Defending Rick Warren


On August 9th, columnist Greta Christina wrote about Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren’s return to preaching after his son’s suicide. In her article, Christina criticizes Warren for trivializing mental illness as merely everyday fears and worries. She quotes Warren as saying “‘We’re all mentally ill’” and “‘You have fears, you have worries, you have doubts, you have compulsions, you have attractions…’” Then she interprets Warren’s reference to “doubts” as meaning atheism, and suggests “he’s basically saying that atheism, agnosticism and questioning religious faith are mental illnesses.”

This caught my eye, because atheism was linked with madness for several centuries, and was regarded as a cause of suicide due to despair (more on this another day). I was curious to learn exactly what Warren had said, so I listened to his sermon, which is available at

After listening (several times), I felt I had to defend Warren against Christina’s interpretation. She has seriously misrepresented Warren’s sermon through inaccurate and misleading “quotations.” He does not say that we’re all mentally ill; he says that many people struggle with their thoughts and are tortured by them. He does not refer to doubt, and does not mention atheism or agnosticism. We could interpret his remarks about people who lack hope as referring to atheists and agnostics, but I think his meaning is much broader, including anyone who has not accepted the evangelical understanding of God and God’s purpose.

Christina also misrepresents Warren as suggesting that the mentally ill only need God, not treatment or explanations. He says no such thing.

Warren says very clearly that “it is not a sin to be sick,” to take medications, or to see a psychiatrist. There is absolutely no suggestion that faith alone is sufficient to cure mental illness. He wants his church to help people who feel tortured by their thoughts, and to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness. Christina is right that he preaches “when in pain, explanations don’t help” and that “you don’t need an explanation, you need God.” But the context is loss, not diagnosis. All the explanations in the world about his son’s mental illness (Warren makes it clear that his son was diagnosed and treated) can’t take away the pain of losing him — for Warren, only God can provide comfort.

Christina closes her article with a brief statement of respect for Warren’s attempt to de-stigmatize mental illness, follows it up with a plug for her friend Rebecca Hensler’s site Grief Beyond Belief, and then says “But intention is not magic. It’s not enough to want to de-stigmatize mental illness. You have to actually do it. And lumping it in with ordinary emotions — and treating it as something better handled with faith than understanding — doesn’t help.”

Neither does twisting the words of someone who is, I suspect, pretty likely to “actually do it,” if by that we mean spreading the message that mental illness does not deserve the stigma attached to it — a stigma that many atheists reinforce every time they accuse religious believers of being delusional, crazy, sociopathically violent, etc., as part of their “debating” strategy. If you read the comments on Christina’s article, you’ll find a large number of posts that equate religious faith with insanity. I suspect strongly that Christina didn’t listen to Warren’s sermon — or perhaps she was just so concerned with her own agenda that she wasn’t willing to really hear a man who says that every human being has value in God’s eyes. Even if we prefer to leave God out of it, we could do a lot worse than to emulate Warren’s goal of instilling hope in the “wiped out and written off.”

I’m no fan of evangelical preachers. I disagree strongly with much of what Rick Warren stands for. But irresponsible distortion of his words serves no legitimate purpose. It suggests that some atheists look so hard for the bad in religion that they’re blind to anything good in it.

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