November 17, 2019

How Do You Distinguish between Religious Fervor and Mental Illness?

How Do You Distinguish between Religious Fervor and Mental Illness?

I was reading this BioLogos Forum discussion that was discussing whether some forms of Young Earth Creationism (YEC) overlaps with mental illness.  The discussion initiator thought that since the new ICR museum teaches that biblical references to dragons are really about dinosaurs, who not only lived on the ark but were seen by Alexander the Great; that such a delusion might be reflective of a type of mental illness.  A delusion being defined as “a belief firmly held in spite of strong contradictory evidence”.  Other commentators were quick to point out the insulting nature of this assertion with one commentator making the point:

“I don’t think there is such a thing as a human being with no delusions (unless it is somebody who can’t engage in any formal thought process at all, such as an infant). If anyone thinks they have no delusions, then that is their capital delusion right there – along with the inevitable pile of your other delusions that they are blind to.”

The Scientific American article that gives this post its title was referenced.  I was reminded again of the Scientific American article while reading Ruth Tucker’s post at Jesus Creed about missionary Amy Carmichael.  Carmichael was born in Millisle, Northern Ireland in 1867.  According to Tucker, Carmichael served in India without home leave for more than 55 years. She founded the Dohnavur Fellowship, an independent mission (including orphanage), as well as the Sisters of the Common Life, a community of women who made vows of celibacy.  According to Tucker, Carmichael criticized other missionaries as too lax in their work. They took vacations and joined together for celebrations. Not those at Dohnavur. Amy did not take furloughs, or holidays; neither would her workers. She made a vow of celibacy, so also her workers.

Now, I’ve blogged about this issue before, for example, here, and Tucker’s description of Amy Carmichael would seem to fit that description. Defenders of Amy Carmichael would assert that her motivations are pure; she’s “doing it all for Jesus” and she is simply “on fire for the Lord”, and is a “fool for Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:10).  They would point out Jesus Himself made such radical demands as in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” or Mark 9:47, “And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell”.

The Scientific American article, by Nathaniel P. Morris, a resident physician in psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine, does a pretty good job of examining the nuance and ambiguities of the issue. At the one extreme you have the Richard Dawkins types who assert all religion is a delusion and a manifestation of mental illness.  At the other end you have the Amy Carmichael types who are so convinced they’ve heard from God they have no problem treating those who disagree with them as unworthy of even being Christians.  Can you be a jerk for Jesus?  I’m gonna say… no.

Many of us here at Imonk are post-Evangelical.  Part of that moving on is the realization that we are recovering jerks. And that jerk-aspect of our religious practice is not, in fact, a healthy mental state.  Wretched Urgency, Michael Spencer called it.  And in another famous post he inveighed against “weird Christians”.  If your religious fervor is turning you into a jerk then maybe it’s time for a reality check.  How do you know?  Here’s a couple of things from my experience:

  1. You always feel you have to be “on” there is no relaxing… relaxing is slacking.
  2. People are telling you that you are a jerk.
  3. You don’t have a sense of humor about “the issue”.
  4. You only talk about one thing, that thing being, the thing you are fanatical about.
  5. You are unwilling to even consider opposing points of view.
  6. If everyone doesn’t hold the same point of view as you on an issue, it will mean the end of the world, and they are your enemy.

Get some help, my friend…

Comments

  1. Iain Lovejoy says

    Religious fervor and mental illness are not necessarily exclusive. The fervor may be genuine and the beliefs sound even if the person concerned also has mental health issues or, for that matter, is neuro atypical (look at Greta Thunberg). It is also possible to be a jerk and right, except in so far as you are being a jerk. No one is perfect and no one is right all the time. “Get some help my friend…” is right: everyone needs accountability and pushback, someone to tell us when we are muddling genuine conviction, understanding and passion with our own hang-ups, idiosyncrasies and flaws. Carmichael surrounded herself with followers, not coworkers and friends, and had no-one to keep her obsessiveness in check.
    A delusion is not a mental illness where it is useful to the person concerned and about things of which they have no direct knowledge or experience, even if they have to work hard to avoid finding out they are wrong. YECers feel thet need to believe these things to be accepted into their community and because they are told they are necessary for what they know from direct experience, that is their relationship with God, to be true.

    • “YECers feel thet need to believe these things… because they are told they are necessary for what they know from direct experience, that is their relationship with God, to be true.”

      But of you tie belief in God to something so out of step with observable reality, you have to construct elaborate defense mechanisms to wall yourself off from that reality, which engenders more delusions and mental vulnerability. And if/when those walls collapse, they can become so disillusioned that they walk away from everything – especially since it was sold to them as an inseparable package deal in the first place.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > you have to construct elaborate defense mechanisms to wall yourself off

        +1

        >sold to them as an inseparable package deal in the first place

        This! It creates a kind of ideological bipolar disorder. Not that life can’t do it to anyone – as referenced in C.S. Lewis’ Man & Bicycle essay; but fervor seems to impede the elastic return from despair into health.

    • Christiane says

      some say that near the end of her life, when the missionary Lottie Moon was giving up her food for the sake of the starving Chinese people that she loved, that that was a symptom of her mental illness as she died of the effects of starvation and did not weigh more than sixty pounds;
      but I think it was not ‘illness’ that made her care for the ones she loved in this way, I think she was consumed by love. If this is ‘illness’, maybe we could all use a touch of it these days, you bet.

      The life and service of the Southern Baptist Christian missionary Lottie Moon is celebrated on the Anglican Church liturgical calendar in this way:

      “December 22: Charlotte Diggs (Lottie) Moon, Missionary in China, 1912″

      ” O God, who in Christ Jesus hast brought Good News to those who are far off and to those who are near: We praise thee for awakening in thy servant Lottie Moon a zeal for thy mission and for her faithful witness among the peoples of China. Stir up in us the same desire for thy work throughout the world, and give us the grace and means to accomplish it; through the same Jesus Christ our Savior, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

      on Dec. 22, I light a candle in memory of this woman of blessed memory, I light it in a Catholic Church in memory of a Southern Baptist saint whose final service was one of love, and not a ‘symptom’ of illness

      • senecagriggs says

        “on Dec. 22, I light a candle in memory of this woman of blessed memory, I light it in a Catholic Church in memory of a Southern Baptist saint whose final service was one of love, and not a ‘symptom’ of illness”

        Wow – a truly independent woman – I doff my cap Christiane

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > It is also possible to be a jerk and right

      An important point is that being a Jerk often renders being Right irrelevant. Then the question is what’s the point of being Right [and Alone]? Is being Right The Point? A good question I heard once: “would you rather be RIGHTeous or create a result?”

      > YECers feel thet need to believe these things

      There is yet another rabbit hole. What does “believe” mean? Humans, including “healthy” ones, are capable of scandalous cognitive dissonance. There is, I am convinced, yeah-i-believe-X-because-doing-otherwise-would-be-a-bother which is a different kind of Belief than i-thought-about-it-and-am-convinced-of-X. These forms of Belief operate very differently. There may also be a belief that rests entirely on incuriosness; maybe the sure-whatever category of belief. These distinctions get overlooked too often.

      • “would you rather be RIGHTeous or create a result?”

        For some people, being RIGHTeous is its own reward.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > being RIGHTeous is its own reward

          A working definition of Jerk?

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          “would you rather be RIGHTeous or create a result?”
          For some people, being RIGHTeous is its own reward.

          Not necessarily in a Christian (or even a religious) context; Fundamentalism and Fanaticism can attach itself to any belief system.

          What is Virtue Signalling(TM) other than a totally-secularized version of Rubbing MY RIGHTeousness in YOUR Unrighteous face, “More Woke Than Thou” instead of “Holier Than Thou”? With the same attitude and One-Upmanship games?

  2. “4. You only talk about one thing, that thing being, the thing you are fanatical about.
    5. You are unwilling to even consider opposing points of view.”

    As Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, ‘A fanatic is someone who can’t change their mind, and won’t change the subject.’

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      My writing partner has told me several times of a NASA psych test for astronauts in the Mercury/Gemini days of the early 1960s. The test was 100 statements to fill out; all statements were the same:

      I am _____________________________________.

      And statements could not repeat; each had to be different.

      He told me that most people poop out after 20 to 30.
      Obsessives or addicts pooped out around half that, with almost all statements relating to their obsession/addiction in some way. (The example he gave was self-identified gays, but this was probably a subset of those whose self-image centered around their sexual behavior.)
      But the most dangerous were those who could only fill in ONE line. Because to those, the one-line answer was where they lived and moved and had their being and nothing else.
      “If you encounter someone who could only fill in ONE line on the test, RUN!”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      As Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, ‘A fanatic is someone who can’t change their mind, and won’t change the subject.’

      “A fanatic is someone who has one piece of a pie and thinks he has the whole pie.”
      — Pope John Paul II

  3. The other day CM posted an article titled Savoring. In it, he wrote, “When I was younger and new to the experience of visiting other parts of the world, traveling could be, and was often, an epiphany. It is about appreciating the world and the people I meet. It is about not expecting them to change me or me to change them, but for us merely to be with each other, in my place or theirs, sharing and cherishing what we have been given.” It seems to me that the lack of this ability is perhaps the most obvious mark of religious fanaticism, and the mental illness that can arise from it. If in your thinking other people and things only exist to fit into the framework of your religious beliefs and projects, if you cannot appreciate the value of their simply existing in their own right quite apart from how they fit into your religious system, then you have a diseased orientation to both the world and other people in it, and that will have a more or less deleterious affect in your life and the life of others, and on the world itself, to the degree that you are systematic and consistent in your application of that orientation.

  4. “Never, ever trust anyone who is too religious. Or moralistic. Just as patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, moralism is the last refuge of the pervert.”

    Vladika Lazar Puhalo

  5. Adam Tauno Williams says

    From the SA article: “””As a mental health provider, I don’t believe it’s my job to cast judgment on patients’ religious beliefs. It’s my job to use medical evidence to evaluate and treat mental illness so as to alleviate suffering among my patients.”””

    That may be best approach: look at the consequence. Is it creating suffering? Most importantly for someone other than the individual in questio.

  6. This is what you’ve reduced yourself too? This is utterly ironic. You want to invoke the “YEC fundies are mentally ill” status as part of your campaign against them, little do you realize you are at the last refuge, which is name calling, ad hominems etc.

    You come across like a child who’s trying to hide behind all of what he believes with his superiors, doctor this and doctor that and scientist this and scientist that, you are hilarious.

    I am not a Young Earth creationists myself, but I can easily observe what you want to categorizes mental illness (probably because you have grown enough in your liberalism that you now Ride the High Horse of arrogance) and was observed is just what somebody described above about how they believe that people have been taught this as part of the essentials of their faith and if they believe otherwise or interpret otherwise they are somehow departing the fundamentals of their faith. It is probably simply fear.

    I attend denominational Church. And I have found in the denominational Church probably more genuinely mentally unhealthy people than I found in a fundie church and I’ve been to plenty growing up and my many decades as an adult.

    Truly you have simply become an arrogant and self-righteous fool here and your religion exist only to pat yourself on the back for not being a fundamentalist anymore, that’s how you come across any more. Your obsession with Fundamentalist and some of their positions speak to something greater than just doctrinal opposition or philosophical opposition rather, you are trying to convince yourself of something still, and this is why you blog incessantly about it hoping that everybody that joins you in agreement will somehow magically carry you into self confidence and certitude so that it makes it so in your mind.

    You are like the LGBT who has to have the world agree with them so that it somehow can make its immortality, morally so when in fact they know in many ways they are wrong.

    This is not to say young Earth creationism is right but really your problem isn’t with young Earth creationism it is with fundamentalists who you simply want to reduce to mentally ill people so that you no longer have to think about them and they no longer plague your conscience as you drift further and further left and to a land you know you shouldn’t be in.

    I natural post this but I do know you will read this

    • Iain Lovejoy says

      Please re-read the article (on the generous assumption you have read it in the first place). Nowhere in the article does the author say he believes YECers to be mentally ill. He reports on a BioLogos forum on which someone made this claim, and asked what people thought of this assertion, which he described as “insulting”; so far no-one commenting here has agreed with it either.
      What he went in to day was that it is however very easy for strongly held religious beliefs to make you act like a jerk, something which your comment above has quite aptly demonstrated.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > Please re-read the article

        +1,000

        • Mike the Geologist says

          Yes, I thought I made it plain that, like most of the other commentators on the BioLogos Forum, that calling YEC mental illness is insulting. Apparently, I didn’t make it plain enough. My apologies.

    • Alex G

      what is wrong?
      how did you get this kind of impression from what you read ?

    • senecagriggs says

      “you now Ride the High Horse of arrogance”

      That’s awesome my friend.

  7. Mike, I don’t think you intended to do this, but your “recovering jerk” sentence basically implies that all evangelicals are jerks, since this is a part of being post-evangelical. Quite frankly, judging from the comments I have read here for the last 10 years about the only thing truly left behind in post evangelicalism is the evangelical part. All the human problems; the arrogance, judgmental attitude, looking down on the “other” (only now it is conservative evangelicals who are the “other), and yes being a jerk, still remain. They are after all human problems, and you can’t be a post-human. Basically, if you were a jerk as an evangelical, you are probably one as post-evangelical, and if you weren’t a jerk as an evangelical, you probably are not one as a post-evangelical. It is more an issue of personality, than of what flavor of Christian you are.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > your “recovering jerk” sentence basically implies that all evangelicals are jerks

      That is an aggressive reading of the text.

      The post begins with the pronoun “I”

      And the preceding subject of that paragraph is “Many of us here”.

      Also, it is a WIDELY held belief that one of the tragic flaws of Evangelicalism is a deep streak of Jerkdom. It certainly was for me. Notable also is that Evangelicalism unequivocally endorses a lot of jerks in the public square – people who proudly fly their jerk flag.

      > , and you can’t be a post-human.

      Of all the sites on the Internet I assure you this is one of the least likely to ever see and assertion of post-humanness.

      • Christiane says

        as an outsider who had a lovely Southern Baptist grandmother, I would not have known about the ‘jerk’ quality if I had not come looking for information about her Church after there was news on the telly about the ‘Westboro Baptist Church’ . . . . I did not think that was my grandmother’s faith and I was right . . . . but when I went to Southern Baptist blogs, I did encounter some of these (I don’t want to use the word ‘jerks’, no) people who seemed unable to respect any perspectives different from their own. They did seem rigid and harsh and very judgmental and ANGRY, but only some of them. Not all. Most of the people I encountered were lovely kind people who helped me to get some insight into my grandmother’s denomination, and I was grateful for this kindness.

        But, yeah, those others? The angry ones? Wow.
        Then came ‘trumpism’ and I guess it was these guys who climbed on to that bandwagon.

        Still an ‘outsider’, and still asking for insights into the vagaries of different denominations, but a bit wary of them what are so mean-spirited towards ‘the others’ and so filled with their own ‘I’m saved and you’re not’ . . . yep, they are ‘mixed in’ and seem troubled. Some seem VERY troubled.

      • You didn’t give the whole subject. “Many of us here are post -evangelical”. Again, I don’t think this was Mike’s intention, but a straight up reading of the two sentences gives the impression that to be an evangelical is to be a jerk, and I won’t deny that you will encounter jerks in evangelical churches, but it has more to do with the personality of the individual than evangelicalism. You will also find a lot of people in evangelical churches who are immature in their faith or perhaps not even really Christians, people who have been poorly taught, etc. And yet you will also find some of the most humble, loving, Christlike people you could ever hope to know. The problems that you find in evangelical churches are not really unique to evangelicals, you will find them in every group of people.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > e not really unique to evangelicals,

          Not being unique to does not mean not correlated to.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      Jon- First of all I want you to know I value your contribution here as one of the conservative evangelicals. Usually, you are pretty good at making your points without devolving into invective or insult. Please continue that contribution.

      However, I categorically deny what you are accusing me of. Consider the lead sentence of my last paragraph: “Many of us here at Imonk are post-Evangelical. Part of that moving on is the realization that we are recovering jerks. And that jerk-aspect of our religious practice is not, in fact, a healthy mental state.” The “we” I am referring to is myself, of course, and the numerous other commentators on Imonk that have admitted to being jerks. See Adam’s response to you at 8:24am. And that includes this blog’s originator, Michael Spencer, as well as the current administrator, Chaplain Mike. Have you read “Wretched Urgency”, and do you agree with it? I agree that being a jerk is a basic human problem. And it is very prevalent on the left spectrum as well. Headless Unicorn Guy, among others, like Mule, have documented their experience with left-wing jerkdom. However, I disagree with you in that certain aspects of Evangelicalism does indeed promote jerkdom. As Adam said in his response to you: “Also, it is a WIDELY held belief that one of the tragic flaws of Evangelicalism is a deep streak of Jerkdom. It certainly was for me. Notable also is that Evangelicalism unequivocally endorses a lot of jerks in the public square – people who proudly fly their jerk flag.”

      The subject of the post was “How Do You Distinguish between Religious Fervor and Mental Illness?” The plain fact of the matter is that religious fervor can cross the line into mental illness. I have a family member who has mental illness. Their form of mental illness manifests as extreme religious fervor. I really can’t say more as I don’t wish to embarrass them in a public forum. But believe me, Jon, I know what I’m talking about. The problem is that people who have religious fervor, like a zeal for evangelism, have trouble realizing they are crossing, or coming close to crossing, the line into an unhealthy mental state. Like alcoholics who are in denial, a wake-up call is necessary. That’s what I was trying to give in the last paragraph of the post – a wake-up call. And I stand by it. I am not broad-brushing all Evangelicals, BUT, if the shoe fits then, dammit, WEAR IT! Get some help…

      • Mike, I hope you realize that I’m not accusing you of anything. I said I don’t think it was your intention, but I do think what you wrote could be understood that way. If a person realizes he or she is a jerk, then that is a personal flaw they need to work on, but leaving evangelicalism isn’t a necessary part of that. If you have become convinced that the evangelical way of doing church isn’t the correct or best way then by all means leave it, but don’t think it is what caused you or anyone else to be a jerk. And just so you know, I’ve never considered you be a jerk just from reading your writings, which is about all I know about you.

        • But for some, their experience of evangelicalism is that is promotes beliefs & practises that are jerkish.

          I refer to things such as the arrogance of ‘only we are right about everything & have the full gospel’, seeing terrible hit & run evangelism as somehow virtuous, rampant sexism disguised as ‘complementarianism’ & so on.

          I know a LOT of exvangelicals, including former Pastors & Missionaries, who would cringe at some of the things they used to do in pursuit of their faith. Not all of them had deconverted, but some had. They certainly did believe that they were pushed into being jerks as part of the evangelical faith.

    • –> “Basically, if you were a jerk as an evangelical, you are probably one as post-evangelical, and if you weren’t a jerk as an evangelical, you probably are not one as a post-evangelical. It is more an issue of personality, than of what flavor of Christian you are.”

      I disagree with this premise completely. Part of becoming LESS of a jerk is a realization that you MIGHT BE a jerk. In other words, it’s someone who’s looked in the mirror and noticed, “Oh my goodness, I DO have a plank in there!”

      I’ve seen jerk-people become less so when they’ve done this. I’ve seen jerks continue to be jerks because they fail over and over and over again to accept that they too might be jerks.

      I have a question for you then, Jon: can a person learn to be humble, or is a self-righteous person always doomed to be self-righteous?

      • –> “Part of becoming LESS of a jerk is a realization that you MIGHT BE a jerk. In other words, it’s someone who’s looked in the mirror and noticed, “Oh my goodness, I DO have a plank in there!”

        And Jon… I’ll give you a personal case-in-point as an example.

        A couple years ago (so “fairly recently” in the scheme of things) I had a revelation that I was better at bearing the fruit of the spirit OUTSIDE the home (with strangers and friends) than I was INSIDE the home (with my wife and daughter). My moodiness tended to be less of a problem when I left the house and interacted with people I didn’t have to live with (go figure), but more of a problem when with my close loved ones.

        In other words, I was more of a jerk at home than away.

        So I began to seriously examine that and look at correcting it. And I think if you would ask my wife and daughter they would tell you I’m less of a jerk at home now than I was three years ago (and I say that because she’s actually told me that). And yes…I did tell her that I had this revelation and would work on it and asked her to forgive me for my past jerkiness, and she recently said, “Ever since that day, there’s been a noticeable difference.”

        I say this not to tout myself, but as an example that jerks can learn to not be jerks if they recognize the issue and they put their minds to it.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > … I’m less of a jerk at home now than I was three years ago (and I say that because she’s
          > actually told me that) …

          Ditto.

          I happily know I am less a Jerk; people have told me so. 🙂 🙁 🙂

      • Absolutely a person can learn to become humble, or at least be humbled. I just don’t think evangelicalism is the cause of jerkiness. A lot of the most jerky comments I read here are from post evangelicals aimed at those who are still evangelical. It is usually a broad brush comment lumping all evangelicals as ignorant or hateful or whatever. And I’ll admit it gets to me sometimes, not just because I’m still evangelical ( I guess ), but because I know so many good people from the churches I have been a part of.

  8. Perhaps it’s best to leave any sort of medical diagnosis to mental health professionals. I don’t think ignorance and stupidity are necessarily signs of mental illness. As someone has said, all of us tend to be cranky in some area or another. My late Uncle Ed who was an electronics engineer, in most things reasonable, except he was convinced that the Space Shuttle flights affected the weather. If he got on that subject you’d think you were talking to a Flat Earther.

    Several years ago during the second Obama administration, at a Thanksgiving meal with my relatives back home in Georgia, I listened to a perfectly serious discussion as to whether or not Obama was the Antichrist. Fundamentalists all, but the discussion included a successful local businessman and a Registered Nurse at one of the largest hospitals in Atlanta. Delusional?

    • –> “Perhaps it’s best to leave any sort of medical diagnosis to mental health professionals. I don’t think ignorance and stupidity are necessarily signs of mental illness.”

      Yeah, bringing mental illness into the equation seems to be for effect more than anything.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        OTOH, it may be a very important question for someone or someones who have to live with that person.

        There is Mental Illness is my family, and a some winnowing of what is Cranky-Human, Laziness, etc… and what is Mental Illness isn’t an avoidable question. When people have a serious need to ask this question most people do so carefully.

    • senecagriggs says

      “Perhaps it’s best to leave any sort of medical diagnosis to mental health professionals. ”
      ________-

      Please do not attribute to “mental health professionals” more wisdom then they actually possess. My experience working with the psychiatric community; many of them are one burrito short of a combo meal.

      • Klasie Kraalogies says

        This is not helpful, Seneca. I have had dealings with professionals in more than one country, and they were excellent every single time. Don’t taint the majority of good practitioners with the wrongs of the few (as in every other community out there).

      • Am I to assume that SenacaG’s experience is all-encompassing of mental health professionals?

  9. Klasie Kraalogies says

    One can see the same phenomenon in political circles – people who have become utterly consumed by their politics, and (sometimes literally) foam at the mouth in any discussion, and decry anyone that differs from them in the most horrible terms. This is not exclusive to any one political position, but is definitely more common at the extremes. And I think the same goes for religious mental instability (or even non-religious-but-religious-focused instability). The more marginal the beliefs, the more extreme the instability. Sometimes the belief causes the instability (I saw that in people very near to me). But sometimes, people who are unstable are attracted to the more irrational, fantastical beliefs and/or ideologies. Chicken or egg is difficult to determine!

    • Foam at the mouth fascists and foam at the mouth socialists are both sides of the same coin, yep.

    • I was about to make the same comment about political commentaries as well… seems to apply to both sides of the aisle….

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Fundamentalism is a state of mind that can attach itself to any belief system and elevate it to Cosmic Importance.

      And politics has been made into a religion over and over.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      An important indicator of mental health is the ability to let-it-slide.

      I have strong [and I believe informed] opinions on select topics. I regularly hear people make asinine statements in relation to those topics. And I just keep eating my nachos.

      It’s a good self diagnostic, observing that oneself can still shrug.

  10. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    How Do You Distinguish between Religious Fervor and Mental Illness?

    The two DO overlap.
    Here’s the original IMonk’s take on the subject:
    https://internetmonk.com/archive/imonk-classic-signs-im-weary-of-weird-christians

    And there are LOTS of type examples in history.

    One of the more recent local ones was “Rockin’ Rollin”, the guy who in the Eighties wore a rainbow fright wig to sporting and other events holding up a big “JOHN 3:16” sign for the cameras. Eccentric but got attention. He got included in a lot of background crowd scenes in The Simpsons and was the direct inspiration for the Steve Taylor song “Bannerman”.

    Well, a couple years later he ended up in the news barricaded in the LAX Hyatt hotel with a hostage, unfurling bedsheets spray-painted with Bible verses from the hotel room window, demanding to be put on broadcast media to Witness to everyone (regarding something connected to End Times Prophecy?) There was also something about setting off a couple bombs outside convenience stores in the days to weeks before. The LAPD SWAT team had to dig him out of the Hyatt, and he’s still jugged.

    Obviously he’d gone off the deep end.
    WAY off.
    But such a crackup does not happen overnight.
    What I figure happened is he was losing it for some time previous to getting on the news in a bad way, but his symptoms got mistaken for “On Fire for JESUS” by the Christians around him. After all, he was saying the right words, “God was being glorified” and “souls were being saved”. Until the day he lost it completely and ended up taking hostages.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Defenders of Amy Carmichael would assert that her motivations are pure; she’s “doing it all for Jesus” and she is simply “on fire for the Lord”, and is a “fool for Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:10). They would point out Jesus Himself made such radical demands as in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” or Mark 9:47, “And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell”.

      Sounds like the defenders of Rockin Rollin (above) when his media career as “the JOHN 3:16 Guy” ended spectacularly (see above). Almost word-for-word. Though I also remember the “PERSECUTION!” Card in play as further proof of his Righteousness and On-Fire Faith.

  11. senecagriggs says

    Mental Health professionals – trustworthy?

    https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2017-15890-002.html

    “What a study of our history and these lists make clear is that sexual boundary violations were committed by many prominent people in our profession. These boundary violations continue today. Most important, we are all potentially vulnerable to them. Clearly there needs to be discussion about why these violations occur so frequently and why institutes and mental health colleagues, while expressing their disapproval, are lax to end violations. ”

    FIRST POINT: Mental Health Professionals certainly have the same percentage of “Jerks” as do the post-evangelicals.
    SECOND POINT. Their insanity factor is the same as the general population.

    • I’m not altogether out of agreement with you on this matter, senecagriggs, though I think you go too far in your rhetoric. I’ve gone from one therapist to the next over the decades. Some of them couldn’t remember what we talked about in our last session, even though they took notes; some of them ate while I was in session with them; some fell asleep while I was talking. After decades of spending loads of money in therapy sessions, decades of frustration with having to go from one unsatisfactory and unprofessional therapeutic relationship to the next, I finally gave up. It was all too discouraging, and discouragement was what I needed least — it made me more depressed than I already was. There are a lot of mental health professionals out there who don’t know what they’re doing; that’s been my firsthand experience. I know there are people who’ve had a different experience with this, but I also know there are people who have had experiences similar to mine.r

  12. Mike the Geologist says

    FIRST POINT: Auto Care Professionals certainly have the same percentage of “Jerks” as do the post-evangelicals.
    SECOND POINT. Their insanity factor is the same as the general population.
    CONCLUSION: Don’t trust any auto mechanics to work on you car.

    FIRST POINT: Pest Control Professionals certainly have the same percentage of “Jerks” as do the post-evangelicals.
    SECOND POINT. Their insanity factor is the same as the general population.
    CONCLUSION: Don’t trust Terminex to debug your house.

    FIRST POINT: Ministry Professionals certainly have the same percentage of “Jerks” as do the post-evangelicals.
    SECOND POINT. Their insanity factor is the same as the general population.
    CONCLUSION: Don’t trust your Pastor.

    Ad Nauseaum

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      +1

    • senecagriggs says

      Yea, but this post wasn’t about pastors, pest control individuals or mechanics. It was about mental illness
      I’m frequently amazed by people’s credulity when it comes to “mental health professionals.”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        But is going all Scientology against “The Psychlos” any better?

        There’s a lot of entries on a lot of Christian blogs about Scientology-like Faith-Based Counseling as far away from SECULAR “Mental Health Professionals” as possible. A lot of them are horror stories.

  13. Daniel Jepsen says

    Hi Mike, Interesting post, as usual.

    After reading your post as well as the discussion at biologos, there is ambiguity in my mind about exactly what we are debating. The biologos article is about the content of certain beliefs, while you seem to be asking a more general question about religious fervor (which is more about the intensity of the belief than the content of the belief). Or am i mis-reading you?

    In any case, perhaps breaking this down into related but separate questions is helpful.

    1. Does affirming certain religious beliefs (especially YEC or other beliefs associated with strict fundamentalism) overlap with mental illness?
    2. Is believing those things a cause (likely among other causes) of some mental illnesses?
    3. Is having mental illness a cause (likely among other causes) of believing those beliefs?

    4. Does extreme religious fervor overlap with mental illness?
    5. Does extreme religious fervor cause (or partly cause) some sorts of mental illness?
    6. Does mental illness cause (or partly cause) extreme religious fervor?

    My own two cents? I doubt one can prove any of the above statements. Especially since religious belief and practice more generally correlate with mental health.\

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-about-men/201712/religion-and-mental-health-what-is-the-link

    “The amassed research indicates that higher levels of religious belief and practice (known in social science as “religiosity”) is associated with better mental health. In particular, the research suggests that higher levels of religiosity are associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and suicidal behavior. Religiosity is also associated with better physical health and subjective well-being.

    Likewise, research indicates that religiosity can enhance recovery from mental illness, aiding in the healing process. For example, one classic research study shows that recovery from severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia is better in countries with higher levels of religiosity.”

    I do tend to think, however, that certain personality types value the higher level of authority and certainty associated with fundamental or evangelical Christianity.

  14. My observation is that there can certainly be obsessional, inflexible & bizarre beliefs & practices that people will let slide in the religious world, that would be looked at in any other sector as signs of mental imbalance.

    Some of those Bible Teachers who’ve been said to never read anything else than the Bible, & memorise large chunks of it, & were absolutely lauded for this ‘devotion’ would probably fit the main characteristics of certain forms of neurodiversity, particularly autism. They just happen to have an obsessive interest in religion, & not the train timetable. I don’t find these things impressive any more when I read of them, whether in the lives of the Saints or elsewhere, more a bit concerning.

    Maybe I’m just a pragmatist, but I don’t see Lottie Moon’s starving herself to death as helping the starving she loved. It’s almost…a bit self-indulgent. Was it good stewardship of her body?

    I know a lot more about the Dohnavur fellowship, having known both a former worker, & a young woman rescued by them, now married to one of the guys who was in my church youth group. Amy Carmichael was very ill a great deal, which may have been behind her not returning for 55 years, being bedridden for most of 2 decades.

    There is a different level of committment from many of these historical missionaries, than we know now, given how the world has changed, people like Hudson Taylor & others went abroad into a world almost unknown, maybe never to come back…but when I speak to those who knew some of them they had broader interests & just seem seriously committed, but entirely sane. Maybe that’s one of the defining differences between devotion & obsession? An acquaintance’s Grandmother was a missionary in Rwanda for over 60 years, which would rarely be expected now. Maybe the changes in the world have allowed us to treat such people in a healthier way, & to look after their mental health better, including the risks that come with religious service?

    • Norma Cenva says

      “Maybe I’m just a pragmatist, but I don’t see Lottie Moon’s starving herself to death as helping the starving she loved. It’s almost…a bit self-indulgent. Was it good stewardship of her body?”

      Or better yet , you’re probably a down to Earth common sense realist, and I agree.
      I have a dear friend who is Greek Orthodox and the fervor with which she and her colleagues prepare the Greek dishes for the Easter celebration is what I would call a healthy existential embrace of this life’s fleshly venue.
      You’ll find the same attitude in Judaism, they affirm the goodness of the flesh and don’t get hung up on its drawbacks.
      In my opinion, Moon’s fervor was just the opposite, fervor turned to obsession, and then sadly, to mental illness.

  15. You sound like you just don’t have the unfortunate privilege of friends or family members who are excessively or unreasonably stubborn. They can be mentally all well and still meet a good 4/6 of the criteria.

    I agree with the commenter who thinks we are all delusional. Nobody has a perfect grasp on reality. It’s how we proceed with the knowledge, or denial, thereof.

    I think as Christians we ought to walk a fine line between epistemological humility and confidence. This may or may not include speculating about the mental wellness of people who see things differently.

    I’ve had some very stubborn YEC friends who believe it is a hell in a handbasket issue. They are most certainly not unwell, as such belief has a little negative impact on their ability to function as an otherwise normal human being.

    Unless, of course, “normal” is defined by someone’s particular way of “viewing the evidence.”