Keeping the faith

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 October, 2003, 12:00am

It is odd that psychology and religion are so often in conflict with one another. After all, they are both concerned with the meaning people give to their lives, their sense of inner peace and their ability to live in harmony with the world and people around them. Freud, for example, was hostile to religion, although he borrowed from it extensively, and many psychologists today scorn religion as unscientific.

Yet psychology's founding father William James thought deeply religious people had an ability to open up to that part of the mind that is normally hidden from 'full sunlit consciousness'. They have privileged access to the psychological realm that is particularly hard for scientists to study. Their faith is proof of a special pathway to what Freud later described as the unconscious - or some sort of no-man's-land between what we can and cannot know. This is because people such as mystics, said James, were willing and able to passively surrender their will.

Some people might argue that some of today's talk therapies attempt a sort of systematic version of this experience. Free association, for instance, is the technique used by some therapists in which patients are encouraged to say whatever comes into their minds, however bizarre or potentially evil or offensive, before their conscious mind has time to block or channel the stream.

However, one main difference is the intention behind the activity. Deep religious faith, as James saw it, is a direct source of spiritual enrichment through an opening up of channels between the conscious and unconscious. Freudian talk therapy, on the other hand, is more like a one-way information gathering process, a sort of methodological archaeology of the spirit.

Unlike Freud, James struggled with his inability to believe in God. He saw the benefits of religion in the lives of believers. Since his time, generations of psychologists have found ample evidence of these advantages.

Indeed, religion's extraordinary power to bestow peace of mind is one of the many reasons psychologists keep coming back to the subject. But neither the empathy of James nor the clinical eye of Freud was able to fully deconstruct the phenomenon.

Today, psychologists tend to break down religious experience into more easily examinable chunks. They speculate that religion is good for you for peripheral reasons as well as because of the benefits of faith itself. For example, religious people typically attend meetings and are members of stable communities associated with their religious belief. Studies show that people who are not religious but who attend regular meetings and are part of a non-religious community are healthier mentally and physically than those who do not. The social aspects of religion, then, may explain at least some of its benefits.

This is distinct from seeking solace through soul-bearing therapy activities in which an individual essentially battles his or her own demons in isolation from the rest of society. Most therapies presuppose that it is possible to master one's own existential difficulties. If you can force yourself to look at the most painful aspects of yourself, it promises, the psychological air will be cleared. Religion, as James suggested, could not be more different. It hinges not on unearthing the past and 'mastering' it in some fashion, but on letting go.

This is why many people 'find religion' only when they hit an all-time low in their lives - when they are finally forced to accept the limits of their own will. When faced with a crisis, a controlling approach to life can suddenly look like sheer vanity - a form of intellectual illusion.

However, even in times of trouble, religion does have its psychological boundaries, recent research suggests. There is a happy medium. Moderately religious spouses of lung cancer patients, for example, do best. They cope by seeking a degree of religious comfort in faith and are less depressed than people who use little or no religious comfort. But moderate believers are also less depressed than fervent believers, who may rely too heavily on their faith.

The main difference appears to be that moderate believers tend to find comfort in times of difficulty through a mix of coping strategies, not just religion. Other types of coping which seem to help people attenuate the depressive effects of family illness, for example, include seeking comfort and discussion with family members and friends, being part of a support group or becoming more informed about the disease through professionals or literature relevant to the problem.

This line of research suggests that the ideal way to cope with life's major problems (such as life-threatening illness) is a delicate balance between 'letting go' and taking charge. A blend, put otherwise, of active psychological engagement on the one hand, and unscientific faith on the other. Jean Nicol is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and writer