Is psychiatry a religion?

Photo by Flickr user Jillian Anne Photography. Click for sourceThe 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.

Link to article ‘Is psychiatry a religion?’
Link to PubMed entry for same.


  1. Posted March 14, 2009 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    “The piece is probably better read as a concern about how medical explanations have become the standard explanation for problems of human living” Yes. And it goes along with another social phenomenon of the west that assumes happiness is a matter of will or health and a certain fear or at least stigma against sadness. In fact in the west a certain form of religion is in harmony with that attitude, because it promotes a faith in God as th replacement for grief and the guarantor of that sought after happiness. I think it’s a skewed attitude. And not realistic and we need more social forms where it is okay to share all sorts of feelings in ordinary human relationships and not shunt them off to the shrink’s office or push them off with pills. That isn’t to say therapy isn’t important. I think it is. But something has happened to medicalize and make unacceptable a range of normal human responses and experience.

  2. Posted March 14, 2009 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    This is my first comment here, so first I’d like express my gratitude for this site. It consistently posts fascinating material.
    I agree that the article on psychiatry and religion, though amusing, did not discuss any differences between the two enterprises. This was just one of its several shortcomings. (Not least, it seems oblivious of Phillip Rieff’s famous book on the subject, “The Triumph of the Therapuetic.”)
    But I must disagree that the main difference between psychiatry and religion is over the ontological status of matter. There are “immanent” religions — including varieties of Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism — that do not credit a spirit world or personal immortality. It is crucial, when discussing religion, not to assume something like Christianity implicitly. That was Freud’s mistake in Future of an Illusion.
    For Stoicism, especially, there is only matter. In my view, psychiatry, or at least psychoanalysis, is a lot like this philosophical religion of antiquity, which was as much as spiritual exercise as a theory of the natural world. I wrote something on this last summer and was pleased to see a link to my article posted here on Mind Hacks then. If I may, here it is again:

  3. Mark(p.s.)
    Posted March 14, 2009 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    “unseen sentient beings, of which psychiatry says nothing”
    What? Psychiatry sells the magical unseen antidepressant molecule. When the facts say it is statistically the same as a placebo.(Placebos WORK as a person believes in it. ie a religion)
    Can you see the “sentient being”, the magical molecule of Cymbalta that gives only “good” thoughts/good chemical reactions?
    Cymbalta (duloxetine) was only approved in 2004 but it’s surged ahead with a 627% increase in sales, earning $667 million for Eli Lilly.
    Antidepressants found to be no better than Placebo.
    CBC video

    CDC: Antidepressants most prescribed drugs in U.S.
    Bitter Pill
    A Portland doc flips on big pharma and reveals its “dirty little secret.”
    Antidepressants are the most prescribed family of drugs in America, an $11.9 billion market in the U.S. in 2007.
    Selective publication of clinical trials — and the outcomes within those trials — can lead to unrealistic estimates of drug effectiveness and alter the apparent risk–benefit ratio

  4. Posted March 15, 2009 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure that is trying to be a copycat site. That site is 3 1/2 years old and has a Page Rank of 4. It doesn’t have the same look about it or the same layout or anything like that.

  5. Mark(p.s.)
    Posted March 15, 2009 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    The chemicals are a means of control. As Thomas Szasz says people need a scapegoat to blame their and others behaviour on.
    The devil was the one we blamed in the past for our bad behaviour, God and the devil being dead, today it is unbalanced brain chemicals.
    Unbalanced brain chemicals have replaced the devil, so yes psychiatry is a religion.

  6. sputnk780
    Posted March 22, 2009 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t the self a kind of unseen sentient being?

  7. Posted September 12, 2010 at 3:50 am | Permalink

    I do not agree that psychiatry is a religion. I believe that we are pure consciousness and that our body gives us everything we need to combat things like depression and other mental illnesses. Moreover, a religion is a set of beliefs whereas psychiatry is a study of the mind by definition.

  8. Posted September 13, 2010 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    To the greatest degree this is absolutely true.

    Psychiatry is the study of understanding the functions of a human, and attempting to understanding our motivations and mind.

    To a great degree religion attempts to do the same things, just without the scientific method.

    So yes, I really think psychiatry is the religion of science. After all it deals so greatly with our choices and how our environment effects us. In essence is really is the POLAR opposite of religion–whilst explaining the same thing.

    Very interesting point! Great article.

  9. Posted October 11, 2010 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    Psychiatry is Science. It is definitely not a religion.

  10. Posted October 19, 2010 at 1:46 am | Permalink

    I totally disagree with Psycholgy as being considered a religion of Science. Human behavior can be explained through this but it does not make psychology a religion.

  11. Anon
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    “To a great degree religion attempts to do the same things, just without the scientific method.”

    Religion only attempts to get your money.

  12. Arnto
    Posted January 30, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    Psychiatry is highly presumptive. It contends to be able to scientifically prove “good” and “bad” whenever it defines a mental disorder.

    There are chemical differences behind everything. How can you objectively say one thing is just a trait and another a disorder?

    Psychiatry often says if something is normal for culture or society it is exempt. What makes society a priori correct? Societies throughout history have sanctioned slavery and genocide and repression. Remember “Drapetomania”. Slaves that wanted to be free were labeled “abnormal”. We didn’t have as much understanding of the material working of the mind back then, but I bet if we still had slaves it would be in the DSM and studies would be showing “differences” between “drapetomania sufferers” and ” ‘normal’ slaves”, because every thought in your head, every feeling is somewhere represented by chemical reactions. Simply choosing to believe in abolition would cause a change somewhere compared to believing one should remain a slave. Looking back if we were forced to say one group was disordered we’d say it was the slaves who didn’t want to be free. This shows just how subjective mental illness is.

    I contend that psychiatry should continue, but it should drop this ridiculous presumption to determine how people ought to think and live their lives, and simply categorize mental subtypes and cognitive dimensions. If someone decides that in order to live a better life one of these must change then I’m all for them getting help with that. I’ll go further and say if someone whose functioning “normally” just wants to have an edge such as in love life or work they should be allowed to go for that too.

    The driving force here is money, so they tell people who are fine that there is something objectively wrong with them to get them to buy pills.

    Even when something is wrong many of these pills are approved in spite of problems like side effects or even when placebo studies show only a very small difference meaning a lot of people are “feeling better” because they expect the pill to work.

  13. Posted May 30, 2011 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    Maybe psychology is a religion

  14. Posted July 8, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    See time began man as sought understanding and comfort: Religion has, and will continue, to fulfill this role.

    However in these days of technology and information it is only natural that Science, Psychology, will begin to provide some of this comfort and understanding.

    Interestingly some of the newer religions combine the two quoting basic psychotherapy as the path to enlightenment.

  15. Posted December 9, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    In a time before science, people mistook science for magic (ex. astronomy), today it is the opposite. People mistake magic for science. There are no brain chemical imbalances until people take drugs. No behavior or misbehavior is a disease or can be a disease. People make choices to be good or evil.

  16. Gonzo
    Posted July 10, 2015 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    “Unseen sentient beings”
    Unseen by whom?
    Were you actually there yourself to ‘prove this’
    Google Paul, road to Damascus.
    Cognitive Anthropology sounds impressive. Yet also using theories and methods especially from ‘experimental psychology and evolutionary biology”
    Science,materialism,sports spectatorship,new opiates of the masses. Aa someone else posted, you could just as easily posit the Self. As an unseen sentient being.
    All the best being atheist, it suits your professions, the ‘experts’ (google funny sayings on Experts)

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