Letters to the Editor
Re: Canadian Psychiatric Inpatient Religious Commitment:
An Association With Mental Health
Dr Baetz and others (1) must be endowed with unusual perspicacity if they think it possible to demonstrate that religion has a beneficial effect on mental health—especially after the events of September 11, 2001, in the US, and in the light of ongoing carnage now taking place in the name of God in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, India, and elsewhere. Add to this events such as the many cases of clergy molesting children sexually, and it is not surprising that an increasing number of people are beginning to view religion as the most destructive of human inventions.
One intriguing finding of this article was that patients who attended church and other religious activities had shorter hospital stays than did those whose religion was just in their heads. Not surprising! Early in the history of Christianity, human-to-human contact was discovered to have a beneficial effect, hence the word “fellowship.” If truth be told, the human-to-human contact is the important one, not the human-to-God contact.
The main problem I had with this paper was its use of psychiatric inpatients to prove the point. Unless the authors subscribe to the view that biological factors alone cause mental illness, they might have considered that the psychological and social factors of religious indoctrination may have contributed to the patients’ psychiatric hospitalization. They did report, after all, that “The intensity of religious beliefs was more pronounced among the more severely ill subjects.” How can that observation help their case?
The only way to demonstrate the role of religion in mental health is to compare a group of devout believers with a group of committed atheists or humanists, provided those in the latter group have either never been indoctrinated with religion or have completed the often-painful metamorphosis from believer to thinking human being. This kind of study has yet to be done anywhere, as far as I know.
I did notice a high degree of selectivity in the list of references. Notably absent is the work of Batson and Ventis (2). In 1982, after examining all the correlational studies and the few behavioural studies to date, these authors came to the following conclusions:
Being more religious is not associated with greater mental health or happiness or with greater social compassion and concern. Quite the contrary, there is strong evidence that being more religious is associated with poorer mental health (Chapter 7), with greater intolerance of people who are different from ourselves (Chapter 8), and with no greater concern for those in need (Chapter 8). The evidence suggests that religion is a negative force in human life, one we would be better off without (Page 306)
We should all remember that an ability to juggle statistical data is no substitute for critical thinking.
1. Baetz M, Larson DB, Marcoux G, Bowen R, Griffin R. Canadian psychiatric inpatient religious commitment: an association with mental health. Can J Psychiatry 2002;47:159–65.
2. Batson CD, Ventis WL. The religious experience. A social-psychological perspective. New York: Oxford University Press; 1982.
Wendell W Watters, MD