Touch Me, Touch Me Jesus!

The video of my talk from Skepticon IV has been circulating around the intertubes.  I’m flattered.  I’m also touched at all the support I’ve gotten as well as the numerous people opening up about their own afflictions.  The best so far has been the people who are mentally healthy asking what they can do.  The atheist/skeptic community has seen a place where suffering abounds and has decided they want to help fix it.  Pretty impressive for a group we’re told has no moral compass.

Of course, it didn’t take the faithful long to tell me where the problem truly lies.

If you do not accept the concept of a sin nature, it makes sense that you would have to find something on which to blame your shortcomings.

This has, of course, happened before.  Whenever I write about the strife in my life, there are always believers who detect the scent of possible weakness and rush in to prey on it under the disguise of Christian concern.  What else is to be expected from an idea that can’t survive on its merits alone?  In the video on the post I explained why clinical depression, anorexia, etc., is the product of a physiological malfunction in the brain.  This is why medication and therapy work to manage it in the same way that insulin shots help the diabetic to manage their diabetes.

But to Mark, it’s not a medical condition, it’s a shortcoming.  If I just acknowledged that I am sinful (and presumably accept Jesus), why, this shortcoming of anorexia would just evaporate.  It does make me wonder why a web site exists for detecting anorexia in Christian teens.  The existence of Christian anorexics is simply bizarre if the problem is not accepting that we’re sinful beings.

This is exactly why the atheist movement needs to be paying attention to this.  Look at web sites talking about how to deal with anorexia from a Christian perspective.

If you are a Christian, you need to understand that bulimia, anorexia and binge eating are all forms of self-abuse. This violates God’s will.

Well damn, if only I’d known that my condition violates god’s will!  Now I’ll just pray and choose to stop and things will be all better.

Seriously, google “Christian anorexia” and read the drivel that comes up.  At the very best (which is in short supply) you’ll get “Take what works by itself (medicine) and combine it with what doesn’t work by itself (prayer) and see how the lord cured you!”  It never occurs to them that maybe we should stop trying to leech the credibility of medicine for the impotent prescription of faith.  Of course, what we usually get is exactly what Mark implies: no mention of medicine, blame the victim, and tell them they just need more Jesus.  This is not just a harmless, inaccurate opinion; it is a contemptible, dehumanizing idea that costs lives.

Remember the church in England that told AIDS patients that Jesus, not meds, was the cure?  Remember how well that went?  Same thing here.  By telling people that mental illness is a flaw, a deficiency in faith instead of serotonin, you’re keeping people from getting the treatment that may save their lives!  Why pursue treatment if you don’t believe you’re sick?  How many Christians spend more and more time in prayer rather than an hour in the emergency room trying to combat mental illness?  The answer is a lot, and it’s not a sad by-product of an otherwise positive worldview.  The results are so deleterious that they should not be ignored by any person possessing a hint of compassion.  This scenario is unforgivable.

Bad beliefs, even well-intentioned ones, are the means to evil.  Inaccurate beliefs spread across our populace are why so many sick people are convinced its their own fault.  This is why I oppose religion every day: I want to see the best, most compassionate outcomes for the world I share, and religion is a sanctuary for inaccurate beliefs.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Shak

    Yet another tidbit to contribute to the mountain of reasons why religion is harmful to society

    • Shak

      Also, No TRUE Christian(tm) is anorexic

  • John Eberhard

    Two newsflashes: Mark and his fellows are part of the problem instead of part of the solution and……today is Saturday.

    • gwen

      No, Mark and his ilk ARE the problem, given the ‘Good Christian Compassion’ toward mental illness. It has always irked me that insurance will cover chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, but barely cover mental illness–which can be just as debilitating and deadly–and also just as successfully managed.

  • Becca

    I’m bipolar. I am not “normal”. I will never be “normal”. I can approach a normal live, but only my spouse (and I’m not even sure he can see it) can see the adaptations I have to make in my life in order to retain such normality as I have. My life is much more circumscribed than it was before. I have to be very careful what I read (and I read a lot), even more careful about what I watch on TV or in the movies. spontaneity is suspect.

    I’ve also spent much of my life being very … well, not religious, but “spiritual”, and for the most part found my home in Wicca. But gradually, as I got on the right medications, got effective therapy (harder than it sounds), got better, I realized that one of the symptoms of mania is religiosity. And as I healed, I was able to let it go. When you can’t trust your own mind, the only thing you can trust is evidence. And there is no hard evidence for any religion that I’ve found.

    • papango

      “When you can’t trust your own mind, the only thing you can trust is evidence.”

      This is exactly why skepticism is so important to the way I deal with my life and my illness.

      I don’t know if you’ve found the same, but being at the more, I don’t want to say serious, but maybe the more energetic end of the mental illness spectrum has tended to keep the ‘it’s all in your head, you just need prayer/supplements/pyschic treatments’ crowd at bay. I suffer from psychosis and when I go, I go big. When I’m having an episode I’m dangerous to myself and others, especially anyone who gets between me and my suicidal impulses (I’m not depressed, but I may jump off a building anyway). I have an aunt who is into every type of alternative woo you can imagine, but even she has recognised that this might be one for the professionals and not the iridologists.

      • Jeweli

        I completely agree. Skepticism has been a huge part of my recovery with my depression. I used to be somewhat paranoid of really irrational things. I would hear noises that sounded like whispers or think a certain person was evil. When I apply logic and rational thinking to these situations I see how absurd my thinking is. It took me along time to be okay with my own irrationality. I would beat myself up about it. Now I’ve learned that just because I FEEL something is true, doesn’t make it true. “When you can’t trust your own mind, the only thing you can trust is evidence.” This was so true for me. I hope it helps others as well.

  • cipher

    It does make me wonder why a web site exists for detecting anorexia in Christian teens.

    As Shak said – they aren’t TRUE CHRISTIANS™. See how simple?

    • teh_faust


      And here I was, wonderung how to explain so many religious people struggling, too.

      I wonder what they’d say to being called “UNTRVE”

  • DuWayne

    What angers me the most about this is that a lot of people aren’t inoculated against this kind of bullshit. It comes with a beautiful built in abuse too. If you don’t get better, it’s your fault for not praying hard enough, having enough faith, following God’s will for your life. I grew up with that kind of hell and have seen people in variations of it.

    • cipher

      If you don’t get better, it’s your fault for not praying hard enough, having enough faith, following God’s will for your life.

      Of course. It always ends up being your fault – always. I’ve never seen an exception.

      The goal of a believer is to continue to believe. No one and nothing else matters. Everyone else – even one’s own children – can literally and figuratively go to hell.

    • John Eberhard

      This is the “guilt cycle” one of the Skepticon speakers referred to. They create the guilt–if you are sick, it is because you aren’t religious enough–and then provide the only relief for it: more Jesus.

  • The Christian Cynic

    Well said, but this is as much a problem for Christians as it is for atheists. My mother has suffered from clinical depression since the mid-’90s, and at several churches we’ve been at, people have mentioned generally (rarely to her directly) that depression is either a lack of faith or – even worse – a punishment for something in the past. To her credit, she did a great job of disabusing others of this notion by speaking up about her own mental illness and the underlying biochemical nature of such diseases. (My wife also struggles with mental illness, as do many members of her family, and I’ve struggled with anxiety in the past, so I’m very sympathetic to mental illness and the stigma that comes with it.)

    I do think this belief is relatively fringe even within Christianity (although I would open to evidence to the contrary), but you’re right that it’s dangerous and should be countered by anyone and everyone, both inside and outside skeptical circles.

    • Becca

      I don’t think it’s fringe at all. Blaming the victim comes in from many places. My infertility was blamed on my not being “feminine enough” (I like to read more than I like to cook). My depression was blamed on many things, everything from a lack of faith in to punishment for , all by well-meaning people of many faiths, who were sure that my life would be so much better if I would just be different, someone else.

      • The Christian Cynic

        Let me modify that somewhat: I’m skeptical that the belief is mainstream. My background is mostly pretty conservative (my father was a active Baptist minister for most of my childhood), and the places where I tended to see that position being espoused were ones that tended to be pretty extreme (and ignorant – but I repeat myself) on a lot of issues. But as I said, I would be open to evidence to the contrary – by which I mean more than just further anecdotal evidence, of course.

        I also wonder, given your story and others, whether or not the core problem is the fundamental attribution error. (Hence, why you were accused of not being feminine enough or why Christians are accused of not having enough faith: those are dispositional problems, not situational ones like a biochemical imbalance.)

      • The Christian Cynic

        And also, to clarify, I mean that the belief among Christians that depression is the result of a lack of faith is probably not mainstream. Blaming the victim, as you note, is of course a widespread problem and certainly not limited to Christians.

        • teh_faust

          Religious belief is certainly not a necessary condition for the “it only takes willpower” or blaming the victim-attitude.
          I certainly heard enough of that without faith attached to it. As I have also gotten sympathy and support from people who identify themselves aas (slightly to moderately) religious.

          But it’s concepts like sin or a soul that’s somehow supposed to be seperate from the body that makes it easy to justify this view.
          If you don’t buy into that and you look at what psychology and biology have yielded on the matter, it’s difficult to impossible to maintain that attitude.

  • RhubarbTheBear

    I’m glad you got so much support from your real friends before having to suffer the bozos.

  • ashuzannrice

    It’s funny that even the most devout religious still suffer and have issues. Is Jesus waiting for their percentage to go up just a little more before he jumps in and helps?

    Nah, he’s just a dick. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. God’s Song (That Why I Love Mankind) by Randy Newman is a picture perfect example.

    Your speech at Skepticon really tugged at my husband’s and my heartstrings. We both suffer from clinical depression, only his is far worse than mine. To make up for it, I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder sprinkled with OCD. Your talk not only inspired me to help others with the same troubles but it helped me to think of myself as a freak and a liar, as I was told by my own parents. I did a lot of research on GAD when I got home that night and I was shocked about how dead on my symptoms were. The good thing is now I don’t have to worry that my doctor misdiagnosed me with GAD.

    • ashuzannrice

      “Your talk not only inspired me to help others with the same troubles but it helped me to not think of myself as a freak and a liar, as I was told by my own parents”.

      That’s the correct version, sorry.

  • ohioobserver

    JT — and Stephanie Z. and all the others who are highlighting mental illness issues — thank you. Not from someone who is themselves afflicted like this, or had it in my family, but from someone who observes, and tries to help.

    I teach high school science. I teach a lot of advanced students, students who will go on to college and grad school and med school. They often ask me, “I know I want to work in the sciences, but what should I concentrate on?”

    I tell them “brain research”. I try to hook them up with active researchers in the field, people who can guide them into a career in the biology of mental function. Because we need to mobilize a corps of young, brilliant, excited scientists who truly want to explore the landscape of the human mentality the same way we are exploring Mars, who can truly map the lesions that cause this pernicious suffering. Who can and will do more than just palliate, more than just produce states of behavior that the rest of us can live with, who will worry about curing, not merely relieving.

    Not that the medications and procedures used to treat mental illness are wrong, or ineffective; they aren’t. They are just incomplete. Cures would be better by far.

    Of course this requires that we de-stigmatize mental illness, that we be able to divorce it from moral or spiritual blame, that we get the religious fanatics out of the picture so we can raise money and mount the kind of research and clinical programs that will produce real results. Mental illness isn’t a moral problem, it’s a biological one.

    • anthonyallen

      Agreed. I think that if you nudge your students towards neuroscience, it can be nothing but a good thing.

      (Provided, of course, they actually do science, and not something like act or host a podcast or two. I’m not saying that those things aren’t valuable, just seems like a waste of a perfectly good Doctorate to me.)

  • amydolphin

    Thank you J.T. I posted this in the thread at Pharyngula, but I thought it might be more appropriate here. You put into words what I could not about how these illnesses can affect people. Excepting the anorexia you’ve described almost perfectly how life is for me with clinical depression, anxiety, and PTSD. The worst is the block that you get when you know you should do something and you can’t make yourself do it, and no amount of reason can get you past it. I have been trying for the last 5 years to find a medication that helps me without either causing me pain or making me sleep/not sleep too much. It hasn’t been easy, especially when the side effects cause more problems than the original disease (Lamotrigine for instance gave me extreme fear of driving/riding in cars, which was absolutely fucked up) The current one I’m on has blissfully done away with that particular fear, but leaves me feeling dozy and uninterested in food of any kind (which sucks because I *really* like food) It’s funny because it was supposed to make me hyper :P I’m sure something down the line will work, tho my doc is running out of options and said that electro-shock therapy might be the way to go. I’m skeptical about that. Anyway, tl:dr I’m just coming out so to speak. I am sick, but I will manage it someday. Oh, and everyone who has ever told me to just get over it can bite me!

  • Tigger_the_Wing

    Thank you a thousand times over for the video, JT.

    I watched it today with one of my sons, who is on Citalopram for Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

    He and I will make my husband sit down and watch it this evening.

    My husband, like the rest of us, absorbed the message of the society in which we were raised that mental disorders are a character fault that can be overcome by willpower alone (and that those who fail to overcome them are lazy); unlike the rest of us, who now have a more scientific view, he still believes it. Son and I are convinced that your powerful video is just what is needed and that it will succeed where we have failed by argument alone in opening his eyes to the facts of the matter.

    I only wish I could show it to a bipolar family member, who is totally against modern medical treatment, before it is too late. I shall send a link and keep hoping.

    You also explained for me the behaviour of a friend of mine, suffering from anorexia, who went from food obssesion to an equally overwhelming exercise obsession. And you also helped me to cope with the side-effects of my own medication (for cardiovascular disorders and arthritis). I dislike the slower, fuzzier, more easily distracted brain as much as you do (puzzles are so much more of a challenge these days, and books take weeks instead of hours) but can now see that it is a small price to pay compared to my agonising, largely non-functioning (and probably much shorter) life without the pills and patches.

  • hephzivah

    I’m not surprised you hate religion … so do I. But I love Jesus … why? Reasons too numerous to mention, not least because He loved me first, warts and all … and guess what – He hates religion too! He IS the great physician, it’s true … He’s our healer … and He sometimes heals in an instant, miraculous way … but He also works with and through earthly doctors … don’t believe the hype, He’s much more about love and grace than rules and regs … check out the New Testament books and see for yourself! Followed by the Old! If you entrust yourself to Him you’ll never be disappointed. Just let Him take over in your life … you’ll find it such a relief, and unlike us human beings he won’t let you down … he understands all our human problems and pains cos he’s been there, done that – including being rejected and ridiculed … in spite of it all he did everything right and He does not condemn us … what he says is ‘come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light’. (Matt 11:28-30) The truth is in the Word of God … If you will trust Him and believe Him He will never leave you or forsake you … much grace and love to you from Jesus Christ x

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