Religion and Mental Health: Healthy Religion, Unhealthy Religion

In observance of Mental Health Week Shepparton Interfaith Network in collaboration with Voices for Harmony conducted a forum, Religion and Mental Health at GOTAFE on Friday, 9th October. In this report, Rev. Chris Parnell explored Healthy Religion, Unhealthy Religion, and mental illness.

Religion makes many offers. Religion offers everyone a sense of worth, life satisfaction and future expectations of happiness. Religions point to a goal of life, and indicate the path to that goal. There are many paths to (that) goal, and perhaps - according to some - when we reach the goal we find that others have the same experience albeit by a different path. Interfaith dialogue often reveals this to be the case, particularly when people express their felt human experience of the Divine.

Healthy Religion

Healthy religion allows independence of mind. Healthy religions allow their adherents and believers to make their own decisions, to exercise their own discrimination. Healthy religion encourages you to use your common sense, to allow for the values and demands of society and culture, and to use your own spiritual sense, your spiritual values. Healthy religions give tools to use of discrimination. Many speakers tell that religion is the binding element in culture and society. Let's take a look at one example of this in Australia.

Recently, at the University of Melbourne, facilitated by the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, more than 25 Imams from around Australia deliberated and produced a document - An Australian Muslim Perspective on Some Key Contemporary Concerns - which represents the views of a large number of Imams in Australia. One of our local Imams in Shepparton has signed off on this document. The first two statements are about Australian citizenship.

  1. There is no conflict between Islamic rules, values and norms and taking up Australian citizenship.
  2. As citizens of Australia we should exercise our right to participate in key institutions in the country; be they political, economic, legal, security or social; while observing the fundamental teachings of our religion.

It is clear here that the Imams Forum is speaking about Healthy Religion - as we said - Healthy religion encourages you to use your common sense, to allow for the values and demands of society and culture, and to use your discrimination. Healthy religion allows you to participate in all forms of social discourse be they political, economic, legal, security or social. Healthy religion gives you to tools to actively participate in the fabric of national life just as much as one may participate in the spiritual community of their choosing. Where this happens, we have what is called integrity, unity of thoughts, words and actions.

Integrity is the foundation of true humanness, where we walk our talk: our thoughts, our words, our actions - in alignment one with the other - is the expression of good character. Other people attribute character to us from what we think, say and do. When we live with integrity, we are also giving expression to the highest aspirations of healthy religion. And when we do this, we are applying our own discrimination, our own sense of good and bad, right and wrong, and we are informed, given the tools to do this in our religion, our schooling, our homes through our parents, and our society. What happens when we are told what to do, what to believe, what to think by a religion?

Unhealthy Religion

We began by saying "Religion makes many offers. Religion offers everyone a sense of worth, life satisfaction and future expectations of happiness." What if a religion, in one or another of it forms or sects begins to proscribe behaviour? What if a religion or a sect begins to make your decisions for you? What happens when a religion does not allow you to use your common sense, your sense of cultural and social mores, and does your thinking for you? What happens when a religion does not allow you to use your own discrimination? I recently encountered such a situation, locally.

Recently, I visited a friend in Euroa. He was sitting at the kitchen table reading a letter from his sister, and tears were streaming down his face. This friend previously held office in another well known religious group and had opted out. He had been away from this group and following his own path for many years. Some months back, he visited his sister in her home and they had an enjoyable afternoon, good company. Family, in any other word. The sister, she had been visited by the Elders of her religious group, and they told her that she was not to speak to her brother any more. He had left the path, he was disfellowshipped, and a bad influence upon her. So my friend of 75 years age was letting his feelings out because this religious group had told his sister she could not contact him any more, not speak to him any more, no letters, no phone calls. This letter was the last. She was to excommunicate him from her life.

When a religious path, a spiritual group does your thinking for you, and tells you who you can see - and not see - then we have the seeds of unhealthy religion, a situation where people are denied their independence, denied the use of their discrimination, and basically told to pray, pay and obey. Where a religion tells you not to use mobile phones, not to use computers, who you can and cannot associate with, to cut off from your family, we are beginning to look beyond unhealthy religion to groups that are often called cults.

Cults deny freedom. Cults tell you what to believe, what to think, what to do. At WACO in Texas, the leader, David Koresh told his followers to stand in a pit of excrement up to their necks. At Jonestown, Jim Jones told his followers to drink cordial and reach Paradise. Heaven's Gate - the cult that told its followers that, as the Hale-Bopp comet approached, a UFO was hiding just out of site behind the comet's tail, ready to snatch them up. They all drank a concoction of arsenic and apple sauce so they could rise from their bodies into the UFO.

And we have cults in Australia, also. There was the cult of Our Lady of Castlemaine, where the leader told her followers to stare at the Sun for an hour and they would see the Virgin Mary. People's eyes were damaged, and the Church could not help anyone for it was outside their jurisdiction. Nearby Wollongong, there is the Order of St Charbel led by the fellow with the name "Little Pebble", one William Kamm. In 2005, Kamm was sentenced to five years in prison with a non-parole period of three-and-a-half years for a string of sexual attacks; his rationale was they one of his 84 mystical wives. Both the Catholic Church and the Marionite Church have publicly disowned Kamm and his Order of St Charbel. So you can understand that cults not only deny freedom, they deny the use of common sense, social mores and values and the use of discrimination. What about other kinds of guidance from religion, such as the nationwide respect - and veneration - of cows in India. Is this unhealthy religion?

Cows have been venerated in India since Vedic times (approx 12,000 years ago). The cow is a symbol of the Earth, the nourisher, the ever-giving, undemanding provider. The cow is a symbol of grace and abundance. Veneration of the cow instils in Hindus the virtues of gentleness, receptivity and connectedness with nature. Many gurus and great saints in India, such as Ammachi (the hugging saint who travels the world giving hugs) and Sai Baba teach that if you wish to follow the spiritual path, and reach the goal, then it is better that you abstain from meat eating, smoking, alcohol and gambling. These disturb the mind, and to reach the goal of life, steadiness is needed. These saints and gurus do not make apoplectic "Thou shalt not" rulings, but rather, guide people that it is better to abstain if you wish to tread the path to the goal with steadiness.


India has a tradition of venerating cows as Lord Krishna was a cowherd; Krishna known as Gopala, beloved of the cows

Some other aspects

There are many ways that people understand mental illness and religion - that does not necessarily derive from Unhealthy religion. Some people may suffer illness because of past wrongs in the family or past sins by the individual. Some people feel that they are cursed. While sitting in an office in Shepparton three days ago, a lady came in and asked "Is there anybody who knows a witch doctor?" I have this fellow, he believes he has been cursed. We made some suggestions, but no, a witch doctor was needed. This is the power of culture and belief, and that power can clearly have people returning to their country of origin to undertake rituals to have curses removed. There are also people who believe they are possessed by a demon.

Possession in the past was managed with exorcism, and purification. Today, modern possession is often the fruit of self-abuse and drug use of one kind or another. Some divines and gurus tell that there are as many disembodied persons in the astral as there are in physical bodies, at the present moment. To go on in this vein, they explain, if a drug addict dies in overdose, there is unsatisfied desire, and they roam the astral looking for people "hitting up" as it were, and drop into their bodies and suck off the high. That's why its called "Chasing the Dragon" for the drug addict never gets back to that original high, they are always chasing that high, and they are "possessed" in the modern term, by other (disembodied) addicts getting their satiation through another body.

So we understand that ungrounded scrupulousness, an overbearing sense of sinfulness, guilt and shame, curses and modern forms of possession can also be a source of mental illness. There can be cultural and faith based barriers to healing. What is needed, is balance.


Our lives ought have balance. We aspire to a balance between work and recreation, exercise and play, and our self-identity is balanced by our spiritual pursuits. We have common sense, we have a grasp of the values of our society and culture - given to us by our family, our schools, our social environment, and we have our good character which protects us when we are stressed, challenged, confronted or disturbed. Character is built up over time and character is informed by our use of discrimination. Where we form good habits, reinforced by our values and attitudes, we can land on our character bank, our values bank when we feel assailed. This is the fruits of our inner discipline, shaped and form by our religious guidance and our discrimination. Let us look again at what Healthy religion offers us.

We began with Religion makes many offers. Religion offers everyone a sense of worth, life satisfaction and future expectations of happiness. Healthy religion gives us that sense of belonging to a worshipping community. Healthy religion also gives another belonging, with shared values and identification with Australia. Healthy religion encourages participation in voluntary work, and fosters a sense of acceptance. That acceptance is not only in the religious community but also in the Australian community, acceptance for minorities, newcomers, and positive attitudes to those seeking a new life here. The refugee moves from detention and temporary protection to an identity as the new "Aussie Battler", welcome and helped.

Healthy religion - that which grants you the free, unfettered use of your discrimination, both allows and promotes active participation in cooperative, economic, political and civic pursuits, be they voluntary or paid employment. There is trust in other people, and confidence in public institutions. Healthy religions have you satisfied about life, free to follow your aspirations and feeling optimistic about the future.


On the road to mental health, we can have healthy religion and common sense on the one side,
on the other side, we might have religion curbing common sense and discrimination.

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