As scientists prove that faith can relieve pain, distinguished psychologist Dorothy Rowe examines the case for and against religion
I’m not religious, but I have thought about religion all of my life. My mother never attended church but she insisted that I went to St Andrew’s Church, a cold, unfriendly place filled with cold, unfriendly people. At home, my father, an atheist, would read aloud to us from the essays of Robert Ingersoll, the 19th-century militant atheist.
Ingersoll’s prose had the music and majesty of King James’s Bible. I loved the language of them both. I learned how to use Ingersoll’s logic to examine the teachings of the Bible. My disapproval of the cruelty and vanity of the Presbyterian God knew no bounds, but I felt at home with Jesus, whom I saw as a kind, loving man like my father.
God had not been in the trenches, or anywhere else, with the ex-Servicemen whom I met at university. When religion was discussed, we listed the cruelties and stupidities of religion throughout history, just as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens were to do 40 years later.
However, when I went to work in psychiatric hospitals, I realised that criticising religion was not enough. I needed to understand why religion becomes an integral part of a person’s life – and doesn’t cease to be so when such beliefs cause the person much pain and guilt, or lead him to commit murder, even to the point of genocide.
Although they had not recognised it, my depressed or psychotic patients were struggling with the questions that theologians and philosophers had struggled with for thousands of years. “What will happen to me when I die?” “How can I be a good person?” “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Siegfried, a depressed, alcoholic psychiatrist, told me about his uncle, who was in the RAF during the war. He provided the love and concern for Siegfried that was lacking in Siegfried’s parents. He said: “Then, one day his aeroplane came down a bit too fast.
“Up to that time, aged 13, I’d had some vague concept of God – I sang in the church choir every Sunday. My last memories of any contact with God was that particular night when I called Him all the filthy language I knew. I thought, if He exists, He’s a s–t.” I asked him how he felt about God now. He said, ‘If He exists, He’s a s–t’.”
Unable to find satisfactory answers about the meaning of their existence, the psychotic patients had constructed very idiosyncratic fantasies. Ella was a beautiful 16-year-old who had become withdrawn and isolated. Her parents had taken time to recognise that there was a problem because, to them, she was the perfectly obedient child they wanted.
Ella’s mother told me: “I always obeyed my parents and I expect my children to obey me.” Fearing her parents’ anger, Ella learned to avoid all spontaneous decisions and actions. She told me: “I’ve begun to wonder whether I’m the only person who’s really alive – the only living person. Everyone else is a vision. I’m living each person’s life in turn.”