Enlightenment and Dimmed Enlightenment

Psychiatric TimesPsychiatric Times Vol 29 No 3
Volume 29
Issue 3

Psychiatrists cannot, with impunity, disregard an important domain of man’s personality makeup. He ought to remain a searcher of the soul at large.

What in the Western world is understood by the moniker, “enlightened person”? Someone in who’s life reason and nature occupy central positions; someone who has renounced, or left behind, faith and the supernatural; someone who considers himself or herself to be an adept of the Enlightenment.

During the Enlightenment in Europe, reason superseded faith, and power and influence of the church receded. The Enlightenment is a period in which an almost messianic belief developed in uninterrupted progress, thanks to the march of science and technology. Only that is considered to be “true,” that has been made experimentally plausible. The conviction that reason will succeed the Almighty gained ground, and religion was laid to rest just as superstition had been earlier.

The secularist-adhering to no faith and critical of every aspect of religious conviction-gained prominence. Nothing is sacred to him, nothing unassailable, nothing is accepted a priori without reasonable evidence, thus nothing is a priori entitled to respect or veneration.

The secularist occupies in our society a prominent position, in particular among those who consider themselves to be educated and to be thinkers. It is politically and scientifically correct to be a secularist-the term has become almost synonymous with intellectual.

If this characteristic of enlightened man is correct, then men of faith who adhere to a religious conviction, who cultivate ties with coreligionists, and who honor religious traditions find themselves in twilight, at best. Because of a shortage of light, of illumination of the mind, fantasies are mistaken for reality.

According to their enlightened fellow citizens, men of faith position themselves beyond the pale of the intellectually sophisticated world. They do not think. They are, as Bartstra,1 a Dutch philosopher, noted, “a product of institutionalized imprinting of irrational thoughts and absurd ideas.” Or worse, they are deserters. To cite another Dutch philosopher, de Boer,2 “By embracing religious faith, one abandons the camp of thinking men. It is desertion.” Faith and reason are viewed as opposites-reason is the source of light, faith is a dimmer of that light.

The famous Dutch playwright from the early part of the 20th century, Herman Heyermans,3 expressed this latter viewpoint dramatically in his play Ghetto. The principal character is Sachel, an elderly, blind Jew, who is “betrayed” by his only son, Raphael. Raphael falls in love with Rose and wants to marry her. His father had another woman in mind for him-he is furious and feels that his authority as the father has been impinged. To make things worse, Rose is not a Jew, which invokes intense sorrow in Sachel. He tries to change Raphael’s mind, but fails. At last, he curses his son and drives Rose to suicide.

Heyermans portrays Sachel as a latter day Shylock and, in fact, still a degree worse. He is not content with a pound of flesh from his opponent, he requires-figuratively speaking-his heart. Sachel is portrayed as an intellectual fossil; short-sighted, heartless, a victim of his faith. In this milieu, Raphael is the only one who rises above that. He represents future mankind, modern men who have chosen definitively for personal freedom, and who have undone themselves from parental settings and the “God of our fathers.”

The play was reviewed and analyzed by the Dutch philosopher Ger Groot,4 a well-known writer and prototypical secularist. He puts himself squarely behind Raphael. I quote: “Sachel’s motives are repugnant to me, and that from the bottom of my heart.” Groot considers Sachel’s urge to cling to his Jewish soul to be a hindrance to an enlightened world. Groot sees Raphael as “a typical idealist of the Enlightenment, a character we all would like to be ourselves.” It is Raphael “who is on the right side of history.” In Raphael’s own words, “The true God had still to come, the God of the new community, the community without Gods, without wickedness, without slaves.”

Reason as the universal source of light, religious faith as a dimmer of that light-is that a tenable point of view? I think it is not. I hold that reason is not the universal source of light, that complete enlightenment of the mind requires that faith, the faculty of believing, come to full development as well. In spite of this viewpoint, I consider myself to be an enlightened person.

I will clarify this point of view, but before that I will briefly discuss what I understand by the constructs I am referring to: religiosity and religion.

Religiosity and religion

I define religiosity as the affinity for the religious root-idea. That idea holds that apart from the world that we perceive with our senses, a supranatural world exists. Man of faith feels the urge to reach out for that metaphysical world. He wants to provide life with a vertical dimension. He is receptive to the concept of God and knows feelings, thoughts, and experiences that are linked to that concept. Religiosity presupposes imaginative power. Not for naught, that latter term relates ability to imagine, with vital strength.

Religion, on the other hand, refers to a set of religious doctrines; actually to a philosophy, a way of interpreting the human existence, with the God-idea as focal point. Religion provides the urge “to think upward” (an image used by the philosopher De Rijk) with content and form. Religion is the formalized, structured, and often (unfortunately) codified expression form of religiosity. Religiosity is the substructure, religion the superstructure.

Religion is presented in various frames. On one extreme, one finds what I have called a coagulated, codified set of rulings one is obliged to believe or to practice. This set of rulings often inhibits rather than encourages reflection and is likely to induce feelings of sin and shame instead of generating joy of living.

On the other extreme, one finds a view of life that captivates; is without difficulty incorporated in one’s life; prompts discussion; stimulates reflection as to purpose and meaning of one’s life; and provides no certainties, only possibilities.

Religion may enrich a life or corrupt it. One may reject the system or embrace it, partly or entirely. It can be an influence for good or for evil. All to often the latter has been the case. This has gotten religion a bad reputation.


We now return to the main discussion: religious faith is, in principle, a bright spot, a potential source of light. What evidence supports that thesis?

My first argument is that “thinking upward” is not a gratuitous business. It leads to something, and with it one gains access to the metaphysical world. A world beyond the horizon-a world completely irrational that is impervious to rational, logical analysis. That world is not empty: humans cannot easily manage a vacuum, they tend to fill it up. A lull in a conversation is filled with words; in the case of a metaphysical universe, with undeterminable forces that influence one’s life as well as that of the community of which one is part. The forces imagined to operate in this metaphysical universe, may remain vague, unformed, noncommittal; this I call spirituality. Alternatively, the forces fancied are brought together in one, omnipresent, omnipotent, all-embracing mythical being, called God; this I call religiosity.

I use the term “mythical” not to denigrate. On the contrary, I consider myth as a superior way to express in a narrative, symbolic way experiences that are tenuous, those that cannot be concretely defined but are nevertheless intense and full of meaning and significance. The God-myth is of that nature. It is solidly rooted in human society, and its influence there has been profound and permanent.

For men of faith, that conception, that effigy, that likeness of God acquires a variety of functions. I will mention some. It is, first of all, a symbol of unlimited creativity and ultimate morality. As such it becomes for the faithful a role model, a touchstone for one’s own behavior>-imitatio de. It is held as an absolute unattainable ideal, and at the same time, as a supreme guide for life. In his capacity of sublime example, God encroaches on man’s conscience, integrates with his conscience. In that capacity, God warns him when he threatens to go astray and stirs up guilt feelings if that happens.

The word symbol, metaphor, just like the concept myth, lacks any denigrating connotation. A metaphor is the very means to express verbally something actually impossible to catch in words. It provides an image of something ineffable and unimaginable.

Moreover, both fatherly and motherly qualities are projected in an idealized form in the God-effigy. In the experiential world of the faithful, God is both advisor and supreme protector. He steps in during times of emotional upheaval and provides solace or resignation, as needed.

Finally, God, as perceived by the faithful, has expectations. He expects man to sanctify life, to single out a destination with an altruistic character. A destination that contributes to the well-being of a society on a social, cultural, or scientific level. The destination can be less lofty but no less important by trying to make the best of one’s family or one’s professional and social life.

Undeniably, the relationship of a religious person to God is one of dependency. For that reason, Freud qualified it as infantile and, thus, regressive. I disagree. Maturity and dependency are not opposites. A fully independent being-if such creatures exist at all-is a lonely being. No one is fully self-sufficient. Humankind consists of interdependent relationships, those that are complementary and reciprocal. The one fills up where the other has needs and vice versa.

Man’s relationship with God is one of co-dependency. For man, God is both guide and protector. God represents both the archetypical father figure and the archetypical mother figure. On the other hand, the concept of God is fulfilled by humans because God is unknown to other earthly creatures. “The human soul is God’s lamp,” states one of the Proverbs (20:27). If it were not for human beings, God would not exist. The religious believer is like a sculptor. The stone out of which the sculptor will create the work of art contains, as it were, the concept of that work of art, but it is still unformed, shapeless. The sculptor cuts the stone out, by which the unformed is formed and the concept becomes visible. In a similar way, man becomes aware of, gets in touch with, one might say: creates God.

The relationship of man to God is one of reciprocal dependence. Hence, I consider this bond to be normal.

Religiosity enlightens life: it becomes lighter, less difficult. Moreover, it provides light, makes it easier to find purpose and meaning in life, so that at the end of the journey one can say: it all made sense. I made a difference. The God-effigy is certainly not the sole provider of meaning, but no doubt an important one.

In his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus considered the central question of philosophy to be whether life is worth living. To me, it is the central question for each and every human being: Without meaning or purpose or goals, life loses its lustre and one is left wondering if it makes sense to continue.

The above conclusion should be complemented with the important provisio that religiosity must come to fruition without coercion, without pressure from without. If religion is enforced and God is presented as a tyrannical, demanding, merciless authority, religiosity will be experienced as a straight jacket. In such cases, religiosity darkens rather than enlightens life.

The secularist is not convinced. He asks the faithful: “Do you really think that your metaphysical world is ‘real’? Is that world not a stubborn fabrication.” The faithful answers: “I don’t know whether that world is a reality. I don’t know, no one knows, no one will ever know. I don’t care. Your question is irrelevant. That world exists for me, in my subjective experiential world. For me that is enough. I don’t need any proof, other than what my experiential life provides me with.” The faithful is right, he has the capacity to create effigies and to imbue them with spiritual meaning. Religiosity is a quality completely outside the rational sphere. It is, above all faith, an experiential state with no need for proof.

Additional evidence

There is evidence that supports the notion that religiosity contributes to enlightenment. There are studies that show that religiosity is a normal component of the human personality, a normal feature of man’s experiential range. Its normal occurrence suggests it has a particular function, probably a useful function.

It was shown in all Western countries that religiosity is a frequent phenomenon, even in the Netherlands (one of the most secularized countries in the world).5 Religiosity is expressed in many different beliefs, in different ways-as an omnipotent personal god, an abstract principle, an afterlife, immortality of the soul, divine influence in one’s life. Although church and church authorities have lost prestige, religiosity still has a strong appeal.

When data indicate the high prevalence of religiosity in community populations, reason is violated when it is considered as abnormal, primitive, regressive, or atavistic. Religiosity is a normal component of the human personality-it is an attribute of the human mind, whereas religion is a product of the human mind. Religion can be disposed of; religiosity is there to stay.

The second set of data indicating that religiosity is a normal constituent of the human personality is biological in nature.6 Religiosity, although partly learned, is in part genetically anchored.7 Moreover, there is evidence that the brain contains neural systems that are at the root of spirituality. If these neural systems are activated by electromagnetic currents, religious experiences occur in both believers and nonbelievers. During intense religious preoccupation (as in praying and during mystic experiences), blood flow and glucose consumption in these regions are increased. These are signs of increased neuronal activity.8

Furthermore, the intensity of religious devotion and its salience for a given individual have been found to correlate with the binding capacity of certain serotonin receptors.9 Does that mean that religiosity is biologically caused, that it is no more than the product of some overactive neuronal circuits? No, the brain is the intermediary between religious needs and the gratification of those needs. The religious needs are, as discussed, of psychological origin; their gratification is made possible by the brain through biological processes.

By way of an analogy: one is moved by beautiful music. That feeling depends on still largely unknown brain circuits that generate aesthetic experiences. Without these brain circuits, aesthetic experiences would not occur. However, the circuits are not the cause of those experiences, the music is. Neural circuits make the experiences possible. The brain is the intermediary between the music and the sense of beauty one experiences. The same holds for religious experiences. Their origin is found in psychological needs; their gratification depends on brain activation. The brain is the intermediary between need and gratification of those needs.

The fact that religiosity is biologically based indicates that, evolutionarily speaking, religiosity provides functions advantageous to mankind. I hypothesize the main advantage to be its illuminating potential.

Psychiatric evidence

Psychiatry provides further support for the thesis that religiosity may enlighten a life.10 Koenig reports on the relationship between religiosity and depression. The faithful were compared with nonbelievers. The study findings indicate that under comparable, taxing circumstances, the risk of depression is smaller among believers than among nonbelievers. If depressive symptoms did appear, recovery was faster among believers than among nonbelievers. The same held true for long-term prognosis.

However, there is an important caveat: the beneficial effects of religiosity were demonstrable only in those with a positive image of God-God experienced as a support system and as a source of hope, a source of positive expectations and, if so needed, as a source of consolation. There are indications that God as a demanding, punishing, guilt-inducing authority has an opposite effect and increases the risk of depression and negative outcomes.11

Faith and reason

Faith and reason are two ways to approach and understand the world around us. They do not oppose each other, they are complementary. Reason satisfies the urge to know, faith the urge to understand. I correct myself: reason and faith may complement each other, and that depends to a large extent on personality structure and its integrative abilities.

The human personality is like a brilliant, precious stone with many facets. Each facet represents a particular intention, tie, interest, need, preference, affinity. Those “interests” might be contradictory but may be experienced as compatible. The mature mind demonstrates an imposing elasticity and plasticity. It tolerates multiple loyalties. I maintain that a personality can only be called mature when it has developed multiple loyalties. The more facets a gem has, the more it shines, the more valuable it is. The more “interests” a mind embraces, the more it glitters, the richer the life of its carrier. If the facet “faith” remains underdeveloped, mind’s glittering lessens, its carat decreases.

I have reached the quintessence of my discourse, but before going into that, I clarify my definition of the construct “normal religiosity.”

Normal religiosity

Religious receptivity I consider as normal a psychological quality as aesthetic receptivity, and as individually variable as to intensity. What means normal in this context? A universally valid answer does not exist. In the domain of the psyche, moreover, the borders between normal and abnormal are fuzzy. Phenomena we know from psychiatric disorders also occur in the normal population.12

Three characteristics are personally essential to me:

• Joyfulness. Belief in God does not make life heavier, but serves as a support system. It does not generate guilt, but rather confidence and hope: “I am not alone.” The vertical dimension leads to bliss, not to gloom.

• Keeping an open mind. Belief in God is conceived as a personal conviction (ie, a personal faith) and is not absolutized, not transformed into a rigid, codified system of absoluta, a system of universal validity. Faith maintains a measure of mobility. One recognizes, tolerates, and respects other belief systems and is prepared for a critical interchange of ideas. Faith is not a fenced-off system, but an open philosophy of life.

• Incertitude. The believer realizes that faith, by definition, implies uncertainty. Nothing about the existence of God, His will, His policies is definitely established. He represents the ultimate mystery. The believer guesses. He is by definition an (auto-)dialectician, a questioner, a waverer, constantly on the way to fathom something of the inexplicable. Incertitude protects from haughtiness. One realizes that the “house of God” has many rooms. Religious fanaticism is foreign to the believer. In this he may refer to the Bible: “Though all the peoples walk, Each in the names of its Gods, We will walk in the name of the Lord our God” (Micah 4:5).

“Love your neighbour as yourself . . . the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens” (Leviticus 19:18, 34). This is a text key to both Judaism and Christianity. Dogmatism and intolerance are hard to reconcile with such attitude. Its negation is a disgrace of what the concept of God stands for.


The Enlightenment, eager to break the power of religion-the institutionalized and codified superstructure on top of religiosity-lost sight of one cardinal issue. The issue that man consists of more than reason, that his way of life is not exclusively (or primarily) guided by reason. Enlightenment lost sight that the human soul consists, to a considerable extent, of irrational ingredients. Those irrational elements are mainly emotionally colored, and they influence our reasonableness and thus our behavior and decisions. Reason cannot overcome that our irrationality demands gratification. Irrationality wields a considerable power over rationality.

Is that an unfortunate situation? Is our irrationality a blind for enlightenment? Not really, irrationality is not intrinsically destructive. If irrationality overrules reason, the outcome can be positive. Think of the person helping another in spite of a considerable chance of harming himself in the process.

Provided they balance each other, the combination of rationality and irrationality is a precondition for a full and fulfilled life. Religiosity belongs to the irrational domains of the soul. This dominion creates needs. Needs that cannot be rationalized away. Hence the struggle of secularists, and in particular radical secularists a la Dawkins,13 is doomed to fail. They fight not against windmills but against forces reason is unable to master and never will be. They fight a losing battle.

In Heyerman’s play Ghetto, Sachel’s mind is damaged by religion, certainly. He is hard-boiled, inflexible, intolerant. He renounces everything that is dear to him. This is a form of religious expression that I have qualified as abnormal.14 Faith calling forth inhuman behavior amounts to perverted faith. Parental bounds should supersede religious bounds. If the reverse is true, lifelong intense sorrow is the result. Then darkness sets in. That cannot be God’s intention.

This, however, does not mean that the future is with Sachel’s sons-the Raphael’s of the world, as Groot, the philosopher, has posited. I hope that the future is with those who are optimally enlightened, ie, those who are able to develop the rational and the irrational potential they possess to the fullest. If reason is the only source of light, one finds oneself in the twilight.


Today the brain reigns supreme in psychiatry at the expense of the mind. The mind is in danger to be usurped by the brain. Mind, so it is rumoured in neurobiological circles, will eventually and probably pretty soon reveal its secrets via the study of the brain. As a corollary, religiosity is currently psychiatry’s stepchild, as biology was when I started my career in psychiatry and neurobiology some 60 years ago. For the future of psychiatry, this reductionist viewpoint is risky. Psychiatrists cannot, with impunity, disregard an important domain of man’s personality makeup. He ought to remain a searcher of the soul at large.

However, take care-false prophets roam about the neurosciences. It seems highly unlikely that in the foreseeable future, brain studies will provide useful information about the appearance of individual minds. As psychiatrists, we should continue to honour the mind in its own right. Let’s not quench its lustre by reducing it to sheer matter. Our identity as psychiatrists is a dualistic one. We respect the mind no less than the brain. Let’s keep it that way!




Bartstra J. De overheid moet religie ontmoedigen [The government should discourage religion].

NRC Handelsblad.

August 29, 2006.


de Boer T. De angst van de bekeerling [The anguish of the convert].


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Heyermans H. Ghetto. 1899.


Groot G. Sachel, dat zijn we allemaal! [Sachel, that is what we all are].


October 10, 2009.


Larson EJ, Witham L. Scientists are still keeping the faith.




Van Praag HM. Seat of the divine: a biological “proof of God’s existence”? In: Verhagen PJ, van Praag HM, López Ibor JJ Jr, et al, eds.

Religion and Psychiatry: Beyond Boundaries.

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Bouchard TJ Jr, McGue M, Lykken D, Tellegen A. Intrinsic and extrinsic religiousness: genetic and environmental influences and personality correlates.

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Beauregard M, Paquette V. Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns.

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Borg J, Andrée B, Soderstrom H, Farde L. The serotonin system and spiritual experiences.

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Koenig HG.

Is Religion Good for Your Health? The Effects of Religion on Physical and Mental Health.

Binghamton, NY: Haworth Pastoral Press; 1997.


Sims A.

Is Faith a Delusion? Why Religion Is Good for Your Health.

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Van Os J, Hanssen M, Bijl RV, Vollebergh W. Prevalence of psychotic disorders and community level of psychotic symptoms: an urban-rural comparison.

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Dawkins R.

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Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company; 2006.


Van Praag HM. God’s champions and adversaries: about the borders between normal and abnormal religiosity. In: Verhagen PJ, van Praag HM, López Ibor JJ Jr, et al, eds.

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