I was in the waiting room at my therapists office the other day (my birthday actually- kind of a strange place to find yourself on such a day, but there I was) and usually I use the five to ten minutes to scroll through Twitter, check email, that kind of thing. The other day though I was alone in there (the weather was bad the roads were in pretty lousy shape, so I shouldn’t be surprised), and so I was taking a closer look around the room. In your typical waiting room at a psychiatric center there’s not really a lot of small talk or even making of eye contact- such is the powerful stigma of shame associated with mental illness that even people with it feel it even amongst themselves. So there I was, by myself, scoping out some of the bad art on the walls, reading the different informational posters (Ebola travel disclosure notices, get a flu shot, that kind of thing), when I got to a small end table that had a variety of different brochures. The big title on one of them that caught my eye was “DO YOU NEED TO BE SAVED?” with an open armed Jesus staring up at me.
Let’s ignore, for a moment, the appropriateness of religious material in what is a state run facility (part of the SUNY Upstate system) because presumably a group like The Secular Therapist Project could also distribute material there. There are two ways to take this, I suppose. The first is that a waiting room at a mental health facility has people who are probably at a time in their life where they could use a hand, a well-meaning friend, etc. Religion can be a great comfort to people and it can give them strength, a church community can give them some structure, etc. But other organizations, whether actively secular/humanist or passively so, like many non-profit community organizations are, can also provide camaraderie and structure.
There are also any number of religiously affiliated organizations full of good people whose primary concern is providing support and help to those going through rough times. But the message this particular organization chooses to lead with is one that makes a pretty big presumption, targeted at a vulnerable population.
One way that churches recruit (and it’s definitely not the only way) is to target vulnerable people and offer them a way out of their troubles. But the problem with offering salvation as the way out it is that it’s exploitative. It starts with the notion that there’s something wrong with a person that is their own fault, caused by their own behavior and state of sin. Sinfulness, as I’m defining it here, is living and behaving outside of the bounds of God’s will. To be saved is to subjugate oneself to God’s will – to view ones behavior as needing to be corrected. But who defines sin, who claims to know the will of God?
There are certain actions that offend the norms of human behavior, such as murder, theft, rape, etc. There are certain behaviors that disrupt human relationships, such as lying. One need not be religious to recognize this. But religions in general go beyond trying to guard against these and broaden the definitions of sin to include (depending on the particular sect) things like gender equality, homosexuality, the pursuit of sexual pleasure, the consumption of alcohol, and in some cases the pursuit of knowledge.
Let’s go back to the waiting room. I struggle with alcoholism. I get depressed and anxious beyond what are healthy or normal levels of depression and anxiety. Do I need to be saved? Are these a result of a sinful nature or sinful behavior? I know plenty of people who would say yes, and only if I unburden myself of those sins and accept the vicarious sacrifice made two millennia ago by an itinerant preacher I would be relieved of my depression, my anxiety and my abusive relationship with alcohol. Which of my so-called sins do I need to turn away from to receive this gift?
Friends, you may struggle with depression, with anxiety. Maybe you’re bipolar. Perhaps, like me, you have some predisposition to an unhealthy relationship with alcohol or some other drug. Maybe these have caused you to behave in ways you aren’t proud of. You may have regrets for years you’ll never get back, relationships that have been damaged or even lost.
But you aren’t sinful. You’re sick. And you can get better. Advancements in biological and medical science, by which I mean the long process of examining evidence, testing outcomes and building knowledge, have helped us understand that mental illness and addiction are diseases- pathological abnormalities that can be treated. We can manage them, reduce our symptoms, and maybe one day find cures for some of them. We can lead healthy lives. Working with professional doctors and nurses, by supporting one another in productive ways, we can be saved without suppressing or feeling guilty about perceived shortcomings or inherent human nature.
We can save each other.