Christianity and Biopsychiatry: Are They Compatible?

Post 149 of 445

By Elizabeth Szlek, M.A.


Orthodox Christians living in the West are surrounded by a culture which seems to be at odds with our basic beliefs about God and the nature and destiny of men. Yet, we function amid the science and entertainments of this culture, accepting some parts and rejecting others as inimical to our Christian salvation. In my work as a Christian counselor, I have come to believe that not only must we eschew broad swaths of what passes for culture, we must also flee from many developments of Western “science”.

In this paper, I will explore issues and questions which have engaged me as I attempt to help clients deal with the spiritual, emotional and relational problems they bring to the counseling office. I have sought to educate myself from the perspectives of both Christianity and Western science, and have come to the conclusion that they do not often concur. What follows is a journey through these two quite different ways of looking at the world. I leave the reader to make his or her own conclusions.

Since I am not a theologian, beg the forgiveness of those more qualified in this field, and ask that they bring errors to my attention. It was necessary for me to at least attempt to understand the theology of the soul in order to make my conclusions. As for the science used, I rest my assessment upon the writings of those I both know and trust, and offer their works as my foundation, as they will be acknowledged in the footnotes and Bibliography.

Two World Views: Christianity and Biopsychiatry

The mystery of “madness” has ever intrigued man. Throughout the last several thousands of years of history there have been endless attempts to understand and heal those who suffer from seemingly irresistible thought disorders and disruptive and troubling behaviors. Obviously, many theories have held sway, and, in fact, they still do.

Helpers are often at a loss as to what to do to for those who are suffering. We can see, on the one hand, the two-thousand-year tradition of Christianity and its well-trodden paths to spiritual wholeness. Pastors and spiritual fathers and mothers have been instrumental in bringing people to peace, emotional wholeness and salvation.

And yet, in our Western society, there exists another way of dealing with problems of emotions and behavior. This way can be called Biopsychiatry. It resides within a totally different worldview from that of Christianity, and is almost completely incompatible with it. If these two worldviews are not able to be held concurrently, it will obviously be necessary to choose one of them as one proceeds further into the questions of how to deal with spiritual, emotional and behavioral problems, both as sufferers and helpers. Let us begin by examining the components of a worldview.

What is a Worldview?

The excellent book on this subject by James Sire, entitled The Universe Next Door gives an operational definition of worldview as a “set of presuppositions (assumption which may be true, partially true of entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic make-up of our world.”1 1

So, we can see that worldviews are not always consistent, or even true to the natural world, and yet they are held by persons as organizing structures for their lives.

The next logical question would be to understand what a worldview actually defines. The Universe Next Door provides a quite usable guide for understanding the different worldviews available. He proposes that each worldview provides answers to the Big Seven Questions. As we are concerned here mostly with Christianity and the worldview held by Biopsychiatry, which is that of Naturalism, and also of its offshoot, secular humanism, we will proceed by comparing how these two worldviews answer the Big Seven Questions.

The Big Seven Questions

The seven questions which need to be answered to generate a complete worldview are, according to Sire,”

  1. What is prime reality?
  2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?
  3. What is a human being?
  4. What happens to a person at death?
  5. Why is it possible to know anything?
  6. How do we know what is right and wrong?
  7. What is the meaning of human history?2

For Orthodox Christians, these answers fall into the worldview of Theism, and of course, the Orthodox answers are different from other theistic views, such as Islam. We shall now compare how Orthodox Christianity and Naturalism answer these seven questions.

Questions I and II
What is the Prime Reality and the Nature of External Reality?

Orthodox Christianity Naturalism
God is infinite, personal, Triune,transcendent and immanent, omniscient, sovereign and good. There is no God. Matter is all that exists.Reality is perceived by the senses, and there is no suprasensory reality.
God created the universe ex nihilio (out of nothing) to operate with a uniformity of natural causes in an open system. The cosmos exists as a uniformity of cause and effect in a closed system.

Question III: What is a Human Being?

Orthodox Christianity Naturalism
Human beings are created in the image of God, and thus possess personality, self-transcendence, intelligence, morality, gregariousness and creativity. Humans were created good, but through the Fall, the image of God was defaced, though not so ruined as to be incapable of restoration. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, God redeemed humanity and began the process of restoring people to communion with him, though any person is free to reject this salvation. Humans are complex “machines”. Personality is an interaction of chemical and physical properties we do not yet fully understand. Humans are simply animals with better brains.

Question IV: What Happens When We Die?

Orthodox Christianity Naturalism
For each person, death is either the gate to life with God, or the gate to eternal separation from the only thing that will ultimately fulfill human aspirations. After death, souls continue to be accessible to those on earth through prayers. Saints who have united with God, experiencing theosis, are in constant contact with those on earth who seek their help. When Jesus returns to earth for the second time, earthly bodies will be resurrected in finer form and rejoined with their souls. No personality or individuality is lost, and these newly constructed beings will live forever with God. Death is the extinction of the personality and individuality. You die and your body decomposes into its original elements.

Question V: How Do We “Know” Anything? (Epistemology)

Orthodox Christianity Naturalism
Human beings know both the world around them and God Himself because God has built into them the capacity for doing so, and because He takes an active role in communicating with them. Science is the means of all knowledge. There is no spiritual knowledge, and no relationships beyond the material ones. Those who claim to experience God are delusional.

Question VI: How Do We Determine Good and Evil?

Orthodox Christianity Naturalism
Ethics is transcendent and is based on the character of God as good and loving. Humans are born with a conscience, which provides them with an ethical guide in how to live a life pleasing to God. Men also have free will, and can choose to do good or evil. Ethics is related only to humanbeings, not God. Values are man-made, and ethics are autonomous and situational. Every man does what is right in his own eyes.

Question VII: What is History?

Orthodox Christianity Naturalism
History is linear, a meaningful sequence of events leading to the fulfillment of God’s purposes for humanity. Time is created by God for his purposes, and will end. History is a linear stream of events, linked by cause and effect, but without an overarching God In fact, history as such is entirely meaningless, and has no lessons for us beyond the minatory.

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How Did Naturalism Become a Dominant Worldview?

The beginnings of Naturalism can be found in the Scholastic philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas in the West after the Schism of 1054. The West, being cut off from the deeper theology of the Orthodox Church, slowly moved to bring rational thought to the pinnacle of the gifts of God. Orthodoxy has long understood that knowledge of God is greater than rational thought, but this vibrant strand of theology was cut along with ties to the Byzantine Empire. From that point on, rationalism was enthroned as the highest virtue in seeking knowledge, relegating theology to a less important position.

Through the Middle Ages, this philosophy gained ground, and with the coming of the Renaissance, and its return, in part, to the values of the Greeks, brought the idea that man was the measure of all things. Man, not God, became the final arbiter in deciding right and wrong, and various Western thinkers continued to advance this slowly congealing worldview. This thread continued through the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the development of Socialism and Communism, on into the 20th Century with the formulation of the new “religion” of secular humanism. Even though the Romantic movement of the 19th Century attempted to enshrine the primacy of the individual, secular humanism works towards the extinction of the personality as it is subsumed into the demands of “society”.

Many developments in science through the last five hundred years have vastly changed the way we live and think. Discoveries in medicine, such as bacteriology, anatomy and disease theory have saved millions of lives around the world.

Discoveries in industry and transportation brought about the Industrial Revolution. We have also seen science unleashed in the areas of warfare and destruction, and it is unlikely the deaths caused by these new possibilities even balance the good done. What we are concerned with is attempting to see how some of these developments are in conflict with our core beliefs as Orthodox Christians. Now we come to our particular area of interest, the rise of Biopsychiatry and its effect on the lives of those it touches.

Naturalism in the World Today

Most scientific endeavor, such as astronomy, medicine, geology, biology and other natural sciences in the West, operate from the Naturalistic worldview just outlined above. There is very little, if any, acknowledgement of God in their works, and they operate as if cause and effect are the only two forces in the universe.

Darwinism and the theory of evolution, for example, are completely one with the Naturalistic view. Those who hold to evolutionary theory see men as “descended” from apes, and only possessing their supremely advanced faculties due to the happy accidents of mutation.

Freudian psychology, and almost all of psychiatry today, operates from a Naturalistic worldview. Even though Freud sought relief for his patients in the non-medicinal “treatment” of psychoanalysis, there was no room for God in his agenda, and he avowed himself a complete atheist. Psychoanalysis never sought to cure its patients, only to bring them to an understanding of the causes of their neuroses.

Secular humanism, as an offshoot of Naturalism, is the “religion” of many institutions in America. By this I mean that this philosophy takes unargued precedence over any other worldview. Secular Humanism was developed in the academic sphere by John Dewey, the noted educator, in the early 20th century. Dewey advanced his ideas so well that Secular Humanism totally dominates the American school system at all levels, from Pre-School (Head Start Programs) through the universities. This is one reason there is such a battle against Christian influence in the schools. The war between the Secular Humanists and Christians is a religious battle over whose worldview will prevail. Christians who present their beliefs are treated a quaint throwbacks to an earlier time, or are treated with hostility.

Medicine is another area where there are significant conflicts between the Secular Humanists/ Naturalists, and Orthodox Christianity. We see Christians struggling to understand such ideas as organ transplants, stem cell research, in vitro fertilization, surrogate mothers, euthanasia, and other end of life issues. However, it is to the area of Biopsychiatry that we will now turn our attention.

What is Biopsychiatry?

Before we answer that question, it will be necessary to backtrack a bit to look at the way that the discipline of psychiatry has developed. If we look at the very word psychiatry, we can see that its two roots are psyche (soul) and iatros (doctor). A psychiatrist is by definition a doctor of the soul. This curious neologism came about because it seemed to those who tried to help troubled people that they were not looking at true disease when they met those labeled “insane”, but with persons whose souls were troubled. It was not until the 19th century that the word “psychiatrist” was even used. Asylums had been built since Byzantine times for those suffering from spiritual and emotional disorders, but they were largely considered to be suffering from soul disorders, not medical conditions. In general, those who were able to function in society were referred to pastors and clerics for help with problems in living.

In 19th Century France, however, following the incredible explosion of medical knowledge of all kinds, persons employed as physicians at asylums, who were, by the way, at the lowest rung of medical practice, since they didn’t treat “real” illnesses but only psychological ones, began searching desperately for the “causes” of mental distress. Philippe Pinel, an early nineteenth century Parisian psychiatrist…is considered to be the founder of modern psychiatry. 3

What made Pinel and others of his time different was there care and concern for those under their care. Asylums were created to provide therapeutic surroundings for their patients, not just places where they could be warehoused indefinitely under conditions which most of us would find horrific. This action, in a way, laid the groundwork for the development of biopsychiatry, because it spurred later psychiatrists on to search for the causes of mental distress.

Biopsychiatry arose from two different streams. One, there was a great desire on the part of psychiatrists to “legitimize” their specialty. Prior to this time, as stated above, they were at the bottom rung of respect vis-à-vis their medical colleagues. Neurologists would seem to have had brain diseases within their purview, but the psychiatrists pressed on, searching for organic reasons for their patients’ behaviors. The second reason for the advance of Biopsychiatry was the actual pressing desire to alleviate the sufferings they saw before them.

The first steps towards finding “cures” was to categorize the disorders they saw before them, and in this case, it was the work of psychiatrists such as Emil Kraepelin, a German, and others who began compiling lists of symptoms which seemed to constantly appear together in disordered individuals. They created the word “schizophrenia” to describe individuals who displayed strikingly similar behaviors. From this point on, the idea of “mental illnesses” has continued unabated. However, just because psychiatrists were now compiling lists of symptoms and fashioning “syndromes” from them, this did not particularly elevate psychiatry’s reputation. In the words of Carl Jung, “psychiatry is a stepchild of medicine” because it is not classed among the natural sciences, not weighing or measuring anything4.

By the 20th century, psychiatry changed into something different. Psychiatrists became convinced that psychiatry could be changed to a biological science, if only the intricacies of genetics and brain chemistry could be understood. The big change was that psychiatry adopted the “Medical Model” to explain the disordered minds around them.

What is the Medical Model?

It is at this juncture that psychiatry leaves its past behind, and enters the world of wishful thinking, and takes on the trappings of the Secular Humanist religion, with psychiatrists as its “priests”. With the adoption of the Medical Model as the structure for understanding psychiatric problems, and the subsequent “forgetting” its metaphorical basis, psychiatry has left the world of science completely.

We first might want to point out that no other branch of medicine uses a Medical Model in its treatments or diagnoses. Other, real medical specialties, like cardiology, work with real diseases and conditions. They deal with lesions, bacterial infections, organic changes and other signs that something other than bodily health is being looked at. The Medical Model creates a whole world of metaphor, where mental problems and disorders are called mental “disease” or “illness”. If at first those employing this model were cognizant of the fact that calling a problem a “disease” was like calling the sky a “blanket”, and in no way less poetic, it seems that today in our world, people have completely forgotten that the Medical Model is still being used. In fact, psychiatry has backed away from the truth of the matter, and now, any collection of psychological or behavioral symptoms is called a “disease”, and someone who has this “disease” can be called “mentally ill”.

I cannot stress enough the need to constantly keep in mind that mental “illness” is not real illness of the medical sort, since no one has yet found any physiological cause for any kind of mental disorder. This includes finding any chemical imbalances, genetic markers or any other physical determinants, such as the results of the much touted brain scans. That we believe in these claims is only a testament to the great power of biopsychiatry, and their co-conspirators, the pharmaceutical industry, to sway our thinking through ubiquitous advertising programs and junk science. Thoughtful researchers such as Peter Breggin, Mary Boyle, Ty Colbert, David Stein, Joseph Glenmullen, William Uttal5, and many others have shown conclusively that psychiatry is operating in a non-scientific manner, pushing dangerous medications on those who do not need them.

Those who care to remember that the Medical Model is only a device for .keeping track of symptoms, and not a medical reality include such notables as Thomas Szasz, whose books have striven to point out this problem to a society only too happy to have their troubles labeled as “illness”, and thus be relieved of much of the responsibility for changing their spiritual, emotional, social and behavioral lives. He states in his groundbreaking work The Myth of Mental Illness that “Mental illness”…”may be viewed as a manifestation of strain in an individualistic society.”6

To put it succinctly, the Medical Model used by psychiatry and the mental health industry in general is a framework for metaphors, not for the reality of what is going on in distressed persons’ lives. Mental “illness” is not illness at all, but is a way of talking about problems in living. Mental illness is an ambiguous label. Those who use it seem to wish to straddle and evade the conflict of interests between the patient and his social environment (relatives, society, etc.).”7 Dr. Szasz a psychiatrist himself, however, holds a totally Naturalist worldview, which excludes the reality of God. And yet, he was one of the first in his field to call to the attention of the public the mythical nature of the “diseases” psychiatry was “treating”. Things are very much worse these days, since the creation of so many mind-altering substances and the growth of the pharmaceutical industry.

Anyone who reads his or her evening prayers will reach the final prayer and find a very long list of sins which may have been committed that day. These include “gluttony, drunkenness, secret eating, idle talking, despondency, indolence, contradiction, disobedience, slandering, condemning, negligence, self-love, acquisitiveness, extortion, lying, dishonesty, mercenariness, jealousy, envy, anger, remembrance of wrongs, hatred, bribery8,” and other sins committed by deed, word or thought or through the senses. Any mental health professional seeing this list would immediately note the majority of the problems which come before them each day are to be found on that list. If these behaviors indicate sinfulness, how can they also indicate “disease”? After all, no one is “responsible” for having a disease. And yet, each person is definitely responsible for his or her sins. Here is one point of contact with the Naturalistic worldview where Christians must part ways. Are there other concerns for the Christian who might wish to seek help from Naturalists who work in the field of mental health?

Further Issues with Naturalism

Naturalism gave birth, ultimately to Biopsychiatry, in which psychiatrists search for physical causes of mental illness. Of course, they do not acknowledge the existence of God, nor of the soul (which ironically their very title implies). All life is material, and therefore, all answers are found in the material universe. This removes any metaphysical element from the cure of problems seen as mental illnesses, whether the actual cause is emotional, social or spiritual.

Unfortunately for the Biopsychiatrists, they have yet to prove any of their theories about the nosology (cause) of any mental “disease”. In the mythical world of psychiatry, however, science does not need to be proven to be employed as “treatment”. Psychiatric treatments, like treatments in real medicine, have always been empirically derived. That is, someone gets an idea of what should cure a psychiatric patient, and delivers the treatment, watching to see what the results are. Needless to say, this approach has brought about the death or disability of thousands of persons. It is important to remember, however, that psychiatric patients have no real illness, and treatments which attempt to ameliorate the workings of the mind through affecting the body are essentially doomed to failure. Our brains were created in perfection to carry out the workings of our soul.

Throughout the history of psychiatry, novel “treatments” to “cure” sufferers in distress have included cold baths, chaining, spinning in chairs and other horrific actions. However, with the 20th century came new “treatments” which were far more disabling, including lobotomies, shock treatments (still being used), insulin shock treatments, and other barbarities. Possibly the worst developments along this line have come about with the creation of psychotropic (mind-altering) drugs.

If the brain is responsible for mental “diseases”, as the Biopsychiatrists claim, they can be cured by “fixing” the brain. The next leap of logic has them positing that there must be a “chemical imbalance” in the brain, since, according to the worldview of Naturalism, the workings of the brain are nothing but chemical transactions. This reductionistic view is the position of the “New Psychiatry”, which, since the early 1970’s, in league with the huge pharmaceutical industries (Big Pharma), have almost totally dominated mental health care in the Western world.

The practice of biopsychiatry today consists almost totally of dispensing psychotropic medications. Students studying to be psychiatrists in the West no longer receive significant training in counseling techniques, since the New Psychiatry teaches that all mental disease (a metaphor, remember?) is the result of chemical imbalances in the brain, and thus the answer to the problem is obviously to change that chemistry. So, a pill is ordered, and when that doesn’t work, another is added. Many patients today are taking as many as six or seven different psychiatric medicines at one time- for an “illness” that is metaphorical. Indeed, there are chemical brain imbalances to be found in the West today, but only in those who are altering their brains with psychotropic medications or other toxins. The results of this “treatment” are often deadly. The use and mixing of many psychotropics falls under the heading of “polypharmacy”, a deadly and unpredictable practice which kills many people each year.

What Are Some Effects of Psychotropic Medications?

There is a kind of rhythm which can be found when studying the use of psychotropic medications. A drug appears and is hailed as a great new panacea, a cure-all, and it is widely prescribed and used. After some time, the deadly effects are noted, and it quietly recedes from the scene as the next new panacea is proclaimed. This cycle has been going on since the first wonder drug, proclaimed by Freud himself, a heavy user, came on the scene. This drug was cocaine. The next were the barbiturates, followed by amphetamines, benzodiazepines, neuroleptics, and antidepressants. After about twenty years, the negative effects become obvious even to the psychiatrists. All of these drugs have been found to have terribly negative effects, most leading to addiction, and all promote brain damage.

The human brain is the most complex organ in the known universe, and its workings are still largely a mystery. When a new drug is “tested” on human subjects, two things happen. One, the test subjects either feel better or worse, and two, their brain is altered, possibly permanently, and usually for the worse. Testing of drugs is only concerned with the first result, as no one can possibly determine immediately what long-term effect a drug is having on a brain. Indeed, testing for new drugs such as Prozac often lasts only a few weeks, but patients remain on these drugs for years, and in some cases, for decades. For example, when neuroleptics, otherwise known as anti-psychotic drugs were discovered to have marvelous powers of calming disturbed patients, they were hailed as wonder drugs. Most people don’t know that they were also called “chemical lobotomies” by the psychiatrists who first prescribed them. Their long-term effects, such as tardive dyskinesia (an irreversible condition causing tics and tremors), diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, sexual dysfunction, memory loss, etc., were only to appear after chronic dosing.

A surgical lobotomy takes large parts of the most advanced parts of the brain out of action, and produces docile, childlike patients who present few problems for the staffs of mental institutions. So, a chemical lobotomy does the same thing, without the surgery. These drugs were developed largely for the benefit of those who were being discomforted by the behaviors of troubled people, not for the people themselves, which is why compliance in taking them is such an issue.

It may interest you to know that millions of children in America are taking neuroleptics every day, so that they can sleep after taking amphetamines in the morning.

Millions upon millions of people are taking anti-depressant medications for mythical chemical imbalances. Elders are being chemically lobotomized in nursing homes to keep them quiet. Many people become suicidal or homicidal after only one dose of an anti-depressant medication. Those taking benzodiazepines become demented after long-term use. Most drugs cause addiction and require painful withdrawal.

But, you might say, many people feel “better” when taking these medications. My question goes to the second thing that happens when you take a psychotropic medication: Your brain changes. 9

Implications for Orthodox Christian

Perhaps it is time to do some rethinking about these same issues.We live in a culture dominated by science and the Naturalist worldview. No doubt, this worldview has produced many valuable advances in technology and medicine, but there has to be a point when we take stock of our own beliefs and see if they permit us to participate in treatments which are in discord with our faith.

If we see ourselves as beings created by God, possessing a soul and the promise of eternal life, we would necessarily hesitate to interfere with the workings of our body, soul and spirit. Perhaps it would be wise to review just how Orthodoxy looks at humans and their destiny.

The Orthodox View of Man

First, we recognize that God is Triune, and man in made in the image of God. We are composed of different and complementary parts. Since Orthodoxy is rich in the study of the parts of man, some of the elements which make up man have been identified as the image, soul, nous, heart, mind and body. These various terms describe how a person lives, relates to God and thinks. Because we are now in the realm of metaphysics, it is not possible to state definitively how body, soul and spirit are joined together and constructed, for this will ever be a great mystery, but many Orthodox Fathers have attempted to shed light on this deepest of subjects.

The soul is the way in which life is manifested in man. It deals with the spiritual in opposition to the material part- 10 The Greek word psyche is also used to indicate the spiritual element in our existence. In any case, this term has many different meanings, and can also sometimes refer to the entire entity of man, as in the title of Gogol’s novel Dead Souls.

St. John of Damascus stated that “A soul is a living substance, simple and incorporeal, of its own nature invisible to bodily eyes, using the body as an organ, and giving it life endowed with will, so the mind is to the soul. It is free, endowed with will and the power to act, and subject to change, that is, subject to change of will, because it is also created.”11 (Emphasis mine). It seems from this statement that the soul is inexplicably joined to the body and mind, and this is the medium and method for our communion with our world, other people, ourselves and with God. We are corporeal and incorporeal beings, but we can never understand how this union exists. However, we must respect what God has created. The mind is used by the soul to communicate with God and accomplish other spiritual tasks.

The Parts of Man’s Soul

When it is said that man is made in the image of God, this refers to the way the soul is constructed, above all. According to St. Gregory Palamas, as God is threefold, so is the soul. 12 The three parts he identified were nous, Word and Spirit.

The life-giving Spirit is what gives life to the body, the material part of man. As angels do not have bodies, they have no life-giving Spirit in them, but animals, having bodies, do have this Spirit. In animals, however, this life-giving Spirit consists only of energy, and not essence, and when the Spirit leaves them, they are dead. 13

The second part of the soul is the Word, which relates to intelligence. Both men and angels possess the Word. Animals have intelligence, but they do not have a nous, and behave according to the instinct of their nature. Since they have no nous, they do not possess free will.

The nous is the purest part of the soul, and St. John of Damascus referred to it as the “eye of the soul”. 14The nouscould be considered the power of the soul, and sometimes is considered the soul itself. Most interestingly, the nousis also considered to be the heart. 15

The term “heart” is found in many passages of Scripture. For many people, it is easiest to think of the heart as a combination of the mind, feelings and will. An example of this usage is in a passage from St. Maximus the Confessor, where he states,

“The nous (heart) is that which sees things clearly and therefore should be purified, and the intelligence is that which formulates and expresses what has been seen.” 16It is not possible to tease apart the various parts of the nous, but we can see that they operate as a unit, with the eye of the soul directing.

St. Gregory of Nyssa and the Human Soul

Among the writings of the Church Fathers, the work of St. Gregory of Nyssa stands out for its deep understanding of the human soul. Gregory sees man as a methorion, or border being, suspended between the two poles of divine and earthly nature. He writes, “Human nature is something that stands at the middle of two things that stand apart in the most extreme degree: the divine and incorporeal nature on the one hand and the nonrational and animalistic on the other.”17

His view is that the soul is the cause of life, a begotten, living spiritual entity, which is indivisible, yet composed of three different faculties. These faculties are the nous, or intellectual/rational part, which pervades the entire body; the thymos or spirited faculty, also known as the striving faculty; and the epithymia, or appetitive faculty. When the nousis in control of the lower two faculties, the soul is in balance, and St. Gregory likens this condition to a charioteer driving two horses. 18

Because man also possesses the great gift of free will, he is able to choose either the good or the bad. Will is a faculty exempt from servitude, residing in the independence of our reason. Free will is the essential foundation of virtue. Without free will, there can be no virtue, no praise, no blame for human conduct. “Only the soulless or irrational beings are led by an external will. If a rational and thinking nature discards freedom, it also loses the right for thinking. There is no need for reason if the power of choice depends upon another.” 19 What are we to think, then, when millions of people, Christians among them, are willingly altering their rational faculty and will with psychotropic medications? Is this not a situation worse than even slavery, where at least the mind is still free to pursue virtue? Do they not become somehow soulless?

What About the Brain?

Orthodoxy rarely mentions the brain as an organ of thought or decision. Certainly, the brain does direct many bodily functions, particularly the part of the brain which handles unconscious processes like digestion, and breathing. Orthodox thinkers would most likely consider the brain a vehicle for the heart (nous), since it is used by the spiritual elements of man to direct the mind, feelings and will. Orthodoxy holds a mystical view of man which is nothing like the reductionistic view taken by the Naturalists. In the Naturalist view, the chemicals in the brain are totally responsible for man’s behavior. Christians do not believe this, having a much higher view of our lives as beings made in the image of God. We believe in free will, rational overview of our souls, and the necessity for self-control and making good decisions. Psychotropic drugs, in many cases, directly supersede the soul’s abilities in these areas. They can control the will, disinhibit the epithymia, and disrupt the nous in both its intellectual and regulatory capacity.

An Ethical Dilemma

If the mind is part of the heart, or nous, a spiritual entity, and the will and feelings are also part of the nous, what does it mean for someone to take a mind-altering drug? Surely, there are injunctions in the Scripture against drunkenness, which includes the ingestion of a large quantity of mind-altering and toxic alcohol. The reason that drunkenness is prohibited is because with a mind that is altered in its functioning, we are able to use the nousproperly. And, as temples of the Holy Spirit, we are not to harm our bodies or minds nousfor the same reason. All Christians are enjoined against taking street drugs recreationally, but what most fail to recognize is that street drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines are exactly the same substances of which psychotropics are made. The brain responds to Ritalin in the same way it responds to cocaine. The drug-taking public has yet to realize the long-term effects of taking any kinds of mind-altering drugs.

The question must be: Should we permit our minds to be altered? Wouldn’t doing so logically involve our spiritual lives? Do mind-altering drugs not rob us of our will (neuroleptics), change our feelings (anti-depressants) and rob us of the ability to grow and learn about our souls? If the drugs can change our mind and will and feelings, they are changing our heart. Perhaps, as Orthodox Christians, we need to find better ways to care for our nous. And perhaps, we already have these ways. I believe that within the whole of Orthodox tradition we can find a correct view of how to interpret emotional and psychological distress, and do so without harming the nous.

St. Gregory of Nyssa predated us by many centuries, but he understood an important truth: Our minds need to be free from control by external substances. He states, “Necessity and compulsion negate man’s being in the image of God, for the relation of similarity is lost. If the archetype is free from necessity, the image of this archetype must also be so, in order that the participation in the divine advantages be a reward of virtue.” 20We need to reclaim our healing traditions and turn away from Naturalist reductionism, to protect our most important possession, our souls. What could possibly be more important?

Elizabeth Szlek is an Orthodox Christian, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, and is the Director of The Door Counseling Center of Utica, NY., Inquiries may be directed online at The Voice of Orthodoxy is deeply thankful to Miss Szlek for this scholarly article on Christianity and Modern Psychiatry. We promise our prayers for the wonderful work she is doing at The Door Counseling Center at Utica. (TVOO)

1 Sire, James (1998). The Universe Next Door. (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press), p 17.
2 Sire, James, ibid., p. 18.
3 Shorter, Edward (1997). A History of Psychiatry. (NY: John Wiley & Sons), p. 11.
4 Shorter, Edward, ibid., p. 67.
5 These are all leading authors who are critical of the current state of biopsychiatry. See the Bibliography for some of their excellent books.
6 Szasz, Thomas (1961). The Myth of Mental Illness (New York: Dell Publishing Company), p. 71.
7 Szasz, Ibid, p.71.
8 Prayer Book, Fourth Edition (1986). (Jordanville, NY: St. Job of Pochaev Press), p. 62.
9 For those who care to pursue this topic, I refer you to an excellent new book by psychiatrist Grace Jackson, who has been recognized as a leading thinker in psychopharmacology. In her book Rethinking Psychiatric Drugs, she makes the case that no one taking psychotropic drugs has received informed consent about the effects the drug will have, since no one knows what they are. Most certainly, the doctor prescribing the medication does not know, and the patient is, in effect, an unwitting participant in a drug trial.
10 Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos (1994). Orthodox Psychotherapy. (Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery), p.111.
11 Ibid, p. 100.
12 Ibid,, p. 104.
13 Ibid,, p. 104.
14 Ibid., p, 119.
15 Ibid., p121.
16 Ibid., p. 123.
17 Cavarnos, John P. (2000). St. Gregory of Nyssa and the human soul. (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies), p. 24.
18 Ibid, p. 72.
19 Ibid, p. 84.
20 Ibid, p. 84.

Bibliography and Resource List

Angell, Marcia (2005). The truth about the drug companies: How they deceive us and what to do about it (New York: Random House).

Blake Tracy, Ann (2001). Prozac: Panacea or Pandora? (Cassia Publications).

Boyle, Mary (1990). Schizophrenia: A scientific delusion? (New York: Routledge).

Breggin, Peter R. (2001). The anti-depressant fact book (Cambridge: Perseus Publishing.

Breggin, Peter R. (1997). Brain disabling treatments in psychiatry: Drugs, electroshock and the role of the FDA (New York: Springer Publishing).

Breggin, Peter R. (2002). The Ritalin fact book: What your doctor won’t tell you about ADHD and stimulant drugs (Cambridge: Perseus Publishing).

Breggin, Peter R. (1994). Talking back to Prozac (New York: St. Martin’s Press).

Breggin, Peter R. (2001). Talking back to Ritalin: What doctors aren’t telling you about stimulants and ADD (Cambridge: Perseus Publishing).

Breggin, Peter R. (1991). Toxic psychiatry :Why therapy., empathy, and love must replace the drugs, electroshock, and biochemical theories of the “New Psychiatry” (New York: St. Martin’s Press).

Breggin, Peter R., & Breggin, Ginger R. (1998) The war against children of color: Psychiatry targets inner city youth (Monroe: Common Courage Press).

Breggin, Peter R., & Cohen, D. (1999). Your drug may be your problem: How and why to stop psychiatric medications (Cambridge: Perseus Publishing).

Colbert, Ty C. (2001). The rape of the soul: How the chemical imbalance model of modern psychiatry has failed its patients (Tustin: Kevco Publishing).

Frank, Leonard R. (1978). The history of shock treatment (San Francisco: Leonard Roy Frank).

Glasser, William (2003). Warning: Psychiatry may be hazardous to your mental health (New York: HarperCollins).

Glenmullen, Joseph (2000). Prozac backlash: Overcoming the dangers of Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil and other antidepressants with safe, effective alternatives (New York: Simon and Schuster).

Greider, Katherine (2003). The big fix: How the pharmaceutical industry rips off American customers (New York: Public Affairs).

Healy, David (1997). The Antidepressant Era (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Jackson, Grace E. (2005). Rethinking psychiatric drugs: A guide for informed consent (Bloomington: AuthorHouse).

Shorter, Edward (1997). A history of psychiatry: From the era of the asylum to the age of Prozac (New York: John Wiley and Sons).

Stein, David B (1999). Ritalin is not the answer (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers).

Stein, David R. (2001). Unraveling the ADD/ADHD fiasco: Successful parenting without drugs (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing).

Szasz, Thomas (1961). The Myth of Mental Illness (New York: Dell Publishing Company).

Szasz, Thomas (1994). Cruel compassion (New York: John Wiley and Sons).

Szasz, Thomas (1976). Schizophrenia: The sacred symbol of psychiatry (New York: Basic Books).

Uttal, William R. (2001). The New Phrenology: The limits of localizing cognitive processes in the brain (Cambridge: MIT Press).

Whittaker, Robert (2002). Mad in America : Bad science, bad medicine, and the enduring mistreatment of the mentally ill (Cambridge: Perseus Publishing).

Web Sites

Alliance for Human Research Protection The site begun by activist Vera Sharav, designed to inform the public about the workings of the drug industry.

International Center for the Study of Psychology and Psychiatry: .This site can serve as an introduction to those who want to learn more about biopsychiatry and Big Pharma.

International Coalition for Drug Awareness The site begun by Ann Blake Tracy, devoted to informing consumers of psychiatric medications of harmful effects of the drugs they are being prescribed.

Mind Freedom .This is a psychiatric survivors’ group, dedicated to preserving the rights of those who are psychiatrically labeled.

New Freedom Commission . This commission has the goal of promoting universal mental health screening throughout America. It is largely funded by the drug companies, who stand to reap billions in sales.

Psych Rights. . An organization headed by Jim Goldstein which focuses on the legal rights of psychiatric patients, and is involved in the legal problems encountered by those in conflict with the bio-pharm complex.

Teen Screen Program . An organization funded by drug money which is attempting to infiltrate our nation’s schools and subject all students to mental health screening.