You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Believe a Religion… Just to Make One Up!

May 12, 2007

I read this really awesome essay by neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky [okay, a whole series of really great essays, but this one stood out in the pack] called Circling the Blankets for God. In short, it’s about two disorders: schizophrenia and OCD.

What do those two things have to do with religion? Okay, just think about this: what do most religious leaders claim? Direct communication with God [whatever their culture might call him]. How do they communicate with him? They see him. Or they hear him. Or maybe he sets a bush on fire and talks to them.

What’s the definition of someone that’s schizophrenic? Someone who sees, hears, smells, tastes, or feels something that isn’t there. Think A Beautiful Mind, but for real. Do you see the connection here? I mean, it’s clear as day. The person is ‘seeing’ God, who isn’t there. The only difference between someone certified crazy and someone who’s a saint is that the saint says the invisible person he’s talking to is God. That’s a rather thin line, my friend.

Now to the even more fun revelation: OCD. Think about this for a second: how many times do you have to say a Hail Mary for a sin? How many times must you go through the rosary before you’ve completed the prayer? How does crossing yourself protect you from, well, whatever [note: all these things are Catholic-biased, but only because that’s my background. I would imagine that just about every religion has their own crazy rituals]. What do OCD’s do? They repeat something some ‘magic’ number of times. Wash your hands 14 times or the germs will get you! Check the door lock 7 times or maybe it won’t lock. Or they perform some ritual before doing something. Rub a magic talisman before going out. Pat a spot on the wall before answering the phone. I mean, hello! Almost a one to one connection.

But the really neat thing, the rub as it were, is that most religious people probably aren’t certified schizophrenic / OCD [I would hazard to say that we’re all just a little bit schizo / OCD {I sure know that I am}]. And yet the mentally-ill managed to convince everyone else that what they ‘knew’ was right. That their little voices or their little rituals actually worked. If you try something ten times and it works one of them, well then, it worked!

If nothing else, it makes you think.

I’ll leave you with this fun little section from the essay:

An extraordinarily modern, familiar cast to the suffering of an obsessive compulsive is found in the case of the sixteenth-century Augustinian monk named Luder, whose writings have survived into our time. Anxious and neurasthenic, troubled with a relationship with a stern and demanding father, plagued with a variety of seemingly psychosomatic disorders, the young man had been caught one day in a frightening thunderstorm while walking alone, suffered a panic attack, and vowed to become a monk if he was allowed to survive.

True to his vow, he became a novitiate and threw himself into the rituals with a froth of repetition, self-doubt, and self-debasement. He described his dis-ease with the German word Anfechtung, which he defined as a sense of being utterly lost, a sense of anxious lack of mooring in every circumstance. He carried out each monkish ritual to perfection, urging himself to ever greater concern for detail, ever greater consciousness of God throughout the act, ever greater contrition for his own inadequacies . . . and would invariably find fault and have to start over again. The first Mass that he led was an agony of anxiety, as he was filled with fears of leaving out details, of saying something blasphemous. His spare hours of silent meditation were filled with obsessive, heretical thoughts, for which he confessed at length day after day. “I often repeated my confession and zealously performed my required penance,” he wrote. “But I was always doubting and said, ‘You did not perform that correctly. You were not contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.’ ” At one point, his father confessor, no doubt exhausted with having to hear hours of confessions each day with Luder, endless reportings of evidence of failings and God’s justifiable anger, finally turned to the young monk with an exasperated, shockingly modern insight: “It is not God who is angry with you. It is you who is angry with God.”

History gives us a final hint of this monk’s affliction. He washed and washed, and it was all futile. “The more you cleanse yourself, the dirtier you get,” he summarized plaintively. The vein of obsessive-compulsive anxiety is readily apparent in this young man, who would come to be known by the more modern version of his name, Martin Luther.



3 Responses to “You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Believe a Religion… Just to Make One Up!”

  1. Dave in the West said

    Of course you always go to the sources to back stuff up, lol.

    I’ve always felt that way about theists. I mean, if you really think that there is a god, you’re going to fabricate things in your mind that wouldn’t necessarily fabricate if you weren’t a theist. For instance, something completely random like your brother getting killed in an accident… suddenly happens because of something bad you did the other day. But the thing is, you’re always going to do something bad on a regular basis. You also do good things. But are you going to convince yourself that your brother died because of something good you did? Most likely not.

    It’s easy to fall into that trap of post hoc. But post hoc makes sense in some cases. The scientific method is based on post hoc, but on a deeper level because things are tested in many different ways. So its not like there’s something bad that can be said about the method of thinking. The problem is that our preconceptions tell us a lot of things about the world that might be true, but they also might be a big heaping pile of bullshit.

    Which is sad news for us atheists. Those bastards can make up any excuse as to why they think god is talking to them. The good thing about us though, is that we’re still dynamic minds. If god was proved true (heh… I sure hope that never happens), we probably would believe it. Because that’s how we roll. It’s almost like we’re adapting to new information instead of flip-flopping. Oops… was that a faux pas?

  2. panj said

    Until we can diagnose mental states such as schizophrenia usng a clinical test we cannot tell which religious idiots actually do have a mental illness. Recent reports lead me to believe that such tests will be available within a few years.

    However, for now it is unfair to those who do have a brain disorder to equate them with the dangerouse perpetrators of religion.


  3. Burbot said

    THe biggest problem with a most religions and especially the big three (Chrtianity, Moslem and Judism) is that they somehow believe that they have a monopoly on ethics, morality and of course goodness in general. In most cases they see their belief systems as an immutable moral, ethical and legal system.
    As an atheistic agnostic I believe that in most cases we “non-believers” are probably far more ethical, moral and good than “people of faith” simply because are beliefs are not immutable.
    Basically there are no formulae, no set of theorems, no intrinsic values that mankind has ever come up with that are, in fact, immutable. As Confucious put it-: To know that we know what we know and that we do not know what we do not know— That is true knowledge.

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