Sunday, 17 January 2016

Is Fundamentalism An Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

A thought occurred to me today, prompted by an online friend - fundamentalist religion has some striking parallels with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

According to an online pamphlet produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists:

OCD has three main parts:
  1. the thoughts that make you anxious (obsessions)
  2. the anxiety you feel
  3. the things you do to reduce your anxiety (compulsions).

What you think (obsessions)
  • Thoughts - single words, short phrases or rhymes that are unpleasant, shocking or blasphemous. You try not to think about them, but they won't go away. You worry that you might be contaminated (by germs, dirt, HIV or cancer), or that someone might be harmed because you have been careless.
  • Pictures in your mind - showing your family dead, or seeing yourself doing something violent or sexual which is completely out of character - stabbing or abusing someone, or being unfaithful. We know that people with obsessions do not become violent, or act on these thoughts.
  • Doubts - you wonder for hours whether you might have caused an accident or misfortune to someone. You may worry that you have knocked someone over in your car, or that you have left your doors and windows unlocked.
  • Ruminations - you endlessly argue with yourself about whether to do one thing or another so you can't make the simplest decision.
  • Perfectionism - you are bothered, in a way that other people are not, if things are not in the exactly the right order, not balanced or not in the right place. For example, if books are not lined up precisely on a bookshelf.

The anxiety you feel (emotions)
  • You feel tense, anxious, fearful, guilty, disgusted or depressed.
  • You feel better if you carry out your compulsive behaviour, or ritual - but it doesn't last long.

What you do (compulsions)
  • Correcting obsessional thoughts - you think alternative 'neutralising' thoughts like counting, praying or saying a special word over and over again. It feels as though this prevents bad things from happening. It can also be a way of getting rid of any unpleasant thoughts or pictures that are bothering you.
  • Rituals - you wash your hands frequently, do things really slowly and carefully, perhaps arrange objects or activities in a particular way. This can take up so much time that it takes ages to go anywhere, or do anything useful.
  • Checking - your body for contamination, that appliances are switched off, that the house is locked or that your journey route is safe.
  • Avoidance - of anything that is a reminder of worrying thoughts. You avoid touching particular objects, going to certain places, taking risks or accepting responsibility. For example, you may avoid the kitchen because you know you will find sharp knives there.
  • Hoarding - of useless and worn out possessions. You just can't throw anything away.
  • Reassurance - you repeatedly ask others to tell you that everything is alright.

A very good case can be made for each of the three main parts in relation to fundamentalist religion, and very probably in relation to more moderate forms if examined closely.

Judging by the way fundamentalists go on about going to Hell and everyone needing forgiveness, salvation and redemption, either by 'accepting Jesus' or by 'submitting to the will of Allah' - indeed the entire rationalé of Christianity and Islam - there is a great deal of acute anxiety at the heart of these religions. When people dedicate their lives to assuaging their god in the way prescribed by their religion, in the desperate hope it doesn't throw them in Hell, this anxiety takes on a morbid, sinister character.

The thought of Hell can be an all-powerful obsession, producing acute anxiety. It is frequently cited even by people who have lost faith, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as the one thing that is preventing them admitting it. As loss of faith becomes more acute so the fear of the 'What if it's true?' question becomes more acute too. The basis of Pascal's Gambit is that the non-believer risks losing everything if the choice is not to not believe (as though belief is a choice and an omniscient god can be fooled by pretense!). It often takes considerable courage to finally admit that one doesn't believe in God or Allah because of this inculcated phobia of Hellfire. It is the ultimate fear with which the priesthoods whip their followers into compliant submission.

Listen to any evangelical street preacher or fire and brimstone baptist and it's all about needing redemption, how Jesus saves, how sins are washed away, how Jesus died to save us, etc, etc, almost to the exclusion of all else. Very little else matters apart from being saved from unimaginable horrors after death. The entire religion is about fear of death and what horrors might await unless the right spells are cast, the right rituals performed, the right life is lived - and enough money is donated, obviously.

So, it's hard to argue that Christianity and Islam don't meet the first two conditions for being an OCD. What then of the third - the things done to reduce anxiety - the compulsion.

What is fundamentalism if not repetitive actions designed to lessen the anxiety of the fear of what death might bring? Why the dedication to promoting and defending a religion; to the rituals of prayer and preaching and constant anxiety to spread the word; to proselytise and convert, and why the intolerance for other religions, even other versions of the preferred cult? It is all to allay the anxiety; the morbid phobia of what might happen.

Does the performance of these rituals in concert with others in a congregation make them any less rituals designed to reduce anxiety?

What then do religious people do obsessively as a result of this acute anxiety?

  • Correcting obsessional thoughts - they think alternative 'neutralising' thoughts like praying or saying a special word over and over again. It feels as though this prevents bad things from happening. It can also be a way of getting rid of any unpleasant thoughts or pictures that are bothering them.
  • Rituals - they do things really slowly and carefully, perhaps arrange objects or activities in a particular way. Important activities are preceded by special rituals and prayers. Ritual hand movements often play a prominent part in these anxiety-relieving activities.
  • Avoidance - of anything that might make the object of the anxiety angry such as 'unclean' thoughts and desires, doubts, reading things like science books that might raise worrying doubts, fraternising with those of the 'wrong' faith or even worse, cohabiting with them.
  • Hoarding - of useless and worn out possessions. Anything of any religious significance is treated as sacred and with reverence and carefully stored away, even if it's never used again.
  • Reassurance - you repeatedly ask God or Allah for reassurance that everything is alright and that you're still appreciated.

This is not far removed from the list of typical obsessive activities by people with OCD.

So, although there are a few differences between fundamentalist religions and OCD most of these are because religion is socially acceptable and usually done in groups, whereas an OCD sufferer often suffers in private, often feeling embarrassment and shame for their obsession. The underlying causes appear to be almost indistinguishable however, and largely regardless of how the obsession was acquired: the anxiety is acute, irrational and life-controlling, taking real freedom away from the sufferer.

Perhaps the similarity is made more obvious if one considers a world in which only one person believed in God or Allah. How would we view this person's anxieties and obsessions, and the life-shaping rituals being used to lessen these anxieties? Would this person be regarded as perfectly sane and not needing any help to cope and and recover from it? Would this behaviour be regarded in any way as normal?

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