Monday, July 07, 2014

The Lies They Tell at Church

"The Christian theory is little else than the idolatry of the ancient Mythologists, accommodated to the purposes of power and revenue; and it yet remains to reason and philosophy to abolish the amphibious fraud."

Age of Reason (1794) by Thomas Paine

Due to the confidentiality surrounding the parties involved in this story, I will be assigning aliases to them in the telling of this tale. It surrounds a woman whom I shall call Mary.

Mary is unwell. She goes for regular appointments at the psychiatric clinic I serve at and requires medications in order to ensure that she functions well enough to stay in her job in a government agency (and as we all know, government agencies often go to heroic lengths to avoid sacking any of their employees). If you are unable to perform in the position you fill, you will be invited to fill a less demanding position. If you can't do anything at all, there is a good chance they will keep you around anyway just so they can keep paying you. As it happened, due to the nature of her illness, Mary received the former option - she osmosed from department to department till she finally sank into a position way below her qualifications and pay grade (a glorified office girl), but was still privileged with her former salary.

Mary is schizophrenic. She believes that she is communing directly with her Christian God, and as House M.D. once said, "You talk to God, you're religious. God talks to you, you're psychotic." Believe it or not, this is actually the rule of thumb we follow in Psychiatry when we are dealing with patients who heavily involve religion in their psychopathology (though my experience with religious people informs me that there are acres and acres of grey area between piety and insanity).

One day, during a church event, Mary experienced something which she would later refer to as a "miracle". While she was praying, she felt the Holy Spirit entered her body and healed her mind. Believing that she was "fixed", she stopped taking her medication - and declared that she felt no differently. Without much more ado, she approached her pastor, a very influential man amongst the Christ-loving Iban people of Kuching, to relate to him about her allegedly miraculous recovery.

A reasonable man would tell Mary to go see her psychiatrist for a professional assessment, but the pastor is not a man of reason but rather, a man of faith. And having faith means that one is accepting of absurd propositions without feeling the need to ask for evidence. So, the pastor put Mary at a podium on a stage in front of hundreds of Mary's fellow churchgoers so she can testify and witness to them regarding her "miracle", thus enforcing the pastor's flock's belief that they live in a world where magic is possible and cementing Mary's own conviction that she was truly cured and that Jesus was totally speaking to her for realsies. Overnight, she became a mini-celebrity in her church and stopped coming to our clinic altogether.

What the pastor and all these churchgoing men, women and children may never know is that some weeks later, Mary had full-blown psychotic episode at work so her superiors brought her to casualty where I attended to her. The moment she saw me, she commanded me to bow to her for she (she insisted) was the Daughter of God. I told her, tongue in cheek, that I cannot do what she asked of me because I am an atheist and that I don't believe in her. She then tried to convince me of her omniscience by (wrongly) guessing at private details of my life. When she was in the wards, she claimed to have healing powers and were trying (unsuccessfully) to heal the other psychotic patients staying there. One memorable night, she used the ward's telephone to call me. She spoke gruffly, trying comically to impersonate my male Head of Department to order me to stop her medications. When she refused to pass the phone back to the nurse on duty, I hung up on her, called the other phone in the ward, and told my staff to give her a shot of midazolam to punch her lights out.

Will the pastor put Mary in front of his congregation now to set the record straight? That he had borne false witness to an ersatz miracle and had inadvertently fed lies to his godly flock? That Mary is still very much sick and requires psychiatric treatment?

Of course not. And worse than misleading his congregants, he did something that we should never do to delusional patients - he confirmed Mary's delusions, telling her that the divine revelations she had been receiving are real, and that her doctors have shit-for-brains for insisting that the voices she hears are symptoms of schizophrenia. Now, she no longer trust us and refuses all medication we want to give her. She may even lose what's left of her job and her steady income. Thank you very much, pastor!

Doesn't this make you think? Just how many miracles declared from the pulpits, like Mary's, have the same sob centre covered in a shiny coat of bullshit?

Mary's story is not unique. It is not even uncommon. I share this story because I want everyone to know that faith is not a virtue and why I feel the need to criticise it whenever I encounter any expression thereof. Seriously, it doesn't take a genius to realise that believing in something without evidence is a Bad Idea yet, for most people in the world, this gullibility is celebrated. Faith is a gateway drug to lazy, uncritical thinking - for why should anyone question the existence of unicorns when they have already unquestioningly accepted the existence of fairies?

There are no such things as miracles. There are just people stupid enough to believe that there are.

k0k s3n w4i

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