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Religion, a Mental Illness

By Fernando Alcántar ~

A set of news has been making the social media rounds lately. In it they mention how “According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a strong and passionate belief in a deity or higher power, to the point where it impairs one’s ability to make conscientious decisions about common sense matters, will now be classified as a mental illness.” To read one of those articles click here. (Editor's note: the quote above attributed to the APA was debunked as false. However, the basic premise explored in this article was written about in an authentic 2011 Psychology Today article linked here: Religious Beliefs: Divine Revelations or Mental Disorder?)

Many people have attacked me, criticized me, and ridiculed me since I left religion. “You really didn’t know God,” they tell me, among other colorful terms, because it is the only way they have to cope with the idea. Religion is something so real so them that leaving it behind feels in the least like an act of betrayal, something that makes no sense (as seen within the context of the world as they feel it). But the APA is finally catching up with my personal experience and the traumatizing effect religion had on me.

In my book To the Cross and Back: An Immigrant’s Journey from Faith to Reason, I tell the story of how I came to be a part of a cult called Siete Olivos in Mexicali, Mexico. This little church was visited by teenage American missionaries from the U.S., who were brought by Azusa Pacific University and their APU Mexico Outreach program. Thousands of teenagers and their leaders from all over the United States and Canada visited poor and secluded evangelical churches in mostly rural areas in the Mexican cities of Mexicali and Ensenada. I was among those kids who were invited each year for Vacation Bible School. “The gringos are coming,” was the talk of the town. Easter after Easter they indoctrinated me with words of love (which they wholeheartedly believed to be true), and eventually they turned this emotionally broken high school nerd into a tongue-speaking, demon-casting, shaking-on-the-ground, ‘an angel just touched me,’ ‘God is telling me to _____,’ type of guy who sacrificed his well-being for the pursuit of something I was told was invisible but real. Not to mention the complete denial of my sexual identity which they classified as an abomination and God’s reason for punishing us with AIDS!

And do you know what’s the worst part of this? I preached this with passion. I taught kids how to speak in tongues. I led people into shaking on the ground in the spirit. And, oh how it breaks my heart, I counseled teenagers who were “struggling with homosexuality” on how they could pray-the-gay-away. I was very well brainwashed with the best of intentions to save me from a life of sin–a sin described thousands of years ago by people who interpreted the wonders of the world they could not understand as the act of a powerful deity they could not see.

But good intentions can still be sick and abusive–and these were.

If you need a real world example of what the APA is talking about, go no further than my book. In it I did not bash the religion and called it names. I didn’t call it a cult, and myself someone with a mental illness. I wrote the story as I felt it at the time, with innocence and teenage awe toward the supernatural, and an appreciation for the love the Christians gave me. I did that so you’d be able to see that it is not that easy to recognize something to turbid at first glance. “God is love,” I was told. And who doesn’t like love. Right? How can they know right away they are in a cult, that they are mentally ill? Would you?

I am better now, but the repercussions of what I was part of still ripple. There are many people like me who still suffer from a PTSD-type of existence, because my friends, these are scars of war. ‘How could I have believed in something like that?’ still haunts me from time to time–and sometimes it cracks me up. Loving the idea of ‘great love’ is great, and eventually we’ll get to the point where we all realize we don’t need gods any more to explain the natural world–we have Google and Wikipedia now. But in the meantime we should be able to draw a line when this belief impairs our ability to make conscious decisions about common sense matters. And we shouldn’t be forced to tolerate ignorance and manipulation in the name of “religious freedom.”

Sick is sick–fake is fake–good intentions or not.b

If you want to learn more about my story, and connect with someone who's been in your shoes, feel free to visit my website at, because religion has consequences, and you are not alone.