Is Religiosity Pathological?

Back in the spring of 1988, the famous Albert Ellis (Director of the Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy) published a lengthy article in Vol 8, No. 2 of the “Free Inquiry”, presenting the subject hypotheses. He backed this by rigorous analysis and references.

Now that we have so many “Creationist versus Evolutionist” discussions in this forum, here is a subject for debate:

Do you agree that religiosity is, in fact, pathological? If no, why not?

If yes, can you cite recent body of work (beyond Albert Ellis’ 1988 publication)that provides even more solid and clear evidence.

I’m doing Psychiatry this month, and believe it or not I was considering starting a very similar thread.

The definition of a delusion specifically states that the fixed, false belief is not explained by one’s culture or religion. Still it seems odd that when people say God talks to them, we hold them up as fine upstanding citizens, but when the Devil talks to them, we admit them to 3 West. (We’ve got two of them right now.)

When it comes down to it, psychiatry is all about functioning in society. From a rational, objective standpoint, it may seem that the problem is more with society than with the “patient”, but one should never count on society to change. As I’ve argued in the Christian persecution threads, it isn’t hard for a religious person to function in our society, so I wouldn’t really call religiosity “pathological”. It’s a fine line, though.

More after I’ve slept…
Dr. J

What do you mean “functioning in society”?

IANAP (p stands for pshrink and patholigist and pathological) But…

Doesn’t “pathological” mean caused by a disease? :confused:

Well, I looked for over an hour with the search engine to find an old discussion we had which was titled (something like) “Is religion a mental illness?”. Couldn’t find it. I think it might have been a thread which was acrhived right before the changeover that are now lost for all eternity. And I’ll never get that hour back. Bah…

jmullany, I think what dr J is saying is that society defines what constitutes sanity. If the majority belives something, belief in that thing will be seen as sane. Disbelief in accepted dogma can get you labeled nuts, as can belief in an unaccepted dogma.


I always enjoy your posts. As per the OP, I sometimes wonder about this very point. Per my untrained understanding(?) of what “pathology” is about, I would not say that religion is pathological per se, in that it does no damage on it’s own, and does not disable the patient from functioning in society.

I have, however, been frightened by the ability that religion has to dissociate people from their actions. To wit, a person who will exhibit kindness and compassion on his own can be made to commit horrible atrocities if the right leverage is applied, and that leverage has often been applied through pre-existing conditioning of a religious basis. See: Crusades, See: Tomas de Torquemada.

Perhaps while religion is not pathological, it lowers the resistance of the patient to pathological behaviour?

“Pathologic” generally means “related to or indicitave of a disease process”. It’s best to think of it as the opposite of “physiologic”, which refers to normal body function.

When it comes to mental illness, pathology is a lot like pornography–hard to define, but you know it if you see it. If someone thinks Regis Philbin is talking directly to him from the television and telling him to kill his dog, most of us would think of that as pathologic. If he hears Regis talking to him late at night when the TV isn’t on, that’s still fairly clear-cut.

However, if the same person hears God talk to him late at night, we don’t think of that as especially abnormal–depending on what he says. If he says that God is telling him to kill his dog, we’re back to inarguable pathology.

This is because our societal norms include belief in a God who converses with us one-on-one, and who would not tell any of us to kill his dog. It’s an interesting little No True Scotsman-type arrangement–we’ll believe it’s actually God talking to you if he says something that sounds like something we believe God would say. Anything else, and it wasn’t really God.

Probably for certain pathologies and not for others. The resident that I’m working with right now says that since the Left Behind books came out, she’s seen all sorts of people having anxiety attacks because they’re so concerned about being “left behind”. I think it’s because most of these folks came from the same Eastern KY Unexamined Religion tradition I did, and while they always heard about Jesus coming back someday, they never really considered the details.

Dr. J

Who are we to judge?

I don’t think that is inarguable.

Well, what about all those Hindu gods? Surely one of them could tell you something like that. All you seem to be saying is the guy is “nuts” but the easiest cure is to put him on a plane to another culture and he will be miraculously cured.

And what is wrong with the devil talking to you? How can you religiously discriminate against people like that?

Christians outnumber Satanists at the voting booth? :slight_smile:

Dr. J, what are the “Left Behind” books?

Interestingly, hyperreligiosity is a relatively common finding. I also remember about two years ago, some neurologists categorized “religious experiences” which occured during temporal lobe seizures. Here is the PubMed cite :


Temporal lobe epilepsy is supposedly relatively common, and can lead to things like profound bursts of creativity. Some have said that great artists and composers have had temporal lobe epilepsy. With this disorder, religiousity is also a common post-ictal (after seizure) or interictal behavior (as well as circumstantiality, obsessiveness, self-absorption, and hypersensitivity – maybe underdiagnosed here on SDMB :slight_smile: :slight_smile: ).

Anyway, thought I’d throw that out.

{fixed link. --Gaudere}

[Edited by Gaudere on 03-06-2001 at 11:13 AM]

I don’t think it this is quite it (in this society. I agree that the society defines sanity.). If by societal norms,you mean those that include belief in the Judeo-Christian God, he commanded at least one person to sacrifice his son, so there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t tell someone to kill his dog.I think it depends on what God is saying in a different way. If someone is having nightly conversations with God, about such topics as how deceased loved ones are doing in heaven, “go to church more often”,or “do more to help the poor”,it’s not likely to harm that person or others,whether it really is God or not - so no one really cares.On the other hand, topics more along the lines of “kill the infidels”,“Beat the devil out of your child” or “Eat nothing but bread and water for six months”, are likely to harm someone if followed, whether it’s really God or Satan talking or not.
About whether religiosity is pathological- it depends.I don’t think being religious in itself is pathological,but I seem to remember from college that it’s not uncommon for OCD to have a religious tinge to it- rather than obsessively hand-washing, the person obsessively says prayers or performs some other religious ritual to the point where it interferes with normal life.

Sorry, but I don’t think something common which leads to creativity should be called a disorder. I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way, right?

Well, how many religious people talk to god. If you include praying that would be too big a part of the population to label as “diseased” because a disease can’t exist in everyone for it to be a disease.

Speaking from a diffrent point of view I would think that atheism is more pathological. After all religion is a benefit, much like emotions.

Sorry, by common, it is estimated that 1% of people have epilepsy. Up to 40% may be temporal lobe/limbic system epilepsy. 0.4% is medically common. The profound bursts of creativity are sessions of composing/painting/whatever where all else is ignored (hygeine, food, other people, etc.) This is only one of several presentations (and a rare one, at that) of temporal lobe epilepsy.