Mental Health and Religion
Back to Psychology of Religion Home Page

Mental Health and Religion

by Michael E. Nielsen, PhD

© 1998 Michael Nielsen

There is much that has been said about the connection(s) between religion and mental health. As you might imagine, the picture isn't simple, and any snapshot is likely to be incomplete. I am still working on a more complete description of the relationship between mental health and religion, and will post it in the future. Until then, I thought that you might be interested in reading this question that was referred to me from a reader of The Wounded Healer. I am on its advisory board, which fields questions related to psychology and mental health.

Here's the question: "Why do people with schizophrenia in some cases have a religious theme to their delusional belief system?"

And here's my response:

Schizophrenia is a set of very dramatic disorders which sometimes involve vivid delusional systems. Consequently, some schizophrenics "see" or "hear" things that no one else sees or hears. People who have schizophrenia may believe that they are deity figures, or they may claim some special ability to communicate with deity. Why might this be?

I, for one, would be surprised if schizophrenic delusions never involved religious themes. Religion is a part of life--a part that is quite important to many people--and it only seems reasonable to expect delusions to sometimes involve religion. So, for example, some people's delusions involve the belief that they are Jesus Christ, while others may believe that they are some great sports figure. Wouldn't it be odd if delusions didn't involve important aspects of life?

Still, there is evidence that some religious groups may have a higher incidence of schizophrenia than do other groups. Researchers have reported that Jehovah's Witnesses have a somewhat higher rate of schizophrenia, and that the disorder is more common among cloistered nuns than among active nuns. There may be something about the structured lifestyle provided by conservative religions, or the life of contemplation and reflection found in a cloistered life, that appeals to the person whose sense of reality differs from that of people not affected by schizophrenia.

Although psychodynamic explanations of religious delusions may appeal to some people, I find other explanations more convincing. Current research on schizophrenia points to biological factors playing an important role in the disorder. Heredity, biochemistry, and neurophysiological & neuroanatomical factors distinguish schizophrenic people from other people. These biological factors may be facilitated by environmental conditions, such as trauma experienced while a child, to "bring out" the schizophrenia.

So, I lean toward the view that the person whose schizophrenic delusions include religious imagery is simply using religion as an expression of the altered reality. This is actually a sensible thing to do, given the nature of religious experiences. However desirable they may be, religious visions and feelings of contact with the divine are very private events. If I have a religious experience, I may try to convey that experience to you but any description I offer is unlikely to give you the same sense of awe and wonder that I myself experienced. The ineffable quality of religious experiences renders them intensely personal and private. Little wonder, then, that an individual whose sense of reality is somewhat different from other people's may turn to religious modes of expressing that reality.

Why do people with schizophrenia sometimes have religious delusions? My response would be "Why not?" Religious imagery offers a way for schizophrenics to express their delusions in a way that is socially acceptable. The problem begins with physiological factors, facilitated by traumatic life events, and results in vivid delusional systems.

If you are interested in learning more about religion and mental health, I strongly recommend you look at the contemporary books listed on my resources page. I haven't seen anything of much value on the 'net, so your best bet is to look at more traditional sources. I do plan to get more written on this (and the other unfinished subjects on my page) as soon as I can, but it is going to be several months before I get these sections completed. (After all, I can't spend all my time at the keyboard, can I? There are laughs to have with my family, kites to fly, volleyballs to dig, and other joys in life!)

Back to Psychology of Religion Home Page ...or.... Top of this file