September 17, 2014

Historical Harm: Damaging religious doctrines aren't new or unique to our modern age



I don't know if I've mentioned it--maybe I have just once or twice--but I am a huge fan of Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of so many books. Recently, I finished Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.

Hecht chronicles the history of suicide, from a time when the ancients believed it could be justified in service of preserving one's honor or the state, through the onset of Christianity which made it taboo.

One passage in particular really struck me, so I'd like to share them, and then I'll add some discussion. They are long, but worth it.

Let's take a look.


Hecht says:

Indeed, Burton includes a classification for what he called "religious melancholy," to which he devotes a section of his book long enough to have been a book of its own. Burton sees religious melancholy created by excesses of both overpassionate Catholics and overpassionate Protestants. He fulminates against priests who scare their parishioners, adding, "But above all others the dam of that monstrous and superstitious brood, the bull-bellowing Pope which now rageth in the West, that three headed Cerebrus hath played his part." Meanwhile due to terrifying Protestant preachers, Burton sees many patients who are suicidal because "thinking they are already damned, they suffer the pains of hell and more than possibly can be expressed." Many had killed themselves, thinking they "hath offended God"; he tells of a woman who threw herself form a window, breaking her neck, some who hanged themselves, some who cut their throats. Burton asks whether such deaths are necessary and answers: "Experience teaches us that though many die obstinate and willful in their malady, yet multitudes again are able to resist and overcome, seek for help and find comfort, are taken from the chops of hell." He offers much advice, but above all Burton counsels those suffering from religious melancholy to stay away from tracts and sermons that excite these concerns, and for all melancholies he insists, "Give not way to solitariness and idleness. Be not solitary, be not idle." Burton ends his book with the stirring words: "Hope, ye miserable. Ye happy, take heed." 
Some kind of deep religious despair was clearly widespread because, by the turn of the sixteenth century, Calvinist leaders had begun to recognize suicidal crises and to shape a scheme of conversion and redemption protective to the men and women affected. Burton describes such crises as a kind of illness, which the church's cure only exacerbated. The ministers "making every small fault and thing indifferent an irremissible offence, they so rent, tear, and wound men's consciences that they are almost mad and at their wit's ends." (86-87)

When people who have experienced spiritual abuse and the darker side of religion tell their stories, they are often met with disbelief.

Religion has been around forever, they are told. It can't be as bad as you thought. You are only being sensitive.

When I read this passage from Stay, I related immediately. I know that feeling of never being good enough, of being broken and weak. I know it can drive you insane. I know it can get into your head and gnaw away at you, and I know when you voice these concerns, you will be told you are being convicted, that it's not a problem, you just need to "get right". I know that it can, in fact, drive you to suicide.

You will be told that this is a modern idea, this idea that religion does harm.

But it's not. Burton was writing to us from 1621, and the same ideas took root then. The same ideas.

For many religion is a great source of good. Of comfort, calm and strength. For others, it isn't. It's a source of pain and oppression.

Please don't dismiss those stories simply because they don't match what you think of religion.

We're part of a long, long history.





I truly recommend this book to anyone, so I thought I would like to it on Amazon. Check out Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.

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