The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine just published a recent, and, presumably, slightly tongue in cheek article, drawing parallels between psychiatry, clinical psychology and traditional religious practices.
In reality, it’s not really attempting to address the question of whether psychiatry is a form of religion. Instead, it’s really asking whether psychiatry is now fulfilling some of the social roles that, for many people, were previously occupied by religion.
These include parallels between confession and therapy, proselytization and mental health campaigns, religious hierarchy and medical authority, sacraments and medication, and holy texts and diagnostic manuals.
The ‘psychiatry is a religion’ argument is weak, however, as despite similarities in some functions, none of these are core features of religion. As identified by cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer, the single common feature of all religious is a preoccupation with unseen sentient beings, of which psychiatry says nothing.
In fact, mainstream psychiatry remains firmly materialist – usually re-explaining experiences that many people attribute to spirits, forces or unseen influences as biological dysfunction. So, in the most fundamental sense, the practice of psychiatry is typically contra-religious.
You could argue that this is ‘replacing’ religion through colonising the spiritual sphere of explanation, but this makes it no more a religion than physics or evolutionary biology.
However, the article is interesting as it reflects an almost extinct genre in mainstream medical debate – a Thomas Szasz style view of psychiatry as a medical intrusion into an essentially social phenomenon. Namely, the classification and regulation of deviance, and the easing of distress caused by social maladjustment and existential crises.
The piece is probably better read as a concern about how medical theories have become the standard explanation for problems of human living, to the point where we assume that psychiatry can be an organising force in society.