The Psychological Cost of Lazy Religion

There is such a thing a thing as “a privileged theology.” And I’m going to try to talk about this while remaining as unsanctimonious as possible. This is an activity we indulge in when life doesn’t have its boot on our neck, pressing us to renounce God, to renounce virtue, to renounce our principles. This is when our internal demons send us daily memos: “Curse God and die.” “Curse God and die.” “Curse God and die.” Some people never receive these memos — due to life, due to their personalities, these religious ideas like divine sovereignty and salvation have immediate practical import like the great Eagles of Middle Earth. These concepts snatch some people out of the clutches of despair, throw their demons off a cliff, and bring them to emotional safety.

Involuntary Healthy-Mindedness

The infamous Harvard psychologist William James called these “healthy-minded” people.[1] They’re people to whom religion comes easy. They’ve never had an existential compulsion to run a security check on their faith — to authenticate God’s background check: But James distinguishes between two kinds of healthy mindedness: involuntary healthy-mindednss, and voluntary healthy-mindedness. 

Involuntary healthy-mindedness is the sort of reflexively cheery disposition that you can commonly be expected to display in an evangelical church. Involuntary healthy-mindedness is the pathetically incompetent naivete that is so uselessly blind to evil. James explains: “To the man actively happy … evil simply cannot then and there be believed in. He must ignore it; and to the bystander he may then seem perversely to shut his eyes to it and to hush it up. But more than this: the hushing of it up may … grow into a deliberate religious policy.”[2]

The evangelical impulse is to say: ‘No, you can’t go there.’

James is explaining a psychological phenomenon that has codified itself into the informal rules of Christian conduct at a culturally subatomic level. The evangelical compulsion to treat the existence of tragedy and evil as something that that can be explained, justified, compensated for, moved past, or expeditiously rectified with theology is identical with this “involuntary healthy-mindedness” James delineates.

There are two reasons that this informal agreement between evangelical practice and involuntary healthy-mindedness seem good to evangelicals. First, to move past evil and suffering as quickly as possible, for people with a certain psychological disposition, supplies a feeling of having dealt with it. Second, it allows those who are insecure about the integrity of their faith to draw a full circle around God and evil so that they don’t have to make eye contact with theological paradox and mystery. The payoff is that the task of defending the Christian belief system against accusations of irrationality becomes easier, but the risk of glossing over disruptive facts for agreeable fiction becomes greater.

To the degree that Christian theology cannot tolerate the natural quagmires and processes of human life, it becomes a religion more appropriate for robots than human beings.

This amalgamation of evangelicalism with involuntary healthy-mindedness yields several undesirable results. 

First, people who are in the throes of grief will either suppress that grief for the sake of cultural assimilation, or they will resent and leave the culture that sets them on a certain expectation for resolving their grief within a certain timeframe.

Second, the theological system becomes unaccountable to personal autobiography, which puts the conceptual framework at risk of becoming idealism. What this means is that Christianity at its best exists at the point of contact between ideas and lived human life. To the degree that Christian theology cannot tolerate the natural quagmires and processes of human life, it becomes a religion more appropriate for robots than human beings. At best, it will become a religion that works very well for people of a certain psychological persuasion, and work very terribly for others.  

Third, involuntary healthy-mindedness incentivizes people to avoid spiritual crisis, and therefore to repair conceptual inequities in their system before those inequities have had a chance to properly affect and embed within their autobiography. In other words, paradox and contradiction and cracks in the foundation of religious belief produces problems that, in their solving, catalyze a process of psychologically integrating new layers of profundity into their system of belief.

The problem for evangelicalism is that these new layers may not play well with involuntary healthy-mindedness of the culture, and personal crisis may even take many on a journey outside the boundary lines of so-called “confessional” Christianity. The evangelical impulse is to say: “No, you can’t go there.” But for people, their crises beckon them there. And they may not even go to stay, but to explore. And so, again, this third undesirable result of the harmony between evangelicalism and involuntary healthy-mindedness is that it disincentivizes the necessary processes by which theology is personalized for individuals in crisis.

Involuntary Unhealthy-Mindedness

But there is a dark side to the unhealthy mind. James makes a point of this, because it is where most who engage Christian belief with intellectual honesty find themselves. Involuntary healthy-mindedness is not ideal, but involuntary unhealthy-mindedness can be just as bad, if not worse. James explains:

“The attitude of unhappiness is not only painful, it is mean and ugly. What can be more base and unworthy than the pining, puling, mumping mood, no matter by what outward ills it may have been engendered? What is more injurious to others? What is less helpful as a way out of the difficulty? It but fastens and perpetuates the trouble which occasioned it, and increases the total evil of the situation. At all costs, then, we ought to reduce the sway of that mood; we ought to scout it out in ourselves and others, and never show it tolerance.”[3]

It's easy to look at the involuntary healthy-minded and say, “Your hollow, wide-eyed, simple-minded, superficial belief system is a convenient blinder for you, and a jail cell for those who recognize that evil really exists.” It’s true that there are people who are so dispositionally blind to evil that they become useful for formalities and ceremonies of faith, but not much more. On the other hand, and what is I think far more common in our cultural moment, is a dispositional blindness toward good.

How often have you have broken by life, beaten, dragged through the mud, tortured, drowned in guilt, numb with despair, medicating your disillusionment with alcohol and pornography and food? James says that we are most of us psychologically stuck in this gear, unable to shift into action, out of the darkness. All we see is bad. All we see are bad intentions and bad luck and bad odds barreling at us as fast at supersonic speed. Our lives are lived with a grimace, with a clenched jaw, with anxious expectance of malevolence, misfortune, and oppression.  

We must find an ideal toward which we orient our entire lives, because the psychological cost of failing to do so will devastate us.

James says: the only way out is to find a positive ideal, which is bigger than ourselves, and to orient all our efforts toward attaining it. And we might scoff at that. It feels like a request made by someone who is blinded by involuntary healthy-mindedness. But James is a pragmatist. He insists that we need to find some worthwhile ideal bigger than ourselves, not because some doctrine or dogma or church body dictates that we find one. Instead, we must find an ideal toward which we orient our entire lives, because the psychological cost of failing to do so will have such a devastating and extensive and protracted negative effect on our lives and the lives of our loved ones that we owe it to ourselves, to our families, and to the ideal itself to find it.

 James uses the example of a patriot gladly faces the cruelest suffering of imprisonment, death, and even torture for the sake of protecting liberty. The patriot may be brave, but better than being brave is having a worthwhile ideal which calls us to fight, and to be brave. James also makes example of the lover who is willing to break rules and suffer consequences for the sake of love. A guy climbs up a dormitory wall and gets caught by security just give a girl a goodnight kiss: “Worth it.”

Voluntary Healthy-Mindedness

This is what James calls “voluntary healthy-mindedness.” This is healthy-mindedness which can see evil, and appreciate its devastation, but make every effort to make as much good as possible out of a bad situation. This is a perspective which compels people who have been stripped of their idealism: “What really matters to you? Because that will determine how you act when tragedy takes everything from you.” James says that we need to cultivate healthy-mindedness, not as idealists who pretend to practice what they preach, but as pragmatists who search not for ideals that incentivize us to pretend that they work when they don’t, but ideals which have for us real existential utility without negating real tragedy.

It’s important to note that the point James makes here doesn’t require people who go through a crisis of faith to abandon Christianity for a utilitarian nihilism. Quite the opposite. James points out that this usually produces shallow self-help philosophies that are just secular versions of involuntary healthy-mindedness. You can be culturally evangelical while being an open atheist. James isn’t looking to dissuade people of Christian truths. But we can use James’s model here as a way of getting unstuck from a climate of practices that disallows those in crisis from allowing their faith and crisis to mutually correct one another. Instead, faith can function like a philosophical steamroller, and Christianity functionally becomes an idea, rather than a reality.

There is a large gap between what’s true, and what works. We don’t know where that gap comes from.

What James proposes is a psychological suggestion that evangelicalism needs to take, and it is this: There is a large gap between what’s true, and what works. We don’t know where that gap comes from. Part of it is the diversity of human psychology. Part of it is necessity of religious ideas to become internalized to each individual in a way that is personalized to their autobiography. Whatever are the multitude of reasons, the fact remains that truth — especially religious truth, which has a tendency to become abstract and tyrannical toward personal autobiography — needs to undergo a process of becoming practical in order for it to be useful.

And the more useful we can make it, the more its truthfulness can become publicly and privately evident to us. It must go through the journey of growing from its seed-form as a philosophical idea into the tree of a personal anecdote. And this growth requires that the religious idea and personal autobiography are always mutually correcting one another.

If religion becomes tyrannical, then this can become involuntary healthy-mindedness or pop-spiritual self-help crap. If personal autobiography becomes tyrannical in the conversation, then this can become involuntary unhealthy-mindedness, with which we are all too aware. We must cultivate a middling idea that is grounded in the utility of daily personal practice, but is accountable to the greater, ultimate ideal. This middling idea is the reality to which you psychologically strive that is both compelling philosophically and has psychological tactility — it matters to you for reasons other than its own sake. If you can find this middling idea, you navigate the waters between these two impractical involuntary mindsets.


[1] James explains that healthy mindedness is the “tendency which looks on all things and sees that they are good.” The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Barnes &Noble, 2004), 86.

[2] Ibid, 87.

[3] Ibid., 87-88.


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