“Exvangelicalism” is a relatively new term for a much older phenomenon: those who’ve been raised as evangelicals coming to realize that they no longer identify as such, and intentionally reckoning with the continuing impact of that tradition in their lives. Philosophers have not had much to say about this phenomenon – until now. The Evangelical Philosophical Society sponsored the panel “Exvangelicalism and Evangelical Philosophy” at the 2022 Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, and in this series of blog posts, the panelists share their contributions.
In an often-cited study by Lifeway in 2014, nearly half (48%) of evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians surveyed stated that they agreed with the statement “With just Bible study and prayer, ALONE, people with serious mental illness like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia could overcome mental illness.”1 And four years later, the Desiring God account tweeted the following which many interpreted as an endorsement of this kind of view,
The account tweeted a semi-retraction later that day; however, what is most interesting is the intense responses it provoked. Although some praised the tweet, the vast majority of responses were negative, calling out the misleading and harmful view of mental disorder it seemed to imply. Many also noted in their replies that they had often encountered this view of mental disorder from those in their Christian communities. One notable response to this effect came from pastor Jarrid Wilson.
Wilson died by suicide a year and a half later after tweeting the following
Many took the original Desiring God tweet to be implying a Spiritual Illness view of mental disorder which holds that mental disorder is essentially, a ‘spiritual illness’ – in that it is caused, or at least allowed, by God as a result of one’s sin, shortcomings, or evil supernatural forces – and ought to be treated through spiritual means (e.g. prayer, repentance, scripture reading – and in rare cases, exorcisms, etc.).2
This kind of view ‘over-spiritualizes’ or ‘reduces’ mental disorder to something primarily or solely spiritual, often denying or diminishing the role of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. This view can – and often does – lead to blame and stigmatization of the individual experiencing mental disorder, as well as a diminished desire or ability to seek professional treatment outside the church.
Increasingly, churches recognize the importance of addressing the ‘non-spiritual dimensions’ of mental disorders and more actively supporting those in their congregations who experience them. Unfortunately, however, recent studies indicate that an ‘over-spiritualizing’ view of mental disorder remains firmly entrenched among many Evangelicals. According to one study, 31% of Evangelical participants reported receiving teaching at their church that reflected this overly-spiritualizing view of mental disorder.3 Similarly, in two past empirical studies of mine over half of our participants reported experiencing a Spiritual Illness approach to mental disorders in their church community.4 For example, one participant explained that they had
been met with “I haven’t had enough faith or I would have been healed”…whether “I have unconfessed sin” or “I haven’t prayed enough”…and it’s really, really been a challenge to kind of get past the hurt of that…not everybody by any means – but kind of that a lot of people in the Church have seen me as like somebody to be fixed, instead of just being somebody to care for or to help or just to welcome in.
And another stated that the message from their Evangelical church and family,
got worse and worse about how they hoped that I could learn to change my life around because God was just waiting to have me be good and then I wouldn’t be mentally ill anymore. And so, through my personal experience attend[ing] different churches and then through other people that claimed they were religious and their view that I had done something wrong to be mentally ill, they were just really negative experiences which just pushed me further away from wanting to be a Christian because I thought, you know, if you’re a Christian and that’s what you believe, that’s just horrible.
The prevalence of Spiritual Illness approaches to mental disorder is especially concerning as religious clergy and communities often function as ‘frontline’ mental health care workers and ‘gatekeepers’ to mental health treatment and services. According to some research, in the US, more individuals with mental health concerns seek out help from religious leaders and clergy than from psychologists and psychiatrists combined.5
This view seems to be especially gripping for Evangelical Christians who tend to draw a close connection between mental & emotional well-being and spiritual health.6 Roughly, the idea is that, if someone is a ‘good Christian’, they might experience suffering as a result of ‘external circumstances’ (e.g. loss of a loved one), but will be largely protected from serious mental disorder (e.g. major depressive disorder, schizophrenia) and attendant symptoms (e.g. extreme mood swings, suicidal ideation). And while there is theological and empirical support for a relationship between religious beliefs & practices and various ‘positive emotions’ (e.g. joy, peace) – Spiritual Illness views often oversimplify important complexities within this relationship, resulting in a view that is at best misleading, and at worst, extremely inaccurate and harmful towards those who experience mental disorders.
These over-spiritualized etiologies of mental disorders often prompt over-spiritualized views of how we ought to treat them. One effect we saw in our participants was that the (often) unmet expectation – that religious beliefs and practices will diminish or cure one’s mental health issues – served to further harm those who experienced mental disorder. Participants didn’t just suffer because (for example) praying more didn’t alleviate their severe depression, rather, they suffered because they were told and believed that praying more would alleviate their depression, and it didn’t. Not only did these views often delay or prohibit participants from receiving professional treatment, it also contributed to an increased sense of abandonment from God and destabilizing of faith, and an increased sense of shame and self-blame, in addition to what participants already experienced as a result of their mental disorder itself.
Something that likely enables these views of mental disorder to fester is the fact that churches often don’t talk enough about mental disorder. The same Lifeway study cited above found that “49% of pastors say they rarely or never speak to their congregation about mental illness” yet the majority of those actually suffering from mental disorder (and their family members) say they “want their church to talk openly about mental illness”.7 When doing so it is important to center the firsthand experiences of those with mental disorder, in addition to increasing time spent addressing these topics from the pulpit.
Research on stigma interventions speaks to the power of firsthand narratives. Similarly, in our studies, participants’ attitudes towards their own mental disorder and religious identity were positively impacted by engaging with firsthand narratives from similar, past participants.8
These influential narratives shared some important elements. First, although many noted that a Spiritual Illness approach was adopted by their religious community, the individuals themselves often did not adopt a spiritual etiology of their mental disorder, and in fact staunchly resisted this view. Instead, they acknowledged the role often played by biological, psychological, and environmental factors and advocated for treatment appropriately addressing those dimensions (i.e. medication, therapy, etc.). However, they still engaged in spiritual coping (e.g. praying and leaning on religious community to help deal with – but not necessarily treat or cure – some of the negative effects of mental disorder), often highlighting ways in which this was intertwined with the biopsychosocial components of their experiences of mental disorder. example, the following participants explained,
I am at my healthiest when I have regular therapy, so someone who is psychiatrically trained and when I also have regular spiritual direction, someone who I meet with every month to talk about what God and I are talking about or sometimes more specifically what God and I are not talking about but perhaps ought to. Both of those are necessary for my own experience with my mental and spiritual health.
I’ve noticed that there’s a spiritual element dealing with mental health problems, praying and reading the Bible and taking part in spiritual community. There’s also physical stuff that helps, too, like medicine and the like. And I’ve seen those both work in my own life. So, I have to assume that there’s a spiritual and a physical component to these things.
Additionally, they also engaged in spiritual meaning-making – drawing out meaningful, positive effects of their mental disorder.9 For example, the following participants expressed that it increased their sense of God’s presence, strengthened their sense of empathy and calling, and ultimately deepened their understanding of God.
I can think of at least one season in which feeling hopeless prompted me to turn to God and again, I would say that some of my most meaningful encounters with God happened when I was depressed/lost/hopeless.
All the experiences I have had with symptoms of depression have worked together to deepen my faith and have allowed me opportunities to come alongside others to help them see their worth and how much God cares for them.[My experiences brought up] what I like to call, “Questions you have for God that have no answers this side of Eternity,” they force you to reevaluate your faith in terms of what you believe about who God is; what His word the Bible, says about “healing”…For me, these experiences forced me to wrestle with my faith, take God OUTSIDE of the neat theological box of my understanding about who He is, how He works (or how I think He should work), and how to partner with him to navigate the suffering and deep pain/angst of loss/hopelessness.
However, crucially, many participants were adamantly against any kind of romanticization of their mental disorder. They emphasized that any benefits came about in the midst of, and sometimes through, the deep suffering they experienced as a result of their mental disorder – and that these benefits did not in any way make their mental disorder a good thing. For example, the following participant explained that
well, if you’re in a lot of pain, what can you do to make the pain more positive? Well, it doesn’t [sic]. Prayer and meditation doesn’t make the pain positive. It doesn’t make the mental pain positive. It does make it a place where learning can happen…I haven’t ever felt like this means that the hard mental health stuff is, is good in itself, but it does become a place where I can learn how to be with God or …how to notice God being with me…so I guess, you know, I can be grateful for what that has brought to me. But in my opinion, it doesn’t mean that well, it makes it all worth it or anything like that. (emphasis mine)
Lastly, their narratives were descriptive rather than prescriptive: in other words, they focused on the person faithfully and vulnerably communicating their individual experience, rather than using it to try to convey a particular message or to instruct others on how they ought to view their own experience. Many participants were clearly impacted by reading these narratives about mental disorders and Christianity and noted that they thought it was because these narratives did not have an agenda. This contrasts with the ways in which many participants reported hearing mental disorder addressed (when it was addressed) in their religious communities – namely, as focused more on generalizable meaning that might be drawn from such experience. For example, one participant attests to this contrast explaining that they see preaching on mental disorders as often “oversimplified” and with a kind of “catch all” message,
kind of like everyone’s testimonies [are], ‘yay, God saves’. And I’m like, OK, didn’t work for me. That’s just not how that works. But I see now with these readings of people’s testimonies how religion has actually helped them through their mental health and because they are more into detail about how that specifically worked for them.
Christian, and perhaps especially Evangelical, communities have a long way to go to better support those who experience a mental disorder. One important next step is shifting away from explicit and implicit Spiritual Illness approaches which over-spiritualize the causes and treatments of mental disorders. Instead they ought to acknowledge the crucial role of biological, psychological, and environmental causes and treatments while focusing on the possibilities of spiritual coping and spiritual meaning-making. One especially powerful way to do this is by foregrounding the firsthand experiences of those in their congregations who experience mental disorders. Christian communities must create the space and freedom for them to express their stories in a way that is faithful to their experience – even if that sometimes challenges underlying assumptions about the nature of mental disorders and their relationship to religious beliefs, experiences, and practices.
Mental disorders impact some of our deepest capacities, ones that are foundational to how we see ourselves and relate to the world and God: it can challenge our ability to trust our own perceptions, emotions, and thoughts. Thus, the insights gained from the experiences of those with mental disorders are relevant to how we understand the human condition more generally, as well as our connection to God – which are central to the work of Christian communities.
- Lifeway. “Acute mental illness and Christian faith.” (2014) http://research.lifeway.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Acute-Mental-Illness-and-Christian-Faith-Research-Report-1.pdf
- Scrutton, Anastasia Philippa. “Two Christian theologies of depression: An evaluation and discussion of clinical implications.” Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 22, no. 4 (2015): 275-289.
- Lloyd, Christopher EM, and Robert M. Waller. “Demon? Disorder? Or none of the above? A survey of the attitudes and experiences of evangelical Christians with mental distress.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 23, no. 8 (2020): 679-690.
- Finley, Kate “Narrative Engagement & Religious Meaning-making in Mental Disorder” (under review)
- Heseltine-Carp, William, and Mathew Hoskins. “Clergy as a frontline mental health service: a UK survey of medical practitioners and clergy.” General psychiatry 33, no. 6 (2020).
- Webb, Marcia. Toward a theology of psychological disorder. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017.
- Lifeway, Acute mental illness and Christian faith.
- Finley, Narrative Engagement & Religious Meaning-making in Mental Disorder.
- See Finley, Kate. “Mental Disorder, Meaning-making, & Religious cognition” TheoLogica (forthcoming)