Hyperreligiosity and mental illness.

by therapyjourney

“The beauty of religious mania is that it has the power to explain everything. Once God (or Satan) is accepted as the first cause of everything which happens in the mortal world, nothing is left to chance… logic can be happily tossed out the window.” – Stephen King, ‘The Stand’.

Before I launch into a tirade, I’m going to be honest about my vested interest in this subject. My mother is I believe a sufferer of an undiagnosed mental health condition characterised in part by extreme religious impulses and the need, as she sees it, to preach and discuss religious matters at length with all those around her, including those who actively resent it. Her religion dictates how she must do everything, from personal conduct to household chores to the order of her day. I have no doubt that she would die for her religion, as she honestly believes and has told me that nothing in this life is as important as one’s own continued destiny after death, and that the ‘trappings’ of this life such as family, wealth and happiness are but meaningless distractions from the ultimate goal achieved in the afterlife.

R. S. Pearson in his book ‘Hyperreligiosity: Identifying and Overcoming Patterns of Religious Dysfunction’ defines the condition as:

‘…when the outward forms and other aspects of religion become life disabling. […] Hyperreligiosity is the ill-fitting grasp of the role of religion and God in one’s life. It is the disability that can lead to isolation from others because one thinks God is vengeful and punishing. Others who do not practise religion the same way are believed to be contaminating to the hyperreligious person, and this belief fights the drive to what are considered historic descriptions of authentic spirituality. […] Hyperreligiosity does not produce anything of personal or social value and in fact is often dangerous and destructive.’

The name hyperreligiosity is an uneasy one and makes the condition sound like nothing more than overenthusiastic piety. As our understanding of neuroscience and cognitive function grows it seems possible that this condition is in fact part of something more harmful and complicated. An interesting question is whether hyperreligiosity among the mentally ill is itself an illness, or if it is a coping mechanism in response to an underlying pre-existent condition, much like the cases of those who find respite in addiction to harmful substances or damaging behaviours.

In a paper written by an undergraduate student at Tilburg University, a link is drawn between obsessive compulsive disorder and hyperreligiosity. OCD apparently affects under 2% of the world population at any given time (with 3.5% being affected in their lifetimes) – figures I find startlingly low. Carrying out the obsessive behaviour is of course a means for sufferers to allay or reduce anxiety. So hyperreligiosity, if it is valid to term ‘extreme, destructive, narrow minded excessive religiosity’ that, forms a subcategory of OCD. At the risk of drowning in a diagnostic quagmire, another term, ‘scrupulosity’ gets a mention in the DSM-IV-TR (2000) in relation to obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. It is indicated by an exaggerated sense of morality, ethics or norms.

‘What is striking about these symptoms is that the focus is not on central aspects of religion, like taking care of others, but on very specific, exaggerated tasks, emotions or perceptions,’ writes the author of The Neurobiological Basis of Hyper-Religiosity’, Daniëlle Bouman. Its domains are the Fear of Sin and the Fear of God. Additionally, hyperreligiosity and scrupulosity are both severe disabling disorders which may cause social and/or occupational dysfunctioning. Another aspect that scrupulosity and hyper-religiosity have in common is the abnormal focus on an aspect of one’s chosen religion, such as excessive ritualistic prayer. These are aspects that hit pretty close to home for me, and it saddened me somehow to read how textbook my mother’s case actually is.

There is undoubtedly a parallel between OCD and hyperreligiosity. Both indicate ritualistic behaviour, fear of what will happen if the itch is not scratched, comfort gained in the familiar, personal cycles of constant repetition. From my experience seeing a fairly normal person morph into one who is terrifyingly overzealous, I think there is an element of psychosis in her psyche, that expresses itself as hyper-religiosity. Psychosis is defined as ‘any of several mental illnesses that can cause delusions, hallucinations, serious defects in judgment and insight, defects in the thinking process, and the inability to objectively evaluate reality’. I am sure that somewhere within, the solution is to help my mother, but just like a person suffering from substance abuse, she must recognise she has a problem first. Unfortunately, I don’t think that will ever happen because to her religion is a life and death matter. For her, getting older means getting closer to meeting her maker. The only thing I can do is accept it, which is then part of my journey.


Edit Oct 2016: A more thorough list of the traits of those suffering with hyperreligiosity appears on a more recent blog post available here: 

https://therapyjourney.wordpress.com/2016/10/06/toxic-faith-the-traits-of-hyperreligiosity/honest to god