For Half of Evangelicals and a Third of All Americans, the Solution to Mental Illness is Jesus

Days after making all of us *facepalm* by pointing out that 32% of all Americans think the Syrian crisis is part of the “End Times,” LifeWay Research has published another result from the same poll and this one’s equally disturbing if not worse:

LifeWay Research asked four questions about mental illness as part of a telephone survey of 1,001 Americans conducted Sept. 6-10, 2013.

Thirty-five percent agree with the statement, “With just Bible study and prayer, ALONE, people with serious mental illness like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia could overcome mental illness.”

Evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians (48 percent) agree prayer can overcome mental illness. Only 27 percent of other Americans agree.

When I think about how many other obviously ridiculous things evangelicals believe with no evidence whatsoever — Jesus rose from the dead, people choose to be gay, Sarah Palin would have made a great Vice President — their gullibility here shouldn’t surprise me at all. But 27% of everybody else? For shame, non-evangelical Americans… God can’t heal you (even if He makes you feel better) and the Bible doesn’t contain any magic words.

There’s always an uproar, and rightfully so, when Christian Science parents pray for their children’s life-threatening illnesses instead of taking them to a doctor. So where’s the uproar here?

Mental illness should be treated no differently from other kinds; those who have it deserve care from experts, not imaginary friends. Even Pastor Rick Warren said as much after his son committed suicide several months ago:

But only those closest knew that he struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts. In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.

Yes, the Warrens prayed. But they also did things that actually had a chance of helping their son. That they couldn’t save his life isn’t a knock on professional help (or the Warrens themselves), but a reminder that mental illness is not a problem that can be so quickly or easily treated.

Ed Stetzer, the president of LifeWay Research, adds that this position — that Jesus and the Bible alone can cure things like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia — is one Christians would be wise to avoid:

… he worries some Christians see mental illness as a character flaw rather than a medical condition.

Christians will go to the doctor if they break their leg, he said. But some may try to pray away serious mental illness.

“They forget that the key part of mental illness is the word ‘illness,’” he said.

Damn right.

On a side note, if you haven’t seen it yet, watch this powerful TED talk from Kevin Breel in which he talks about his depression:

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Bitter Lizard

    Overcome mental illness by talking to the invisible man inside your head.

    Best medical advice ever.

    • trj

      It’s excellent advice. If it wasn’t for the helpful voices in my head I’d probably have gone insane long ago.

  • flyb

    I predict much discussion here about what constitutes legitimate mental illness…. especially whether or not religion is one.

    • Bitter Lizard

      Religion isn’t considered a mental illness because a lot of people have religious beliefs. If Christianity wasn’t a thing, though, and somebody was babbling about virgin births and baby gods coming back from the dead, it would probably be regarded as mental illness. Something stops being a disease if it spreads to enough people, by this reasoning.

      So basically, if one person has AIDS, it’s a disease, but if you force generation after generation to contract AIDS at the point of a sword, it’s a religion.

      • Art_Vandelay

        I had a piece of pizza last night that totally transubstantiated into the flesh of Benito Mussolini.

        I’m okay, right?

        • Bitter Lizard

          Only if you violently force millions of other people to agree with you, evidently.

        • busterggi

          At least your digestive system will run on time.

          • Eric D Red

            Holy shit!

      • flyb

        Indeed. I think someone once said something like, “One person believing a delusion is insane, but millions of people believing in a delusion is called religion.”

        • Stev84

          Sam Harris made that point in his talk against William Lane Craig. Something like:
          “People believe by the billions what only a lunatic would come up with on their own.”

      • GCBill

        “Something stops being a disease if it spreads to enough people, by this reasoning.”

        Actually, you just hit on an often-criticized (but poorly-resolved) aspect of psychiatric diagnosis. How “normal” something is shouldn’t be a factor in determining whether or not it’s healthy.

        • Bitter Lizard

          If you read professional definitions of “delusional disorder”, they make a special exemption for “cultural and religious beliefs” (religious beliefs clearly meet all the standards for delusions, or the exemption wouldn’t be necessary). This raises all sorts of questions–how many people have to believe something before it goes from “delusion” to “religious or cultural belief”, particularly in a pluralistic society? Shit like this is why I don’t think the social sciences are really on par with the natural sciences yet–they are too influenced by cultural norms.

    • C Peterson

      Technically, religion isn’t an illness because it isn’t defined that way. But it represents a defective way of thinking. In comparing to physical issues, it’s something like wisdom teeth, foreskins, or appendixes. Things that we still have, but which are probably mildly negative in terms of survival value. These are things we repair medically, and which will probably evolve away if given enough time.

      • sam

        I don’t think the bulk of medical evidence suggests that foreskins are mildly negative in terms of survival value. I’ve heard the report of increased STD contraction with foreskins has been questioned. If you watch Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit” on circumcision, one expert explains that the foreskin contains nerves that help control ejaculation.
        The only risk associated with possessing a foreskin is that it tends to attract mohels with knives (& if they are ultra-orthodox, then foreskins tend to attract penis-sucking, herpes-infected mohels, a la metzitzah b’pen).

  • C Peterson

    Great. The solution to one set of mental illnesses is another. I guess there’s a certain logic there. You could argue that pancreatic cancer cures liver cancer.

    • Eric D Red

      Well, maybe homeopathic logic. A bit of dilute insanity curing serious issues. Let’s see how that works out….

      Actually, my MIL has been praying away depression for 10 years. Still not working….

      • evodevo

        Yes. This. My fundie MIL was depressed and anxious for most of her life, but refused to seek counseling because she “didn’t want family business revealed to strangers”.

  • invivoMark

    The question is poorly worded. ALL people can overcome mental illness through Jesus? SOME people can? TWO people can?

    As it’s worded, even I would be tempted to agree – I can’t rule out the possibility that there are at least two people in America who have conquered depression through religious belief. That doesn’t mean I think that Jesus is real or that religion is good for people.

    • allein

      Yeah, I was going to say there are probably people out there with relatively mild depression symptoms that they find religion helpful in dealing with. But “serious” depression (and especially things like bipolar and schizophrenia) needs more than that. And then again if the praying or whatever doesn’t work, I can see it easily leading to more serious depression when the person starts to see the religious practice as hopeless.

  • C Peterson

    And another way of looking at this. If you believe even a tenth of the crap in the bible, you’re likely to be depressed. But the best way to lose biblical beliefs is to study the bible.

    Study the bible -> lose religiosity -> reduced depression. QED.

  • baal

    Is LifeWay Research a trustable institution or have known bias? Gallop leans right and PPP leans left (but closer to reality). How does LifeWay lean?

  • Oranje

    Well, I’ve been dealing with depression and suicide in a big way over the last year, and this site and mocking evangelical idiocy has certainly made me feel better while I adjust to my new meds. Does that count for their side in the survey?

  • anonanon

    I struggled with depression and anxiety disorder when I was still in a fundamentalist church. I always felt stigmatized because if a person had the joy of Christ they shouldn’t be depressed. I felt most people in my church would take it as a sign of some sin or guilt in my life. Eventually I sought professional help. My parents helped pay for it even though my father made a point to tell me he felt it was because I wasn’t in church enough. With medication and therapy I was able to recover rather well. I felt even more of a weight lifted off my shoulders when I left religion a little over a year later. Looking back, I think that religion helped contribute to depression and anxiety – especially the belief that I was constantly being held accountable for my thoughts and feelings and that simply thinking about certain things, even if I didn’t want those thoughts, was a sin. Now I rarely have to deal with any of the symptoms of depression and anxiety at all, and when I do, I know that medicine and therapy work, and that it isn’t simply a result of me needing to “get right with god” as I was told.

    • David Kopp

      Cognitive dissonance works better for some people than for others. I’m like you, where I can’t live with it, I need the consistency of thought and action, and the “thought is sin” crowd just never sat well with me.

      Glad to hear you came out on the other side of that.

      • anonanon

        The biggest thing I struggled with is how do you ask for help when your whole life you’ve been told you already have all the answers? How refreshing it is to be able to say, “I don’t know” and being okay with it.

  • Pofarmer

    And here I was thinking Jesus was more the cause than the solution.

  • Kristy

    This is the most half-witted and skewed presentation of facts I think I have read all day. The source for this research is “LifeWay Research”, a CHRISTIAN-BASED RESEARCH COMPANY! And how many of those people who were used for this “research”, were non-Christians, atheists, and the like? Let me present this in a different way: As an atheist, non-christian, or whatever your position, how many of YOU would participate in a Christian-based questionnaire presented by a Christian-based research company? Okay, let’s look at this from yet another perspective: How many of you, or even people you know, have participated in a telephone survey? I am quite sure, based on the statistics regarding how subjects are chosen for a research panel, that the group of people who even participated in this particular survey is a pretty narrow group of subjects. This hardly seems random, and it does not reflect the general opinion of an average group of Americans. Personally, I have NEVER met a single person, Christian or otherwise, who believes that prayer will cure disease (but then again, I do not know any Evangelists); I have also never known anyone to participate in a telephone survey.

    • Joshua Barrett

      I have and conducted them. Its about sample size. There could be wrong methodology in place, but nothing you mentions is quite relevant.

      “Personally, I have NEVER met a single person, Christian or otherwise, who believes that prayer will cure disease”
      then you live in a small bubble.
      Most of both mine and my wifes family believe this. In fact my mother in law “just got healed” of kidney failure. ( the doctors helped her)
      and “he is working on my diabetes now”.

      ” I have also never known anyone to participate in a telephone survey.”
      when you sample a few thousand out of hundreds of millions at a time based on screening criteria thats what happens.

      • Kristy

        I do not wish to argue, which is why I never mention my beliefs, my practices, my habits, etc; I simply stated facts about the scientific method and case studies, along with a disclaimer regarding my personal experience. As you mentioned, your wife and said family all visited doctors. Perhaps I should have said “Personally, I have NEVER met a single person, Christian or otherwise, who believes that prayer will cure disease ALONE”. Everyone I have known that have overcome a sickness did not rely on just one method, they took advantage of everything in their world to be cured. Likewise, I should have said “I have never known anyone to be contacted as part of a telephone survey, nor have I ever been contacted to participate in a telephone survey”. How does the use of screening criteria allow for an impartial set of results? Seems counterintuitive.

        • Joshua Barrett

          What impartial results. You can’t call everyone. Its just that simple. Instead you use some data analytics to get that names that match your criteria. You know 25 years old plus, smoker. whatever. I don’t know what their criteria is, but what is the point of speculating. You also determine the sample size based upon how much “confidence” you want/need the survey to have. It helps to understand how surveys work before criticizing them. Thats all I am trying to say to you.

          “Personally, I have NEVER met a single person, Christian or otherwise, who believes that prayer will cure disease ALONE”

          of course, because in the end survival overcomes bullshit. This still does not stop them from voting in such a way that keeps the mentally ill from getting real care. People are selfish. Just like with prayer. When your sick…. pray pray pray. When they are sick “take me to the doctor!”.

    • BobaFuct

      Well, they don’t seem to indicate how the poll was conducted, but I’d guess it’s like any other poll, where they take a set of phone numbers, call them, and then ask their questions (the “christian-based” aspect seems to guide the topics they research, not so much the respondents they seek). Now of course, the way the questions were asked or the numbers called could have been chosen in such a way to overrepresent religious respondents or weed out the non-religious, but I don’t see anything that would make me think that. Based on my own experiences, I’d say Lifeways’s numbers are pretty accurate and, honestly, not surprising at all.

    • MadSat

      I envy you considerably, I’ve got literally dozens of relatives who totally believe that prayer heals.

  • busterggi

    Yeeeeaaahh, all those folks who obsess over religious radio & tv 24/7, speak half the time in misquoted bible verses and believe the end of the world is coming any day now are the picture of mental health.

  • 00001000_bit

    If I may generalize, it’s hard for churches to really accept mental illness because they want to maintain mind-body duality. They need to believe that the mind is a separate entity from the body. If you start to go down the road to believing that your mind is subject to influence by illness, it starts to chip away at the idea of free-will. It’s hard to justify hell if your mind isn’t a pristine soul that just happens to live in a body, vs your mind being just a result of a particular arrangement of a sack of meat.

    • MisterTwo

      Thank you! I never realized this, and your explanation helps a lot!

    • GCBill

      I agree with you, although the conflict between dualism and mental illness is a modern problem. If ye olde Daemons were actually the culprits, I suppose it’d be no problem for dualism to explain MI.

      (I should also qualify that your critique pertains most strongly to substance dualism, the most self-evidently dumb form of dualism that just doesn’t seem to ever go away. The hylemorphic dualists at least have tricky ways of accepting and explaining mental illness, but in my opinion these also fail.)

  • The Other Weirdo

    So, when can we start thinking of Evangelical Christianity as a mental illness?

  • Jeff

    I’ve always thought that this is what the GOP would like to present as their alternative to the ACA. It seems to be as good as any other option I’ve heard. And if it fails, and you get worse or die, they can still blame your “personal responsibility” for not praying hard enough.

  • more compost

    Was this one of those polls that ignores people who only use cell phones?

  • tonylocn

    How many of the pillocks who entrust their mental health or their kids’ health to faith rather than science run their cars on prayer instead of gas?

  • MisterTwo

    Anybody who has lived with a very religious, chronically depressed person knows better. My wife wishes I would pray with her. I don’t know why she thinks my prayers would be effective (don’t you have to be a believer?), but the other morning when she had had something like 2 hours of sleep she told me she had been on the floor praying for a long time that “he” would help her sleep. She said “I guess you still don’t believe…” and I actually cut her off and said “there’s your evidence!” I’ve never been that direct with her before. (Lack of the effectiveness of prayer is NOT what made me realize that Christianity is mythology, but looking back over the years, it should have.)

    Christianity is a very successful meme. If it isn’t working for you, the solution must be to get in deeper and deeper. If the god isn’t curing your depression, it’s not because he isn’t there, it’s because you don’t believe strongly enough, so you try harder and harder to get the god to believe that you believe, that you need help. (Mark 9:24 — “I do believe; help thou my unbelief” ought to be the magic bullet!)

    Of course, the fact that all of the tricyclics, SSRIs, benzodiazepines, and other pharmaceuticals she’s had over the last 40 years haven’t really done anything for her depression is, in the same way, evidence that doctors can’t do anything. We need a solution.

    • evodevo

      “because you don’t believe strongly enough, so you try harder and harder”

      Unfortunately the same meme is found in conservative economic theory !

      • smrnda

        No wonder the 2 go together so often.

  • getz

    “When I think about how many other obviously ridiculous things evangelicals believe with no evidence whatsoever — Jesus rose from the dead, people choose to be gay,Sarah Palin would have made a great Vice President — their gullibility here shouldn’t surprise me at all. But 27% of everybody else?”

    Christianity is a religion centered around the worship of an exorcist. No need to single out evangelicals. You’re stuck with people who likely either believing in magic healing A(a great man miraculously healed the sick a long time ago!) and/or magic healing B(we can ask him to heal the sick today!) Either way, you’re looking at a culture where the primary debate on magic healing isn’t whether it happens or addressing the minority group that believes it: it’s over how and when it happens. That it has happened is taken for granted.

    Even the “moderate” promotion of actual medicine is more often used as a defense of magical thinking(“who cares if they pray once they receive actual treatment?”) rather than a criticism of it.

    trivia: An old friend of mine rationalized their support for ancient magic and modern medicine by assuming that demons totally were real, but Jesus and the early Christians killed them all off so that exorcisms are no longer necessary.

  • Hugh Kramer

    Since psychologists have long been aware of a link between schizophrenia and high levels of religiousity, I’d say the idea that Bible study and prayer alone can overcome mental disorders is pretty much a non-starter.

  • A3Kr0n

    “The cause to Mental Illness is Jesus”. There, I fixed your typo.

  • Carl Peter Klapper

    Actually, God CAN and DOES heal you, because God is the root of all existence. God is in psychiatrists and pills as well as everything else. Now, if you believe God is material, then God only heals you through the pills and not through anything non-material, like the thoughts of psychiatrists.

    • trj

      If God is in everything then he is also in someone’s mental illness…

      • Carl Peter Klapper

        Yes, but why do you assume God is a “he”?

        • ZukeNukem

          God made man and woman, in his image, he made them. Seems pretty clear cut that our gender definitions as they exist cannot define God.

    • Bitter Lizard

      If God has any impact on the material world, that means the material world is different than it would be with no God, which means that science, which measures the material world, would be able to detect evidence of God if He existed. So where is it?

      • Carl Peter Klapper

        God is in all existence, including what you take to be “the material world”, i.e. the physical world however constituted. Therefore, there can be no “material world” without God. Science, which measures the physical world, is measuring the physical aspect of God.

        • allein

          “Arguments that explain everything… explain nothing.” – Christopher Hitchens

        • Bitter Lizard

          If you are positing “God” as just a synonym for “the universe”, then sure–your position would only be different from atheism semantically. If you are positing God as an entity with a will that created everything, then you have provided no evidence for this and are merely regurgitating the same assertion over and over without rhyme or reason like a mentally handicapped person.

          • Carl Peter Klapper

            No, I am saying that “God” is a synonym for “Existence”. When you say that “God” is “the (physical) universe” (as the semantic equivalent of “atheism”), you are saying that God is “physicality” or (more consistently) “materiality”, the physical stripped of all abstractions. In other words, “atheism” is just a rhetorical device to obscure your true position of materialism.
            My position is laid out with reason but, unusual for me, no rhyme in my book, “The Fallacies of Atheism”. The structure of the book is three chapters dealing with the fallacies of the atheist/materialist position, a chapter describing a simple metaphysical framework, and three chapters on the fallacies which the new atheists have pointed out as a form of social commentary, stripping these critiques of their unwarranted and provocative association with religion so that a common ground can be found between the religious and the materialists. It is available on Amazon, if you wish to obtain a copy.

            • Bitter Lizard

              No thank you.

  • IDP

    Aaaaaaand the #1 wedge driven between me and Christianity, right there.

  • SeekerLancer

    My girlfriend suffers from pretty severe OCD, when visiting her evangelical aunt and uncle the “character flaw” belief was spot on. They just don’t understand that a mental illness is not just something you can will away or simply get over. They also suggested some church programs.

  • SJH

    I won’t speak for fundamentalists/evangelicals but I bet if you changed the wording of the statement it would drastically change the result. The statement reads that those suffering mental illness CAN OVERCOME it. It is asking if there is a possibility not that it will certainly be cured. Also they use the word “overcome”. This might mean that they still suffer from the illness but have overcome it in a more spiritual sense. I get the sense that many are still somewhat misguided on things like this but I think it is a badly worded statement.

  • Cattleya1

    Flight to religion is one of the classical signs of destabilizing schizophrenia. It is not required for the diagnosis, but it is awfully common when someone is headed into a psychotic break. And… 48% of evangelicals think it is a good thing. There is a large part of our population with significant delusional thinking – and the psychotics are only 2% of the 48.

  • Carl Peter Klapper

    Another point that has not been addressed in the pseudo-scientific nature of psychology. How can you have a controlled experiment on willful subjects? The control, by its subjugation of the will, fundamentally changes the nature of the subjects. All the data in the world cannot correct a logically flawed premise for an experiment. That is why I look to neurology for the science of the mind and to the counseling arts for its health.

    • smrnda

      You should get out more often – we’re still in the early stages of understanding the intersection of neuroscience and psychology, but we are gaining more information all the time.

      We *do* do controlled experiments on drugs given to people with psychiatric conditions in order to determine which ones work. Different methods of treatment *can* be determined.

      On psychology experiments (which I have performed in cognitive psychology) you might want to actually do some research – it is possible for people to be kept unaware of both the purpose of an experiment and the hypotheses being tested. Using inflated, vague language like this :

      “How can you have a controlled experiment on willful subjects? The
      control, by its subjugation of the will, fundamentally changes the
      nature of the subjects”

      Doesn’t give me a very clear idea of what your objections are at all. Could you find an experiment online and point out the *specific flaws* so I know what you might mean? You can do a controlled experiment because the variable in question may not require that people be unwilling to participate.

      Example – I know someone who did an experiment when the variable in question was whether a person spoke Spanish at home – they were asked to read some passages and answer some questions. Survey questions contained enough items that ‘do you speak Spanish at home?’ was buried along with a tonne of other demographic information. In order to find subjects, the experimenter found students in a pool and checked based on demographic information known already – taking a large enough sample, enough students who spoke Spanish at home were found, along with enough information to find students who did not speak Spanish at home.

      Knowing you were recruited because you spoke Spanish at home would not likely have affected the results, but yes, you can have appropriate controls with psychology experiments.

  • Baby_Raptor

    I hate the phrase “I’ve struggled with X”…To me, it doesn’t really explain what I’ve been through. It seems to be the dominant wording, though.

    That said, I’ve “struggled” with self-injury since I was 15. Christianity itself never told me “Hey, taking a knife to your skin is a good idea,” but it didn’t have to provide the idea. It provided the motivation.

    Constantly being told that I was a horrible abomination, a disgrace to my family, a complete failure, worthless…And I was supposed to be HAPPY about all this. Because Jesus.

    Nope. I took to cutting. It worked, for as much as things of such a nature can be coped with.

    My grandparents were first convinced I was lying, and then after watching me take a box cutter to my arm that I was “acting out for attention.” Treatment? The idea was laughable.

    Once they disowned me and I started trying to figure out how to make my own life, I was able to get help. I found out that I’m not actually crazy; the urge to self-injure is caused by a chemical imbalance. I was able to get a therapist to help me examine *why* I cut, and to find other ways to achieve those ends.

    I’ve been clean for almost 3 years, though according to said therapist this is something I’ll always fight with.

    But being out of that hellhole, where I’m no longer constantly hearing how horrible I am and how I need to be punished for it, I no longer constantly feel the need to do so. Talking to the god they were telling me is the reason I needed these scars? Not likely to help. I’d probably have ended up dead.

  • chloroplast

    I spent ten years ignoring my depression, trying to force myself to be happy and positive, to talk myself out of it, to convince myself I was making it up. Two months of seeing a doctor and taking antidepressants and I feel better now than I ever did trying to deal with it on my own. Somehow, I don’t think asking Jesus for help during those ten years would’ve made a difference.

  • Hedganian

    27%? The picture I see says 35%

  • VoiceOfReason71

    Ironically, when I left the church and started hormone replacement, my depression and anxiety went away.