Religion and Mental Illness: Are They Connected?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Road Less Traveled" by M. Scott Peck. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the relationship between religion and mental illness? Is a belief in God a sign of psychopathology?

Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck explores the connection between religion and mental illness in his book The Road Less Traveled. Examining the stories of two different women—one a theist and the other an atheist—Peck determines that dogmatism, rather than particular beliefs, is a more likely cause of psychopathology.

Read more to learn about the connection between religion and mental illness.

The Relationship Between Religion and Mental Illness 

Some people argue that believing in God is a sign of mental illness. 

For example, one of Peck’s patients, Kathy, grew up with such an absolute belief in God that it eventually led her to a mental institution. She grew up with a very religious mother and married young to a man who treated her generously but did not seem interested in her sexually. She began to fantasize about being unfaithful, and her belief that God would punish her for her thoughts sent her into a mental breakdown. As she examined the source of this belief (her mother) she began to discard what no longer resonated and eventually built a life that felt right to her, sans religion. 

Kathy’s case could indicate a troubling connection between religion and mental illness. However, there are also cases that suggest that it is dogma, not a belief in God, which forms the root of psychopathology as it pertains to religion.

Consider the case of a young woman named Marcia, whose upbringing, rooted in atheism, caused her world to become cold and narrow. When she began to blossom into a warmer, more open-hearted version of herself, a belief in God arose organically and enriched her life.

Both Kathy and Martha suffered primarily as a result of the absolutism inherent in their respective beliefs (catholicism versus atheism) and experienced relief as they allowed their perceptions to expand. Given this, dogmatism may indeed be the true root of psychopathology.

The relationship between religion and mental illness is understood better when we drill down and look at the specifics.

Religion and Mental Illness: Are They Connected?

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  • The four key elements in the path to enlightenment
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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