I am fascinated by religion. I find it difficult to comprehend how it makes any sense conceptually (though I can see the benefits of having a direct line to a higher authority who doesn’t create conflict by answering back in any worldly sense). I actively seek conversation with those who make a point of wearing their religion on their sleeve so that I can gain some insight or even an answer to the fundamental question; why do you believe in an abstract theory without hard evidence that it exists and proof that it actually does more good than harm in a global sense?
This is clearly a huge question which can’t be explored in any satisfactory way in a blog post but I have begun to wonder at the connections between mental health, eating disorders in particular, and religion.
1. Reward and Punishment
Eating disorders are inextricably linked with the idea of reward and punishment. Food restriction for me at least is a compensatory behaviour for an over-sensitivity to both. It’s not about the search for the holy grail of thinness but if things go wrong, I can restore my inner balance by simply restricting my food intake. If things are good I can reward myself with a meal. This has clear parallels with religion, or at least with spirituality (being the relationship with a transcendent being beyond and separate to oneself). Religion is after all, is all about heaven and hell – the ultimate reward and punishment. And let’s face it, over-eating deserves divine punishment given that gluttony is named as one of the seven deadly sins. At the root of most religions is the idea of self sacrifice leading to a guaranteed fast track to heaven. At worst and most extreme, this can take the form of suicide bombers or driving lorries along pavements in a perverse attempt obtain salvation, at best it amounts to agreeing to arrange the church flowers because you feel you ought to despite secretly preferring to go shopping instead. Basically, a believer gets something out of religion, why else bother? But nothing comes free; there is always a payback. Failing to comply with the ‘rules’ of a religion instigates a guilt which can only be negative and self destructive.
The central teaching of any religion is that you can be rewarded with more love and happiness in the afterlife if you are compliant with its teachings. If you do bad things you will be punished unless you can show remorse in the form of some sort of physically or mentally harmful penance. This may take the form of walking ten miles with stones in your shoes, deliberate social isolation or, guess what….food restriction.
Fasting is interestingly an important component to all main religions. The idea being that if you restrict your food intake, whether by the more extreme Ramadan or simply by giving up chocolate (funny how people never give up salad) for Lent, then you are punishing yourself to ‘get closer to God’, which is the ultimate reward. Nearness to the deity is partly achieved by the heightened sense of clarity one gets from lack of food. Again, clear parallels with anorexia, where starvation improves mental functioning short term by creating a ‘high’. This is purely a self-denial, and so how can it fail to to be disordered? If God is benign how could he or she approve or even care if you physically torture yourself by not eating or drinking in daylight hours in intense heat for a whole month? This behaviour is something clearly thought up by humans to self-comfort, the theory being that only those who sacrifice are enlightened and rewarded and the outside world does not appreciate the lifestyle choice they have made. It sustains an illusion of exclusivity and importance which is almost addictive.
There is also a link between certain foods and morality. Why else is ice cream advertised with words such as ‘heavenly’ ‘decadent’ or ‘purity’? Eating thistle smoothies is on the other hand can be seen as a form of self sacrifice to the health god.
3. The all important deity
This is scarily close to the idea of people with an eating disorder being ruled by some type of pseudo-deity (in my case, Dave, but I could easily re-name him God). Dave is oddly a spiritual dimension of an illness almost akin to a cult. Does this mean therefore that religion could be a mental illness?
4. Power and control
Another important dimension to religion is the pursuit of power. By being involved in a belief system that is in fact out of your control with the ultimate goal of satisfying that all important being which is both part and apart from yourself, then there must be an element of self sacrifice giving you a sense of control over something which is merely an abstract concept. Simply put, by self sacrifice you are gaining a physical manifestation of what was merely conceptual and you therefore are gaining some individual control over what, in fact, does not encompass the individual. Fasting is a form of control, an attempted taking back of power by the individual, which is exactly how anorexia manifests itself.
Like an eating disorder, religion can therefore reduce the sense of self and identity which is subsumed into the all important deity.
5. The delusion
Religious people often say that they will ‘pray for you’. This is not a substitute for actually taking action. Praying can often be a convenient avoidance technique for facing reality. The religious often pass a problem over to a higher authority so they are somehow absolved from responsibility. This does not in fact help the intended recipient, however well meant, unless it is followed by tangible action. Similarly, the sense of control and well-being of having somehow absolved oneself from taking the responsibility of self-love sometimes felt particularly in the early stages of an eating disorder are illusory. It’s a form of self deception either way.
It could be argued that the eating disordered and the religious cannot be directly compared as they have different motivations. Cleary, all religious people do not have a fear of weight gain. Many people with eating disorders also embrace and obtain solace from religion and I totally respect that. However, I feel that in either case this is permitting an idealogical mindset which creates obsession and control whatever it’s root.