Mental Illness and the Belief in a Soul with Free Will

Mental Illness and the Belief in a Soul with Free Will June 12, 2015


An article called “5 Things Christians Should Know About Depression and Anxiety” from RELEVANT Magazine popped up in my Facebook feed the other day. The magazine describes itself as

…the leading platform reaching Christian twenty- and thirtysomethings. Covering faith, culture and intentional living, the stories we tell are at the intersection of where a Christ-centered life is really lived. Our magazine is not about “being relevant” (whatever that means)—it’s that God is relevant to every aspect of our lives.

I found the article interesting because it seems to argue for a naturalistic understanding of the human mind, and it comes right up to the precipice of acknowledging that there is no “soul” that can gratuitously buck the law of cause and effect at will. It also acknowledges that the Christian church is deficient when it comes to understanding mental illness and supporting those who suffer from it.

I was raised in a church called Grace Gospel Chapel — a no-frills, non-denominational church in the Plymouth Brethren tradition. That means we were dispensational, pre-tribulational, pre-millennial, biblical literalists and inerrantists. In other words, we believed that God dealt with human beings in different ways under different biblical covenants, and that there was an imminent rapture of believers before a terrible period of tribulation for non-believers on Earth, followed by a 1,000-year reign of Christ on Earth.

We also took everything the Bible said literally — that God made the Earth in six days, Adam and Eve were the first two human beings created out of the dust of the ground (and, for Eve, Adam’s rib) in a perfect garden, that there was a global flood which Noah and his family survived and repopulated the Earth, that Jonah really spent three days in the belly of a whale, that the sun really did stand still in the sky while Joshua attacked Jericho, and…well, you get the idea.

We also believed that everything written in the Bible was without any error regarding every aspect of life — history, biology, sociology, psychology, politics, science, etc. — and that we’re perfectly capable of understanding all that because the Holy Spirit that dwells within us guides us in our understanding.

The article from RELEVANT was posted by a guy four years older than I who grew up in the church with me and who apparently has suffered from depression himself. I’m not friends with him on Facebook — one of my other friends “liked” his post, so I saw it in my feed — so I don’t know how long he’s suffered from depression. But I found it interesting because I went through a major depressive episode when I was 29 years old.

I had just become a partner in a start-up headhunting firm in northern New Jersey, about 15 miles outside Manhattan, and we had just opened our doors in March of that year, when the U.S. economy was in the middle of a recession. Our business relied on our corporate clients paying us a fee for candidates they hired from us, and at that point they either weren’t hiring or couldn’t justify paying a headhunting fee to find employees (our fee was 25% of the salary they offered to the applicant we found for them, which meant they would have to pay us $25,000 for hiring someone from us who would be making $100,000 at their company).

To make matters worse, Al-Qaeda flew two planes into the Twin Towers in Manhattan six months after we started.  The combination of a recession and the first major terrorist attack on U.S. soil ultimately caused our fledgling business to fail — our clients weren’t hiring, and no one wanted to work in New York. We weren’t making any money. I stayed on for another year but ultimately left because we stopped taking a salary and I had run out of savings.

I had thrown myself 100% into this endeavor, investing all my time and even my sense of identity and self-worth into the project. I was working long hours and was extremely stressed out; and on  top of that I was in the middle of saving for and planning a wedding with my fiancée at the time.

I had also just openly admitted, to myself as much as my fiancée at the time, that I was an atheist — the culmination of a long process of de-conversion through understanding a naturalistic worldview. So when the terrorist attack occurred, it knocked me completely out of orbit and threw me into a deep depression.

Because of my religious upbringing, I believed I was a soul endowed with free will. And even though I had finally admitted that I was an atheist, I still clung to the idea that I was a “Self” that could choose otherwise in any situation. If I was depressed, I could just choose not to be. It might be difficult to will myself free of it, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t possible. The implication of that thinking, though, is that if I couldn’t make myself not be depressed, then it was a defect of will, a character flaw.

Needless to say, it didn’t work, and a new element was added to my profound feelings of sadness, anxiety, and meaninglessness — a sense of shame. Fortunately, the combination of talk therapy and mindfulness meditation eventually brought me out of my depression several months later. And by that time, I had come to the conclusion, based on studying current mind science and reflecting on my personal experience, that whether or not I recovered from something like depression was ultimately out of my control. That’s why this sentence from the RELEVANT Magazine article stuck out for me:

[Depression is] not a character defect, a spiritual disorder or an emotional dysfunction. And chief of all, it’s not a choice. Asking someone to “try” not being depressed is tantamount to asking someone who’s been shot to try and stop bleeding. Such an attitude can dangerously appear in the Church as, “if only you had enough faith.”

That’s exactly how I felt about depression after going through it. It was a hideous wave that came over you out of nowhere, and like a riptide you were pulled into the depths of the dark sea. I was loathe to admit that I was powerless against depression, not only because I had abandoned the worldview in which I had lived, moved, and had my being for three decades, but because I had always prided myself on being self-reliant. My parents couldn’t really understand what I was going through because I had always been a happy-go-lucky, confident (over-confident, really) person.

Since I had no prior experience with depression, I began reading everything I could about it. One of the books that helped me cope at the time was The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon. Reading books like that, combined with talk therapy and mindfulness meditation, helped restore hope and confidence and assuage my guilt and shame for not being able to simply will myself out of my depression. Unfortunately, when I discussed these things with my father, he spoke from the biblical, pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps worldview.

Ever since I left my religion, I’ve struggled to understand how those still in it can acknowledge the power of science to understand the world while still clinging to religious explanations for human behavior — specifically the concept of a soul with free will. Consider what the RELEVANT article says:

But to deny medical or psychiatric treatment to someone suffering from mental illness is really no different than denying them to someone with a physical illness.


The most Christ-loving and helpful community might not have the appropriate framework for dealing with such clinical disorders, and many churches don’t have licensed psychologists on the staff. Pastoral staff can be ill-equipped to deal with depression and err toward a spiritual solution rather than psychological or medical treatment.

But what makes a “soul” special is that it is categorically different from one’s body, from one’s brain. The whole idea of free will is that one can circumvent the law of cause and effect upon which a scientific understanding of the world and the human being is predicated. A religious person’s soul shouldn’t need licensed psychologists or prescription drugs to free itself from depression. And what’s more, the religious person’s soul has recourse to the Holy Spirit of an omniscient, omnipotent God to augment its own will.

Most people intuitively believe that the essence of who they are is a little homunculus in their head calling all the shots, overriding any behavior it deems inappropriate. But modern science shows that there is no such thing. Why? Because we’re confident that the “soul,” or the essence of who we are, is inextricably tied to our brain. People are right to intuit that our soul is in our “head,” in that sense. But if that’s the case, then we know where to look to try and find it. This isn’t a case of “the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence” because we expect to find some evidence of that little homunculus soul somewhere in the workings of our brain. But we find none, so we can say with confidence that that conception of ourselves is incorrect. Tom Clark at the Center for Naturalism describes the problem with the traditional conception of the soul:

As strictly physical beings, we don’t exist as immaterial selves, either mental or spiritual, that control behavior. Thought, desires, intentions, feelings, and actions all arise on their own without the benefit of a supervisory self, and they are all the products of a physical system, the brain and the body. The self is constituted by more or less consistent sets of personal characteristics, beliefs, and actions; it doesn’t exist apart from those complex physical processes that make up the individual. It may strongly seem as if there is a self sitting behind experience, witnessing it, and behind behavior, controlling it, but this impression is strongly disconfirmed by a scientific understanding of human behavior.

I realize committed Christians aren’t likely to give up the idea of a soul because it’s tantamount to giving up their religion — without a soul, Christianity makes no sense. But doing so would go a long way toward achieving what the author of that RELEVANT article hopes to achieve — getting the church to deal effectively with mental illness.

This isn’t to paint the Church with broad strokes. Incorrect beliefs about mental illness are pervasive throughout our culture. However, some of the “church-y” misconceptions about clinical depression and anxiety spring from a genuine desire to understand them scripturally. It’s necessary to generalize a bit to understand these attitudes: there are things well-meaning Christians tend to get wrong.

Most churches probably have the very best intentions when dealing with issues of mental illness. Like the rest of society, however, the Church may misinterpret these clinical conditions and respond to them in ways that exacerbate them—and as a result, demoralize those suffering.

And if they were to allow themselves a truly open-minded assessment of what the science says about the self and its ailments, they should develop a strong skepticism of the idea of a supernatural soul altogether.


Image via Wikipedia Commons

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