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  • Depression and Christian Voluntarism Examining Freedom from The Perspective of Psychological Science
  • Marcia Webb (bio)

In her article, "Is Depression Sin? A Philosophical Examination of Christian Voluntarism," Anastasia Phillippa Scrutton has offered a thoughtful contribution to the philosophical literature regarding depression and freedom of the will. Her analysis provides a careful and well-organized review of the position, prevalent in some Christian literature, that depression is within the individual's control and is thus a sin. She describes various components of this view, which she labels Christian voluntarism, and distinguishes it from more moderate versions of free will, in its assumptions that nearly all persons in all situations possess total freedom, and thus the inherent ability to prevent or to overcome depression. As the authors of certain Christian literature suggest, depression is a choice; depressed individuals who claim otherwise are succumbing to temptations to irresponsibility, both emotionally and behaviorally. According to Scrutton, Christian voluntarism further suggests that a belief in one's diminished free will in depression may actually prohibit one's recovery. This belief hinders the use the freedom that depressed individuals genuinely possess to combat their symptoms. Scrutton also discusses those sources which provide anecdotal evidence of depressed individuals who report symptom relief following the adoption of a Christian voluntarist position. Even so, she indicates that some depressed persons may experience voluntarism as destructive, because it may exacerbate guilt and anxiety for those individuals who do not experience the same symptom relief when following Christian voluntarist advice. Thus, Scrutton recommends a more nuanced and balanced position between the two extremes of denying any freedom of will in depression, and assuming absolute freedom for all persons reporting depression in all situations.

Scrutton's analysis cites anecdotal reports of persons who experience depression and who attempt to adopt the position of Christian voluntarism in response to their depression. Her many references to this literature are a helpful contribution to our understanding of this view, in that we have little empirical data that addresses the impact of Christian voluntarism in particular on individuals with depression. However, there is a large body [End Page 279] of psychological research that does suggest that religion and spirituality in general are positively associated with greater mental health, including less depression, anxiety, and substance use, as well as overall improved quality of life (Bonelli & Koenig, 2013; Koenig, 2009; Moreira-Almeida, Neto, & Koenig, 2006). It is perhaps not surprising, then, from an empirical perspective, that a review of anecdotal evidence also suggests that there are individuals who report relief from depression with the adoption of Christian voluntarism, because religion and spirituality in general are associated with improved mental health.

However, this scientific finding does not then indicate that depression is a result of moral failing, lack of faith, or sin. One of the logical problems with Christian voluntarist literature is its implicit assumption that because faith may be a powerful resource for psychological coping (as research suggests that it is; see Ano & Vasconcelles, 2005; Pargament, 1997; Pargament, Ano, & Wachholtz, 2005; Pargament, Tarakeshwar, Ellison, & Wulff, 2001), it then follows that challenges in psychological coping are a result of the lack of religious faith. Yet resources for health care, and causes for health problems, are not necessarily related to one another. As an analogy, the topical application of vitamin E can aid in the healing of the skin from abrasions; however, the failure to apply vitamin E does not result in skin abrasions. In the same way, it is entirely possible that some forms of depression, or other psychological disorders (such as anxiety), may be ameliorated, at least to varying degrees, through religious faith without then implying that a lack of faith was the initial cause of the individual's disorder, or that the disorder is itself a sin. Nor does the coping resource of faith suggest that those who continue to have depression even in the midst of their belief demonstrate a failure, or diminished form, of faith in comparison to their non-depressed peers. If we return to our earlier analogy, the topical application of vitamin E may be an effective resource for many skin abrasions; in other situations, more invasive treatment may be necessary, such...


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pp. 279-283
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