Toxic Faith: The traits of hyperreligiosity.
A post I wrote 2 years ago on hyperreligiosity has gained thousands more hits on my blog than any other post. Clearly a lot of people are Googling the term hyperreligiosity. But why? We must be experiencing a spike in instances of ‘religious mania’ and ‘toxic faith’ – so-called hyperreligiosity. As Western society grows more secular with each generation, on the world stage hyperreligiosity is something we as a world community must contend with on a regrettably regular basis. Yet this is a fact of life that it seems strictly taboo to allude to.
On an individual basis, people want to understand the condition, either as mental health practitioners or because they are more personally affected; perhaps it is a close friend, spouse, child or parent who is suffering with hyperreligiosity. I am not a mental health professional. For me, it is because somebody close to me has chosen to become ‘lost’ in religion for the past ten years which has led to the sorrowful reality of losing that relationship with them. It is a parental relationship which makes it especially painful.
The term hyperreligiosity is defined by R.S Pearson (the author of the only book on this specific subject so far to be published), as “when the outward forms and other aspects of religion become life disabling. It is the ill-fitting grasp of the role of religion and God in one’s life.” [i]
As I explored in this earlier post [ii], hyperreligiosity is very different from overenthusiastic piety. It is not simply an exemplified form of keeping up the religion’s key principles in an admirable fashion. It is essentially dangerous and destructive, producing nothing of social value.
Through my research I found some common traits of the hyperreligious. Individual sufferers may be affected to a greater or lesser degree by each of the following:
Disempowered by others
They may have undergone experiences in which they are disconnected from and disempowered by others, so they have devalued others and created value in the form of their own religious practice. Negative experiences with others can be turned into fuel for increasingly ardent religiosity. They are often extremely disdainful and intolerant of people with opposing beliefs, sometimes even believing that killing in the name of God can be justified. Isolation from others might also be reframed as a positive choice.
They live by finding favour from God
God answers prayers and cares about us. But the hyperreligious get stuck in this mode. They see their relationship with God as more important than anyone else’s and will do whatever they believe God is telling them. They will often punish themselves when they believe they have not lived up to God’s unattainably high expectations of them. They may have sanctimonious attitudes, berating others for not being as friendly with God as they are.
The chosen one
Hyperreligiosity happens most often when one thinks that they know the mind of God, even though this is specifically stated as impossible in many major religions’ sacred texts. They may view others as unworthy or inferior. They may think of themselves as special – the chosen one. There are psychological reasons why a person with hyperreligiosity needs to have the assurance that they know the complete mind of God. Perhaps part of it is to fulfil the psyche’s need for validation when it is not present in interpersonal and other relationships.
Spirituality gone wrong
What might start as a desire to be a spiritually-enlightened, virtuous person can descend into an isolating disease of the mind. Spirituality is the embodiment of virtue. Hyperreligiosity isn’t simply an extreme form of spirituality – it is quite the opposite. It proves an ill-fitting grasp of the role of religion and God in one’s spiritual pursuits. The hyperreligious cannot use their thinking faculties in the way in which God intended. Their religious devotions obscure any notions of how to be the spiritually-rounded person God wants them to be.
There is no good outcome of being hyperreligious. The sufferer does not end up being ‘hypervirtuous’ or ‘hyperspiritual’ or a better person overall. Dedication to the beliefs of religion does not produce anything of personal or social value; to the contrary, it is in fact is often paralysing and very destructive. Mother Teresa for example could not be termed hyperreligious – the description does not fit with the deeds that she performed. Hyperreligiosity produces painful results in the way other mental illnesses do too.
Conspicuous in their non-materialism
The hyperreligious might not care about material possessions, and actively seek out material lacks. These conspicuous lacks of for example marriage and money – things that make life more comfortable and complete – supposedly leave more space in their lives for religion. It might also be a way of justifying certain attitudes or proving that they are different from others and don’t want what others want; their desires are of a higher order. Any residual emptiness is filled with religious fervour. However the hyperreligious can become double-minded: renouncing certain things as worldly and therefore unnecessary, then praying for them. The hyperreligious person is not a perfect model of consistency.
Belief that human life lacks value
Life, to the hyperreligious, may be just a meaningless, temporary state of being – merely a necessary and unremarkable part of the journey or cycle of life. There may be nothing intrinsically valuable or particularly interesting about a human life because our real life is the afterlife. When we realise that humans are created in the image of God then we can experience this elevated value in all human beings. The experience and value of just being human is denied by the hyperreligious and obsessional, sometimes to themselves and often to others. Denying the value of themselves is often the mirror image of another moment in their life when they deny the value of others.
Destruction of self-image
The general destruction of the hyperreligious person’s self-image may be what is inadvertently sought. The creation of the Thanatos state, the death impulse, is often seen as a desirable goal. At least, the dissolution of the self may be sought. This may go back to some previous unmet need which brings with it memories too painful to process or too early to remember. The inner reaction of those with the hyperreligious mindset may be obsessions and intrusive thoughts which try to create an excuse for not being allowed the human privilege for just being a valuable human being and having needs met.
Projections can form in the mind that then direct the hyperreligious person. These figments of the imagination, believed to be God or angels could more closely fall under the heading of the demonic. That which is real and full of truth does not destroy or make suicidal. The voices do not have the best wishes of their object in mind. Psychiatrists see hyperreligiosity in someone having psychotic episodes or epileptic fits in which they experience God. There might also be a distortion in cognition that happens to people where they hear their own inner speech as voices from the outside.
[i] Hyperreligiosity: Identifying and Overcoming Patterns of Religious Dysfunction, by R. S. Pearson (Telical Books, 2005)