainly extremely useful. It calmed us down, it gave us something to hold on to, it lent us solace in the night, it offered us a home for our longings.

Therapy’s distinctive move was to re-describe most of the feelings once brought to religion as symptoms of developmental challenges, usually within less than functional families of origin: 

— A sense of dread was viewed as a projection into the future of a trauma from the past.

— A feeling of unworthiness was traced back to shortfalls in parental love.

— Shame was read as an internalisation (in the super ego) of condemnation from authority figures. 

— An inability to form relationships was read as a consequence of a lack of early provision.

This is not the place to debate the rights and wrongs of either religion or psychotherapy; we can simply observe what tends to alter as interest shifts from one to the other. People who can interpret their sorrows within a theological structure, who can lean on angels and prayer and confession can – we might say – be functional despite an advanced degree of early emotional letdown, of a kind that would otherwise gravely threaten the peace of mind of non-believers. Religion absorbs and compensates, redirects and reinterprets; draws our attention away from failings in the here and now and wraps our griefs in a cloak of metaphysical comfort.

If however we are led to believe that the formation of our characters stems overwhelmingly from our relationships with our early caregivers, then the atmosphere of our first home will grow into a subject of monumental importance. Very few premodern human ever pinned their confusion on an unfriendly mother or distant father; few of our contemporaries fail to attribute at least some of their challenges to the doors of their primary caregivers. 

The harshness is logical: we are obliged to be stricter about the failings of other humans when we can no longer rely on the assistance of divine beings. We will be lot more preoccupied with our own families once the reassurance and tenderness of a divine family is no longer so closely in our thoughts.

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