Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Religiosity, Mental Illness, and Molestation: An Unholy Connection

I met a believer on line, let’s call him “Adam”, who introduced himself to me as “… gay, promiscuous, OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder] and bipolar.” Too much info from someone whose name I don’t even know. Then it got worse. It seems he was molested by a priest as a child and attributes all of his “issues” to that event. His conditions are so severe he had to drop out of college, and his parents reject him for his homosexuality. The fact that he divulged this to a complete stranger was a warning sign.

Evidently the point of all this was to set the stage for proclaiming that I, as an avowed atheist, am a “fraud”; that I can’t possibly be an atheist, since “everyone has faith”, even him; even after what happened to him at the hands of that priest, even with his unhappy life and afflictions. I assured him that I was indeed an atheist, but this only served to enflame him. He became progressively more irate, agitated and hostile. It was completely bizarre. I left him to his ranting.

This exchange prompted me to wonder about the relationship of religion and mental illness. While I was familiar with hyper-religiosity, a clinically accepted term for certain schizophrenics who become extremely obsessed with religion, to the point of delusion, I was curious as to what research has been done on religiosity and lesser degrees of mental illness. I didn’t have to look far to find there are exists a plethora of medical studies that show positive correlation between religiosity, OCD, bipolar disorder, and child sexual abuse.

One study published in Psychiatric Research concluded that while religion does not cause OCD, people with multiple obsessions will tend to exhibit higher frequency of religious obsession. http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0165178101003109

In an article on bipolar disease religiosity is exhibited as a secondary, less prevalent symptom, appearing in 39% of bipolar patients. Hyper sexuality appears in 57% of patients (explaining Adam’s description of himself as promiscuous).

Wiki reports that bipolar disorder symptoms include irritability, escalating to rage, and hyper-religiosity. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manic_episode. This is confirmed by medical authorities such as Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics.

In fact, there is a Christian website that not only recognizes the bipolar connection to religiosity, it councils bipolar believers on how to differentiate between religiosity and spirituality that is “fruitful” and that which is driven by their disease. http://www.chastitysf.com/bipolar.htm

Finally, and most telling is this: studies show that there is a “significant relationship” between childhood sexual abuse and religiosity. Abused children are substantially more likely to become religious than non-abused children. The Journal of Child Sexual Abuse published the authoritative work on this subject. http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/custom/portlets/recordDetails/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=EJ564932&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=EJ564932 One might easily conclude that Adam’s religiosity isn’t in spite of his being abused … he was condemned to religiosity by his abuse, along with his mental infirmities.

This is just a sampling. The facts I present here are corroborated by many medical authorities’ websites; thousands of them.

Adam’s attributing his homosexuality, OCD and bipolar disorder to his abuse by that priest is likely his own interpretation and rationalization. There is a clear inference, however, that his mental disorders, combined with his sexual abuse, produced his less than “fruitful” highly aggressive form of religiosity.

But what’s even more interesting is this: if you do a search for “atheism and mental illness, bipolar, OCD” there is not a single study, not a single link that associates mental disorder with non-belief or vise versa. The only thing it does show are people who were once atheist who, as a result of their disorder, “converted” to belief.

What does this all mean vis-à-vis the religious and their mental stability? It certainly does not mean that all believers are insane, any more than all atheists are sane. But the relationship between mental instability and being religious is undeniable. Why am I unsurprised?


microdot said...

My first vist here/ via mudrakes blog. Great stuff...I have only begun to dig in your postings, but I really belief that it takes guts to live openly as an atheist in American society and I admit, I am a wimp, having retreated to the secular backwaters of rural France, where I now worship a big stone in the woods.

I will be back!

DromedaryHump said...

Thanks for the kind words.


Anonymous said...


It depends on where you live in the USA - Hump lives in New Hampsire which is the LEAST religious state in all of USA, so being an atheist there is no big deal.

However, if one lives in the Midwest or southeast USA (and I lived in Kansas in the 1980's for 4 years and did not hide my atheism), being openly non-Christian means being a social outcast especially in small towns and rural countryside.

However, there is hope... The situation is actually getting better - a large amount of young people (under 29) are significantly skeptical of and resistant to Christianity - see http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/16-teensnext-gen/94-a-new-generation-expresses-its-skepticism-and-frustration-with-christianity (which is a Christian research group, but their methods do seem sound) - If this trend continues (and I see no evidence to the contrary), the USA (except in isolated pockets) should be as secular as most Western European nations today - or at least on par with New Hampsire.

- Fastthumbs

DromedaryHump said...

Right on target as usual. Thanks.

according to data I found on the net last year, 59% of European Union citizens claim no religous belief. Thats remarkable compared to the 8%-16% estimate for the total US atheist population.

I agree... it's just a matter of time for the US to catch up; not in my life time, but perhaps within a generation or two. One can only hope.


microdot said...

Well, I didn't move here for religious reasons, but I lived in the midwest for many years and even now when I visit Ohio, I see the overt power that organized religion has on people.
I made my choices when I was a teen and never looked back. I lived in NYC for 20 some years before moving here and of course, there, religion was never a topic.
Now, I enjoy reading about religion, but it helps me understand humans and how they always manage to fuck stuff up!

mud_rake said...

This exchange prompted me to wonder about the relationship of religion and mental illness.


I know of two 'religious' women, oh-so righteous fundamentalist christian ladies, who, in every post and comment they make, exhibit OCD and bipolarity traits. Microdot knows them all-too well. One of them fucked up an entire blog site, spewing masses of manure and bible quotes, nearly killing the blog itself.

I have been trying to tell her to get help, but she laughs it off. She [and her son] are massively mentally ill, but believe that God is on their side.

The relationship you draw, based on three fundies who i have encountered, is spot-on.

Your links are perfect. Too bad 'they' will never read them.

DromedaryHump said...

Something interesting to ponder... if there was never any concept of god/gods, religion, the supernatural, etc.; what delusion might these people's illnesses manefest as a replacement?

Its a rhetorical question, one that can never be answered, but interesting to ponder.


Anonymous said...

BTW, wasn't the original Fighting Ignorance shut down because of some bipolar member who suddenly converted/reconverted to christianity (becoming a fundy wackjob)and complained to msn? Just thought I'd mention it because it seemed relevant.

My memory is quite poor so I may have gotten some/all of this wrong though in which case you needn't allow this post.

microdot said...


This is a lonk to something pretty silly, but I think you might enjoy and here is a link to an old friends blog which might be very interesting to you:


DromedaryHump said...

Right you are. The poor chap was an atheist, and Englishman, he actually was the founder of Fighting Ignorance 1 along with me. His bipolar disorder suddenly turned him into a raving born again. Good memory.

sorry, that YouTube link is "malformed" whatever that means, it doesn't give me a video. I will check out that other site, thanks.


Rob R said...

This study you cited over at your blog on religiosity interesting observations relevent to this topic.

"Over all, only 1 percent believed that religion has a negative effect on health" (it's not the same article BTW but it refers to the same study).

This study of course includes psychatrists, family practitioners who are competent in about every field of medicine including psychiatry, and of course every single one of them who has gone through medical school and has therefore recieved more training in psychiatry as part of the medical degree which makes them more competent then anyone else here to comment on such things.

In short, according to this the medical consensus is that religion is not harmful.

Also of relevence from this study (from the Chicago Times article that Drom cited on his intellegence and religion thread):

While 58 percent of family doctors said they look to God for support and guidance, the same was true of only 36 percent of psychiatrists and 27 percent of radiologists.

Curlin said that might be because: "Psychiatry is the medical specialty that comes closest to being a complete explanatory framework for life. It can make sense of the powerful range of human experience in non-religious terms."

This is where my sourcing becomes limited so take it for what it's worth, but I have heard from more than one source (college proffesors and a doctor) that psychiatrists tend to be more mentally unstable on average in part because many of them go into psychiatry to find answers for their own problems.

A doctor tells me that psychaitrists are only surpassed by dentists in suicide rate.

It's interesting that for a group of some of the most highly intelligent people "that comes closest to [having] a complete explanatory framework for life," many of them cannot sustain a reason to live within that framework.

Take it for what it's worth given I couldn't get better sourcing than personal conversations, and take it or leave it. But to disregard this point for the sourcing does not detract from my first claim.

DromedaryHump said...

didnt you mean to post this in the "intelligence" blog thread, and not mental illness?

I assumed we were discussing the doctor Curlis doctors/ religion study.

I've been looking all over for yOur above post and figured you miss applied it to this thread. Funny how well I know theists.

Rob R said...

Nope, its in the right spot.

Physicians know that mental health is an aspect of health and only 1 percent of physicians agree with your conclusion.

And for a direct response to some of your claims:

AC: One study published in Psychiatric Research concluded that while religion does not cause OCD, people with multiple obsessions will tend to exhibit higher frequency of religious obsession.

...because people with OCD can be obsessive about anything which very much includes religion!

In an article on bipolar disease religiosity is exhibited as a secondary, less prevalent symptom, appearing in 39% of bipolar patients. Hyper sexuality appears in 57% of patients (explaining Adam’s description of himself as promiscuous).

So sexuality is more effected? If religious people are less stable, why not conclude that sexual people (everyone) is less stable.

Of course spirituality is every bit as natural as sexuality. It shouldn't surprise us that diseases of the mind affect something that is a natural part of the mind.

A source here argues a simlar position.

And this is relevent to other disease states.

Definitely one ongoing fallacy here is the perpetually assumed notion that all religiosity is the same.

I actually know that there are psychologically damaging religions, or more specifically cults where there is a particularly overbearing authoritarian relationship between the member and the leadership (such as a certain Church of Christ, Jehovah's Witnesses, and more extreme cases like the People's Temple (the Jonestown church), the Branch Davidians and so on). To refuse to distinguish between authentically damaging Religions like those and your typical Catholic, Methodist or non-denominational group downtown is to show a severe disregard for the details.

DromedaryHump said...

Yes, theists hate it when they see studies that confirm that sudden, or extreme religiosity is often a by product of mental disease. The ones that hate it the most are usually those suffering from a mental disorder.

Funny how no mental illneses cause people to become atheists. That would seem to pull the rug out of a "oh, well... why WOULDN'T they exhibit extreme/heightened religiosity". Maybe people don't become atheists when they are mentally ill because dealing in reality isn't, by definition, a delusion. Go figure.

I suppose the data just doesn't hold water for you, nor does the study about child sexual molestation generating increased religisoity. BTW, those molested by a relative are much more likely to be come fundamentalist/evangelical/born again types by a statistically significant amount, vs those who are molested by strangers. Interesting, isn't it?

But whats really interesting is this: christians dispise scientific evidence. They will refute everything that is distasteful to their belief system or their religious sensibilites. No proof, no evidence, no studies, no magnitude of fact can be accepted whether its geological, biological, anthropological, palentologic, or psychologic. To do so diminishes the credibility of their beliefs and faith.

Much like a criminal caught red handed, their credo is "deny all". ah well.

Oh yes.. and its just "those crazy christian cults" that attract the mentally ill. You won't see any bipolar, or OCD, or schizos with hyper religiosity among mainstream cultists, aka main stream christians. Oh no. Besides ... those aren't TRUE cristians right? LOL

The difference between a cult and a religion is the amount of money/assests they hold. The cult of Christianity, as it was called well into the 3rd century, didnt really become a "religion" until Constantine in the 4th century. Thats when it acquired wealth and power.

Youre all cultists to me.