Man is a political animal.
— Aristotle, Politics , Book 1, Section 1253a
Religion is the opium of the people.
— Karl Marx, A contribution to the critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right , introduction
Beliefs are at the core of psychiatric practice. Our patients are often shackled by their anomalous beliefs, which are not reality-based. These beliefs are often the primary targets of psychiatric treatment. Consider a day at the office of a psychiatrist who may see several patients impaired by false beliefs, such as:
- My neighbor is reading my mind remotely and is plotting to kill me
- If I ride on a plane, it will crash and I will die
- I am a failure, a worthless person, and a burden on my family
- I am hopeless and helpless; life is too painful and not worth living anymore
- I am a prophet with supernatural gifts, and I can predict the future
- Whenever I take this substance, I feel I can jump out of a window and fly
- If I do not shower 5 times in a row every night before going to bed, something terrible will happen to my family.
Patients with false beliefs obviously need psychiatric care. However, a large number of religious individuals harbor “unusual” beliefs involving angels and devils and hell and paradise after death. Those people of faith are not considered to have a DSM-5 psychiatric disorder. Billions of people around the world belong to one of the approximately 4,300 religions, which they celebrate using one of the more than 6,800 living languages. Psychiatrists encourage patients to have a faith because it can be quite comforting to its adherents, enhancing their social relations and providing them with hope and resilience during the darkest days of life. Regular attendance at a house of worship is a measure of the strong roots of one’s faith.
So why have there been so many religious wars over centuries of recorded history? Why have millions of people died during conflicts among religions? Why does one religious group adamantly believe that theirs is the real God, while the god of other religions is fake? And why have people who withdrew from or refused to adopt a certain religious belief been persecuted; labeled as “heretic,” “infidel,” “heathen,” or “apostate”; and burned at the stake or beheaded? Perhaps religion is not always a kinder, gentler belief system.
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