In 1970 Wayne Oates attempted to describe "sick religion." He noted that it is "uncritical, self-contained, and lacks any measure of humility and teachableness" (1970, p. 30). A number of other authors have attempted to define ways in which religion can go terribly wrong. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, in which thousands died through religiously motivated violence, the question arises with new urgency. What is it that distinguishes healthy faith from sick religion? How is it that a force intended to generate love and health often breeds hatred and pathology? One explanation comes from family systems theory. Developed by Murray Bowen, M.D. (1978), this family therapy theory suggests that emotional development results from a mix of counterbalancing forces that relate to health (balance) or dysfunction (imbalance). This paper will review Oates' concepts related to religion and mental health, explain Bowen's concept of fusion and make recommendations as to how one might maintain healthy faith and mental health through use of these concepts.


Healthy Faith vs. Religious Dysfunction

Scholarly interest in the subject of religion and mental health was piqued by a variety of research studies that suggested that religion was either a neutral or detrimental factor in mental health (Sanua, 1977; Batson and Ventis, 1984). James Dittes (1969), a Christian scholar who specializes in issues of religion and mental health, notes that religion is often "associated with deficiencies of personality, with a 'weak ego' or 'constricted ego'." A variety of studies have linked religiosity with prejudice, dogmatism, rigidity, and prejudice (Batson and Ventis, 1984).

Various scholars have attempted to study the issue of healthy and unhealthy religion with more precision, attempting to distinguish healthy faith from unhealthy religiosity. Gordon Allport (1950, 1954) suggested that the type of religiosity is more important than the presence of religiosity in determining whether religion was healthy or pathological. He developed the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic religiosity. Extrinsic religiosity is utilitarian and associated with a drive for factors such as status, security and social acceptance. Intrinsic religion is internalized and is seen as a master motive. The later is associated with reduced prejudice and higher levels of mental health while the former was found to be associated with high levels of prejudice (greater than either those with the intrinsic style or those with no religious practice at all) and diminished levels of mental health. Those who were shown to be "indiscriminately pro-religious" were found to be the most prejudiced of all (Allport and Ross, 1977).

While Allport's basic model has been criticized for a variety of reasons, subsequent research has borne out his basic conclusion: the style of religiosity does make a difference in levels of mental health. Spilka and Allen (1977) refer to "committed" and "consensual" dimensions of religiosity based on a model similar to that of Allport. Batson and Ventis propose a third category, the "quest" approach, referring to more open-ended spiritual quest. Both the quest approach and the committed approach were positively linked to higher levels of mental health.

We can sum up a research-based approach by noting that the style of religiosity does impact a variety of aspects of personal functioning and mental health. The factors most closely associated with unhealthy religiosity are authoritarianism, dogmatism, and the attempts to utilize religion as a means of control or as a way of achieving extrinsic goals such as social status. Some additional factors that may be linked to religious dogmatism include ethnocentrism, punitiveness, anti-hedonism, identification with power figures, conformity and superstition (Eysenck and Wilson, 1978, Wilson, 1973, Rokeach, 1950, and Adorno, 1982). Underlying these may be a "generalized susceptibility of experiencing threat or anxiety in the face of uncertainty" (Wilson, 1973, p. 257). It can also be associated with lower levels of moral development on the scales of Lawrence Kohlberg (Hoagland, 1984, Childrerston, 1985).


Differentiation vs. Fusion

While there are many ways to understand the driving force behind such religiosity, we are suggesting that the concept of "emotional fusion" derived from the theory of Murray Bowen is useful in helping us understand it. While Bowen was interested in the emotional process that connects people in families, a number of authors have suggested a connection between the emotional process in families and the emotional process in religious communities (Friedman, 1985, Stienke, 1993). A pattern of unhealthy religiosity is similar to Bowen's concept of fusion. According to Bowen, fusion leads to unhealthy behavioral patterns and is likely to be transmitted from generation to generation. This fusion floods the intellect, impairing rational functioning and competence. The more fused the individual is, the more behavior and beliefs could become irrational and extreme (Bowen, 1975).

Fusion, is best understood on a continuum, with differentiation as the balanced midpoint between the extremes of fusion and emotional cut off. It has been defined in a number of ways. Bowen has referred to an "emotional clump." Friedman (1985) refers to an "undifferentiated ego mass." Fusion is the togetherness force operating in a way that obliterates individuality. It results in an intense need to join with another and in an ease of emotional bruising that, paradoxically, makes such togetherness often intolerable. Based on the lack of a "solid self," fusion can lead people to crave merger with powerful figures, demand absolute togetherness of thought, and find "otherness" threatening. The fused person retains rigid convictions and beliefs given to them by one from whom they wish to find acceptance or approval (Nichols & Schwartz, 2001). Furthermore, a person who becomes easily fused to an unhealthy religious belief system often has come from an imbalanced family of origin (fused or cut off). The family of origin pattern has made them more susceptible to religious systems that are built on fusion, feeding on high emotive reasoning and charismatic sway.

Conversely, differentiation suggests a sense of self that results in calm leadership. People who are more differentiated on the continuum can rise to the occasion and provide direction based on principle. These people can balance their emotions with reason and can approach conflict and problem solving with the same degree of balance. The solid self is that which is not negotiable, even when under pressure from a relational system. Thus, a person may speak the rhetoric of a solid self, but it is only under pressure that the true level of differentiation comes forth. Those who are more differentiated will risk rejection or isolation for what they believe and are not influenced by popularity or status.


Fusion-based Religiosity

A variety of concepts linked to unhealthy religion such as dogmatism, authoritarianism, prejudice, identification with power figures, punitiveness, and aggression can be seen as manifestations of emotional fusion. Friedman (1985) explains how fusion is particularly prevalent in religious communities. Unresolved issues from personal families spill over into congregational families and often become buried under pious rhetoric and controlling behavior. The following are some ways in which fusion manifests itself in a religious arena.

The ways in which people attach to ideology. While religious belief is associated with conviction about ultimate things, the way in which a person relates to ideology can reflect either fusion or differentiation. In fusion, people hang on to a particular ideology for ideal life and relentlessly try to root out any alternative beliefs or those who hold them. Often fusion is revealed in an "us against them" attitude toward all who are different. Clear lines between insiders and outsiders are drawn.

The projections people place on their religious leaders. People operating at high levels of fusion tend to either adore or crucify their leaders (pastors, priests, rabbis etc.). Perhaps they will do both to the same person as they oscillate from adoration to vilification. They often expect nothing less than full redemption from all of their emotional struggles from their leaders and when such transformation is not forthcoming they angrily reject the very spiritual leader they once adored.

Church/religious conflict. Fusion breeds both an intense desire for togetherness and corresponding intolerance for the actual human realities of such togetherness. Since the desired level of harmony and unity demand something that ordinary human beings are unlikely to experience, conflict often results. Those who are different or individual are seen as the threat. Differences over matters such as styles of music and worship in church are not simply matters of personal preference but become life and death struggles.

The fascination with power and control. A fusion-based religiosity can lead to an attraction to religious authority figures. Religious figures that are powerful and/or charismatic elicit a response of adoration and a desire for oneness with that figure.

A distorted view of personal calling. This factor is particularly prevalent among religious leaders and other helpers. The very idealism which is often the basis for profound connection with others and altruistic service leads to an over-identification with the service role and a sense that one's own helping capacity is something close to messianic. This can impact clergy, non-clergy helping professionals in a church context and helping professionals who work in other settings as well.

Unhealthy religiosity often becomes generational through the congregation and family. In the extreme, unhealthy spiritual leaders can infect congregations they lead just as a parent might infect their children with unhealthy beliefs. Often, these leaders create followings that are totally fused, preventing members from creating and developing their own sense of spirituality. Two prime examples of this can be found in the events of the Jonestown Massacre and the Branch Davidians. Leaders of these movements can be classified as overfunctioners.

Overfunctioning in any system is an anxious response in two ways, "anxious" as in anticipatory and "anxious" as in fearful. In a congregational family, it will result in the same kind of fusion that it produces in marriage or in parenting. In any emotional system, these effects can be quite profound. Paradoxically, if overfunctioning is a manifestation of anxiety, it will also serve to promote it. If it is a manifestation of dependency, it will generate more. Biologically, in smaller organisms, the resulting loss of differentiation cultivates self-destroying forms of symbiosis. Among human organisms its analogical creation are cults and cultic thinking (Friedman, 1985).

These extreme forms of fusion confuse complete control with the healing potential of properly self-conceived power. The evolution of our species, physically, and morally, has been as dependent on the development of its strengths as on elimination of its weakness. Leadership through self-differentiation thus puts the leader more on the side of the continuing evolution of our species than does leadership by charisma or consensuses (Friedman, 1985).


Recommendations: Helping the Helpers

Many clergy and other helping professionals believe their occupation is a form of "call" whether formal or informal. The challenge we encounter is how to differentiate from an authentic call and a call that is self-appointed by one holding dogmatic or authoritarian views. The answer to this question is in the type of congregation, offspring, or client they produce. Healthy offspring are able to maintain their connection but function independently from the family of origin. When balance is threatened, they can make rational decisions outside the emotional influence of the family of origin.

Thus, a sense of idealism and ideology underlying any helping behavior is cause for reflection, humility and perspective. How can we in the helping professions promote healthy faith and keep our own roles balanced? The following are offered as suggestions and questions for remaining teachable and reflective.

Recognize the family systems dynamics at work in faith communities, from the ways in which beliefs are held to the ways in which people work to help others. Be sensitive to the ways in which a sense of divine calling and a passion for service interface with unresolved family issues and tendencies toward fusion. This does not discount the worth of service or the importance of belief. But it does help us put them in perspective and become more sensitive to ways in which good things can go awry. Do I believe that I must "save" others, or that I am a humble vehicle to bless the lives of others?

Learn about our own "ghosts," the legacy from our own family process and togetherness pressure that impacts our style of helping. A visit home to our family of origin or living relatives can help us understand the emotional force field that is part of our own legacy. It can help keep our helping in perspective, tame our messianic tendencies, and lead to a healthier perspective on our own helping role. We are less likely to try to save the world as a way of saving our own families. Sometimes adopting a new (and frequently less messianic role) in our own families enables us to be healthier in our helping work as well. Does my sense of "calling" relate to a characteristic in my family of origin that I believe must be changed in society (alcoholism, abuse, etc.)? Does my belief lead me into a state of flight or fight?

Develop some unglamorous, non-numinous reasons for doing what we do. Sometimes the gap between the epic loftiness of our idealism and the blunt, human realities of helping people can be disillusioning. While idealism is vital, the helpers that survive learn to value the messy mundaneness of working with people over time. Success is seen as a process, not an event. Do I learn from the mysteries of things outside my control? Do I accept that other people are ultimately outside my control?

Gain a new perspective on ideological belief. It is possible to have passionate conviction and compelling beliefs without religious fusion. Healthy belief is characterized by a sense of trust in God, an ability to tolerate the beliefs of others and a comfort with dialogue between those who have different perspectives. As Oates observes, the genuine prophet has a sense of "prophesying in part" (1970, p. 30). How do I react to conflict? Can I lead with calmness when others are upset? Do I model balanced leadership when mediating conflict between others? Can I address my points of conflict directly with others or do I indirectly "triangle" others by talking with them about someone else's position?

Pay attention to unresolved needs for security and control that exist beneath many of the struggles that fragment communities of faith. The religious issues of our parishioners and clients all too easily become the arena in which issues of emotional fusion are worked out. Healthy faith is centered in a belief on the sufficiency of God. Unhealthy faith must be frantically defended. It becomes a fragile ark that can be sunk at any moment by a wide variety of outside threats. Its proponents can become more like the prophets of Baal who shout, flail, and slash rather than Elijah who could calmly wait upon God. How did I develop such a strong, unbending position on a given issue? Who are the people in my developmental history who have invited me to take such a position? What developmental experiences have invited me to stand so firm? If I began to change my view, would such a change invite the disapproval or disengagement of others upon whom I depend for some part of my well-being?

Below (Table 1) is our representation of Bowen's continuum as it might apply to our religious and professional lives.

Autonomy is used to reduce anxiety Relationships are flexible enough to balance autonomy and togetherness Togetherness                     is used to reduce anxiety
Faith in the power of self Faith in sufficiency of God Faith in the power of others
Save myself Contribute to the world through principled commitment Save the world
Hopeless            distance Patient persuasion Anxious                        coercion

Table 1.


As we come to grips with our own calling and understand the emotional issues underlying personal ways in which we manifest our religion, we can promote healthy faith instead of sick religiosity through balancing togetherness and autonomy in our relationships and balancing emotionality and rationality in our commitment. We associate this type of leadership with the teachings of James in the New Testament. In chapter one (King James version), we read the words, "patience," "swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath." We are also asked to assess whether we are one who "bridleth not his tongue" or "deceiveth his own heart." Finally, we are reminded that "pure religion and undefiled before God" has more to do with service than with status.



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Suzanne Midori Hanna, Ph.D., teaches doctoral students in marriage and family therapy at Loma Linda University, is a Professor in the Department of Counseling and Family Sciences; Coordinator, Doctoral Internships, Marriage and Family Therapy Program. She was previously an Associate Professor (1996-2001) and Assistant Professor (1989-96) at the University of Louisville. She has been very involved with medical issues as they pertain to minority families for the last 10 years.

Calvin Thomsen, D.Min., works as Pastor for Family Ministries at Loma Linda University Church and teaches pastoral ministry courses at La Sierra University and counseling courses at Loma Linda University.

Zephon Lister is a doctoral student at Loma Linda University and works as a marraige and family therapy trainee and school counselor. He is also involved in various community projects associated with the Loma Linda Healthy Communities Project.

This paper was originally presented as part of the Fall 2002 Symposium: When Religion Gets Sick hosted by the Wayne E. Oates Institute.