Religion and Psychosis

The Icon of the Merciful Mother of the mentally ill (MMOMI) belongs to the Guild of St. Benedict Joseph Labre. No reproduction or use is possible without permission from Timothy Duff, Co Founder and Guardian.

One of the most frustrating things to encounter for someone with schizophrenia is the possibly-sarcastic claim by atheists that religion is a “delusion.” Not only is this yet another abuse of a medical term used to describe the real suffering of real people, it’s also simply incorrect. Properly practiced, Christian religion is not a delusion in any sense of the word.

First, we need a definition of “delusion.” In medical parlance, a delusion is “a belief that is clearly false and that indicates an abnormality in the affected person’s content of thought.” () This is most common in people with psychotic disorders, which, contrary to common belief, are not about being a “psychopath.” These disorders cause your brain to misinterpret or even fabricate your perception of reality. A common example is “shadow people,” black or shadowy humanoid figures who can stand over your bed at night, walk under street lamps, or simply lurk at the edges of your vision. 

The best analogy I can give for delusions is kidnapping, although many people with schizophrenia don’t even realize it’s happening. In my case, I was developing quasi-religious beliefs about someone without realizing it. Escaping that pit, once I was so deeply buried in it, was impossible to the point I needed antipsychotic medication to break free. This is not the picture of healthy religious belief. A common feature of delusions is that their connection to reality is tenuous at best. If there is any evidence supporting the claims that truly delusional people make, it is exaggerated to an unreasonable degree. If there is any logical support for the belief, it is usually independent from anyone else intentionally feeding it and it rests on sand rather than stone. I had people supporting my false beliefs because I was in a small community of a few dozen people who practiced similar things to myself. However, never in a million years would you find anyone constructing a cathedral or writing a comprehensible theological treatise on what I believed. 

On the opposite side, you have faiths like the Catholic Church. This religion does not subscribe to any belief that is not rigorously tested by intelligent, educated, rationally- and empirically-minded authorities. There must be a broad consensus on these beliefs among the bishops who hold these authoritative positions, ordained experts in their theological fields and following a tradition that has been handed on for thousands of years. There is no room in the Church for one person’s paranoid ramblings or baseless claims about reality. Even when there are those who have visions of Jesus, like the Polish St. Faustina Kowalska, their visions are not popularly endorsed at all until an investigation has been carried out and no doctrinal errors have been found in these visions. 

This is the primary difference between religion and psychosis: delusions aren’t seriously supported by other people who truly care about you. It’s precisely when I started a medication regimen that I accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, and my beliefs about the other person melted like ice in the sun. I found a good Christian community, with many friends I still have today. These friends want to build me up and make me more of a person than I was yesterday, unlike the friends before who were only interested in keeping me the same day to day.

Another key difference between delusions and religious beliefs is that in almost no cases can one reason his way out of a delusion. Delusional beliefs are not something anyone would actively choose to believe. They take the barest threads of truth, often in the form of hallucinations, and spin terrifying tales of falsehood out of them. The opposite is true of religion. People are routinely convinced of the truth of a faith through rhetoric and logic. Reading about a religion and learning more about it is often one of the best ways to become a convert to that faith or deepen one’s understanding of what they already believe. If a person with psychosis was able to think through his delusions rationally, there is very little chance he would choose to carry them on.

Comparing religion to the definition of delusion above, religion is neither clearly false nor indicates an abnormality in the believer’s content of thought. On the first point, the only people who claim this are those who approach religion from a ruthless skeptic’s point of view. Assuming that all beliefs other than atheism are wrong, they read things into religious works that are obviously not present. As anyone who’s tried apologetics online or on the street can tell you, these people are painful to deal with. On the second point, if religion was an abnormality in thinking, then an extreme minority of people throughout world history would have been religious. They would have been regarded as nothing more than outliers who are sadly misguided in their thinking. The truth, as Bishop Robert Barron puts it, is that there is a historical “consensus gentium” that the spiritual exists in some shape or form. We are, by our nature, religious beings, and like any time people try to baselessly work against their human nature rather than cooperate with it, doing so with religion leads only to misery and purposelessness.

Of course, religious delusions do exist. We’ve all heard stories of people “who think they’re Jesus” and are coming to tell us all about the end of the world. When I was first turning to Christianity, I was worried I would become one of those people. Fortunately, though, this has not happened and it likely never will. These people are, again, outliers. If you got a couple thousand Christians in a room, the chances of any one of them thinking they’re Jesus is essentially zero. Furthermore, I’m only aware of a few minuscule cults that truly believe in such a person being the Lord. The most major of these is the church that Vissarion, a Russian man, established. It has some 14,000 followers according to Wikipedia, and he lived as a normal person for years before establishing his faith. His writings consist not only of theological points, but also attempts at explaining the science of the material world in ways that are obviously incorrect. The Bible, on the other hand, focuses more on theology, history, and morality. Its teachings have stood the test of time and are the basis for religions the world over. Vissarion’s writings will be studied perhaps for a time as a curiosity about a fractured mind, while the Bible will be studied for generations onward as the founding principles for how a man ought to live.

How about the apostles themselves? Many claim that those who saw the risen Christ were simply hallucinating and that there is no way it could have happened. This is not only reading things into the text based on presuppositions, it’s also irresponsible and insulting to people who actually experience psychosis. I’ve helped operate a psychosis support community online, and in my year of being there, I haven’t heard the exact same story of psychosis twice. There are common elements, yes, but never the same exact story. The possibility of twelve people seeing the same person, hearing him say the same thing, and even touching his body together are so astronomically small that I can only call it impossible. To my knowledge, there are no serious psychiatrists or other medical professionals who put this claim forth. Diagnosing twelve people with psychotic disorders two thousand years after they had their experience is nonsensical, not just from the standpoint of “don’t diagnose people you’ve never talked to,” but also that those who support this claim are rarely of a qualified medical background themselves. If someone comes to me with this claim and then says that “when you eliminate the impossible only the truth remains,” the best answer I have for them is that they may as well assume modern medicine is poison and turn to homeopathy by the same logic.

Healthy religion is in no way, shape, or form a kind of psychosis. It relies on the witness of countless other believers, who have upheld a system of theology and philosophy for centuries. It helps people become more than what they were the previous day, reaching ever greater heights. It connects us with other people and encourages us to make the world a better place. Psychosis is only a parasite on an unhealthy mind, eating away at a person’s psyche as they sink deeper into madness. It will wither and destroy anyone who does not receive medical attention. It drives people away from their friends and loved ones so it can fully take hold of them without any interference. In the rare cases that it’s supported by other people, they too are suffering from some degree of delusion. There is no historical basis for claims borne of psychosis, nor a sound logical foundation or substantial evidence from real-world facts. Though my mind is still troubled to this day, I can rest my head easy on the rock that is the Catholic Church, knowing that it is safe and secure from my own illogical biases.

Special thanks to Timothy Duff of the Guild of St. Benedict Joseph Labre, who supported me in publishing this article.



Leave a Comment