Saturday, 14 March 2015

Religion and Mental Illness

Religious Fundamentalism 'May Be Categorised As Mental Illness & Cured By Science'

The opinion that extremist religious beliefs in particular may be symptoms of mental disorder and psychiatric illness seems to gaining ground in informed neurophysiology and psychiatry circles, though this is hardly news to those of us who spend a while trying to engage religious fundamentalists and creationist in intelligent debate on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.

Psychosis and paranoia often seem to be endemic in these people, for example the unfortunate individual whom I stopped trying to engage on Facebook recently when he told me he didn't need to read any books or science websites because God was telling him all the facts he needed by putting them straight into his brain, so there was no point in giving him links to follow or articles to read.

A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.

Friedrich Nietzsche
This was not the first time I've encountered this either. It's not too different to those who simply dismiss any evidence that doesn't agree with them as wrong. They 'know' the truth somehow, so if the facts contradict them, the facts must be wrong.

The latest academic to go public with this view of religious fundamentalists as victims of neurophysiological pathology is Kathleen Taylor, of Oxford University’s Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics (where I was once a Senior Lab. Technician many years ago, in a different life). Speaking at the Hay Literary Festival, Wales, when asked what she saw as possible positive future developments in neuroscience, she said:

One man’s positive can be another man’s negative. One of the surprises may be to see people with certain beliefs as people who can be treated.

Someone who has for example become radicalised to a cult ideology – we might stop seeing that as a personal choice that they have chosen as a result of pure free will and may start treating it as some kind of mental disturbance. In many ways it could be a very positive thing because there are no doubt beliefs in our society that do a heck of a lot of damage.

I am not just talking about the obvious candidates like radical Islam or some of the more extreme cults. I am talking about things like the belief that it is OK to beat your children. These beliefs are very harmful but are not normally categorised as mental illness.

Kathleen Taylor is supported in this view of the pathological nature of religious extremism in a 2010 paper by a past president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Dr Dinesh Bhugra who found a strong correlation between early-onset psychosis and religious 'conversions':

Abstract
Self-concept is both a social product and a social force, and can be defined as the sum total of an individual's thoughts and beliefs regarding themselves, as well as perceptions by others. Such a view is essential for the well being of individuals and allows a person to function well within parameters of the society. When this self-concept starts to change then the individual looks for other pointers to gain a degree of self control back. Such an approach can explain some of the reasons why some individuals with mental illness turn towards new religious movements that may well be extreme. With data from two studies showing that patients with first onset psychosis are likely to change their religion, it is proposed that clinicians and researchers alike be aware of some of these factors.


It has been recognised for many years that there is a neurophysiological explanation for so-called 'religious experiences' that many people ascribe their sudden conversion to in terms of temporal lobe epilepsy and a recent paper showed how this could be isolated to over-stimulation of the insula.

The similarity between these 'religious experiences' and some forms of epilepsy can be seem from this description of Dostoevsky's own experience as an epileptic in his book The Idiot:

He remembered that during his epileptic fits, or rather immediately preceding them, he had always experienced a moment or two when his whole heart, and mind, and body seemed to wake up with vigor and light; when he became filled with joy and hope, and all his anxieties seemed to be swept away for ever; these moments were but presentiments, as it were, of the one final second…in which the fit came upon him. That second, of course, was inexpressible.

Next moment something appeared to burst open before him: a wonderful inner light illuminated his soul. This lasted perhaps half a second, yet he distinctly remembered hearing the beginning of a wail, the strange, dreadful wail, which burst from his lips of its own accord, and which no effort of will on his part could suppress. Next moment he was absolutely unconscious; black darkness blotted out everything. He had fallen in an epileptic fit.

Bernini. The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.
Basilica of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.
Compare this with the testimony of Saint Teresa of Ávila:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it...


We also have the often deranged prophecies of the Old Testament prophets, some of which read more like the psychotic ravings of paranoid schizophrenics, then we have the tale of St. Paul's alleged conversion. We know that at least part of this tale was a figment of the imagination of the author who was someone who didn't know the geography or politics of the place and time he set his tale in (the secular Jewish authority's writ in Jerusalem, Judea did not extend to Damascus in Phoenicia so 'Saul' could not have been going there for the reason stated) but his writing suggests he was familiar with ecstatic epilepsy since he describes it almost exactly.

In fact, the 'conversion on the road to Damascus' may well be the first written description of this neurological disorder:

And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest. And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me. And I said, What shall I do, LORD? And the Lord said unto me, Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do.

And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus.

Acts 22:6-11

And can anyone who has watched the antics of my own stalker and obsessive abuser, who frequently spams my blogs with infantile gibberish, not conclude that he is mentally ill? To be fair to Catholicism though, his psychosis may not be so much the cause of his religious fanaticism; more likely it was the result of his humiliation at having been expelled from seminary because of a pre-existing personality disorder and being unable to resist acting on it.

His pretense of piety is almost certainly a ploy to support his begging by appealing to gullible people. His behaviour shows he no more believes in a god of truth and honesty who will one day call him to account than I do - unless of course he thinks a few spells and magic hand movements will grant him absolution and give his omniscient god amnesia. With many catholics who manage (all too easily it seems) to get through what checks there are and make it into the priesthood, religious 'zeal' is often just a sham and phoney piety being used as a cover and an opportunity to gain access to vulnerable people. In these cases it's not so much psychosis that causes apparent piety; it's psychopathy.

So where now for religions with no physical evidence for them to call on and the behaviour of religious zealots looking more like the result of pathological brain malfunction as time goes on as science reveals more and more how the brain works?

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