Posts Tagged ‘theism’

My Invisible Friend: Ethical Theism Using Atheist Rhetoric

December 12, 2011 1 comment

[Relevant text: For example, if I tell you that a full-grown adult I know speaks to an invisible man named Jerry and asks Jerry to grant him wishes, you might rightly assume this man has a psychotic disorder, such as Schizophrenia. On the other hand, if I replace “Jerry” with “Jesus,” my friend is suddenly a perfectly normal Christian.”]

(To avoid confusion, I should note that the above is actually an excerpt  from a psychology textbook, not an Atheist tract. It still illustrates my point.)

When Atheists talk about deities in terms of invisible friends and psychotic disorders, they are usually being condescending. However, when I actually consider my views about mental health and “delusion,” the invisible friend is a useful metaphor.

Holly over at The Pervocracy once said the following about mental illness:

It’s important to never lose sight of the magic phrases “significant distress or impairment” and “danger to self and others.” Because these are the things we treat in mental health–when someone is suffering, when they’re unable to do their daily tasks of living, or when they are harming or likely to harm themselves or someone else. What we don’t treat is being wrong. Someone can be wrong all day long–can think they have five arms and the CIA has put a chip up their butt–and as long as they’re okay with their life and getting enough to eat and not hurting anyone, it’s really none of our business. The point of mental health care is to promote wellness, not enforce the correct reality. Nobody has the job title Clinical Philosopher.

Let’s get my affiliations out of the way: I am an agnostic theist, which means that I believe in God, but I acknowledge that I cannot know for sure that God exists. I acknowledge that I cannot and do not know for certain that my personal religious beliefs are “correct.” I also have Unitarian philosophical leanings, which means that I’m not super invested in the question of “which religion is correct,” because I think most of them are valuable in their own right.

Despite being a Theist – that is, despite being one of the people who is being talked down to when Atheists talk about imaginary friends – I actually think this metaphor can be used to make a very positive, useful point about religion.

You see, some people who are very dear to me have what you might call “invisible friends.” Some of them are role-playing characters who have crossed over from their original games and storylines into the person’s everyday life, roles that they play to express certain facets of their personalities. As long as the person isn’t dissociating when playing those characters – as long as the identities are co-conscious – this isn’t a problem, because the existence of these personas does not cause significant distress or impairment, or endanger anybody. In fact, these “imaginary friends” are extremely beneficial to my friends’ health and well-being, and have enriched their lives.

I would argue this can actually be a very positive metaphor for religion.

In my opinion, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with an adult talking to an invisible man named Jerry and asking him to grant wishes. In all seriousness, if Jerry enriches my friend’s life, I’m all about that. To repeat again what Holly said, there is no one with the job title “clinical philosopher.” My friend may believe that after he dies, he will go to live with Jerry on another plane where Jerry is visible, and you know what? He could be right. I don’t know. It’s really none of my business.

There is, however, a problem if my friend relies on Jerry to grant his wishes to the exclusion of taking other steps to get what he wants and needs in life – for example, if my friend gets sick and asks Jerry to make him better instead of, rather than concurrently with, seeking medical care. There is an even BIGGER problem if my friend’s CHILD gets sick and my friend asks Jerry for healing instead of seeking treatment.

There is a problem if my friend believes that Jerry is telling him to harm or threaten people, or if my friend tries to harm or threaten people for not believing in or having an appropriate relationship with Jerry. There is a problem if my friend believes Jerry is telling him to hurt himself. There is a problem if my friend uses Jerry to terrify his children (for example, by teaching them to value their relationships with Jerry very strongly, and then telling them that Jerry will hate and shun them if they do something that goes against my friend’s wishes. This is a form of emotional abuse, in my opinion.) or if he uses Jerry as a justification for beating or raping his wife, or for mutilating his children’s genitals.

There is a problem when people are discriminated against for not believing in Jerry, or for following the teachings of Allen, or Buddy, or Yorrick (do you see what I did there???) instead. There is especially a problem when people are tortured and killed for following the teachings of Allen instead of the teachings of Jerry. Or vice-versa.

When I hear Atheists that I know complain that talking to religious people is like trying to reason with an adult who has an “invisible friend,” I tend to roll my eyes because I know totally reasonable people with invisible friends, some of whom are Atheists themselves. Sanity, to the extent that sanity is something we should aspire to, lies in knowing where your invisible friend fits into your life, and making sure that your relationship with your invisible friend (notice that I am continuing to say “invisible” instead of “imaginary”) is ultimately a force for good in your life and in the world.

I have a perfectly functional relationship with my, yes, completely and totally invisible friend Jesus. You can be his friend too, if you feel like it! Just don’t use him as an excuse to treat people like shit, because he hates that and I had a dream last night where he told me that if I catch somebody doing that I have to make sure that they are punished.

(I’m kidding, guys. Guys…?)