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OCD and Religion

Updated 22-Aug-2011

"As for the birds, so for my soul,
The Cross is a resting place.
His Body, His Blood, His Spirit,
They were all poured out for me."
        - Obsessed With The Cross

Introduction
Martin Luther
Buddhism and OCD
Christianity and OCD
Hinduism and OCD
Islam and OCD
Judaism and OCD
Miscellaneous

 

Introduction

"There's lots of OCD Christians ... even Jesus had a thing about foot washing (BG!)" - KW on alt.support.ocd

Religion is an important or the primary factor in many people's lives and, not surprisingly, the same is true, with a twist, for many who suffer from OCD. For some, unfortunately, their religion is an integral part of their obsessions (e.g., scrupulosity) and/or compulsions. For others, fortunately, their faith provides a means of dealing with and/or overcoming their OCD and its attendant problems. Below you will find links to religion-related OCD web sites.

The largely Christian focus of this page is simply a matter of my not yet encountering many web sites dealing with OCD in the context of non-Christian religions and cultures. I am very interested in learning how OCD manifests itself in other religions and cultures; if you can provide some links, please let me know!

Dr. Lee Baer addresses much the same question in his book, The Imp of the Mind (emphasis in the original):

Why has this chapter focused on the religious obsessions of Christians? ... Do Jews, followers of Islam, and members of other organized religions have religious obsessions like these? Yes, although they often take a different form ...
Apparently, in religious bad thoughts, as with all others, the Imp of the Perverse operates in his usual way, tormenting the sufferer with bad thoughts of doing whatever the surrounding culture considers the most inappropriate thing he or she could possibly do. Since what is considered most inappropriate varies from culture to culture and religion to religion, so do the thoughts the imp seizes upon to cause his mischief.

And in a 2004 academic paper, "OCD in Egyptian Adolescents: The Effect of Culture and Religion" (PDF), Dr. Ahmed Okasha summarizes studies of OCD in the Moslem, Jewish, Christian, and Hindu religions. (Scanned images of the pages in this paper were very kindly E-mailed to me by Kristie in 2005 - thank you!)

The role of religious upbringing has been evident in the phenomenology of OCD in Egypt. The psychosociocultural factors are so varied that they can affect the onset, phenomenology and outcome of OCD. They can even affect response to treatment. The emphasis on religious rituals and the warding-off of blasphemous thoughts through repeated religious phrases could explain the high prevalence of religious obsessions and repeating compulsions among our Egyptian sample.
...
The emphasis on cleanliness or ritual purity is the cornerstone of most of the compulsive rituals. The number of prayers and their verbal content can be the subject of scrupulousness, checking and repetition. The ritualistic cleansing procedures can also be a source of obsessions and compulsions about religious purity. Other evidence of the religious connotation inherent in OCD in Moslem culture lies in the term weswas. This term is used in reference to the devil and, at the same time, is used as a name for obsessions. It is also characteristic of a conservative society like Egypt to expect sexual obsessions to be among the most frequent in female patients. Although it is accepted socially (but prohibited religiously) for Egyptian males to have a wide range of sexual freedom in all stages of their lives, sexual matters remain an issue of prohibition, sin, impurity and shame for Egyptian women. The female gender is surrounded by so many religious and sexual taboos that the issue becomes a rich pool for worries, ruminations and cleansing compulsions in women susceptible to developing OCD.
...
A comparison was also drawn between the most prevalent symptoms in our sample and those of other studies performed in India, England and Jerusalem. Contamination obsessions were the most frequent in all studies. However, the similarities of the contents of obsessions between Moslems and Jews, as compared with Hindus and Christians, signify the role played by cultural and religious factors in the presentation of OCD. The obsessional contents of the samples from Egypt and Jerusalem were similar, dealing mainly with matters of religion, cleanliness and dirt. Common themes between the Indian and British samples, on the other hand, were mostly related to orderliness and aggressive issues.
 

Martin Luther

It is interesting to ponder what role OCD (in the form of scrupulosity) might have played in instigating the Protestant Reformation. In "A History of the Life and Acts of the Very Reverend Martin Luther" (1549), Luther's protégé, Philip Melancthon, wrote:

But the occasion of [Martin Luther] entering on this course of life which he considered more particularly adapted to the attainment of piety and the knowledge of God, as he himself has related, and as many are already aware, was the following; often when contemplating the wrath of God, as exhibited in striking instances of His avenging hand, suddenly such terrors have overwhelmed his mind, as almost to deprive him of consciousness; and I myself have seen him whilst engaged in some doctrinal discussion, involuntarily affected in this manner, when he has thrown himself on a bed in an adjoining room, and repeatedly mingled with his prayers the following passage "God has concluded them all in unbelief that he might have mercy upon all." These terrors he experienced either for the first time, or in the most acute manner, during the year in which he was deprived of a favorite friend, who lost his life by some accident of which I am ignorant.

On the other hand, Karl Adam (Wikipedia), a Catholic theologian, wrote in The Roots of the Reformation (1951):

In reaching a judgment on his development it is necessary to remember that Luther, doubtless very strictly brought up in his father's house at Eisleben, was early imbued with a strong central experience of fear, an extraordinary terror of sin and judgment. This alone accounts for the fact that when he was caught in a thunderstorm near Stotternheim and nearly struck by lightning he cried out: "Help me, Saint Anne! I will become a monk." He was overcome by a similar spiritual crisis at his first Mass. It was so violent that he almost had to leave the celebration unfinished. It is also significant that once, when at the conventual Mass the Gospel of the man possessed by the devil was being read, he cried out: "It is not I!" and fell down like a dead man (Lortz, vol. i, p. 161, n.).

These accesses of terror betray an unusual degree of sensitivity, stimulated by his deeply rooted fear in the face of the tremendum mysterium of God, which for him reached its most shattering clarity in the Crucifixion of the Son of God ... From the start [his religious thought] was thought overcharged with feeling, enveloped by a secret fear and labouring under the tormenting question: how am I to find a merciful God? From the start the primary object of his thought was to release the tension in his own soul, to deliver himself, to bring tranquillity to his distraught spirit ... On the other hand, it cannot be doubted, in face of Luther's tremendous achievements in thought, decision and action, that despite this tension he was psychically healthy to the core. In everything that he thought, preached and wrote Luther betrays a robust vitality, an overflowing energy, an inexhaustible originality, an elemental creative power which raised him far above the level of common humanity.

...

Luther's first years in the priory were thus a time of interior tension, spiritual struggle and suffering. The hopeless feeling that he was not numbered among the elect but among the reprobate overcame him and grew stronger as he grew more and more conscious that he did not fulfil God's commandments in all things. Since he began early to condemn as sin every movement of natural appetite, even though unwilling, and since, with his exuberant vitality, such movements kept recurring, he supposed himself to be full of sin, and no prayer, fasting or confession could free him of this terror.

For many years Luther was thus visited by scruples. "I know a man who believes that he has often experienced the pains of Hell" (Lortz, vol. i, p. 174) ...

From the psychological point of view, Luther's total denial of any justice in works and his unconditional assent to grace alone constituted an act of self-liberation from the fearful oppression which his moral life had suffered under Ockhamist theology and its exclusive emphasis on the human factor in the process of justification. From now on he resolutely cast himself loose from all justice in works, from all human activity, and threw himself upon the justifying grace of Christ, thus getting rid once and for all of all scrupulosity and terror of sin. Now he is spiritually free: free not only from the exaggerations of the Ockhamist School with its overemphasis on works, but free from any form of justice in works, including that which the Catholic Church had always taught, free, as he was later to say, from the captivitas babylonica.
 

Buddhism and OCD

 

Christianity and OCD

"But sometimes doubting isn't the opposite of having faith ... it's a component of having faith. Doubting can mean that we haven't forgotten the story. Doubting means that we don't have it figured out all on our own and the best thing about doubt is that at least it's honest."
        - Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, Sermon on "Doubting" Thomas
 

Hinduism and OCD

 

Islam and OCD

 

Judaism and OCD

 

Miscellaneous


Alex Measday  /  E-mail