When criticism becomes harmful

When criticism becomes harmful February 17, 2015

mackintosh article

I’ve had my share of critics over the past 13 months or so. To recap, in case you haven’t been keep score at home, there have been outspoken critics from both sides. Initially, atheists were highly skeptical of my intentions. From where I stand now I really understand why. They were just doing their job, being good skeptics. I’d probably look on my former self skeptically, too. Some went a good ways beyond skepticism to being cruel and ungracious. Even then I’ve tried to understand why a person might feel that way. Most atheists and skeptics who were intially mistrusting of my motives have become my friends (with a few notable exceptions–you can’t be friends with everyone!).

Christians have also shared their criticisms. While most have been gracious and supportive, I’ve had a few friends and dozens of strangers level the same accusation of dishonesty. In addition to those who have questioned my motives have been people who have damned me to hell and called me any number of names.

There have been times when the criticism has gotten me down, but I’ve tried to keep it all in perspective by realizing, first of all, that I brought this on myself. I did announce to the world that I was doing this very unconventional thing. Secondly, I’ve reminded myself over and over that people’s criticisms often say more about them than they say about me. It’s all been a part of my learning process. Those that were distrusting of my motives helped me see what my project looked like from their perspective. That’s exactly the kind of perspective I set out to gain. Those who attack in less charitable ways are obviously dealing with their own issues as well. I try to remember the advice often attributed to Plato:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

All that being said, there is another kind of criticism (if I can even call it that) that is libelous and damaging to others. On January 1, the flagship magazine of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Adventist Review, published an article about my experience under the painfully condescending title, “Concern, Compassion, and Hope for Ex-Adventist Pastor Who Left God.” The article is badly conceived, poorly written, and lacking in basic logic, but what concerns me more than anything is the potential harm that the author and others like him can do to other unsuspecting individuals who might trust themselves to his care. It recently came to my attention again because apparently the editors of Adventist Review deemed the article worth of putting in the print edition of the magazine.

In the piece, Don Mackintosh says he’s concerned for me because my “journey, while couched in religious jargon, shows all the signs and symptoms of a person struggling with major depression. ‘If God exists,’ say those who are depressed, ‘where is He? Why doesn’t He reveal Himself?'” We who have left our faith get this a lot. We’re told that we’re just mad at God for not coming through for us or we’re depressed and blame God for our lot in life. But that’s not even what bothers me. Mr. Mackintosh, whose byline says he is a “spiritual counselor at the Nedley Depression Program and director of NEWSTART Global at Weimar College (where I graduated with my BA in Pastoral Ministry, interestingly enough), has never met me. We’ve never spoken by phone or corresponded in any fashion.

So this is rather remarkable. Without ever meeting or speaking with me he diagnoses me with “major depression” simply on the basis that I questioned the existence of God. Major depression, in case you’re not familiar, is a clinical diagnosis. According to WebMD, symptoms include,

  • Fatigue or loss of energy almost every day
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt almost every day
  • Impaired concentration, indecisiveness
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleeping) almost every day
  • Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in almost all activities nearly every day (called anhedonia, this symptom can be indicated by reports from significant others)
  • Restlessness or feeling slowed down
  • Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
  • Significant weight loss or gain (a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month)

The first and most important thing to say about Mr. Mackintosh’s diagnosis is that this is a serious mental health challenged faced by millions of people.

Major depression affects about 6.7% of the U.S. population over age 18, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Overall, between 20% and 25% of adults may suffer an episode of major depression at some point during their lifetime. [WebMD]

Frivolous diagnoses like this make light of the seriousness of this disease which claims the lives of tens of thousands of people every year.

Secondly, I’ve looked high and low for any indication that “questioning the existence of God” is indicative of major (or even mild) depression and I have not found it. If you know more about this, please point me to this information in the comments below.

Finally, Mr. Mackintosh, and others like him who have pretend qualifications and claim to treat serious medical conditions, are endangering the public and should be stopped. I’m personally nonplussed by his illogical and passive aggressive attack on me, even though it’s ironic that a person posing as a mental health professional would publicly expose another person allegedly suffering from depression. But whatever. My concern is much greater. Who else is he “diagnosing?” The Nedley Depression Program may indeed be remarkable, but if Mr. Mackintosh’s article is any indication of how he thinks or how he treats other “patients,” he is a danger to those under his care and should be stopped before he seriously hurts someone.

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