Religion and mental illness piece I wrote for Atheismandme.

Is there a link between religion and mental illness?

By Helen Pluckrose

I would argue that there is and intend to demonstrate this by showing the way children are raised in the Christian faith, giving statistical evidence of the correlations between  Christianity and social problems and detailing the mental illnesses which exist only in relation to religion and especially Christianity.  I am an atheist with experience of social work and psychiatric nursing and active in forums about religion, atheism and mental health.

Many atheists, most notably Richard Dawkins, have likened belief in a god to a delusion but of course this was never seriously meant as a clinical diagnosis. People with religious beliefs are not psychotic but have been taught or have chosen to suspend disbelief in just one of thousands of gods for whom there is no evidence whilst rationally assuming the non-existence of the rest. However, this self-delusion is psychologically harmful in a number of ways.

Christianity is the most common religious belief in the West and its unfounded tenets have great cultural acceptance here. A mother recently accused me of being cruel by telling my child her grandfather was gone forever and insisted that the concept of Heaven is very comforting. I told her about two older teenagers I have spoken to who had recently become atheist and have suffered deep grief on realising that they were not immortal. Neither of them found any support from friends or family. Those who were Christian advised them to pray and those who were atheist found their grief a ridiculous overreaction. They should not have done so. To be led to believe that you are immortal and then realise that you are not has an impact similar to finding you have a terminal illness. A teenager or adult learning this will have great difficulty adjusting their view of life whilst a small child will be temporarily distressed to realise we all die but then form their world view around this. A good parent will help their child through this in the same way as we help them deal with starting school or having a new baby in the family.

This same unhealthy conditioning can be seen in the concept of original sin and Satan. Children are taught they are inherently sinful and that Satan may tempt them into sin. They are taught to feel shame for existing at the same time as learning to externalise it onto this mythical demonic figure. This makes it very difficult for children to learn self-awareness and personal responsibility. I frequently speak to Christians suffering from guilt for enjoying supernatural novels and having a sex drive (even when it is not acted upon.) The other side of this is that they may then attribute genuinely negative behaviour to having been tempted by Satan and seek forgiveness from Christ without ever addressing the real cause of their behaviour and learning from it. An example of this is a young woman I spoke to who has a drug abuse problem – in her attempts to resist Satan through prayer and bible reading she never recognises her own emotional problems which stem from her childhood and never gets any stronger or more able to fight her addictions.

Christians will frequently argue that their children are given a good moral grounding through religious teaching but what is this morality? My daughter, attending a state school in England where Christian worship is compulsory, was taught that God flooded the world killing nearly everyone, that he turned rivers into blood and killed all the first born sons. She was six. In addition to this, she was told that this god still exists today and that he should be worshipped and loved for this behaviour. I was forced to remove her from religious education classes because she became so upset but this reaction of hers is surely natural and positive? Is it not more alarming if children accept this? Christian parents will often teach their children that Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator but that the violence of the Christian God is a positive thing. They will teach their children that Hitler was a genocidal sadist but that God will send not only all Jews but also Muslims and Hindus and atheists etc to be tortured for eternity because he is a god of love.

Does this teach children how to treat their fellow man and make good life decisions? Statistics from the world’s most Christian country, the USA, suggest not.  99.8% of prison inmates are theists and more than 80% of them Christian. (1)  A recent in-depth study shows that religiosity is linked to poor societal health. (2) Teen pregnancy is highest in states with the most evangelical Christians. (3) Divorce rates are highest among evangelical Christians. (4)

In addition to general social problems connected to Christianity, there is a whole gamut of mental illnesses related to religion. Hyper-religiosity is now a recognised mental illness – an obsession with religion to the detriment of the rest of the individual’s needs. (5)  Religious scrupulosity – an anxiety disorder in which people agonise over their every action, concerned that they may have been committing a sin, until they can no longer live a normal life is a form of anxiety disorder for which psychiatrists are increasingly consulted. (6)

Most common of all is religious OCD. In America this accounts for one third of all OCD cases which is a very high incidence.  Sufferers will be unable to prevent themselves thinking blasphemous thoughts, denying the holy spirit or imagining having sex with Christ  and will then feel the compulsion to pray endlessly or recite bible verses multiple times to repent of the thought.  The thought will keep coming back until their entire lives are swallowed up in thinking the thought and going through the penitence rituals. John Bunyan is the earliest recorded sufferer.

‘one morning, as I did lie in my bed, I was, at other times, most fiercely assaulted with this temptation [i.e., sinful thought], to sell and part with Christ; the wicked suggestion still running in my mind, Sell Him, sell Him, sell Him, sell Him, sell Him, as fast as a man could speak; against which also, in my mind, as at other times, I answered, No, no, not for thousands, thousands, thousands, at least twenty times together….. Oh, the diligence of Satan! Oh, the desperateness of man’s heart!..’                                                                                                                             (John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (London: George Larkin, 1666)


At this moment thousands of Americans are suffering through this precise process.  Religious OCD is almost impossible to treat because the therapy works by allowing the thoughts to come and refusing to allow them to bother you. This takes away their power but is very difficult for a Christian to do. Jesus said that thoughts are as sinful as actions, that everyone who has ever felt angry is guilty of murder and everyone who has ever felt lust is an adulterer and no-one who denies the Holy Spirit will ever be forgiven. I am currently in touch with two young women with this form of OCD. Sufferers rarely receive support with the psychologist’s advice from religious leaders.  Instead they are told they are sinning, that they must pray for help to resist Satan (thus giving the thoughts more power and setting up more ritual compulsions) and some have even been exorcised, futilely of course, and are still believed by family members to be possessed.  This is not an aberration from mainstream Christianity – it is the inevitable result of a sensitive or self-reflective person being told they are sinful and weak and that the devil is real and must be resisted. In the words of the wonderful , self-aware sufferer, ‘OCD’ Dave:

‘What is the difference between General OCD and religious OCD? I would define the differentiating factor thus: A sufferer of general OCD is usually aware of the inappropriateness and strangeness of their actions, as well as their unreasonable nature but continues to engage in such actions because of the overwhelming mental anxiety brought about by the mental obsessions. A sufferer of religious OCD is generally not aware of the inappropriateness and strangeness of their actions, nor their unreasonable nature, instead believing such actions are at the core of their right relationship with God.(7)

This is the problem in a nutshell –‘ the sufferer is not aware of the inappropriateness and strangeness of their actions nor their unreasonable nature’ because all of this seems real and normal to the individual brought up to believe they are inherently sinful, that they are being judged at all times by an omnipotent being and may be cast into eternal torture. To be a thoughtful, devout Christian who accepts all the tenets of Christianity is to accept the strange and the inappropriate and the unreasonable and to attempt to live your life by it.

How can this possibly lead to mental health?

Helen Pluckrose. (








Views: 216

Comment by Brad Snowder on February 8, 2012 at 4:17pm


Comment by Helena on February 8, 2012 at 4:31pm

Yep indeed.

Comment by Kristen Patton on February 8, 2012 at 7:37pm
Great points all around. Religion makes you suspend your sense of reality to the point where some can no longer function. But of course the sufferer thinks he/she IS functioning as a faithful servant of God.
Comment by Helena on February 8, 2012 at 8:05pm

oooh, I am SO going to get into trouble for this one, but religion and drug addiction are probably very closely related, e.g. one is used to "treat" the other... no treatment there, simply a new addiction....  and both stem from changing your reality to something more comfortable....

Comment by Helen Pluckrose on February 9, 2012 at 5:21am

Thanks - yes, Helena, could not agree more - when someone has emotional problems or suffers a trauma of sometimes they may go for alcohol, drugs or religion to comfort them. The problem is that everyone will tell them that substance abuse is an unhealthy way to deal with problems but few will suggest that religion is even tho it is also a crutch and does not address the problem at all.

Comment by Helen Pluckrose on February 11, 2012 at 12:35pm

Yes, Rich - I was there - trapped between being intellectually an atheist but psychologically not quite there from 16 to 30. Then I was advised to read The God Delusion, God is not Great and Demon Haunted World and that worked as a sort of cleanser of superstitious fears -  I now recommend them to anyone else feeling that way.


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