Religion can be a Mental Illness

Religion can be a Mental Illness January 21, 2019

Editor’s Note: Luckily, this Clergy Project Member is now far removed from the agony he experienced as a closeted gay convert to a very fundamentalist form of Christianity. While I understand that religion as some people practice it can be benign and very comforting, I cringe thinking of the damage it has done to innocents like Fernando. The following has been edited for clarity from a post he wrote on his blog in 2016. / Linda LaScola, Editor


By Fernando Alcantar

Some fake news was going around in social media that mentioned how —

“According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a strong and passionate belief in a deity or higher power, to the point where it impairs one’s ability to make conscientious decisions about common sense matters, will now be classified as a mental illness.”

Though I later found these articles to be unfounded and wishful thinking, it did bring several dark memories from my past to the therapist’s couch.

Many people have attacked me, criticized me, and ridiculed me since I left religion.

“You really didn’t know God”

They tell me this, among other colorful themes, because it is the only way they have to cope with the idea that someone who was so deeply attached to Jesus could ever leave his flock. Religion is something so real to them that leaving it behind feels like an act of betrayal — something that makes no sense in the context of how they perceive the world. But public opinion is finally catching up with my personal experience and the traumatizing effect religion had on me.

In my book To the Cross and Back: An Immigrant’s Journey from Faith to Reason, I tell the story of how I came to be a part of a cult called Siete Olivos in Mexicali, Mexico. Teenage American missionaries from the U.S. visited this little church, brought by Azusa Pacific University’s  Mexico Outreach program. Thousands of teenagers and their leaders from all over the US and Canada visited poor and secluded evangelical churches in mostly rural areas in the Mexican cities of Mexicali and Ensenada. I was among those kids who were invited each year for Vacation Bible School.

“The gringos are coming”

That was the talk of the town.

Every Easter they indoctrinated me with words of love (which they wholeheartedly believed to be true), and eventually they turned this emotionally broken high-school nerd into a tongue-speaking, demon-casting, shaking-on-the-ground, “an angel just touched me,” “God is telling me to _____” type of guy who sacrificed his wellbeing for the pursuit of something they said was invisible but real. They also encouraged complete denial of my sexual identity, which they classified as an abomination and God’s reason for punishing people with AIDS!

And do you know what’s the worst part of this? I preached this with passion.

  • I taught kids how to speak in tongues.
  • I led people to shaking on the ground in the spirit.
  • And, oh how it breaks my heart — I counseled teenagers who were supposedly “struggling with homosexuality” on how to pray-the-gay-away.

I was brainwashed with the best of intentions to save me from a life of sin–a sin described thousands of years ago by people who interpreted the wonders of the world they could not understand as the act of a powerful deity they could not see.

But good intentions can still be sick and abusive–and these were.

If you need a real world example of what this experience feels like, you can find it in my book.

In it I did not bash the religion or call it a cult, or describe myself as being mentally ill. I wrote the story as I felt it at the time, with innocence and teenage awe toward the supernatural, and an appreciation for the love Christians gave me. I did that so you’d be able to see that it is not that easy to recognize something so turbid at first glance.

“God is love”

I was told this. And who doesn’t like love? How can people know right away that they are in a cult; that they are mentally ill? Would you?

I am better now, but I still feel repercussions from those times. There are many people like me who suffer from a PTSD-type of existence, because these are scars of war.

The thought of how I could have believed in something like that still haunts me from time to time – and other times it just cracks me up. I think that eventually we humans will get to the point where we all realize we don’t need gods any more to explain the natural world.  We have Google and Wikipedia now. But in the meantime, we should be able to draw a line when this belief impairs our ability to make conscious decisions about common-sense matters. And we should not be forced to tolerate ignorance and manipulation in the name of so-called religious freedom.

Sick is sick.  Fake is fake. Good intentions or not.


Bio: Fernando Alcántar is a former leader of the Foursquare (evangelical, Pentecostal) denomination in Mexico and senior coordinator of North American Partnerships at Azusa Pacific University, where he oversaw hundreds of churches in Mexico and helped to mobilize thousands of missionaries a year from all over the United States and Canada. He is now a gay atheist activist, spreading a message of tolerance, introspection and understanding. He lives in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. He is a member of The Clergy Project and author of To the Cross and Back: An Immigrant’s Journey from Faith to Reason, with a foreword by Dan Barker.

>>>Photo Credits: ; by Greg Dart


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  • Jennny

    Your 3 bullet points about teaching tongues etc resonated with me. Mine were that I spent 50yrs indoctrinating countless children telling them how much god loved them, that they were sinners and needed jesus in their hearts.
    Name a type of children’s evangelism, and I’ve probably done it. I ran kids clubs, took school assemblies, put on concerts and x-tian drama, led missions, camps and houseparties, organised fun days etc etc etc. I went to DD’s fundy church not long ago so I could spend the day with my 2yo g/son. We danced about and did silly actions to silly songs – DD mouthed to me to join in and pick the child up so he could jig along as he ‘loved that.’ I was mortified to think that up to 5 yrs ago, I’d have been totally immersed in the service and thought it was wonderful… it was, I couldn’t wait for it to be over so we could go home and play Thomas the Tank Engine!

  • mason lane

    Society has recognized that physical abuse of children under the guise of religion is a crime and hopefully one day it will be the same for the mental abuse done in the name of fundamentalist religions. Mental abuse and mental damage to a child’s psyche is very real. I look back at the years when I was in the Evangelical cult and it clearly seems like an era of culturally induced delusional mental illness.

  • Jennny

    All the upvotes. There’s an IFB church planted in my UK village and the american pastor wrote on the local FB page that he was starting an AWANA group. (I may have been the only one to know the W was or workMEN…not acceptable at all here!) Two mothers commented ‘Religious indoctrination is child abuse.’ which really surprised me…I don’t think even 5 yrs ago, they’d have ‘put their heads above the parapet’ to say that. The church also flooded the village with the info it was hiring the village hall for a mega-carol service so why not ‘bring along, give a lift to, a lonely person? All welcome.’ I wasn’t brave enough to ask them, ‘Can I bring my trans friend? And the two men who ‘live in sin’ near me?’ I feel so pleased to be out of all that now and feel I lead a much more honest life.

  • Jim Jones

    > I wasn’t brave enough to ask them, ‘Can I bring my trans friend? And the two men who ‘live in sin’ near me?’

    Carols? Would they want to come?