Posts Tagged ‘Religion’
Posted on January 24, 2010 - by David
Chapter 3- The Shifting Mask of Schizophrenia in Zanzibar
In the first two chapters of Ethan Watters’ new book, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, we encounter the idea that differences in source of identity and social integration between cultures may account for differences in the expression, (and prevalence), of mental illness. The third chapter suggests that cultural differences may also explain the rather enigmatic finding that those diagnosed with schizophrenia in the “developing” world seem to fare better than their Western counterparts. I found anthropologist Juli McGruder’s case studies particularly interesting, as they raise the possibility that the cause, or at least trigger, for schizophrenia may lie in cultural conditions.
I think it’s worth noting, as Watters points out, that despite the privileged position science has been given in the study of schizophrenia and all the technological advances of the last few decades, we still know very little about the causes of this strange affliction.
More than any other mental illness in the Western world, this one belonged to the “hard scientists” who looked for the causes in bad genes, biochemistry, and the structure of the brain. The advent of brain scans – allowing a researcher to see into the head of live patients – brought with it a seemingly endless series of theories about the root cause of the illness. Abnormalities supposedly key to schizophrenia have been reported in the frontal cortex, the prefrontal cortex, the basal ganglia, the hippocampus, the thalamus, the cerebellum – and pretty much every other corner of the brain as well. No firm consensus had emerged about the location or cause, but there was wide agreement that the exciting advances in understanding the disease were coming from the laboratories of brain researchers.(134)
In the meantime, there are others like Juli McGruder who, (like sociologist Liah Greenfeld), believes that “culture and social setting play a more complicated role in the disease than simply influencing the content of the delusions.” (136) Scholars on the cultural side of the fence point to the results of two international studies by the World Health Organization. The WHO research, which began in the 1960’s and lasted 25 years, suggests that the severity of schizophrenia is not the same worldwide. Watters summarizes the findings:
What they found was that those diagnosed with schizophrenia living in India, Nigeria, and Colombia often experienced a less severe form of the disease (had longer periods of remission and higher levels of social functioning) than those living in the United States, Denmark, or Taiwan. Whereas over 40 percent of schizophrenics in industrialized nations were judged to be “severely impaired,” only 24 percent of patients in the poorer countries ended up similarly disabled. (137)
Liah Greenfeld believes that anomie, which she considers a built-in feature of modern culture, causes problems with identity formation which often lead to mental illness. In Nationalism and the Mind, she describes this phenomenon and its effects on individuals:
Anomie, commonly translated as “normlessness,” refers to a condition of cultural insufficiency, a systemic problem which reflects inconsistency, or lack of coordination, between various institutional structures, as a result of which they are likely to send contradictory messages to individuals within them. On the psychological level anomie produces a sense of disorientation, of uncertainty as to one’s place in society, and therefore as to one’s identity: of what one is expected to do under the circumstances of one sort or another, of the limits to one’s possible achievement… (14)
The chronic, modern state of anomie may not (yet) be a built-in a feature of Zanzibari culture, but when we use the word “developing” to describe a country or culture, we imply that they are developing into something more like us, i.e moving towards modernity. This process of modernization is necessarily anomic:
Anomie, is, in fact, the ultimate cause of cultural change. It both breaks the old cultural routine and encourages the formation of a new one. The general pattern of human history can be imagined as an alteration between relatively brief and rare periods of widespread (though culturally localized) anomie and cultural routine. Widespread anomie, most commonly implying gross inconsistencies between elements of culture impinging on individual identities, specifically inconsistencies within the system of social stratification which defines a person’s position in the social world in general and vis-à-vis particular others, affects large groups of individuals and expresses itself in social turmoil. (14-15)
I wasn’t surprised, then, to see the title ‘Revolution and Madness’ above the section introducing McGruder’s first case study. Watters describes the state of affairs in the country at the time when Hemed began to experience symptoms of schizophrenia:
After years of being a British colony, Zanzibar embarked on the uncertain path to self-governance. There were three political parties, twenty-two trade unions, and sixteen partisan newspapers stirring up anger and resentment on all sides. Hemed’s first experience of derangement, McGruder believes, was sparked by the social upheaval of the time. (142)
Given what was going on in that moment in the history of Zanzibar, the amount of stress felt by Hemed must have been intense. He was a middle-class man from a high-profile Arab minority at a time of growing racial and class distrust. His curly dark hair and facial features made him identifiably Arab. There seemed to be no safe political refuge. Even the political party he belonged to, the Zanzibar Nationalist Party, was internally split between those who considered themselves African and those of Arab heritage. No one knew whom to trust. (143)
We can also see how conflicting cultural messages may have played a role in the experience of Kimwana, Hemed’s daughter who suffered from the same illness.
She was a happy child even though her early years were turbulent times for the island. Her mother and classmates remember her as the brightest student in the class. Particularly skilled with numbers, she graduated from secondary school and took a job with the Ministry of Finance. This was 1983, a time of rapid change for women on the island. To fill in for the many educated men who had fled the political upheaval, women were beginning to enter the professional workforce by the thousands. (144)
While we in the West would see these new opportunities for women aa a change for the better, there still existed traditional guidelines on behavior which seemed to contradict this elevation in social status. It was only a few months after Kimwana started her new job that she began to hear male voices “gossiping that she was a disloyal and disrespectful daughter and sister” (146). Before the cultural changes which led to an influx of women into the workplace, Kimwana’s identity would have been based primarily on her relationship to her family and in behaving according to the prescriptions of the Islamic religion.
Much of the torment of having these male presences in her head related to Islamic rules of female modesty. While the voices were with her, she felt she must respect the codes of conduct as is she were actually in the presence of a man. At such times she could not bathe or undress and she tried not to go to the bathroom. Although she sometimes found it helpful to argue with the voices when they became critical, her sense of decorum made it difficult to do this out loud. (146-147)
In this section of the chapter, Watters highlights McGruder’s amazement at the ability of Amina, the mother and effectively the head of the household, to care for the large family and its two sick members. Her daily activities seem to far surpass western notions of busyness, and she takes the extra load created by mental illness in stride. This is possible, I believe, because she is secure in her identity in a way that neither Hemed nor her daughter Kimwana could be. She was raised to serve her family and God, and that is what she does. McGruder compares the Western, Christian attitude towards adversity to Amina’s stance and sees an importance difference.
In the cosmology of Western Christians, life’s challenges provide opportunities to become stronger and to have a closer relationship with God. The burdens God sends to Christians in the Western world are incitements to self-improvement. The comforts that Amina found in her religious belief, by contrast, were not in an encouragement to overcome or learn from hardships. Rather, simply accepting her burden was a continuous act of penance. (155)
In other words, the challenge of caring for her sick relatives did not provide a reason to change her identity. Her identity was essentially unchanged since childhood, she was merely to continue behaving and believing as she always knew she should. Unfortunately for her daughter, the conflict between the new cultural value of work for women, and the traditional emphasis on family and religion proved too much for her mind to handle.
The chapter also describes the damage often done by family members’ emotional over-involvement in the lives of their schizophrenic loved ones. This cultural tendency, according to Watters, is closely related to the Western emphasis on individual identity and the belief that individuals should be able to control their own destinies. As in the previous two chapters, the resounding message is that the highly individualistic nature of identity in modern societies and the lack of clear, shared cultural beliefs and practices lead to more widespread and more severe forms of mental illness.
Posted on January 6, 2010 - by David
Going off a suggestion given in one of the comments to my post Is Postmodernity a Reality?, I began looking at what “postmodernism” means to Christians in America. A quick youtube search revealed a surprising number of videos related to Christianity.
In this short video, professors from various Christian colleges attempt to define postmodernism.
If modernism, which involves the exaltation of human reason and elevation of science over faith, is the “tower of babel trying to reach up and replace God,” then postmodernism is “the babel that came after that when people lost the ability to communicate because there’s no common language or presuppositions” says Angus Menuge, chair of philosophy at Concordia University. “So you get fragmentation, people pulled in different directions, even the same person pulled in different directions.”
I believe this “fragmentation” he refers to is likely related to the anomie which Greenfeld considers to be a built-in feature of modernity. But the main concern here seems to be relativism and “suspicion of truth claims,” or to use the phrase of French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard which they refer to, “incredulity towards metanarratives.” The Evangelical leaders in this next video are worried about the same thing. The first speaker, Al Mohler, says that the meat of postmodernism is the belief that truth is socially constructed and therefore relative, it is not knowable, and cannot be transmitted through language. “All the rest of it’s really decoration.”
It’s obvious that these men have a real problem with some of the prevailing attitudes of secular culture, but the real “danger” they are railing against here is a particular brand of Christianity – the “emerging” or “emergent” church – which they see embracing the secular “postmodern” culture. This clip from a PBS documentary gives a snapshot of this movement and some of the objections to it.
It is not surprising to me that this version of church is gaining popularity. I think for many Americans it may seem more relevant because it operates on the principle of egalitarianism which is already an essential part of our national identity. Everyone’s opinion matters, everyone can participate. Furthermore, the focus is clearly shifted off of eternity, (questions of heaven and hell ), to how life on earth can be improved. As Brian McLaren states in the PBS documentary, “if we have a version of the Christian faith that does not make us the kind of people that make this a better world, we really want no part in it.” This shift in focus seems to line up pretty closely with the secular and humanistic consciousness of modern culture as defined by Liah Greenfeld. While the emergent church keeps God in the picture, life on earth is considered “ultimately meaningful,” and “within this world the most significant element is the people who populate it.”
In this sense, the emergent movement does involve a kind of embrace of the so-called “postmodern” culture, so it’s not surprising that the more fundamental evangelical leaders consider it a threat. In their eyes, it is eliminating many of the crucial aspects of the Christian identity to blend in with the secular culture surrounding it.
Posted on December 24, 2009 - by David
Since some of my recent posts have dealt with religion in America, and considering that tomorrow is Christmas, I was curious to see how this holiday has been officially represented in recent years. I found these “messages on the observance of Christmas” from 1984-2008 on the American Presidency Project website.
Honestly, I was surprised at the explicitly Christian content of most of the messages. I guess I was expecting a more general message emphasizing tradition, family, and some of those “Christmas values” – peace, love, goodwill, etc.- with the religious aspect slightly toned down.
Of course, the Christmas story is always connected to the story of the nation. Most of messages are structured similarly, with something about the birth of Jesus as a gift from God and the message Jesus brought to the world, followed by some statement about how America continues to work for the ideals of peace on earth and freedom for all mankind.
It wasn’t until 2000, Clinton’s last Christmas in the White House, that any mention of other religion’s holidays was made:
For Americans of many faiths, this is a season of renewal–of light shining through the darkness, of despair transformed to hope. This year, Christmas is celebrated during the same week as Jews celebrate Hanukkah and Muslims celebrate the Eid Al-Fitr–a powerful and moving reminder that followers of the three Abrahamic faiths share fundamental values: a reverence for our Creator, a belief in human dignity, and a conviction that we must love our neighbors as ourselves. By building on these shared values, we can create a future where all God’s children live together in peace and understanding.
In 2001, George W. Bush, perhaps hesitant to offend or exclude anyone only a few months after 9/11, spoke only of what “Christians believe,” lacking the confident, matter-of-fact tone of Reagan and his father:
According to the Gospel of Luke, two thousand years ago, the savior of mankind came into the world. Christians believe that Jesus’ birth was the incarnation of God on earth, opening the door to new hope and eternal life. At Christmastime, Christians celebrate God’s love revealed to the world through Christ. And the message of Jesus is one that all Americans can embrace this holiday season–to love one another.
There are these kind of occasional qualifications. Clinton, began most of his messages with “warm greetings to everyone celebrating Christmas,” which reads to me like a kind of disclaimer against offending Americans who don’t celebrate Christmas.
Earlier today, Barack and Michelle Obama gave a Christmas message which was much lighter on religious content, focusing more on the sacrifices of U.S military personnel and what we can do to help. Still, he did mention among the reasons to celebrate this Christmas, “a message of peace and brotherhood that continues to inspire more than 2,000 after Jesus’ birth.”
I don’t know. It seems to me that 364 days of the year, and even on Christmas day, most of the nation pays no mind to the story of Jesus’s birth, so this has left me scratching my head.
I guess I’ll just echo the words of George W. Bush: “I send greetings to those celebrating Christmas.”
Posted on December 4, 2009 - by David
The other day I came across this article in New York magazine about Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Joseph Hooper, author of the article, gives a snapshot of Keller’s message, condemning “the secular holy trinity of money, ambition, and achievement,” :
Now Keller takes Habakkuk’s rap against the Babylonians—their “need to clothe themselves with glory”—and aims it straight back at his ambitious, striving Upper West Side congregation. He notes that tennis legend Chris Evert once admitted in an interview that she was driven to win because “winning made her feel pretty” and that Madonna confessed she felt special only when she was breaking through to new levels of fame. Whether we’re athletes, artists, businesspeople, or preachers, Keller says, we all suffer from the same malady—trying to fill our empty spaces with achievement when only accepting God’s grace can do the job. “We want to feel beautiful, we want to feel loved. We want to feel significant and that’s why we’re working so hard and that’s the source of the evil.” In another sermon, on another Sunday, he asks the congregation point-blank: “Why are you in New York? Deep down, you think something is wrong with you.”
From what I read, Keller has described pretty accurately how New Yorkers are suffering from anomie. Obviously, the solution he offers is a spiritual one, but, all spiritual or religious judgments aside, it is easy to see how Keller’s church, (complete with smaller fellowship groups,) is able to provide the direct social integration that is usually lacking in modern life. Apparently, this is a welcome relief for several thousand New Yorkers.
But reading the comments was almost more interesting than reading the article itself.
In the discussion thread, several commenters minimized the significance of Redeemer’s large attendance:
Ah good one nymag. 91 comments about a church that about .000001% of the city attends. And yeah, that guy is making tons money off of you mindless sheep/lemmings, but that’s your business not any of ours. Enjoy.
BY AROSE03 on 12/01/2009 at 7:12pm
While it is probably true that most of Manhattan isn’t sitting in church on Sunday morning, I wonder how many other large, quickly-growing congregations exist in this most secular of cities, and how many of their pastors aim their messages at American anomie?
Still, plenty of Christians voiced their support for Keller. But what I hear ringing in the harsh tone of these comments is the fundamental secularity of the American nation. How else could the word ‘religious’ be paired so comfortably with words like ‘nut,’ ‘moron,’ and ‘huckster’ ?
Of course, much of the opposition to Keller’s message (and most of the anti-religious comments) can be attributed to his stance on homosexuality and the position of women in church leadership. The fact that discussion of this article devolved into a debate about homosexuality points to the fact that many Americans associate religion with a specific set of political positions. In other words, religious identity gets interpreted through the larger framework of American national identity.
The relationship between evangelical Christianity and national identity is certainly a topic we will return to. Let me just say again that my goal in this blog is to gain a better understanding of culture, not to make pronouncements about the moral value of a set of beliefs. To observe that some Americans find relief from anomie in a church community is not to endorse the teachings of that church. Likewise, the claim that the social integration provided by the church community is what helps church members does not necessarily limit other explanations.
Hopefully, any discussion that follows this post can be a little more civil than what I read on nymag’s website, but this is America, so I’m prepared to have someone tear me apart.