Is psychiatry a religion?

Is psychiatry a religion? March 25, 2009

As religion slowly unwinds itself from our culture, what will replace it? Could it be that that thing is already here, in the guise of psychiatry?

Well probably not, of course. But Rob Whitely (Dartmouth Psychiatric Center in New Hampshire, USA), writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, has made a (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) comparison of the two (free, full text here). Here’s how the uncanny similarities stack up:


It could be argued that psychiatry and clinical psychology … involve large amounts of ‘outreach’ work to people not currently encompassed within its loving embrace. Like religious mission, this occurs at home and abroad

A priesthood.

… psychiatrists go through arcane training which sets them apart from the general public. Psychiatrists have reserved powers to administer medication and can even coerce treatment and compulsory detention. Like many religious denominations, loyalty and conformity are prized virtues within mainstream psychiatry.

Sacred texts…

Psychiatry also has texts which are often referred to in reverential and canonical tones – these are DSM-IV17 and ICD-10, specifically the mental and behavioral disorders section V.18 These texts, in existence for decades, guide both psychiatrists, and to a lesser extent the lay public, in thought and deed

Devotional literature

… psychiatry and psychology have spawned many books (often labelled self-help) that interpret psychiatric beliefs to the general public, helping them journey through this vale of tears. Indeed, most reputable bookstores now have shelves devoted to psychological self-help, often outweighing those devoted to religious interpretation.

Weekly observances…

As religious leaders encourage weekly visits to their house of worship, some psychiatrists and psychologists encourage weekly visits from their patients. Therein, patients are expected to reveal intimate details of their day-to-day life to the clinician.

… and sacred practices

Psychiatrists may advise their patients to engage in another somewhat ritualistic behaviour, that is the consumption of a small white tablet in whose substance efficacious agents of change are deemed to be present.

Well, OK, it’s all pretty tendentious. But there are parallels here that are worth thinking about. Vaughan over at Mind Hacks argues that none of these touch on what he says are a core aspect of religion:

The ‘psychiatry is a religion’ argument is weak, however, as despite similarities in some functions, none of these are core features of religion. As identified by cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer, the single common feature of all religious is a preoccupation with unseen sentient beings, of which psychiatry says nothing.

But really that is just one aspect of religion. In fact, cultural rituals are another core component. As supernatural beliefs diminish, the cultural needs remain and need to be fulfilled somehow. I think it’s very probable that psychiatry is helping to do that.

And here’s an interesting thought to finish with. A 2007 study found that psychiatrists were the least likely of all medical professionals to be religious. Perhaps they know something that their patients don’t?


Whitley, R. (2008). Is psychiatry a religion? JRSM, 101 (12), 579-582 DOI: 10.1258/jrsm.2008.080044

Curlin, F., Odell, S., Lawrence, R., Chin, M., Lantos, J., Meador, K., & Koenig, H. (2007). The Relationship Between Psychiatry and Religion Among U.S. Physicians Psychiatric Services, 58 (9), 1193-1198 DOI: 10.1176/

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