by author and journalist, Neil Lyndon.
Recent research has suggested that men who have some religious faith are less likely to suffer depression and less likely to commit suicide.
The researchers said they were surprised to find that religious observance is, for men, a significant predictor of having mental positivity. Moreover, people who have religious faith are not put off taking their lives simply because they think it’s immoral; it seems to be more that they find resilience in their belief and from a sense of community.
Those findings came as no surprise to me. As one who suffered frequently from depression and anxiety for decades and was sometimes perilously close to suicide, I can positively affirm that the regular religious observances of the second half of my life (praying and meditating twice a day, going to church every Sunday) have immeasurably helped to heal me of that foul curse. Moreover, my religious routines have unquestionably helped to free me from lifelong addictions to self-polluting poisons and compulsive, damaging habits. Those benefits genuinely feel miraculous. I reverently give thanks for them every day.
The story of my religious odyssey crosses many way-points that are common to my generation.
Born in 1946, I was baptised into the Church of England. My parents were not churchgoers but I became a devout little boy who sang in the church choir and – like Bertie Wooster – won Religious Knowledge prizes at school. For some years, I felt called to become a priest until around the age of 13, when a moment of blinding revelation came to me in school prayers. “I don’t believe a word of this pious twaddle,” I realised, “and I am certain that the teachers who are ritualistically doling it out don’t believe a word themselves.” That epiphany – very much like the experiences recorded by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – led me, like them, to atheism and Marxism. By the age of 16, I was carrying a membership card for the Young Communist League, though I never actually signed it.
Also, around that same time, while still at school, I first consulted a GP for depression and anxiety and was prescribed anti-depressants. She knew that my father was serving a long term in prison for serious crimes and she knew that my family life at home was chaotic, making it extraordinarily difficult for me to find my way through exams to university. And already, by that age, I was habitually drinking, smoking, taking daredevil risks, living in financial chaos and messing around with half a dozen girls at a time. Drugs followed automatically.
That was to be largely the story of my early 20s until – propelled out of control by LSD, marijuana, speed, drink and some touches of heroin – I crashed into a suicidal breakdown when I was 24. A carving knife in my own hand had been pointed at my heart before a friend dragged me to the local mental hospital where – thanks to the NHS – I began my first sessions of counselling and psychotherapy and started to take trycyclic antidepressants.
While making disordered efforts to heal myself – running, swimming and progressively quitting drugs – I began, to my profound perplexity, to experience undeniable, Wordsworthian intimations of the divine – in music, in nature, in landscape and in love. As a hardened atheist, I was at a loss to come to terms with these apprehensions of a spiritual dimension beyond the materialistic and the worldly. The birth of my first child, when I was 36, introduced me to the miracle of unconditional love – that certainty that you would give your own life for another person in a heartbeat if necessary – which itself appeared to open a doorway to the divine, though I had no clue where it might take me.
In my later thirties, I lived and worked for five years in California, where spirituality flows out of the taps. Still ensnared in the toxic coils of addiction to drink, tobacco and promiscuous sex, I sought help in expensive therapy and with Alcoholics Anonymous. My counsellor was the first person I ever met to suggest that the poetic stories of the Bible might be interpreted allegorically and that the father in heaven, the virgin birth, the miracles, the resurrection could all be seen as figurative expressions, enabling us to domesticate and anthropomorphise the incomprehensible divinity of the universe. Made sense to me.
A bookshop round the corner from my office in Los Angeles was packed with spiritual texts – many of which are now on my shelves at home. They introduced me to Unitarian, Jewish, Gnostic, pantheist, Buddhist and Taoist perspectives on divinity which roughly synthesised in my mind (much in the way, I later discovered, they had synthesised in Wagner’s thoughts). These diverse scraps of understanding were nailed into place with a resounding clang when, standing in an aisle of that shop one afternoon, I opened a Bible at random and came across the words of John, who said “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” That simple declaration rooted me to the spot in that shop and has rooted my life ever since
It then followed, in my early forties, that I found my way back to my spiritual home, the Church of England – not least because that devout little choirboy knew the Anglican liturgy in his bones. Because the CoE was and remains theologically derelict, I felt free to interpret its hymns, psalms, prayers and rituals in my own terms, rather than according to the precepts of an unchallengeable authority. No Pope; no heresy. By coincidence, I was confirmed in the CoE and declared my faith in a father in heaven (“metaphorically speaking”, as I would mutter under my breath) within days of the death of my own father on earth. No doubt Professor Dawkins would smirk knowingly and question the coincidence. My LA counsellor, however, would unreservedly have approved.
That confirmation took place 30 years ago next month. During those decades my religious adherence has grown ever stronger and my religious observances ever more regular and nourishing, despite a succession of Job-like trials in the 1990s.
In 1992, after building a comprehensive intellectual case for 20 years, I published No More Sex War: the Failures of Feminism – the world’s first critique of that ideology from an egalitarian, non-sexist point of view.
That book and its author were then subjected to more sustained philistine abuse than any work and any writer in our own time. Socially and professionally ostracised, I lost my income, my home and most of my friends – while the shitstorm also provided cover for the legalised abduction of my only child by his alcoholic mother.
During the 1990s, I also buried a baby who was afflicted with one of the world’s rarest malformations; was nearly killed in an accident of surreal horror; endured the breakdown of a cherished relationship in a tawdry triangle that could have been scripted for The Archers; and then became sole parent to a teenager who had run away from his hopelessly unfit mother.
Somebody who takes the Bible to be the literal truth might suppose that God was testing me (and who knows? as a beekeeper and a gardener, I do sometimes admit the possibility that a supernatural power may stand in a similar relationship to our world as I occupy in relation to my plants and insects). I would rather say that my religious devotions strengthened me to endure those trials.
However, my perception of divinity was never that of an intervening, providential Father Christmas figure who would sort out your mortgage and fix the holes in your roof if you uttered the correct magical spells and incantations. Instead, my daily prayers and meditations and weekly attendance at church are all devoted towards the same purpose as a musician might achieve by playing Bach every day. The reward for these exercises is to secure a perspective and a place in the universe – both as a being who is no more than a blade of grass or a bee and as one who, like all humans, shares in divinity through our great high priest, Jesus Christ.
That happy perspective does prove to be a sure defence against depression and suicidal feelings, to which I have been largely immune for almost 20 years. During those decades – when I have been entirely free of anti-depressant medicines – I created not just a new life but new life. I built a house; created a garden out of an acre of rough pasture; married a good woman and fathered two daughters whom we brought up as equal parents in the family set-up I had sought since I was in my twenties.
In my old age, I also – praise God Almighty – became free at last (Free At Last! Hallelujah!) of all addictions and all debt. Secure in marriage, family and faith, I now face my end with gratitude and in good heart.
As a state of mind and a state of being, we can probably agree that this is rather more desirable than facing your end at your own hand, sobbing uncontrollably in misery and despair, with a carving knife pointed at your heart.
About the author
Neil Lyndon is best known for his book No More Sex War (Sinclair-Stevenson 1992), described as “the world’s first egalitarian, progressive, non-sexist critique of feminism in its own terms”. Neil has also written articles for The Sunday Times, The Times, The Independent, the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail and The Telegraph.