Rick Warren did what he could, but mental illness claims another victim.

As many of you have likely read, Rick Warren’s son committed suicide.  This is the kind of thing I would never wish even upon my enemies.  A parent should never have to bury a child.  Hemant says pretty much what is on my mind (I strongly recommend reading his whole post):

We should be grateful that the Warrens did what all good parents should have done: They took their son to professionals. They gave him the prescribed medications. They did everything they could to help him. They didn’t just pray. They didn’t try an exorcism. They didn’t blame some decision made by their son. They didn’t say “Satan did it.” They didn’t dismiss the problem. Sure, they prayed, but they did so much more than that.

There is certainly praise to be had for the Warrens for how they handled it.

The primary difference I see, and I don’t think its inconsequential, is that Rick Warren asked his congregation to pray to the architect of mental illness to relieve us of it.

Atheists, on the other hand, seek the cure exclusively from human innovation, and would despise the god who contaminated our species with mental illness if he existed – and we would loathe him for taking another young person’s life.  Hurting so much you no longer want to live is hell, and no good person would wish it on anybody.  Atheists just hold god to the same standard.

Every person in Rick Warren’s congregation, including Rick Warren I’d wager, if given god’s power would wipe mental illness from the planet.  Humans, sadly, don’t have god’s power and so we tinker along, our sights forever set on destroying what god thought belonged as a facet to humanity.  But the moment a Christian realizes they would do something differently given god’s power, they have admitted his design is not perfect, and they have admitted that they could make better moral judgment calls.  They’ve asserted, in that instant, that they could conceive a better world.

And yet they keep praying.  That, I simply do not understand.

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.

  • Art Vandelay

    But the moment a Christian realizes they would do something differently given god’s power, they have admitted his design is not perfect, and they have admitted that they could make better moral judgment calls. They’ve asserted, in that instant, that they could conceive a better world.

    And yet they keep praying. That, I simply do not understand.

    Well said and just out of curiosity, has anyone ever heard a decent, somewhat intellectually honest response to this? I’ve always been perplexed by it and when I ask my religious friends, they just look at me funny and tell me I don’t understand how evil works.

    • Glodson

      When I believed, I didn’t have a decent answer. I had answers. They were just pretty much all shitty answers. God works in mysterious ways. It wasn’t god that caused the illness, but he can show us mercy. God is good, we just don’t understand. It all works out after you die. And a litany of other tired platitudes and lines that are wholly unsatisfying.

      But you keep praying because you want to believe. You keep praying because someone put the fear of hell into you at an early age. You keep praying because you are taught to not question god, to give your religion a special treatment.

    • Besomyka

      Well, yeah. The response I hear most often is self-blame. Even if Genesis is myth, it’s a myth that explains a true thing: that mankind’s freewill allows evil into the world. There’s a good amount of thought into arguing that a universe with free will is better than one without, even if that means people can be shitty to one another. I think of a line of Blake’s poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”

      It makes a sort of internally consistent sense when focused on the horrible decisions people make that hurt others, but not so much when looking at the pain caused by the world itself, apart from the actions of people: disease, earthquakes, genetic disorders, etc.

      Most people I talk with just categorize those things as the evils that freewill enable anyway, appealing unspoken to the implied moral failing of Adam and Eve as justification for punishment from God – or that somehow that transgression is somehow causally responsible for the natural evils that exist. That admits, however, that the evil isn’t from our own free will, but from the ire of their God either directly or in setting the trap. Surely self-imposed evil would have been enough?

      It’s a bit of a mental knot.

      I dismiss it as a rather poor Myth with little to no redeeming or descriptive value, and leave it at that.

      • Art Vandelay

        Thanks, folks. I’m blown away that so many people accept these types of answers.

    • BradC

      Art- When I was a Christian, I saw evil/suffering/disease in view of the “temporary fallen world” scenario, the idea that we are in a relatively short period of time (between Adam’s fall and Jesus’ future return) where Satan/evil are allowed by God to run free, and people have the freedom to choose good/salvation/God or evil/selfishness/Satan.

      It’s a very broad-brush explanation, and makes no attempt to answer individual evils or injustices. In fact, the longer it goes on it is painted (ironically) in a positive light, as God desiring more time for people to be saved.

      But for the meta-questions of why the whole scenario is necessary to begin with, or why the two things (the existence of evil and the availability of salvation) have to be tied together, those don’t really have any good answer.

  • Kim

    I do hope that from the sadness of this situation that people change how they think about mental illness both in and out of the church.

    I grew up in a church where mental illness was seen as resulting directly from not praying enough, Satanic attacks, or even full out demonic possession. There was even a doctor in the congregation who believed (and would tell others) that schizophrenia was nothing more than demonic possession. It was also sad to see a bipolar friend get berated for her struggle. She was so distressed because she spent a couple hours each day praying and reading the Bible and her church leaders told her that her depression was her fault for not praying enough. She still completely buys into Christianity, though, even after being diagnosed.

    I hope communities reach out more to those who are suffering, and push them toward seeking medical attention.

  • Rovin’ Rockhound

    I have to wonder if praying to god to heal your mental illness (or having the people around you visibly pray for that) could actually do harm, even when combined with the secular practices of psychotherapy and meds. For me, adding god to the mix would add – from the perspective of a depressed person – the guilt of disappointing one more supposedly loving authority figure with your weakness, or even the despair of this all-powerful wizard either choosing not to help you, or not being able to help you because you are too far gone. That thought would have squashed the tiny little bit of hope that made the difference between suicide and getting better.

    As much as I dislike Rick Warren, I am sorry for their loss. I am impressed by their openness and the rationality of their response, and I hope that this will lead to greater recognition of mental illnesses and how to deal with them by religious conservatives.

    • AmyC

      “…or even the despair of this all-powerful wizard either choosing not to help you, or not being able to help you because you are too far gone. That thought would have squashed the tiny little bit of hope that made the difference between suicide and getting better.”

      For me this. So much this.

    • Anonymous

      This, so much this. I’ve had a potentially terminal and chronic illness since I was a very young child, and one of the part-and-parcels of that has been depression. When I was a believer (Catholic, no less) I felt a constant gnawing guilt for letting God and my parents down. I felt that by being depressed made me weak and ungrateful, and I constantly wondered if God had me suffer for some purpose, punishment, or if I was my own punishment. A year or so ago, while in the grip of a particularly bad depressive episode and yet another medical emergency, a co-worker gave me some platitude about “God never gives us more than we can handle, you should be grateful…”. I was incensed – I wanted to kill myself, was faced with losing my eyesight (again), and I should be fucking grateful?! In a fit of pique I googled “why are Christians assholes” clicked through some links, read August Cline (over at about.com) and eventually found Hermant Mehta’s blog and JT’s. Reading their posts and the comments gave me comfort I’d never known before. The way I was raised, atheism didn’t exist or was equated with “devil worshipping” (oh the irony). But my views and questions about religion and gods resonated so strongly with the ones y’all expressed here – and so I kept reading, and eventually moved on to Hitchens, Dawkins, and so on. It’s been a year, and while I still have to fight for my health, my depression has gotten better, in part because Im more rational about it, I think. Realizing that gods were absent and that it was human agency that would help me, was one of the most terrifying/liberating/empowering moments of my life. In a way, I owe all of you guys here and at FA a huge thank you. So, thank you :)

  • http://skepticfreethought.com/tokenchristian Jaime Wise

    That poor young man. I can empathize, as someone who’s dealt with suicidal impulses for years, and has multiple family members who’ve also experienced them. I’d agree that the far christian right’s response to mental illness is often very destructive. I’ve also experienced people telling me that my depression is my own fault for xyz reasons. While blaming the sick does happen in the larger culture, I think it’s harder to counter in fundamentalists circles, since they often structure their beliefs in such a way that if one is incorrect, all of them must be. This makes changing perceptions of anything problematic.

    @JT: I have a related question. I greatly respect your openness about your own struggles with mental illness. I’m attempting to be more open myself, both socially and as a writer, but I’m encountering resistance from certain people in my life. How would you suggest someone with a mental illness helps family or friends understand that it isn’t a character flaw?

    • AmyC

      I don’t know what Jt would say, but I’ve pretty much had to just tell certain people to fuck off and not talk to me anymore. It sucks, and at times, it made my depression worse by having to cut people out of my life who used to be a big part of it, but in the end it was necessary.

      • http://skepticfreethought.com/tokenchristian Jaime Wise

        I’ve already decided that I simply can’t share certain information with certain people and expect a reasonable response, but while I recognize that I’m within my rights to follow your advice, I’d like to try and improve the situation if at all possible.

        • Anonymous

          If you go to amazon.com, ou can find some books for family members about mental illness. I’d have to check my notes (they’re somewhere around here) but many of them have helpful advice for those types of situations.