Episode 5 of the Group Therapy series looked at religion and its effect on human relationships. Panellist Philippa Perry, Psychologies columnist and psychotherapist, answers some questions for us.
Q. Does religion help or hinder people's understanding of each other?
A. A religion is a collective belief system. So if you belong to a religion others may feel they can take for granted what you general beliefs are. Your religion may be part of your identity and others can quickly recognise that identity. These assumptions may either help or hinder people's mutual understanding of each other.
Q. How can we best accept someone who's changed their path - eg, converted from atheism to adopt a religion, or vice versa?
A. People are not a fixed entity like a block of granite. We are organic. Our physical appearance may change and so can our mental make-up. If someone feels chaotic, for example after a traumatic incident, religion can provide a structure that makes someone feel more contained and safer. Another person may feel that a religion no longer helps them and they don't want a belief system anymore that feels off-the-shelf and they want to tailor-make their own ways of seeing and responding to the world. We are made of cells that divide and multiply, that die, that alter, that connect up one way, then may connect up another.
Being flexible is part of being human, if you acknowledge this and acknowledge that you may change in different ways from each other, it is easier to accept when someone makes different decisions or comes to different conclusions that you do. I think it is a mistake to think there are rights and wrongs about such decisions. So often we can feel we are 'right' in our beliefs and they are 'wrong' in theirs, this type of thinking leads to impasse. Welcoming and respecting difference leads to a more hopeful future.
It can be upsetting when people close to you change their fundamental beliefs from being similar to ours to being radically different because we formed ourselves in relationship with them. We then face a choice of continuing along our original path on our own or with new others, or continuing to be open to their influence and find ourselves changing with them.
Q. You mentioned in the show that religion provides comforting certainties like those we experienced as children when the adults around us had all the answers, but as we grow up, we realise those people are fallible and we are disappointed. Why do some people lose their religion as they get older and others hold on to it, or discover it later on?
A. People have a propensity to find meaning. Whether we look to science, religion or art or any other type of story or narrative, either consciously or unconsciously, meaning makes sense of life for us. Once we have a narrative that makes sense of our world, what we tend to do is cherry pick the things we notice that back it up and blinker ourselves against the stuff that doesn't back it up. If a blinker is taken away and we see more than we previously were ready to see, we may very well change our framework for living. This might mean we become religious or become atheist. We all come from different gene pools and have different life experiences and so one size will never fit each and every one of us, but sometimes we find enough similarities to find another person or another group who do share our outlook. But people change so membership is not necessarily a fixed thing.