Republic 2: Theological Critique vs Religious Trauma

Republic 2: Theological Critique vs Religious Trauma

In this essay, I conclude our analysis of Book II of The Republic by examining Plato’s theological critique of religion and contrasting it with contemporary accounts of so-called religious trauma.

After establishing the need for a guardian class, Socrates now enquires into their education (376c). As we noted last time, guardians must be both upright and courageous, taking care of those within the city and repelling with ferocity those who would invade it from without. Their education, then, must encourage the development of such a twofold character. Yet, Socrates observes that the popular religious stories with which children are educated actually undermine the development of a virtuous character and should be abandoned as a result. Socrates thus offers a powerful theological critique of religion. In contrast to modern materialists, Socrates does not reject popular religion because it posits the existence of unseen gods at work in the world, but because its characterization of them is both false and ignoble. Rather than irreverently mocking the gods, Socrates castigates the religion of his day for not being reverent enough.

Socrates suggests that, in educating the guardians, the city should follow a traditional pedagogy in which the body is strengthened through physical training, and the soul through poetry and music (376e). The training of the soul begins with the stories children are told (376e), and Socrates points out how, since little care is taken to distinguish between true and false stories, children are taught a good deal of falsehood about matters of great spiritual import (376e-377a). Socrates argues that such carelessness has disastrous results, for, at this young age, children are exceptionally malleable and absorb with childlike faith the value systems encoded in the stories they are told.  He observes:

“You know, don’t you, that the beginning of any process is most important, especially for anything young and tender? It’s at that time that it is most malleable and takes on any pattern one wishes to impress on it” (377b). And, as a result, we shouldn’t “allow the children to hear any old stories, told by just anyone, and take beliefs into their souls that are for the most part opposite the ones we think they should hold when they are grown up” (377b).–Trans. Cooper.

Since children uncritically take on the stories they are told, it is important to avoid telling them damaging stories, stories that subvert the very values we hope they will adopt as adults. Armed with this insight, Socrates then begins the dangerous task of criticizing the traditional religious tales of his day. He contends that the otherwise beautiful stories of Homer and Hesiod encourage shameful actions by depicting the gods as committing them. He explains:

“Indeed, if we want the guardians of our city to think that its shameful to be easily provoked into hating one another, we mustn’t allow any stories about gods waring, fighting, or plotting against one another, for they aren’t true. The battles of gods and giants, and all the various stories of the gods hating their families or friends, should neither be told nor even woven in embroideries. If we’re to persuade our people that no citizen has ever hated another and that it’s impious to do so, then that’s what should be told to children from the beginning by old men and women; and as these children grow older, poets should be compelled to tell them the same sort of thing. We won’t admit stories into our city—whether allegorical or not—about Hera being chained by her son, nor about Hephaestus being hurled from heaven by his father when he tried to help his mother, who was being beaten, nor about the battle of the gods in Homer. The young can’t distinguish what is allegorical from what isn’t, and the opinions they absorb at that age are hard to erase and apt to become unalterable. For these reasons, then, we should probably take the utmost care to ensure that the first stories they hear about virtue are the best ones for them to hear” (378b-e).

It is important to keep this context in mind when considering Plato’s alleged censorship of poetry. For Plato portrays Socrates as setting forth these arguments within a debate about how to best educate children. If there is any material you would prevent your three-year old son or daughter from seeing, on the grounds that he or she is not yet mature enough to critically evaluate its content, then you should agree with the premise of Socrates’ argument here. It is possible to believe in the freedom of information in the public sphere (so that that the citizenry can make rationally informed choices), but nonetheless insist that your child engage with only age appropriate material. Indeed, one popular argument against censorship turns on just this fact. Governments (and the corporations and banking dynasties that ostensibly control them) should not censor information, because, in doing so, they treat their citizens like children, rather than rational agents, and, as a result, it gives unchecked power to oligarchs and tyrants to prevent the populace from understanding the true aim of their machinations. Instead of an argument for blanket censorship, Socrates here sets forth a theological critique of religion and the religious education of children. He presents a threefold case against popular religion.

Socrates’ Three Arguments Against Popular Religion

            First, Socrates criticizes popular portrayals of God as an agent of evil in the world. He observes how the poets depict the gods as dispensing good and evil to men from two jars, as  sowing strife, and as causing men to sin so that the gods can have an excuse to ruin their families. Socrates contends that such portrayals cannot be true. He explains to Adeimantus:

“S: Whether in epic, lyric, or tragedy, a god must always be represented as he is.

A: Indeed, he must.

S: Now, a god is really good, isn’t he, and must he be described as such?

A: What else?

S: And surely nothing good is harmful, is it?

A: I suppose not.

S: And can what isn’t harmful do harm?

A: Never.

S: Or can what does no harm do anything bad?

A: No.

S: And can what does nothing bad be the cause of anything bad?

A: How could it?

S: Moreover, the good is beneficial?

A: Yes.

S: It is the cause of doing well?

A: Yes.

S: The good isn’t the cause of all things, then, but only the good ones; it isn’t the cause of the bad ones.

A: I agree entirely.

S: Therefore, since a god is good, he is not—as most people claim—the cause of everything that happens to human beings but of only a few things, for good things are fewer than bad ones in our lives. He alone is responsible for the good things, but we must find some other cause for the bad ones, not a god” (379a-c).

Socrates here argues that since God is good, He must act accordingly. He cannot violate his nature. As a result, He will do good, bestowing benefaction on the recipients of His actions, but he will never work evil. Jesus expresses a similar intuition in a parable:

“What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11 ESV)

No one good would act as the poets depict the gods as acting. A good man would not randomly assign misfortune to the innocent or cause someone to sin so as to have an excuse to exact vengeance on his family. He might punish wrongdoers, but, as Plato observes, only for their ultimate benefit. Socrates explains:

“And if anyone composes a poem about the sufferings of Niobe, such as the one in which these lines occur, or about the house of Pelops, or the tale of Troy, or anything else of that kind, we must require him to say that these things are not the work of a god. Or, if they are, then poets must look for the kind of account of them that we are now seeking, and say the actions of the gods are good and just, and that those they punish are benefitted thereby. We won’t allow poets to say that the punished are made wretched and that it was a god who made them so. But we will allow them to say that bad people are wretched because they are in need of punishment and that, in paying the penalty, they are benefitted by the gods” (380a-c).

God works no evil, even in punishing the wicked. For what is divine must always act from goodness and justice. When suffering befalls a people, it must either be the work of some other power or ultimately be for their good.

Socrates’ second criticism of religion focuses on God’s immutability and truth. Since God is changeless and true, He should not be portrayed as deceitful and changing as he is in popular religious stories.  Socrates queries:

“Do you think that a god is a sorcerer, able to appear in different forms at different times, sometimes changing himself from his own form into many shapes, sometimes deceiving us by making us think that he has done it? Or do you think he’s simple and least of all likely to step out of his own form?” (380d).

God, according to Socrates, can neither change nor lie. Socrates begins by offering an argument for the former. He notes that if God were to change he would do so either passively, being changed by something else, or actively, changing of his own volition. He then contends that God could not be changed by something else, since the best and most healthy things are least likely to be altered by external forces. He observes:

“S: The best things are least liable to alteration and change aren’t they? For example, isn’t the healthiest and strongest body least changed by food, drink and labor, or the healthiest and strongest plant by sun, wind, and the like?

A: Of course.

S: And the most courageous and most rational part of the soul is least disturbed or altered by any outside affection?

A: Yes.

S: And the same account is true of all artifacts, furniture, houses, and clothes. The ones that are good and well made are least altered by time or anything else that happens to them.

A: That’s right.

S: Whatever is in good condition, then, whether by nature or craft or both, admits least of being changed by anything else” (380d-381b).

The stronger a thing is, the less likely it will be for it to be overcome by alien forces. For instance, a strong oak with deep roots will not fall to a raging storm, whereas a dead leaf will wander from place to place on the slightest of breezes. Reason will hold its course and cling to its values, whereas bodily desires will change on a whim. And a table made by a master craftsman will endure for centuries, whereas cheap contemporary furniture often won’t survive even a single move. So, since God is the strongest and healthiest of beings, He will not be changed by outside forces. Thus, if God were to change, it would have to be from His own volition.

            But Socrates argues that this is also impossible. For, if something is to change itself, the resulting change must either be for better or for worse. Yet God couldn’t change Himself for the better, since He is already perfectly good. You cannot improve something that is already perfect. Furthermore, God wouldn’t change himself for the worse, since such a choice would be irrational. Socrates explains:

“S: Would he change himself into something better and more beautiful than himself or something worse and uglier?

A: It would have to be into something worse, if’s he’s changed at all, for surely we won’t say that a god is deficient in either beauty or virtue.

S: Absolutely right. And do you think Adeimantus, that anyone, whether god or human, would deliberately make himself worse in any way?

A: No, that’s impossible.

S: Is it impossible, then, for gods to want to alter themselves? Since they are the most beautiful and best possible, it seems that each always and unconditionally retains his own shape.

A: That seems entirely necessary to me” (381b-c).

So, since God can neither be changed by an external force nor change of his own volition, God cannot change at all. He is immutable and eternal. Children should thus not be taught traditional religious stories in which gods change their minds or change their forms to trick men or to engage in amorous escapades.

            And, just as God cannot change, so too, argues Socrates, is he unable to lie. He observes that a person who clings to falsehoods about issues of ultimate concern is in in a lamentable state, a state we seek to avoid at all costs. He explains:

“I simply mean to be false to one’s soul about the things that are, to be ignorant and to have and hold falsehood there, is what everyone would least of all accept, for everyone hates a falsehood in that place most of all…. This would be most correctly called true falsehood—ignorance in the soul of someone who has been told a falsehood” (382b).

Since we have already established that God is good, and would thus not perform evil actions, God would not plant ignorance in people’s souls by lying to them. Furthermore, Socrates observes that God would have no reason to lie. People are tempted to lie because they are weak. We fear how our enemies would respond were we to speak the truth and we are often entangled in mad family systems beyond our control and thus fear the repercussions of exposing family secrets. But a God would have no such concerns, and thus have no reason to lie. Socrates concludes:

“Therefore the daemonic and the divine are in every way free from falsehood…. A god, then, is simple and true in word and deed. He doesn’t change himself or deceive others by images, words, or signs, whether in visions or in dreams… [The gods] are not sorcerers who change themselves, nor do they mislead us by falsehoods in words or deeds” (382e-383a).

Socrates third criticism of popular religion is that it fosters vice.  People terrify children with stories of curses, demons, and hell. Socrates claims that after being terrorized in this way, children grow up to be cowards. As a result, these stories inculcate precisely the opposite characteristics as those needed by the guardian class. The stories children hear should encourage bravery and should not cause them to fear death and the afterlife. He inquires:

“What if they are to be courageous as well? Shouldn’t they be told stories that will make them least afraid of death? Or do you think that anyone ever becomes courageous if he is possessed by this fear? …. And can someone be unafraid of death, preferring it to defeat in battle or slavery, if he believes in a Hades full of terrors?” (386a-b).

If you torment children with stories of hell, they will spend the rest of their lives in anxiety, doing whatever they can to forestall death. While Socrates does not deny the beauty of some of these stories, he does deny that they are fitting material for children (who cannot distinguish between metaphor and literal truth) and those who are supposed to defend the city to the death. He observes:

“It isn’t that they aren’t poetic and pleasing to the majority of hearers but that, the more poetic they are, the less they should be heard by children or by men who are supposed to be free and to fear slavery more than death” (387b).

And he concludes that:

“And the frightening and dreadful names for the underworld must be struck out, for example, ‘Cocytus’ and ‘Styx’, and also the names for the dead, for example, ‘those below’ and ‘the sapless ones,’ and all those names of things in the underworld that make everyone who hears them shudder. They may be all well and good for other purposes, but we are afraid that our guardians will be made softer and more malleable by such shudders” (387c).

In this manner Plato, through Socrates, rejects many of the religious stories of his day. But note how his theological criticism differs from the kinds of criticisms of religion popular today. For Plato doesn’t criticize religion for believing in the existence of gods, miracles, or the reality of the spiritual world, and he doesn’t promote a self-defeating reductive materialism as the default model of rationality. Rather, he criticizes the religions of his day for failing to adequately represent the spiritual world. Religious stories are wrong to the extent that they present God as a vengeful and petty tyrant, rather than as a ground of being, both good and loving, and they present a terrifying picture of the unseen world not in keeping with its reality. As a result, Plato argues that such stories debase a culture rather than ennobling it. He sums up:

“What poets and prose-writers tell us about the most important matters concerning human beings is bad. They say that many unjust people are happy and many just ones wretched, that injustice is profitable if it escapes detection, and that justice is another’s good but one’s own loss. I think we’ll prohibit these stories and order the poets to compose the opposite kind of poetry and tell the opposite kind of tales. Don’t you think so?” (392b).

The Theological Critique of Christianity

This sort of theological criticism of religion did not end with Plato. Nor was the criticism limited to pagan gods. For Platonic arguments were likewise marshalled against the fledgling Christian religion and the Scriptures it inherited. Ancient philosophers greeted the new religion with bewildered contempt, not because it posited a supersensible ground of reality, but because it appeared to predicate unworthy features to it and to rot culture by cultivating vulgarity and depravity in its adherents.

Celsus, a second century philosopher, for example, observes that the foreign Scriptures, being lauded as the Word of God,

“are chock full of stories about the treacheries of mothers, God appearing on earth in various disguises, brother murdering brother, purportedly righteous men having intercourse with various women other than their wives; indeed, stories that rival in their immorality the tales of the Thyesteans: brothers selling brothers, women being turned into salt and so on.” (Celsus, On The True Doctrine, 80. Trans. Hoffmann)

Celsus claims that such “heroes” are hardly worthy of emulation and that such tales coarsen their hearers. The same argument applies to the canonical gospels’ depiction of Jesus, Christianity’s  ultimate hero and teacher. Porphyry, for example, calls attention to how the gospels portray Jesus as silent at his trial, a course of action Porphyry believes to be ignoble. He queries:

“Why did Christ not utter anything worthy of one who was wise and divine, when brought either before the high priest or before the governor? He might have given instruction to his judge and those who stood by and made them better men. But he endured to be smitten with a reed and spat on and crowned with thorns, unlike Apollonius, who, after speaking boldly to the Emperor Domitian, disappeared from the royal court, and after not many hours was plainly seen in the city then called Dicaearchia, but now Puteoli. But even if Christ had to suffer according to God’s commands, and was obliged to endure punishment, yet at least he should have endured his passion with some boldness, and uttered words of force and wisdom to Pilate his judge, instead of being mocked like any gutter-snipe.” (Porphyry, Against the Christians, Fragments, 63).

Here Porphyry contends that canonical stories of Jesus present him as acting in a manner unworthy of a sage. A teacher would take every opportunity to teach and enlighten his hearers, especially in the face of death. And, when undergoing suffering, he would face it with boldness, not abjection.

To this, many early Christians would have responded that God has hidden things from the wise and revealed them to those of childlike faith. But Porphyry argues against this doctrine as well. He contends:

“For if the mysteries have been hidden from the wise, and unreasonably poured out to babes and those that give suck, it is better to be desirous of senselessness and ignorance, and this is the great achievement of Him who came to earth, to hide the rays of knowledge from the wise, and reveal them to fools and babes.” (Porphyry, Against the Christians, Fragment 52).

Porphyry finds the claim that ignorance is superior to knowledge to be self-evidently absurd. Additionally philosophers noted that such a valorization of ignorance led Christian missionaries to adopt unscrupulous tactics when seeking converts. Celsus, for example, reports:

“Just as the charlatans of the cults take advantage of a simpleton’s lack of education to lead him around by the nose, so too with the Christian teachers: They do not want to give or to receive reasons for what they believe. Their favorite expressions are ‘Do not ask questions, just believe!’ and: ‘Your faith will save you!’ ‘The wisdom of this world,’ they say, ‘is evil; to be simple is to be good.’ If only they would undertake to answer my question—which I do not ask as one who is trying to understand their beliefs (there being little to understand!) But they refuse to answer, and indeed discourage asking questions of any sort.” (Celsus, On The True Doctrine, 54).

Unfortunately, I can attest from personal experience that the injunction to “not ask questions, and just believe!” and the dubious tactics of persuasion mentioned by Celsus remain popular in Evangelical churches. Classical philosophers not only rejected the teachings and manipulative tactics of popular Christianity on moral grounds, but they also argued that their Scriptures depicted God in a manner wholly unworthy of a deity. For these tales portray God as having petty tribal affiliations, caring for only one small ethnic group, while leaving the rest of the world without teachers and to perish in his wrath. Furthermore, they depict this God as a vengeful and petty tyrant. Emperor Julian, for example, points out some of the problems involved in maintaining that “God is a jealous God”:

“But as for the commandment ‘Thou shalt not worship other gods,’ to this surely he adds a terrible libel upon God. ‘For I am a jealous God,’ he says, and in another place again, ‘Our God is a consuming fire.’ Then if a man is jealous and envious you think him blameworthy, whereas if God is called jealous you think it a divine quality? And yet how is it reasonable to speak falsely of God in a matter that is so evident?” (Julian, Against the Galileans).

Julian argues that if we judge as infantile those who fly into jealous rages, acting out in their tantrums and later changing their minds and regretting their actions, we should also deem such rage to be unfitting for a God. But this is precisely how these so-called Scriptures present God. Julian points to the story of Phinehas in Numbers 25 as an example. In this story, some of the men of Israel sleep with Moabite women, women of a different ethnic group who lead the men to perform some of their religious rituals and sacrifice to their deities. God grows furious at this and smites the people of Israel with a plague, killing twenty four thousand. God then tells Moses to publicly execute all the chiefs of the people so that his wrath may be averted. Moses, in turn, tells them to simply kill all the people who have consorted with Moabite women. As Moses is saying this, a man conveniently walks by leading a Moabite woman to his tent. When Phinehas, son of Eleazar the high priest, sees this, he becomes enraged, grabs a spear, follows the couple to their tent, and impales them in flagrante delicto, striking them through the stomach. God is pleased with Phinehas’s violence, and he averts his own wrath on account of it, declaring:

“Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy.  Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace,  and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’” (Num 25: 11-13).

Julian was appalled by such stories. Within the classical philosophical tradition, “nowhere is God shown as angry, or resentful, or wroth, or taking an oath, or inclining first to this side, then suddenly to that, or as turned from his purpose” (Julian, Against the Galileans). It is shameful to depict God as changing His mind or being subject to fits of rage, much less over trivial matters. Moreover, the actions God is said to perform in this story are thoroughly unjust. Julian queries:

“What could be more trivial than the reason for which God was falsely represented as angry by the writer of this passage? What could be more irrational, even if ten or fifteen persons, or even, let us suppose, a hundred, for they certainly will not say that there were a thousand,–however, let us assume that even as many persons as that ventured to transgress some one of the laws laid down by God; was it right that on account of this one thousand, six hundred thousand should be utterly destroyed? For my part I think it would be better in every way to preserve one bad man along with a thousand virtuous men than to destroy the thousand together with that one.” (Julian, Against the Galileans.)

Just as we would call a king evil, if he slaughtered a village on account of his anger at a single man, so too would we call God evil if we take stories like the ones sketched above literally. Such stories are unworthy of a genuine deity.  Again, classical criticisms of Christianity, unlike the popular criticisms we see today, do not reject it for issuing moral pronouncements or making truth claims. Rather, they reject its doctrines because they are ignoble and false. As Celsus summarizes, their teachings “deceived many and caused them to accept a form of belief harmful to the wellbeing of mankind. Taking its root in the lower classes, the religion continues to spread among the vulgar: nay, one can even say that it spreads because of its vulgarity and the illiteracy of its adherents.” (Celsus, On the True Doctrine, 57).

And Emperor Julian even proposes an experiment:

“If the reading of your own Scriptures is sufficient for you, why do you nibble at the learning of the Hellenes? …. But you yourselves know, it seems to me, the very different effect on the intelligence of your writings as compared with ours; and that from studying yours no man could attain to excellence or even to ordinary goodness, whereas from studying ours every man would become better than before, even though he were altogether without natural fitness. But when a man is naturally well endowed, and moreover receives the education of our literature, he becomes actually a gift of the gods to mankind, either by kindling the light of knowledge, or by founding some kind of political constitution, or by routing numbers of his country’s foes, or even by travelling far over the earth and far by sea, and thus proving himself a man of heroic mould…. Now this would be clear proof: choose out children from among you all and train and educate them in your Scriptures, and if when they come to manhood they prove to have nobler qualities than slaves, then you may believe that I am talking nonsense and am suffering from spleen. Yet you are so misguided and foolish that you regard those chronicles of yours as divinely inspired, though by their help no man could ever become wiser or braver or better than what he was before; while, on the other hand, writings by those whose aid men can acquire courage, wisdom and justice, these you ascribe to Satan and those who serve Satan!” (Julian, Against the Galileans)

While such an assessment of Christianity as it has historically developed is, in my opinion, most likely too harsh, it is nonetheless thought provoking. For it was these philosophical objections that forced early Christians to formulate a more coherent theology. Unfortunately, most of the theologians whom the church relied on to solve these problems were later condemned as heretics (e.g. Origen) once Christianity had politically eliminated its competitors, and their books were subsequently destroyed. Nonetheless, we can still discern the traces of their work even amongst the most stringent of Biblicists. For example, The Westminster Catechism, a 17th century puritan document, defines God as “a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth”, a definition Plato could agree to.

Theological Critique vs Religious Trauma Syndrome

It is also interesting to contrast the classical philosophical criticism of Christianity, with the more recent attempt to censure it for triggering “Religious Trauma Syndrome”. Human development consultant Dr. Marlene Winell pioneered the diagnoses of Religious Trauma Syndrome to call attention to what she takes to be the debilitating effects of evangelical doctrine and practice. (Before we continue, it is probably prudent to remind you that I’m a philosopher and not a mental health professional, and that the arguments considered here are just that, arguments, not medical advice regarding the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Just as you should address questions of theology to a priest, spell-work to a witch, and planetary transits to an astrologer, so too should you address questions about the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses to a mental health professional.) Winell likens RTS to other trauma related disorders such as PTSD and C-PTSD, sometimes drawing the closest analogy to PTSD, other times to a combination of PTSD and C-PTSD, and at points even subsuming it under C-PTSD as a specific type. She proposes the following symptoms as indicative of this underlying disorder:

“• Confusion, difficulty making decisions, trouble thinking for self, lack of meaning or direction, undeveloped sense of self.

• Anxiety being in “The World,” panic attacks, fear of damnation, depression, thoughts of suicide, anger, bitterness, betrayal, guilt, grief and loss, difficulty with expressing emotion.

• Sleep and eating disorders, substance abuse, nightmares, perfectionism, discomfort with sexuality, negative body image, impulse control problems, difficulty enjoying pleasure or being present here and now.

• Rupture of family and social network, loneliness, problems relating to society, personal relationship issues.” (Winell, RTS It’s Time to Recognize It, )

In this manner, Winell and those who follow her approach, attempt to subsume and reduce the critique of religion to the categories provided by the mental health industry.

            I have argued against this position in detail elsewhere, but for now I’d simply like to highlight how it differs from the classical philosophical critique of religion sketched above. Note first, that in adopting the categories of mental health in general, and trauma in particular, the religious trauma theorist adopts an amoral framework, and thereby eschews any normative critique of religion. Religious doctrines, on this picture, are not wrong because they are false, evil, or lead to injustice, but because they overwhelm the nervous system. Just as a tornado is neither false nor evil, but can still lead to trauma if it strikes you, so too can religious doctrines traumatize. The problem with the doctrine, on this model, is not that it teaches falsehoods about issues of ultimate concern and recommends a craven and servile form of life, but rather that it shocks the nerves. Since trauma can be occasioned by anything that can overwhelm the nervous system, it can be occasioned by almost anything. Trauma can occur through experiencing violence, seeing someone experience violence, hearing someone say they someone else experience violence, or even imagining any of the above scenarios. Since it is possible for any of these to be a shock to the nerves (perhaps calling for fainting couches and smelling salts) any of the above scenarios could be a source of trauma.  In removing the moral dimension of critique, the advocates of religious trauma theory trivialize the damage done by religion by subsuming it under a quasi-medical account. Thomas Szasz, with his usual insight, makes a similar observation about how labels like PTSD trivialize death and grieving. He observes:

“To the psychologically enlightened, anything connected with death is now a symptom of mental illness: thinking about death is ‘suicidal ideation’; wanting to die is ‘being a suicidal risk’; witnessing death is ‘PTSD.’ Because death is an integral part of life, the medialization of death goes a long way toward creating an endless supply of patients in need of help. In the past, attending a funeral was a somber social custom, honoring the deceased and his relatives. Today, especially if the deceased is displayed in an open casket, it is ‘witnessing an event that involves death,’ hence a pathogen causing PTSD. A movie reviewer remarks: ‘In past ages, Joan [of Arc] has been seen as a mystic, a saint, a national hero. Now, in keeping with the times, she is a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder.” (Szasz, The Therapeutic State: The Tyranny of Pharmacracy, in The Independent Review, 5.4 (2001), 509).

Here Szasz points out how reducing human experience to quasi-medical categories, flattens life and eliminates what we find most valuable about it. I, for one, would prefer to maintain a category system in which mystics, saints, and heroes are still thinkable.

            Second, the literature on religious trauma is suffused with totalitarian pretensions. If the problem with religious teaching isn’t that it’s false or immoral, but that it’s traumatizing, then the appropriate response is not to refute it by argument, but to silence it by force. For example, Winell concludes her introduction to Religious Trauma by noting:

“In the United States, we also treasure our bill of rights, our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. This makes it extremely difficult to address a debilitating disorder like RTS without threatening the majority of Americans. Raising questions about toxic beliefs and abusive practices in religion seems to be violating a taboo. No one wants to be pointing fingers for fear of tampering with our precious freedoms.

But this is the problem. Sanitizing religion makes it all the more insidious when it is toxic. For example, small children are biologically dependent on their adult caretakers; built into their survival mechanisms is a need to trust authority just to stay alive. Religious teachings take hold easily in their underdeveloped brains while the adults conveniently keep control. This continues generation after generation, as the religious meme complex reproduces itself, and masses of believers learn to value self-loathing and fear apocalypse.” (Winell, Religious Trauma Syndrome, ).

Note how Winell portrays the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of religion as obstacles to be overcome in the prevention and treatment of religious trauma syndrome. Because the beliefs in question are not false, but toxic, and not immoral, but abusive; it won’t suffice to simply refute them and convince people to adopt another worldview. Because it is not a philosophy, but a “religious meme complex” which “reproduces itself” like a virus, it should be forcibly eradicated. These implications are chilling when one takes the time to reflect on them. Again, Szasz has noted how frequently tyranny has been advanced through this kind of medical rhetoric.

“Coercion masquerading as medical treatment is the bedrock of political medicine. Long before the Nazis rose to power, physician-eugenicists advocated killing certain ill or disabled persons as a form of treatment for both patient and society. What transforms coercion into therapy? Physicians diagnosing the subject’s condition a ‘disease,’ declaring the intervention they impose on the victim a ‘treatment,’ and legislators and judges ratifying these categorizations as ‘diseases’ and ‘treatments.’ Simply put, the pharmacrat’s stock in trade is denying the differences between the medical care that patients seek and the ‘treatments’ imposed on them against their will—in short, defining violence as beneficence.” (Szasz, The Therapeutic State, 497)

By employing the amoral language of disease and pathogen, it becomes easier to convince the populace that pathogens, i.e. those of whom the state disapproves, ought to be eliminated by any means necessary. Szasz continues:

“The principal difference between the old-fashioned quackery of, say, Mesmer, and the newfangled quackery of, say our Surgeons General, is that Mesmeric ‘treatments’ were never imposed on persons against their will, whereas the ‘treatments’ endorsed by the Surgeons General often are.

            Nazi pharmacracy was based on the premise that the Jew was a cancer on the body politic of the Reich; it had to be removed at any cost. American pharmacracy is based on the premise that the individual with a dangerous disease… is a threat to the well-being of the nation; he has to be cured at any cost.” (Szasz, The Therapeutic State, 498).

Though Szasz was probably too hasty in his condemnation of Mesmer, his warning against the dangers of medical tyranny still deserves our attention. If religious trauma theorists had their way, and religious opponents could be silenced through the coercive power of the state, what is to stop that same tyrannical power from being exercised on others deemed guilty of wrong think? And is this desire to silence those with whom one disagrees in any way different than that of the most stringent of theocrats?

            A final problem with religious trauma theory is that it is, to my mind at least, morally bankrupt. One can get a hint of this by opening the cover of one popular book on the subject and finding it to be dedicated to Twitter, but it is more clearly observed by noting how the adoption of moral relativism is mandated as necessary for recovery. Winell, for example, in her self-help book, maintains:

“We invite you to let go of right and wrong, good and bad….. Let’s stop fighting with ‘sin’ and allow our own goodness to permeate our lives, leaving room for imperfection, mistakes, and forgiveness. Let’s be good animals, learn to be in our bodies, and experience the sensory richness of life.” (Winell, Leaving the Fold, Introduction).

To heal from religious trauma, we must, according to this theory, cut off all higher spiritual aspirations, all yearning for what is noble and lofty, indeed, all desire for what in past eras was said to be distinctively human. Instead, we must learn to be “good animals” and enjoy “the sensory richness of life” with its pleasures. Thus, for advocates of religious trauma theory, Mill was wrong: It is better to be a pig satisfied, than Socrates dissatisfied. I contend that it is best to avoid these absurdities by rejecting religious trauma theory altogether. If you are wrestling with leaving a religious system that you now judge to be false and dishonorable, I believe you are much better served by thinking through the reasons for your judgments, thereby exercising your right to cognitive autonomy. As a result, we can see that Plato’s theological critique of religion still has much to teach us today.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[Image used in the thumbnail of this blog post is Caravaggio’s The Sacrifice of Isaac is in the public domain and can be found here]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *