Mental Illness and Religion

This is a subject I have thought of writing about for some time. It is a sensitive one, because I am not qualified in psychiatric medicine or psychoanalysis. I only have a few notions, so I can only express myself like anyone else who has done some reading on conditions like autism across its entire spectrum, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and psychosis.

Firstly, two warnings:

  1. In writing about this subject, I am not aiming at any particular person known or unknown to me.
  2. I am aware that this subject needs a considerable amount of discernment and distinction, since the major thesis of atheists like Dr Dawkins is that all religion is mental illness, religion causes mental illness or only mentally ill people are religious. I reject such an all-condemning thesis as being unreasonable and excessive.

However, there are some aspects of religious belief and practice that can be correlated with mental conditions known to psychiatrists. One disturbing sign is fanaticism, which has often been found to be related to depression and bipolar disorder. Their religion has become an obsession.

They are also the easiest to be converted to a new religion.

This happens with many an urban dilettante or some very unhappy people. They sometimes go as far as converting to radical Islam or joining a totalitarian cult. People suffering from bipolar disorder can often change very radically and suddenly as obsessions change and old ones are discarded. Psychiatrists often find that when a patient is put onto an appropriate treatment plan, the religious delusions go away.

At the same time, there are religious expressions that are more difficult to associate with pathology. Belief in a transcendent and immanent being is a part of humanity, culture and philosophy. Many people are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. without being obsessive or harmful to themselves or others. To me, of course as a believer and a priest myself, there has to be a balance. The early Enlightenment was such an attempt with men like Voltaire and Pope Benedict XIV among many others. There were, of course, many atheistic philosophers during that period.

I don’t attribute psychiatry with any charisma of infallibility. There are those who deny the property of science in regard to psychiatric medicine. As with any branch of medicine or science, serious mistakes and wrong assumptions are made. In the days of Bedlam, few things were less rational than the attempts of quacks to treat “loonies”! Progress has been made, but there have been regressions, sometimes due to the extremely lucrative pharmaceutical business.

That being said, any religion placed in the hands of irrational fanatics will suffer more harm to its credibility than from the criticism of its adversaries. What is mental illness? What is reality? Philosophy and science struggle with these issues as any thinking person does.

I refer readers to some articles written by qualified people:

Naturally, some of my readers might know good reliable sites on the Web. We need objectivity and balance.

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3 Responses to Mental Illness and Religion

  1. William G. says:

    This has been a substantial area of interest for myself as well. What are your feelings about the “Fools for Christ” venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church, such as Ss. Procopius of Ustyug,. Basil the Blessed, and Xenia of St. Petersburg? It seems to me that in our modern society, these people, who came to be regarded as profoundly holy, the most extreme of ascetics, would very possibly be institutionalized.

    One might also observe that within the Communist countries, Orthodox clergy and monks were commonly detained for reasons of “insanity” in mental health facilities. One wonders if in our contemporary society, the extreme practices of some monastics might expose them to interference in this respect.

    Lastly, what about the rather vital question of demonic posession? Biblically, it seems clear to me that there is a difference between being a demonaic and being insane, and if those in the Apostolic churches that practice exorcism are to be believed, the symptoms of posession are quite distinct. It seems to me that many in institutions might actually be suffering from this phenomenon, which can be quickly and painlessly removed through simple baptism and chrismation, at substantially reduced cost. The early church, and indeed many contemporary Eastern Orthodox, believe that baptism exorcises any demons present, and prevents further posession, unless the layman intentionally engages with the occult or leaves the Church.

    • I won’t answer this at length, but will give a few ideas. I am sceptical about psychiatry as a science, and many mistakes are committed as one pathology is confused with another. Not everyone fits the typology. Physical medicine is also fallible, but mental medicine is even more prone to error, especially when man’s spirit goes unrecognised by a materialistic practitioner.

      Fools for Christ? Aren’t we all? Don’t we all have fragilities and weaknesses compared with the “norm” of modern and “corporate” man? What is reality? What is sanity and insanity?

      Yes, exorcism and demonic possession. Materialist scientists claim to have all the answers, but science cannot explain many phenomena. But, exorcists have to be on guard for their own souls. The devil has to be paid! So I read in that harrowing book by Fr Malachi Martin Hostage to the Devil. I have seen a possessed man. It is frightening.

  2. William G. says:

    Thank you for that interesting reply. I would assume you were not in a position where you were pastorally called to exorcise the possessed?

    Historically, it doesn’t appear as though the early church was particularly frightened of those under demonic posession; one mainly reads about demons being driven out, rather than getting back in. Patristic commentators, while affirming the continual demonic attacks that clergy can expect, also state that succumbing to the temptations afforded by the passions is a far more likely scenario, and far more dangerous, for the demonaic is not in fact responsible for their actions (which are committed by the demon using their body like a puppet). The rank of exorcist was also one of the lowest ranks among the Minor Orders, I believe it ranked above Porter or Doorkeeper and below Reader, since presumably literacy was not required. Given that, is there really that much to fear from performing exorcisms?

    It seems to me that one ought to be far more worried about yielding to temptation of any kind than about the demon in the possessed being able to hop into the clergyman and possess them. I just don’t recall reading of any case where that actually occurred. A more likely problem seems to be simply being unable to exorcise the demon, which could lead to frustration and doubt of vocation.

    In general, given the extremely low cost of exorcism as a treatment option, it seems to me it ought to be on the front line of treatment when dealing with psychiatric patients who are uncontrollable. In addition, if we accept that baptism and chrismation or confirmation should act as a seal to prevent demonaic infections, in each case where a baptized Christian apparently becomes posessed (as opposed to merely becoming mentally ill), the church that baptized them ought to investigate to determine what happened, albeit in a manner that would not stigmatize or traumatize the recovering victim assuming an exorcism was safely executed. It seems to me that for a demonaic posession to occur though, a specific breakdown must have happened; either a sacrament was administered incorrectly, or the victim was exposed in some manner, either intentionally or through the actions of someone close to them, to the occult.

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