Sunday, November 24, 2013

Discussing the Inevitable: Secularism and Handling Language About Death

For many secularists, and even those who identify as religious, funerals and wakes can be difficult situations to handle. Talk of ‘God’s will’ and ‘paradise’ and being ‘in a better place’ are not only unsettling themes to bring up during a time of mourning, but taboo and in a lot of cases, insulting.
But how can the secular community make that known, without seeming anti-theist or intrusive?
From the standpoint of someone arranging a service, it can be as simple as releasing a statement online, or through a newspaper obituary, saying that “Services held at _________ will be secular in nature. Please refrain from using phrases or terms which may be linked to any religion and/or its afterlife.”

           Though it may be perceived as jarring to some folks, doing that could help to maintain a certain level of respect for secularists and our loved ones’ wishes, and our own.

           Services should be dedicated to the memory of a person who has passed, and the emotions involved in processing what has occurred. Often, that is what happens, but when the people closest to the deceased arrange for an ordained priest to speak about ‘God’ and ‘heaven’ and ‘peace,’ what can be done? It’s impolite to outright challenge people’s opinions given the setting, but it’s uncomfortable to listen to, at times, especially if it’s known that the deceased was nonreligious.

           From what I've witnessed, sincere honesty is the best when giving a testimony. Talking about how loved a person was, or a shared moment, can be poignant and sufficient. At my friend’s wake a couple months ago, a close loved one of his had prepared a speech, which she began by mentioning she did not believe in any sort of conventional heaven. I forget her exact words. But from thereon, it became very poetic. She went into a significant amount of detail about the elements of the body having a permanence incomparable to anything I've heard before. She ended it with a line something akin to, “And so, you’ll always be with us.” In that way, she maintained a level of decorum, while also beautifully and evocatively delivering a statement that was deeply personal for her to share, in remembrance of him.

           Speaking publicly is not for everyone, however, and not all of us have a knack for writing symbolically. For those who must interact before a formal service starts, there are some delicate things that can be said that are equally effective at showing respect and care. There’s no ideal or definitive guide for expressing condolences as a secularist in situations where a theistic burial or congregation is confirmed, but as Caitlin Doughty explains in her video there are a few ways to be genuine and heartfelt without overstepping boundaries and remaining spiritually neutral. Her main recommendations for what to say are:

1. I’m so sorry.

    It’s simple. It’s not obstructive. It expresses sympathy.

2. I have no idea how you feel.
    This phrase is a little trickier. It’s truthful, but it may make grievers uncomfortable in acknowledging their own emotions in comparison to others’. Alternatively, one can say the more frequently used, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” or a variation of it.

3. How have you been doing?

    It’s familiar, and as Doughty states, “Puts all of the power in the hands of the griever.”

But in asking a question like this, and in approaching conversation with any of those phrases, it should be noted that secularists may still encounter responses steeped in religious belief, such as:

“I just keep praying” or “God’s giving me strength” and many other phrases related to personal outlooks. It can be painful to listen to at times, especially if one holds that souls do not exist or continue into another form of existence in any way.

Regardless, reticence should be a demeanor practiced when secularists encounter exclusive language, and when attending religious funerals for people who were known to have a belief in a deity or deities.

It’s probably common sense that secularists can do little when receiving responses such as that aside from nod and hope the person will speak with what is considered as more tact, or switch the conversation back to reminiscing. But that divide, that disparity between those who believe in a higher power and those who don’t can cause open and closeted secularists to feel helpless as mourners, and as supporters of those mourning.

    We can’t say, “Yes, _______ is in a better place.” We can’t say, “I’m praying for you.”

But there is a finality to death that everyone recognizes, and the hurt of it is very real- not just for those who believe the end to be the entire end of a person’s experiences. Nothing can be done, really. All anyone can ever do is try to understand, and empathize.


Friday, November 22, 2013

The Real Exorcist?

“Before I perform any exorcism, I always consult with a psychiatrist and a doctor.”

Sitting in the audience, listening to the Catholic-church-endorsed, real live, bona fide exorcist, I looked up, confused. Not because he consults with professionals, that was a nice surprise. An exorcist excising people willy-nilly would mean he could never get through grocery shopping without casting out some demons. No, I was confused by the doctors and psychiatrists, trained professionals with years of experience, who decided that someone was infested with demons. Demons, really? If I went to a doctor and they told me I had demons, I’d be out of that office before you could say “Hail Mary.”

Aside from the apparent lapse of logic that these professionals show when they turn someone over to an exorcist, they are also denying some poor person professional mental help. Instead of starting therapy, trying medications, and discussing lifestyle options, this person is now getting yelled at in a church. I’m guessing homeopathy treatments are right around the corner.

“But how can you explain these people?” you may ask. “How can you explain that some people get better after the exorcism? Checkmate, atheists!”

Uh, not really. Let me relay a little story the exorcist told. It was about a woman who knew something was wrong with her friend. So she went over to her friend, took her by the shoulders, looked her in the eyes, and took the spirit possessing her friend into her. After that point, she’d had episodes of personality changes, night terrors, and would “sleep haunt” the house. The exorcist spent a year working with her, slowly exorcising seven different demons from her in the course of the year. It was implied that she’s been fine since. Impressive, right? True story. Now let me tell you another little story, also true. In the 80s, “repressed memories” became popular in psychology. Repressed memories are supposedly memories that someone has buried deep within themselves and forgotten due to trauma. To relieve the memories, the patient (victim?) went to a therapist and was hypnotized. Through the hypnotist/therapist’s leading questions, the patient would unearth the memory, and then be un-hypnotized and discuss the memory, supposedly treating the patient and curing depression, bipolar, what-have-you. Nice theory, but it lead to thousands of people, mainly women, “remembering” satanic cult abuse and “discovering” up to hundreds of different personalities residing within themselves, and being subsequently diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) (reclassified as Dissociative Identity Disorder).  MPD is controversial and extremely rare. For thousands of women to suddenly be diagnosed? Sounds a little sketchy. Many women have since realized the memories of abuse and alternate personalities were entirely their own (helped along by their therapist) invention. The human brain is an incredibly powerful object, and in the right mental state can take suggestion very, very far.

        So, now that we’ve heard the two stories, I ask: what’s the difference? Demons vs. memories. Exorcist vs. hypnotist. Multiple personalities. A brain that has been suggested into, and now out of, an awful mental state. Sound familiar?

But hey, the exorcist helped that woman, right (no word on how the friend she took the demons from is doing)? So he helps people! Except that he then mentioned that if the person doesn’t live their life a certain way after the exorcism, the demons just come back. What if it wasn’t demons coming back? What if…what if the person is just relapsing into mental illness? Do we go through the whole charade again, and hope that powerful suggestion keeps the “demons” away forever? Maybe it’s time to try a different psychiatrist.

If you’re interested in MPD, the Wikipedia for “Dissociative Identity Disorder” does a great job explaining it, and also has a section on repressed memories. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Defining Delusions

I infrequently hear atheists casually refer to religious beliefs as "delusional", but I have refrained from doing so myself because it always seemed like a very heavy charge to throw out so casually. But I recently looked up the criteria and description of what a "delusion" is, and I was surprised by how much the description matched religious beliefs like Christianity. Below is a description of delusional disorder with my own annotations according to the key below. Citations are at the very end of this post.

The full text on which I am commenting can be found here.

BOLD = Reminiscent of or consistent with religion.
RED = Personal notes.
BLUE = Noteworthy things.

Delusional disorder is characterized by the presence of recurrent, persistent non-bizarre delusions.

Delusions are irrational beliefs, held with a high level of conviction, that are highly resistant to change even when the delusional person is exposed to forms of proof that contradict the belief [1][5]. Non-bizarre delusions are considered to be plausible; that is, there is a possibility that what the person believes to be true could actually occur a small proportion of the time. Conversely, bizarre delusions focus on matters that would be impossible in reality. For example, a non-bizarre delusion might be the belief that one's activities are constantly under observation by federal law enforcement or intelligence agencies, which actually does occur for a small number of people. By contrast, a man who believes he is pregnant with German shepherd puppies holds a belief that could never come to pass in reality. Also, for beliefs to be considered delusional, the content or themes of the beliefs must be uncommon in the person's culture or religion [There’s a religious exemption for delusion. Of course.]. Generally, in delusional disorder, these mistaken beliefs are organized into a consistent world-view that is logical other than being based on an improbable foundation.

In addition to giving evidence of a cluster of interrelated non-bizarre delusions, persons with delusional disorder experience hallucinations far less frequently than do individuals with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder.


Unlike most other psychotic disorders, the person with delusional disorder typically does not appear obviously odd, strange or peculiar during periods of active illness. Yet the person might make unusual choices in day-to-day life because of the delusional beliefs [2]. Expanding on the previous example, people who believe they are under government observation might seem typical in most ways but could refuse to have a telephone or use credit cards in order to make it harder for "those Federal agents" to monitor purchases and conversations. Most mental health professionals would concur that until the person with delusional disorder discusses the areas of life affected by the delusions, it would be difficult to distinguish the sufferer from members of the general public who are not psychiatrically disturbed. Another distinction of delusional disorder compared with other psychotic disorders is that hallucinations are either absent or occur infrequently [Miracles and Godly appearances].

The person with delusional disorder may or may not come to the attention of mental health providers. Typically, while delusional disorder sufferers may be distressed about the delusional "reality," they may not have the insight to see that anything is wrong with the way they are thinking or functioning. Regarding the earlier example, those suffering delusion might state that the only thing wrong or upsetting in their lives is that the government is spying, and if the surveillance would cease, so would the problems. Similarly, the people suffering the disorder attribute any obstacles or problems in functioning to the delusional reality, separating it from their internal control [Jesus helped me do this or that] [Jesus take the wheel] [6]. Furthermore, whether unable to get a good job or maintain a romantic relationship, the difficulties would be blamed on "government interference" rather than on their own failures or omissions. Unless the form of the delusions causes illegal behavior, somehow affects an ability to work, or otherwise deal with daily activities, the delusional disorder sufferer may adapt well enough to navigate life without coming to clinical attention. When people with delusional disorder decide to seek mental health care, the motivation for getting treatment is usually to decrease the negative emotions of depression, fearfulness, rage, or constant worry caused by living under the cloud of delusional beliefs, not to change the unusual thoughts themselves.

Forms of delusional disorder

An important aspect of delusional disorder is the identification of the form of delusion from which a person suffers. The most common form of delusional disorder is the persecutory or paranoid subtype, in which the patients are certain that others are striving to harm them.

In the erotomanic form of delusional disorder, the primary delusional belief is that some important person is secretly in love with the sufferer [God loves me and I love him]. The erotomanic type is more common in women than men [3]. Erotomanic delusions may prompt stalking the love object and even violence against the beloved or those viewed as potential romantic rivals.

The grandiose subtype of delusional disorder involves the conviction of one's importance and uniqueness, and takes a variety of forms: believing that one has a distinguished role, has some remarkable connections with important persons [God listens to you][7], or enjoys some extraordinary powers or abilities [4] [Faith healers].

THIS IS NOT THE END OF THE FULL TEXT, it is just the end of the relevant part of it for this blog post. Continue reading here.


Friday, November 15, 2013

Gay Marriage in a 'Christian Nation'

Illinois' recent approval of the gay marriage bill has got me thinking: why didn't this happen sooner? 

For a nation that cites one of its pillars as separation of church and state, our ineffectiveness at doing so is astounding. For instance, take the fact that creationism was taught in public schools, or maybe the whole "One Nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance thing. Although these policies have both undergone reform, America has not yet learned to follow the statute it boasts. Today, marriage equality, the basic right of all humans to marry, is still denied in 35 states on purely religious grounds.

Unless America is a theocracy--and surprise, surprise! it is not--there is no justification to pass or prevent laws on the basis of religion. While America is predominantly Christian, 21.6 percent of Americans--a viable chunk--do not follow the Christian faith (Pew Forum, 2007). How do the Muslims, the atheists, and those of any other religion feel when Christianity is cited behind a law, or when a public face makes policy decisions based upon the Bible--a book none of these groups believe to be true. Passing a law on the basis of the Christian faith is an infringement on the rights of all these groups. In regards to the opposition of gay marriage, its basis lying in the Bible, it infringes first and foremost upon the rights homosexuals, but also the rights of those non-Christians such as myself to a democratic nation, free from religious bias.

And what to make of the fact that most other laws are not based upon the Bible? If I were a Christian and managed to blind myself to the other denominations in our country, how could I deny that? Fornication, or pre-marital sex, is deplorable by biblical standards. Yet, the American government does not punish those found fornicating, nor are fornicators denied the right to marry. Also, divorce is not only legal, but relatively easy to obtain, and even abortion--clearly a sin by Christian standards--has been legalized in today's government. If these degenerate sins are legal, there is no precedent saying that another such "abomination" should not be legalized.

In a sense, those opponents of gay marriage following the Christian faith negate their own basic ideals. Because of one passage claiming the abomination of "mankind lying with mankind as he does with womankind," a crusade has been made against homosexuals. But does this crusade not infringe upon the pillars of Christianity--acceptance, love, and forgiveness? Pillars, not briefly mentioned like the passage denoting homosexuality, but ideals driven to the core. This supposed acceptance and love should foster acceptance of all mankind, even those who "lie with other mankind." And, if nothing else, their forgiving natures should allow them to see past these "abominable" acts and once again, accept. Through this acceptance, or at least forgiveness, they should be all-loving, willing to promote the equality of their brothers and sisters rather than blatantly deny them based on one line in a massive book.

Finally, there is the crazy notion that all human beings deserve equal rights. In this day in age, open discrimination against any minority group is absolutely reputable and illegal. Yet, homosexuals are not only denied the right to marry the person they love, but also denied the tax-cuts, next of kin status, and many more of the freedoms allowed to those who are married. Mind-boggling is the stance of some supposedly all-loving Christians to openly deplore individuals for something they cannot control. Shouldn't they, shouldn't anyone be able to look past something harmless--a predisposition, even a choice--and see that there is a person there. A person who--as any other person--deserves equal rights.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Clash Between Church and Mental Health

Every day I get texts from a friend of mine who lives back in Texas. She’s a sophomore in high school, goes to my former church, and lives in a family whose religious fervor rivals my own family’s. My friend and I didn’t start talking until just before I moved to Illinois, but once we began texting, we realized we had a lot in common: our oppressive families, cult-like church, and strong desire to go to ComicCon. However, what I relate to the most with my friend is the difficulty she faces as she overcomes depression in an incredibly religious environment.

Like myself when I was her age, my friend has depression and struggles with self-harm. Unlike myself, her parents know about her depression but don’t believe that it exists. They tell her that if she exercises more and prays more she can “get over it.” They refuse to let her go to counseling and they tell her that they are disappointed she can’t just get over it. And this is the problem I have seen all my life in church.

Everyone has their secrets, but I’ve found that in churches, mental health problems are the biggest secret of all. In the 18 years I was forced to go to church three times a week, plus retreats and mission trips, I made a lot of friends within my youth group. I got to know them all intimately and learn about their lives. I thought I knew all there was to know about my friends. Until one by one, I discovered that almost all the people I hung out with from church had mental health issues, past or present. One girl had overcome a serious eating disorder. Three of my friends told me they cut themselves consistently. One friend was suicidal. And this was only within my immediate group of friends. My youth group consisted of hundreds of teenagers and I heard stories of self-harm and depression and eating disorders over and over again.

The common thread among all these people who suffered in my church was the fact that almost all of them had told their parents, surprisingly. Another common thread was the fact that my friends’ parents told my friends to pray harder, then ignored the problem. Several different people told me that they had tried to address their problems with their parents and their parents did nothing.

I realize that a lot of adults, religious or not, refuse to acknowledge their children’s mental health concerns, however, from what I’ve experienced, in churches it’s worse. Though mental illness is a major concern everywhere, I’ve found that religious parents are less likely than nonreligious parents to help and support their children through their illness. The problem is that by acknowledging mental health issues, people must accept that mental disorders are a problem that needs fixing, and religious people feel like getting counseling or considering medication is turning away from God. Even though it is a fact that mental disorders are a result of chemical imbalances in the brain, religious people steadfastly believe that you can “pray away the sadness.” They think the only comfort people need is Jesus and therapy or medication undermines the “power of the Lord. The other issue religious parents have with acknowledging their children’s mental health concerns and getting them help is fear of their religious community. They believe that their congregation will judge them and think of them as bad parents for not teaching their children to have enough faith. In most churches, parents are told repeatedly that it is their responsibility to teach their children how to pray, trust in God, and be strong Christians. Therefore, if a child can’t “get over” mental illness by just putting their faith in God, some of the blame is put on their parents for not teaching them how to trust God.

For example, my story (the short version) is that I grew up with severe depression, began harming myself when I was barely 13, and in the first month of my freshman year I had to spend a week in a psychiatric hospital for a near-suicide attempt, then six weeks in an outpatient program/charter school. My parents ignored all the symptoms of my depression until I told them I needed to go to the ER and they couldn’t ignore it anymore. While I was in treatment, my parents told my grandparents and other family members that I was sick, and that’s why I wasn’t in church. My extended family never found out about the hospital, or the fact I had to transfer schools for six weeks. The reason being that my family is deeply religious and my parents were ashamed of me. They didn’t want my family thinking that they were bad parents or that I was depressed because they didn’t teach me to trust in God enough. No one at church knew. My mom yelled at me and burst into tears when she found out I had told one of my closest friends from church about the hospital.

While I went through treatment after I was released from the hospital, my mom refused to talk about my depression unless it was to tell me that God would help me through it. I luckily have parents who understand that mental illness is a chemical imbalance in the brain, but they still believed that God could fix that chemical imbalance. Though my parents agreed to put me through a lot of counseling and get medication, I was constantly told that I needed to trust God and he would fix me. Even now, almost 5 years later, my mom refuses to talk about that time in my life, unless to say she knew God would help me and it was the strength of her faith and prayer that got me through the depression. God was credited for my recovery, not my own hard work and will to get better. At that point in my life, I did not consider myself a Christian, but I didn’t consider myself atheist either. I didn’t know what I was, but it still felt horrible to be told that if I just had more faith, my depression wouldn’t have happened. I was (and still am) blamed for my own mental illness because I just “wasn’t Christian enough.”

This is generally the case with most deeply religious parents, in my personal experience. They won’t believe in mental health problems because they undermine Jesus and imply a lack of faith in God. I find it twisted, though, that religious people keep their family’s mental health issues a heavily guarded secret, because it is taught in most churches that fellow Christians should be a support system and a source of comfort in times of need. So wouldn’t it make sense that if a person or their family member was struggling with depression or another disorder, they’d seek out their religious community for support?

Through the years, as I hear more and more stories of mental health issues in people with religious backgrounds who don’t get the help and support they need, my anger grows. Especially when the person who is struggling is a minor, it is neglectful and harmful for parents to deny their children help. My friend texts me everyday and tells me about the struggles in her life, and I always feel rage at her parents who deny her any resources for her depression. They tell her it’s not real and force her to go to church more, which only makes her life worse.

A third of Americans believe that prayer and Bible study alone can cure mental illness. This statistic terrifies me, and for anyone who is in or supports the mental health field, it should terrify them too.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

ISSA's Light the Night: Service + Community = Fun

Saturday, October 19th, marked the Illini Secular Student Alliance's second annual Light the Night Walk benefitting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS). It was a chilly night with a concurrent football game, so the turnout was lower than we hoped, but there is no denying that the event was a success. We certainly did light the night, walking with the lanterns that LLS generously provided, and though we didn’t have a large number of walkers, several passers-by stopped by our tent to simply donate to the cause.  Therein lies what makes the stress and time of putting on an event like Light the Night worth it for ISSA.

LLS is a charity dedicated to finding a cure for leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma as well as improving the quality of life for patients and their families by offering patient support services. LLS is the single largest nonprofit contributor to blood cancer research and has invested more than $814 million in life-saving science since inception.

This year, our Light the Night Walk featured lit balloon-shaped lanterns provided by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, sandwiches donated by Silver Mine Subs, an assortment of gift certificates that were included in a door prize drawing, a “Pin the T-Cell on the Cancer” game based on actual research, and live music by a couple of members of the local band A Cool Hand, including ISSA’s very own Justin Tanaka. Businesses that donated to our door prizes include Radio Maria, Maize, Fat Sandwich, Kamakura, and Jupiter’s.

Last year, ISSA raised over $2000. This was part of the combined efforts of the secular community, through coordination by the Foundation Beyond Belief, which raised $430,000 with the help of a matching grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation. This year we’re well on our way to matching that or even surpassing it! We’ve raised approximately $500 through our Hug an Atheist fundraiser and $272 from Light the Night.

ISSA will continue to raise money for LLS through December by efforts of individual fundraising and a benefit concert at The Canopy Club. Seven local bands will “Rock the Night,” and all the proceeds from the event will go to charity. The University of Illinois chapter of the Foundation for International Medical Relief for Children is helping us publicize the event, so a portion of the proceeds will go to FIMRC.

Service events are my favorite aspect of ISSA because, as my time as a student leader has highlighted, nothing brings people together like volunteering their time and energy for a good cause. At events like LTN, we put our humanist values into action and help build a humanist community in return.