Religion as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

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by Neil Godfrey

H/T Internet Monk:

Scrupulosity: Where OCD Meets Religion, Faith, and Belief


Many people mistakenly think of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) solely as a condition in which people wash their hands excessively or check door locks repeatedly.  There are actually many sub-types of OCD.  In this ongoing series, Kevin Foss, MFT of the OCD Center of Los Angeles discusses Scrupulosity, in which an individual’s OCD focuses on issues of religion, morals, and ethics. Part one of a four-part series.

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While Scrupulosity may at first appear vastly different from the traditional presentation of OCD, those with religious, moral, and ethical obsessions experience the same Obsessive Compulsive Cycle as others with OCD – obsession, anxiety, compulsion, and relief / reinforcement.

Triggers for Scrupulosity can be any thought, image, feeling, place, person, etc., that cues an obsession. For example, seeing an attractive person at church may result in sexual thoughts, which in turn trigger an obsessive desire to “undo” that thought in an effort to be pure, holy, and clean. If the scrupulous individual upholds an exaggerated belief that lustful thoughts in and of themselves will automatically result in eternal condemnation, the cycle begins.

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Those suffering with Scrupulosity hold strict standards of religious, moral, and ethical perfection. For example, if held in a black and white view, certain passages in the Bible and other religious texts may carry with them intense burdens of condemnation. In holding a strict view of these religious verses, the Scrupulosity sufferer experiences not just intense guilt, but also anxiety about the threat of eternal punishment for having violated religious precepts.

It is a four part series.

I notice the OCD Center advertizes a book about “mindfulness” to assist one come out of the “scrupulosity” condition. I have had only limited experience with “mindfulness” and can only say it’s not a technique for me. No doubt others find it helpful, though.


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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Religion as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder”

  1. Oh Neil; just repeat the rosary obsessively a few hundred times, a few hundred “Our Fathers,” and it will all go away.

    Nothing like obsessive, mind-numbing repetition, to numb the mind.

  2. If you get outside of the Christian religion, and look back in at people praying to crosses, praying to bloody Jesuses hanging from crosses, or putting Jesuses on the cross around their necks, it is truly a morbid scene to behold. How to make yourself upset and depressed in a nutshell: adhere yourself to the Christian religion. Avoid taking your little ones into churches that have Jesus hanging from the cross with blood dripping from thorns on his head, blood dripping from his side, feet and hands nail to a cross. You will shock them for life and they may be trauma-bonded for life.

  3. This is really interesting … From an Islamic POV – We have mechanisms to prevent this type of behaviour in our rituals, because we acknowledge the existence of the phenomenon of over-scrupulousness to the extent that it becomes a pathology.

    E.g. When some vessel for eating food in becomes filthy, we are told to wash it until clean, once, thrice, five times, but no more than 7 times – this is for using non-flowing water for cleaning. The prescribed limit and near probibition is desgined to caveat the initial requirement for cleaning. It is stated that over-scrupulousness is not from piety but from ‘Satanic whispers’. This applies in many areas of ritual activity. On the other hand we also have repetitive requirements – such as rosary beads etc. We do not consider these to be acts of over-scrupulousness since they are not hinged on a thought that “something is not quite right and we have to continue until it is” … it is merely a process we follow to repeat a set number of times to inculcate a consciousness level of God, such that it becomes a habit, but not “a perceived problem” in the mind.

    1. I’ve always worried about the dervishes though, whirling around over and over. And prayers five times a day. The repetition and concentration both can be a little hypnotic; more than required for religious instruction?

  4. Having Naturally (and unwillingly) popped into existence 70 years ago, I am anxious that it might happen again.
    The odds of getting a suitable assignment seem frighteningly long.

    I am taking my meds.

  5. In this amazing series of undergraduate lectures on the biology of human behaviour, Professor Robert Sapolsky discusses (among many other things) religious behaviours and how they relate to conditions like OCD and Schizophrenia. A large investment of time is needed to watch the full series but it is well worth it.
    Here’s the first lecture for anyone wanting to dive in to the whole thing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNnIGh9g6fA
    And here’s the just lecture about religion. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4WwAQqWUkpI

    I hope someone enjoys them as much as I have.

  6. Mindfulness isn’t about shutting off one’s thoughts (or emotions, for that matter). It is meant to be a middle-ground approach, neither suppressing nor indulging, but observing how they arise, understanding where they come from, and letting go. It is about not being consumed by a particular thought or emotion, but understanding that thoughts and emotions are things that come and go, they don’t define you.

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