11/22/2013 02:38 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

The 'Easy' Cure for PTSD? The Cruelty of Shallow Religious Answers

Co-authored by William C. Gibson, Ph.D., VA Psychologist in Rochester, N.Y.

Got PTSD? If you have enough faith, if you truly believe, televangelist Kenneth Copeland asserts you can get over it, right now! The Bible tells you so.

In an interview broadcast on Veterans Day, Copeland asserted that the biblical God assures the Israelites preparing for battle that they will be "guiltless before the Lord and before the nation" (Numbers 32:22). Copeland insisted, "Any of you suffering from PTSD... [you] get rid of that right now. You don't take drugs to get rid of it. It doesn't take psychology. That promise right there will get rid of it." Evangelical David Barton chimed in, saying, "You're on an elevated platform up here. You're a hero... When you do it God's way, not only are you guiltless for having [participated in war]... you're esteemed."

So... are you feeling better yet? No? You're not the only one.

When Bill Gibson, a VA psychologist, related the Copeland-Barton interview to members of a combat PTSD group he facilitates, he received stunned silence. Finally, one Iraqi war vet said, "I wish it was that easy -- do people think I want to feel this way?" And a Vietnam War veteran added, "The only person who would say something like that is someone who has never been in the kinds of situations we've been in."

Barton and Copeland insult all veterans with PTSD. PTSD is not the result of a "faith deficit disorder," as Allen Clark asserts on his website PTSD is real, and it is in the brain.

Almost 4,000 years ago, Egyptian writers described PTSD symptoms, and in Achilles in Vietnam, psychiatrist Jonathan Shay finds in Homer's Iliad a profound understanding of PTSD symptoms -- and the toll they exact from its sufferers.

Regardless of the time and place, some proportion of people exposed to war -- as well as many with noncombat trauma, such as those who are assaulted, have an accident, or live through a natural disaster -- experience a range of symptoms: nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, mistrust, anger, emotional numbing, depression, and, frequently, problems with substance abuse. In the wake of the recent devastating hurricane in the Philippines, many will suffer such symptoms of PTSD.

To tell people they can just get rid of it by better faith is cruel. Brain studies consistently show that PTSD involves structural changes in the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the medial frontal cortex. This damage interferes with processing memory and emotion and with accurately assessing and determining how to respond to threats -- common features of PTSD. (1)

Not only are Barton and Copeland completely ignorant of clinical and neurological reality, they are also ignorant about the Bible and its sophistication about moral ambiguity. Their use of one isolated text very conveniently ignores David's poignant prayers of culpability, anger at God, and despair, which are captured in the Psalms -- these express feelings of soldiers in any war. The evangelists also ignore incidences in the Bible when human beings challenge divine intentions on moral grounds, as Abraham did when God threatened to destroy an entire city, even those who might be innocent (Genesis 18:16-33). These and other biblical stories give the lie to the idea that actions of an ancient theocracy or every divine utterance of rage and vengeance are moral. Human anguish about war and violence is a biblical way that even God is held accountable for immoral decisions.

Copeland and Barton are not just ignorant of science and the Bible. Their thinking about the Bible and politics leads to absurd, immoral conclusions. They equate the ancient theocracy of Israel with the modern nation-state of the U.S., as if a war executed by the American military today is equivalent to men fighting in a meadow with slingshots, swords, spears, and bows and arrows. The unprecedented lethal capacities of the American military were unimaginable in ancient times. But if you believe, as Barton does, that God created the U.S. a Christian nation (which, by the way, Israel was not), you have to believe everything it does is divinely mandated. Their assumptions are absurd, but their distortions conveniently feed American exceptionalism -- the belief that whatever the U.S. president and Congress do is moral so people who go to war can be guiltless.

The evangelists' use of the Bible is tragic and cruel because they cannot see how nuanced and complex the Bible is in handling both PTSD and the moral injuries of war. Like other great war literature, the Bible offers a nuanced exploration of the spiritual issues associated with PTSD, like loss of faith and anger at God. Such anguish of the soul is now distinguished from PTSD as "moral injury," and it benefits from honest explorations of conscience and moral values, not from pat formulaic answers that imply such suffering is caused by a faulty faith or the cruel use of a stray verse or two to support an unsustainable and immoral religious political agenda. The Bible deserves better and so do veterans.

Shaming veterans and reading of the Bible stupidly is bad enough, but perhaps Barton and Copeland's most egregious offense is that they fail to acknowledge our collective societal responsibility for war and its aftermath because, unlike an ancient theocracy, we live in a democracy. When we, through our elected leaders, send members of our military into combat, we incur a moral obligation to soldiers and veterans to treat them with love and patience, to listen to their stories, and to help them bear and heal from psychological and spiritual injuries. This responsibility -- expected of Christians who claim to worship a God of love -- is ours whether or not we are religious and whether or not we supported a particular war or elected official. It is tempting to see civilians and veterans as "us" and "them," but a more holistic -- and honest -- stance is to recognize that there is only us, our families, our friends, our co-workers, our fellow congregants. We are all responsible to and for each other.

(1) Shin, L. M, Rauch, S. & Pitman, R. (2006). Amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex and hippocampal function in PTSD. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1071, 67-79.