dervish dancersdancersThe Health Connection

We all wish to understand our place in the universe. We want to find answers to the fundamental questions of life and death, purpose, and right and wrong. When our answers to these ultimate concerns are given some shape and organization, they become ideologies. Frequently people turn to religious ideologies for the answers they seek. It is clear that the mental, social and spiritual health of individuals is related at least in some part to the adequacy of the answers that they embrace, and to their openness to new information and ideas. But the connection between religion and health is broader than this. Religious ideologies, like their secular counterparts, have ramifications for how we organize the lives we share in our communities. This impact on how we structure our social lives affects all aspects of our health, from the physical to the spiritual, both as individuals and as communities.


Key Issues

Religion As a Form of Politics

Religion is a form of politics. For this reason the idea that we can neatly separate religion and politics into two spheres of life that should, or even can, leave each other alone is illusory. This becomes clear when we consider the meaning of “politics.” In a narrow sense, politics is “The science of government.” (The Collaborative International Dictionary of English – first definition.) In a broader sense, however, politics has to do with all “Social relations involving power and authority.” (WordNet – first definition.) Certainly we would insist on the separation of church and state. But the fact is that one’s religion invariably and necessarily affects how one does politics – certainly in terms of the broad definition, but also in terms of the narrow one.

Without exception, every spiritual tradition puts forward ideas about how “social relations involving power and authority” should be handled. In general they also advocate specifically for particular forms of government.

Spiritual traditions often exert a repressive effect on the societies in which they are influential. We see this clearly in the agenda of the religious right in the United States, and in the tendency of the catholic church to side with the upper classes and the military in its historical support of repressive regimes in Central and South America. We see this same tendency in Muslim fundamentalists who attempt to establish repressive theocracies and who have supported extremely restrictive practices toward women. We see it again at work in the caste system in India, which was created and supported through a long history by Hinduism.

But this is not the whole story. It is too simple to say “religion” in general is repressive and to attack it in an indiscriminate manner. Liberation theology has spoken eloquently for the oppressed in Central and South America, and its representatives have died for their convictions. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian minister. Dorothy Day was a Catholic who was aggressive in her support of the worker's cause in the United States. Gandhi was clearly motivated by religious ideals. The “Engaged Buddhism” movement is a powerful force for liberation in India and Asia. When we look at the broad picture, therefore, we cannot say that religion, as such, is either repressive or liberating. Nor can we say that one spiritual tradition is liberating and another repressive. Rather, ideologies of liberation and ideologies of repression contend with each other within every tradition.

Religious belief systems are political ideologies. An ideology is a system of ideas that provides an individual or a group with a particular perspective on reality. Every ideology, whether religious or secular, is grounded in a world view that presents us with a picture of who we are in relation to one another and the world we inhabit. This world-view offers answers to some of the important questions that we all ask:

  • What is our fundamental relationship to the world we inhabit?
  • What is worth living for?
  • How should we order our relationships with each other?
  • How do we establish a balance between the needs of the society and the desires of individuals?
  • What value do we place on freedom and civil rights?
  • What is “legitimate” authority?
  • What ideal patterns should shape how people in one social class should relate to those in another, how men should relate to women, children to adults, owners to labor?

The Negative Impact of Popular Religion

Even though religion is able to have either a repressive or a liberating effect on how various political issues get resolved, the unfortunate fact is that popular religion, at least in the United States, has an increasingly profound and negative impact on politics on all levels of the society. Consider some of the religiously motivated beliefs that we hear expressed, in one form or another, on a daily basis:

  • God has a special task for the United States that justifies its assuming dictatorial control over other nations.
  • God is on the side of the United States in its wars with other countries.
  • The people of my race or country are specially favored by God and have more intrinsic value than people of other nations or races.
  • A huge and terrible blood-bath in the middle east will be an inevitable precursor to the end times and the “rapture” at which time the “sheep” will be separated from the “goats.”
  • God sanctions only one sexual orientation.
  • God sanctions only the marital and sexual practices of the society I happen to belong to.
  • Masturbation is an abomination in the eyes of God.
  • Children are asexual (pure), and should therefore not be exposed to accurate sexual information.
  • Most poor people are poor because of moral failure and should be allowed to suffer from their poverty.
  • Sickness, poverty and bad luck are evidences of sin and moral laxity.
  • Wealth is a sign of God’s favor.
  • AIDS is a punishment sent by God.
  • These are the end times. Therefore it is pointless to try to do anything about impending ecological disasters.
  • God reserves a special torture chamber called hell as a place of eternal punishment for those who fail to believe the right things (perhaps the most terrifying idea every created by the human mind).
  • The moral and legal norms of a small, ancient middle eastern culture described in the Old Testament should be those that are enforced in today’s world.
  • The existence of social classes and/or castes is ordained by God.
  • Women should be subservient to men.
  • Children should be beaten in order that they learn obedience.
  • Truth is best defended by trying to make one’s favorite orthodoxy into a fixed, unchanging, and unchallengeable dogma.
  • Free and open inquiry based on reason and experience is dangerous to truth.

Many people believe that respecting all religious traditions means refraining from criticizing them. Once we recognize that religion is a form of politics, we see that we need to set aside this overly solicitous attitude. If class, sexual, racial, and age repression are advocated in the name of religion, then those of us who care about liberation need to openly and aggressively attack the religious premises that justify that repression. If huge discrepancies in the sharing of the world’s resources are defended in the name of religion, then that religion needs to be shown to be a false guide. If the legitimate pursuit of truth is blocked in any way because some religious group feels that the truths it received from tradition or divine authority are threatened, then that religious group needs to be exposed as a perpetrator of ignorance. No longer can we afford to allow religion to hide behind a curtain of sanctity. As we do not hesitate to criticize a secular world view that justifies multiple forms of repression and inequity, so we should not hesitate to question religious philosophies and theologies that do the same.

Every ideology, whether secular or religious, is both a blessing and a curse. By bringing certain aspects of reality to the foreground and pushing others to the background, an ideology enables us to see relationships and dimensions of our situation that we might otherwise miss. But every ideology also obscures those aspects of reality that have been pushed into the undifferentiated background. Every well grounded ideology is potentially useful for limited purposes, but no ideology can be treated as absolute.

Some ideologies are like plagues. They are passed on from one person to another until they infect whole populations where they are profoundly damaging to our individual and collective lives. Even those ideologies that possess whole nations and cast them into collective psychoses must tap into some truth or they would have no power. It would seem that a truth that is twisted or perverted, like a fallen angel, is more dangerous than a simple falsehood.

Judging the Truth of Ideologies

So how do we judge the truth of ideologies – whether religious or secular? Ideologies must be judged in a pragmatic and value oriented manner. I would highlight four universal values: love, liberty, understanding and active mastery. Everybody wants to love and be loved. Everybody wants to have the freedom to determine his or her own life course. Everyone wants to understand him or her self in relation to the surrounding world. Everyone wants to gain active mastery of her or his own corner of the universe. The effort to realize these four values in one’s life is the pursuit of happiness. These values provide us with the value criteria for the assessment of ideologies.

In order to accomplish these value oriented aims an ideology must remain open to growth and dialog. Whenever any ideology closes itself to change and dialog it has condemned itself to petrification – and has laid itself open to fanaticism. In this way it becomes a danger to humanity. The truths that we need are not to be found in single assertions, but in the conversation itself.

We should respect all people but not all ideas. In fact every idea should be approached with a degree of suspicion. Atrocities have been, and are now, committed in the name of all ideologies – both religious and secular.

Our task is to liberate humanity from those commitments, social practices and ideas that prevent the expansion of healthy, mutually sustaining and enriching relationships between all who share this planet. This can only be done through ideas, and through systems of ideas – through ideologies, in other words. Without ideologies we are left with only instinct to guide us, and we have no systematic way of choosing beneficial courses of action. But ideas can be sources of both good and evil. Ideas are human creations, and are subject to error. No idea is too sacred be critiqued with regard to its impact on the well-being of all sentient creatures.

These are political questions. How one answers them will determine what kind of social arrangements – what patterns of power and authority – one will attempt to establish in society. Therefore it is not surprising that we find a number of connections between religious beliefs and a variety of political and health related issues.

Connections to Other Topics


The connection between religion and democracy is of special concern today. The problem is not that people are politically motivated by their religious and secular ideologies. They cannot help but be. But if we are to uphold the ideal of a free and democratic society, then no single religious or secular ideology can be officially endorsed by the government as the mandated belief system of the people.

It is true that even a free and democratic society is built on an ideology, but it is an ideology that limits itself to two basic affirmations:

  • First, that all people are endowed with inalienable rights which can be specified in a basic list of civil liberties, as for example spelled out in the UN statements of Human Rights.
  • Second, that government must be based on a participatory, orderly process of selecting leaders, resolving conflicts, making laws, establishing the economic “rules of the game,” providing needed health and welfare services, and pursuing any other legitimate and agreed upon common tasks.

Any form of theocracy is a challenge to the concept of democracy. We see the legitimate principles of democracy and civil liberties challenged in many countries today by both religious and secular oligarchies. Perhaps the greatest world wide threat, however, comes from the United States which has traditionally prided itself on its commitment to the idea of a free and democratic society. It becomes increasingly clear that at the present time the US is attempting to create a quasi-religious empire with evangelical Christians and market fundamentalists at the helm. This obviously stands in the way of the democracy of nations that is so urgently needed in the world today.


We also see a strong connection between some forms of religious ideology and ecological concerns. The idea that human beings (or even more narrowly, “men”) are meant to rule over all creation would seem to conflict with the spirit of ecological thought in general. On a more practical level, if these are indeed the “end times,” which one suspects that Bush and others in high places may believe, a concern about the long term ecological impact of our policies is misplaced. On the other hand, for some people a profound spiritual sense of their oneness with the whole natural order is a motivation to seek a more interactive and responsible way of relating to the world around them.

Human Rights

The connection between some forms of religious ideology and the issue of human rights is apparent, especially in the area of sexuality. Not only would some people, in the name of religious righteousness, micro-manage the sex lives of other people, but they would exclude women and homosexuals from equal participation in decision making at all levels. On the other hand a significant minority of religious leaders are led by their theology to see sexuality as a part of a good creation, and to seek to liberate it from the arbitrary fetters of outdated world views.

Humanizing Institutions

One can discern a connection between fundamentalist ideologies and the issue of humanizing institutions. If one believes in a God who casts wrongdoers (or just wrong believers) into a pit of fire for eternity, then it would seem natural that society (acting as a sort of stand-in for God) would create hells here on earth for wrong doers and wrong believers. And so we do, in the form of prisons and mental hospitals. This “sheep and goats” type theology is in contrast with universalist views found in every tradition that do not see any person as expendable or outside the love of the creator.

Access to Resources and Services

In interpreting various problem situations in society, conservative religious ideologies tend to focus on explanations that have to do with personal piety and morality to the exclusion of social factors. One of the many problems associated with this one-sided interpretation of situations has to do with the issue of access to services. Social policy makers seem at times to be obsessed with the fear that the unworthy poor might get something they don’t deserve. This obsession impedes efficient and compassionate planning, and prevents the creation of a safety net under all people with regard to their basic health and welfare needs. This is in stark contrast with the emphasis on “koinonea” or community which is deeply rooted in all religious traditions and which emphasizes concern for the welfare of all the members of the community.

The allocation of resources, and the range of treatments that are considered acceptable with regard to specific diseases are both influenced by religious ideology. If a disease is a punishment from God for an unholy life style, then there is little motivation for spending much money on research and treatment for it. Also one finds that the idea of providing clean needles to drug abusers, or condoms to people at high risk for AIDS is resisted out of concern for condoning impure practices. Compassion based forms of spirituality offer a gentle and humane alternative to such judgment based ideologies, and motivate their adherents to reach out to humans in need wherever they find them.

What Can Be Done?

If we are interested in change we must begin with the realization of the importance of ideology. People act in particular ways because of how they understand who they are in their relationship with the rest of reality. Once we fully grasp the extent to which this is true it will be impossible for us to be indifferent to what people think.

It seems reasonable that we might want to begin at home, with ourselves. Most people identify with their beliefs. “I am the kind of person who thinks thus and so.” That kind of identification makes it hard for us to subject our own beliefs to the same rigorous examination we apply to the beliefs of others. Just because we have believed something for a long time, or “most people” believe it, or our friends all believe it, or we inherited it from our parents, doesn’t make it true.

Then we must critically examine the ideology of any church, religious institution or program we attend. This means identifying beliefs that justify discrimination, an inequitable distribution of resources, or treating people cruelly under any circumstances. We should not hesitate to challenge these beliefs in ourselves and in others who share our “faith” or tradition.

It might be helpful to try to bring programs into our churches, service clubs, social groups, or schools that challenge people to think about the actual impact of their beliefs on the health and well-being of people.

We must stop giving undue respect to religious beliefs. They are creations of the human mind, and need to be subject to the same scrutiny as any other ideas. When they lead to damaging consequences for other people, they should be challenged.


The religious beliefs listed earlier, and others like them, can no longer be treated as the quaint and harmless beliefs of a few backward souls. These beliefs I have listed are seriously dangerous to human happiness, health and well being. Some of them endanger the very existence of the world. They infest our social life where they bring dysfunction and ill health to every niche and corner. They are as deadly on the psycho/social level as are any pathogens in our physical bodies. The only antidote is free and open discussion. All ideas, however new or strange they may seem, must be welcome for consideration; on the other hand, no idea can be considered to be too sacred for careful scrutiny. “By their fruits you shall know them.” The relevant fruit by which any ideology must be judged is the degree to which it brings health, happiness and well-being to all people and to the world they inhabit.