When Religion Fails To Comfort


New research shows that Christians experience higher levels of distress over about sexuality than those who are unreligious. This means that for lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people, merely identifying as a Christian can be a general risk factor for mental illness, a series of studies conducted by psychology PhD researcher, Babucarr Sowe, of Macquarie University have demonstrated.

For most people, faith is a source of comfort and peace. But new research is now demonstrating an exception to this rule. Many people have long suspected from anecdotal evidence and common sense that sexual minorities get a rough time out of religion. Now, the proof is in. Sowe’s research, which is nearly complete and has a large sample
size, is increasingly showing that LGB people who are raised in
religious environments show worse mental health across the board,
including depression and suicidality.

Sowe is no disinterested observer in the field, having served in pastoral roles internationally. It was his concern at the suffering of LGB persons in these religious contexts that prompted his investigations into mental health outcomes. His research indicates that for those who do not fit the traditional model of sexuality, religion is often the source of inner torment. This adds to the mental health burden already carried by the LGB community — in which decades of research testify to disproportionately high rates of psychological problems.

It is well known that the majority of Christian denominations are traditionally opposed to homosexual and transgender people on moral grounds, that such organisations are exempt from anti-discrimination law, deny people sacraments, employment and marriage rites, practise abusive forms of "ex-gay" therapy against the recommendations of all major medical and psychiatric bodies, and that religious lobbying groups frequently oppose the human rights of LGB persons.

Given this context, the stereotyped image of the sexually repressed Christian has been too obvious in our culture to need proving — and the picture of a closeted gay evangelist is too tragic to be treated seriously.

But the lack of clear data about the consequences of these forms of discrimination also provides a silence in which religious organisations are not accountable to anyone for the consequences of their actions. It is therefore an opportune moment for such a body of research to emerge which quantifies the damage being done.

Take the example of Bryan Egnew, a 40-year-old telecommunications manager from North Carolina, a European languages buff, and lifelong, upstanding member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon Church). Egnew took his own life on 10 September 2011. Only a few weeks earlier, he had come out as gay to his family and church community, and was first excommunicated from his church, and then ostracised by his parents, wife and children.

Egnew’s story is, unfortunately, nothing new to those who know or work alongside LGB people of faith. "It’s very well known that prejudicial environments can cause immense harm, and for many gay persons, the mainstream church can be one of the most cruel environments of all", Sowe says. "As long as churches and religious groups continue to publicly condemn a person’s core sexuality, one can only expect mental health consequences to continue, of which suicidality is a very real outcome."

Last year, La Trobe University’s report, Writing Themselves In 3, broke the ice. After surveying 3134 young people who were same-sex attracted and/or gender questioning (SSAGD), the researchers found a number of troubling trends among those who mentioned religion. That particular demographic was found to be:

• More likely to feel bad about their same sex attraction;
• More likely to have experienced social exclusion or had to tolerate homophobic language from friends;
• More likely to report homophobic abuse in the home;
• More likely to report feeling unsafe at home;
• More likely to not be supported by their mother, father, brother, teacher or student welfare coordinator/counsellor, when disclosing their SSA;
• More likely to report thoughts of self harm and suicide or to carry out self harm.

WTI 3 provides the first documented evidence that there is a correlation between religion and mental health problems in same-sex attracted/gender diverse persons. However, it only goes so far as to identify a trend. It fell short of collecting data on the religious beliefs of participants, demonstrating conclusively any causal links, or enumerating which specific kinds of religious experience were causing such psychological symptoms.

Sowe’s research went a step further by specifically focusing on the religious experiences of LGB persons, comparing levels of past and current distress between Christian and non- or ex- religious individuals.

The study interviewed 850 people. It focused specifically on lesbian, gay and bisexual persons, although it certainly raises important questions about sex and gender diverse people of religious faith. The study identified the nature of the participants’ prior and current religious experience, and used numeric measurements to quantify their sense of self and their level of distress over their sexuality.

Distress and self-hatred were highest among those with a Christian identity, particularly if family and religious environments were intolerant or rejecting. In contrast, those in supportive environments were least at risk, and better adjusted.

The risk was further heightened if the Christian person is not out, disconnected from the gay community, or lacked a strong sense of self. The risk was also indexed to specific styles of religious belief. "Introjected" faith — internalised beliefs adopted out of a sense of duty — and external evaluations (the beliefs of one’s family and community) were notable risk factors. By contrast, personally chosen beliefs, combined with a strong sense of identity, were not particularly damaging.

Sowe also pointed out that the comments made my Christians were markedly different from those made by non-religious or formerly religious persons. Comments from Christians included, "I’m scared, really scared, so scared that my family and I will be rejected from my religious local community," and, "I love the church but I don’t know how much intolerance and rejection I can tolerate. Sometimes I just wonder if I’m going to hell."

Non-religious or formerly religious persons chose more confident and provocative comments such as, "sex over religion any day," and, "I am who I am, if they don’t like it, get over it"

For many participants, religion-sexuality conflicts were a dangerous threat to life and livelihood. Understandably then, the tendency among participants to leave the Church may represent an unfortunate but necessary survival choice. In order to escape damaging and abusive spirituality, many former adherents find themselves the most ardent opponents of religious faith.

Churches increasingly find themselves painted into a corner by their commitment to traditional moral codes on the one hand, and compassion on the other. The rejection of Christianity by those participants on the healthier side of the sample points toward a growing animosity between Christian and progressive values. Religious bodies are often ill equipped, both socially and ideologically, to deal with issues of homosexuality, bisexuality, and sex and gender diversity. If the Church fails to recognise that mental health is at stake, a path towards mutual respect is increasingly difficult to imagine.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.