Chapter 12

R E L I G I O N   A N D   M E N T A L   D I S O R D E R


As we have already commented, in the history of psychology, the dominant view of faith has been to associate it with psychopathology. Thus far, the opposite has been demonstrated. However, religious institutions and doctrines are not always beneficial; they can create stress and cause psychological problems. Indeed, there is truth in the title of one book, Religion Can Be Hazardous to Your Health.185 In a similar view, Pruyser has referred in an article title to "The Seamy Side of Current Religious Beliefs."186 The message is simply that religion contains elements that can adversely affect the mental well-being of its adherents.

Religion as a Source of Abnormal Mental Content

The doctrines and source of institutional faith sometimes contain the seeds of psychopathology. Though most individuals who accept religious mandates live happy and fruitful lives, there are those who misinterpret and misapply the core elements of their faith. Others are, in a sense, victimized by parents, clergy, or influential others who misuse religion to gain power and personal gratification. This can happen when people deal with religious precepts in a rigid and inflexible manner.187 One study dealing with some mental disorder correlates of "rigid religiosity" is described in Research Box 12.7. Simply put, clinicians perceive strict religious upbringing as an element in the development of emotional disorders, depression, suicidal potential, and generally fearful response to life.188

Research Box 12.7. Rigid Religiosity and Mental Health
(Stifoss-Hansen, 1994)

Religious bodies possess rules and regulations that people can often interpret in ways ranging from an easy flexibility to a rigid absolutism. The latter has been defined in one major study as a "law-orientation." a In the present study, a scale of rigid-flexible religiosity was developed and administered to 56 volunteer hospitalized neurotic patients and a control group of 70 nonpatients. The first group scored significantly higher than the controls on the scale, demonstrating that a rigid religiosity is a correlate of, at least, severely neurotic thinking and behavior. The author is inclined to suggest a positive relationship between mental disturbance and an extrinsic religious orientation.

a   Strommen, Brekke, Underwager, and Johnson (1972).

The inability to interpret church tenets and scriptures for modern life is an accusation that has usually been directed at fundamentalist groups and conservative religious bodies, often in an unbalanced manner. In fact, such research, particularly on fundamentalism, suffers from a wide variety of biases. At the same time, some individuals are attracted to these bodies because of what Ostow calls "illusory defense against reality."189

The great reliance of orthodox groups on scripture may be one of those defenses. For example, it has been used to justify the abuse of women and children, and some officials in these churches have also supported such behavior.190 Partner and child abuse in these groups has been associated with much conflict about sexual issues and with the blaming of victims. These tendencies have been invoked to explain the claim of high rates of multiple personality disorder in families with fundamentalist religious backgrounds.191

Fundamentalist religion is often quite authoritarian in its structure, endowing its leaders with the image of having a special relationship with the deity. Control and suppresion of dissent are seen as the natural prerogatives of those holding high church positions. These factors have been used to explain the anxiety, "guilt, low self-esteem, sexual inhibitions, and vivid fears of divine punishment" noted among individuals who leave these churches.192 The argument is made that the absolutist structure and dictates of these churches produce a "fundamentalist mindset" that creates adjustment problems for their members.193 This has been further described as involving extreme dogmatism and a need for simplistic "quick fixes for problems involving marriage, children, sexuality, or society."194

Despite all of these unpleasant inferences, research supporting such ideas is rather sparse, and these claims have yet to be convincingly demonstrated. In fact, in Chapter 11, we have noted work suggesting the association of fundamentalism with an optimistic outlook on life.195 Similarly, recent research has failed to provide any evidence of any adverse effects on the ego development or adpative capacity of fundamentalists.196 When such contradictions exist, the only answer is to call for more research; however, we must keep in mind that this is a very controversial area, and objectivity is imperative.

Religious doctrines are rich sources of ideas for use by mentally disturbed persons. Southard has shown how identification with higher powers may help such individuals to deny reality and counter therapy; he described one patient who used hymn singing to frustrate psychotherapy.197 The presentation of miracles and other unusual occurrences found in religious writing can stimulate magical thinking that is suggestive of psychopathology.

Commonly, religious groups and doctrines offer their members meanings that make life bearable, but at a cost -- namely a "sacrifice of intellect."198 Complex matters are often simplified into a dichotomy of good versus evil. Difficult and intricate issues are denied attempts at understanding by references to such clichés as "God works in mysterious ways." At times, however, objective need and cognitive dissonance may cause individuals to challenge polarized beliefs and "stop thinking" phrases. The outcome in such instances may be a serious crisis of faith, extreme personal stress, depression, and the potential for suicide.

Religion as a Source of Abnormal Mental Motives

Religious systems affect the motives and behaviors of their followers. Just as they can strengthen moral commitments, they may stimulate disordered thinking and action.199 We see this in religion's concern with sin. A book chapter by O'Connell asks, "Is Mental Illness a Result of Sin?", and the well-known psychologist O. H. Mowrer attempted to bring the sin concept into psychotherapy.200 It was thus examined positively and negatively -- as a constructive control on behavior, and as an activator of guilt, depression, and distress. Obsession with sin and guilt seems to be a correlate of religious frameworks that stress moral perfection.201 An emphasis on perfection often incites feelings of low self-esteem and worthlessness, which can contribute to mental disorders.202 We also find the presence of sin and associated guilt in the motivation for mysticism, conversion, prayer, scrupulosity, confession, bizarre rituals, self-denial, and self-mutilation.203

The need to expunge sin and reduce guilt is a powerful motive, and one that may eventuate in serious mental pathology. McGinley's fascinating presentation of the behavior of saints abounds in examples of grotesque, brutal, and painful masochistic behavior, which today we would regard as indicative of profound psychopathology.204

Religious insitutions and leaders that demand absolute subservience and unquestioning obedience from followers frequntly use punitive threats and devices to eliminate individuality. Pruyser points out that those subject to such control must suspend any semblance of critical reasoning and substitute "unbridled and untutored fantasy."205 Blind faith of this sort requires in immature, if not extremely childish, denial of reality for its maintenance. The pathetic extremes to which such a belief may drive people have been evidenced many times in recent years. We need only consider such tragedies as the mass suicides and deaths of those in the People's Temple in Guyana, the Branch Davidians in Texas, and the Solar Temple group in Europe and Canada.


185.   Chesen (1972).
186.   Pruyser (1977).
187.   Stifoss-Hanssen (1994)
188.   Culver (1988).
189.   Ostow (1990, p. 122).
190.   Alsdurf and Alsdurf (1988); Pagelow and Johnson (1988).
191.   Higdon (1986).
192.   Hartz and Everett (1989, p. 209).
193.   Kirkpatrick, Hood, and Hartz (1991).
194.   Hartz and Everett (1989, p. 208).
195.   Sethi and Seligman (1993).
196.   Weaver, Berry, and Pittel (1994).
197.   Southard (1956).
198.   Pruyser (1977, p. 332).
199.   Andreason (1972); Bock and Warren (1972).
200.   O'Connell (1961); Mowrer (1961).
201.   Miller (1973).
202.   Andrews (1987).
203.   E. T. Clark (1929); W. H. Clark (1958); Cutten (1908); James (1902/1985).
204.   McGinley (1969).
205.   Pruyser (1977, pp. 333-334).


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Andreason, N. J. C. (1972). The role of religion in depression. Journal of Religion and Health, 11, 153-166.

Andrews, L. M. (1987). To thine own self be true. Garden City, NY: Doubleday/Anchor.

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Chesen, E. S. (1972). Religion may be hazardous to your health. New York: Macmillan.

Clark, E. T. (1929). The psychology of religious awakening. New York: Macmillan.

Clark, W. H. (1958). The psychology of religion. New York: Macmillan.

Culver, V. (1988, April 17). Emotional upset linked to strictness in religion. The Denver Post, pp. 1B-2B.

Cutten, G. B. (1908). The psychological phenomena of Christianity. New York: Scribner.

Hartz, G. W., & Everett, H. C. (1989). Fundamentalist religion and its effects on mental health. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 15, 207-217.

Higdon, J. F. (1986, September). Association of fundamentalism with MPD. Paper presented at the Third International Conference on Multiple Personality Disorder, Chicago.

James, W. (1985). The varieties of religious experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1902).

Kirkpatrick, L. A., Hood, R. W., Jr., & Hartz, G. W. (1991). Fundamentalist religion conceptualized in terms of Rokeach's theory of the open and closed mind: New perspectives on some old ideas. In M. Lynn & D. Moberg (Eds.), Research in the social scientific study of religion. (Vol. 3, pp. 157-179), Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

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O'Connell, D. C. (1961). Is mental illness a result of sin? In A. Godin (Ed.), Child and adult before God (pp. 55-64). Brussels: Lumen Vitae Press.

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