Are “supernatural” religious experiences a sign of mental illness?

January 17th, 2022 in Life. Tags: , , , , ,
Man worshiping

It has been claimed that religion is a “mind virus” and religious believers are “delusional”.

With more than 80% of the world following a religion, such claims are clearly over-statements, made in the enthusiasm of atheist evangelism a decade ago.

But perhaps mental illness can explain some aspects of religious belief – the more supernatural or miraculous elements in sacred texts (for example the resurrection of Jesus) and present day experiences?

I have investigated the connection between mental disorders and religious experiences and come to the following conclusions:

  1. Religious people generally have better mental health than average.
  2. Some people who say they have seen visions, heard God’s voice or had some overwhelming but unspecific sense of a presence, are likely suffering from a mental condition, but most are normal psychologically and the experiences have positive effects in their lives. Some may be on the schizotypal spectrum, but this isn’t a pathological condition.
  3. The evidence indicates that Jesus wasn’t schizophrenic. If he was truly son of God, he was beyond normal in a good way.
  4. The resurrection appearances of Jesus cannot be explained by mass hallucination, because hallucinations are individual events in the mind. Other natural explanations are required for those who don’t believe Jesus was resurrected.

I have provided links to pages which include references to expert studies.

The benefits of normal religious belief

Numerous medical studies have shown that, generally, religious belief and practice enhance mental and physical health.

  • Religous people tend to have better physical health and recover more quickly after illness or accident.
  • Believers respond better to stress and worry less. As a result, they suffer less from anxiety and depression.
  • Actively religious people are much less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, commit crime or behave antisocially, and more likely to be “prosocial” and altruistic.

These correlations are so strong that, increasingly, doctors and psychologists are encouraged to see people holistically – physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual – and treat patients accordingly, even if the practitioner is not religious themselves.

It turns out that atheists also tend to have better health outcomes than average, though this connection isn’t as clear. Some suggest that a strong sense of identity is a factor leading to good health in both believers and atheists.

Why is it so?

The explanation for all this isn’t entirely clear, but the following seem important.

  • Trust in a loving God can reduce anxiety. This means that belief in an angry God can lead to greater anxiety, one example where religion isn’t helpful to mental health.
  • Faith and religious practices such as prayer and meditation assist in having a positive attitude to life, which improves brain functioning. These practices can have positive effects in all religions and even if employed by non-believers, though they are more prevalent in believers.
  • The social aspect of religious practice can be very beneficial.

Read more about the ways in which faith and religion enhance mental and emotional health in most believers (but not followers of authoritarian religion or an angry God) in Faith and wellbeing.

All that’s true for normal religious believers, but what about those believers who have more intense experiences, like hearing God speak or seeing visions? Isn’t that evidence of a mental condition?

Unusual religious experiences

Strange behaviour and unusual experiences have long been associated with prophets and gurus.

  • The Old Testament prophets were a wild bunch in many ways, with Ezekiel being especially intense and visionary.
  • Miracles were associated with many ancient prophets and spiritual innovators, but Jesus is reported as performing many more than any others of his time. His resurrection, walking on water and the transfiguration are all unusual events, to say the least!
  • The earliest christians believed they had seen Jesus alive after his execution. Some say the stories are later inventions, but it seems most historians (e.g. EP Sanders, Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey, Paula Fredriksen, none of them christians) accept that the disciples had some sort of visionary experience, however we may explain it.
  • The apostle Paul was once accused of being mad by one of his hearers, the Roman governor Festus.
  • Christian mystics who report deep experiences of God have been part of the church right through the past two millennia.

People still have some of these experiences today.

Deep religious experiences

Some people (more than you might think) report deep “religious” or transcendental experiences where they feel transported out of themselves, they feel peace, joy and new understandings. Many, even non believers, feel some sense of a presence, something holy, although they are not generally associated with specific religious belief. These experiences are generally overwhelming and difficult to describe.

Psychologists have studied these experiences, and found that they almost always have positive outcomes in the recipients’ lives. Mental and physical health improves and people find new meaning and feel more fulfilled in their lives.

Studies of these experiences show that they are not generally caused by mental illness, drugs or other behaviours. They occur in people with “sound healthy minds”. Whether we believe these experiences put people in contact with God or not, however we might explain them, there is no reason to associate them with mental disorders.

Whether we can apply this conclusion to mystics and gurus in the past remains conjectural, but at least we can say that it is certainly not clear that we can.

I have researched and written up how mystical experiences are positive, life-affirming and healing, in much greater detail, with many references and examples.

Visions and voices?

Difficult to define “mystical experiences” are one thing, but visions or voices of God or Jesus are something else. A vision will usually involve seeing some known religious figure (Jesus, Mary, Mohammed, etc). Hearing the voice of God or a religious figure is also not uncommon.

Hallucinations

Religious visions or hearing the voice of God are sometimes identified as hallucinations. Hallucinations are sensory experiences that appear real but are created by your mind. They can affect all five of senses, but the religious experiences we are examining here would most likely be voices or visions. They are distinguished from illusions, which are misinterpretations of something external.

Hallucinations can arise in several different ways.

  1. A mental illness, most likely schizophrenia.
  2. A medical disorder such as Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Parkinsons or Alzeheimers.
  3. Psychological conditions such as stress or trauma.
  4. Normal consciousness.
1. Mental disorders

Mental disorders like schizophrenia generally have certain characteristics:

  • very intense;
  • often terrifying;
  • often preoccupying;
  • associated with deterioration of social skills and personal hygiene;
  • often leading to negative outcomes, including homicidal or suicidal behaviour.

Religious hallucinations don’t normally have these characteristics (though some may). In recent years studies have shown that such experiences occur to many more people with normal psychology than once thought. Thus it seems that pathological hallucinations addressed by psychiatrists are only the tip of the iceberg, and many more religious hallucinations occur that are not pathological (see 4 below).

2. Medical disorders

Some medical disorders can produce hallucinations. However most (e.g. tumours, Parkinsons or Alzheimers) are most likely to produce spots or shapes of light, not human figures or voices. Drug intoxication can cause hallucinations of people, but this explanation cannot be applied to most cases.

The disorder most commonly suggested is Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE). Stimulation of this part of the brain associated with religiosity, for example in a seizure, can produce hallucinations. And in religious people, those hallucinations may have a religious character.

However neurological studies haven’t produced consistent results on this. Few people with TLE experience hallucinations, and few people who experience hallucinations have TLE. So it seems that while TLE may explain some religious hallucinations, it cannot explain the bulk of them.

3. Psychological conditions

Psychological conditions such as stress, anxiety and trauma can be factors in hallucinations caused by a mental illness. These conditions may worsen to become a mental disorder, but until then they are unlikely to be a direct cause of hallucinations on their own.

4. Normal consciousness

While it used to be considered that hallucinations were pathological, this is not so now. Psychologists recognise that many people (some studies say up to 50%) have had such experiences, and most of these people have normal psychology.

  • This psychiatrist says “religious visions and voices may be culturally normative and are not necessarily pathological”, and may derive from “religious imagination”. i.e. in many cultures and subcultures, religious experiences are considered “normal”.
  • This anthropologist says christians hearing from God meet several criteria that show they are not pathological, but very positive. She views “hearing God’s voice” as a learned behaviour.
  • This psychiatrist believes that religious revelations and psychotic hallucinations are sometimes confusingly similar, and psychiatrists should allow for possible genuine spiritual experiences. This view is echoed by other practitioners and experts.
  • This neuroscientist says that “90% of those who have had [intense spiritual] experiences view them positively” whereas “most disorders are perceived to be negative and maladaptive by the person and society.”

Thus it seems that psychologists see hallucinations as being relatively common, sometimes indicating an underlying disorder, sometimes being the result of stress, sometimes being normal and sometimes being life-enhancing and even inspirational. Many psychologists see religious visions and voices as a spectrum, from normal through to a disorder,

Mass hysteria?

There have been times when crowds of people have reported seeing a vision or hearing God’s voice – for example, appearances of the virgin Mary to many people at once. These are sometimes referred to as hallucinations. But since hallucinations are individual experiences, produced somehow in an individual’s mind, mass hallucination are unlikely or perhaps impossible.

Instead, these may be better thought of as mass hysteria, where people see what they are expecting or hoping to see – unless of course they are regarded as genuine spiritual visitations.

So, are religions visions and voices really hallucinations?

It seems like we can conclude that this is sometimes true. If a person with a mental disorder is religious or lives in a religious culture, then their disorder may produce religious hallucinations. Their disorder will normal show itself in negative and debilitating effects on the person.

However more often religious visions and voices occur in psychologically normal people and produce positive results in them. They are thus not pathological, and it remains an open question whether they are a learned imaginative behaviour or a genuine experience from God.

You can find more about religious appearances in Visions of Jesus, with several accounts of modern day people in the west and in the middle east having helpful visions of Jesus, plus many references and quotes from psychologists and neuroscientists.

Schizotypal?

Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky suggests many leading religious innovators were schizotypal. This term needs to be carefully understood.

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that is described as a psychosis (i.e. it is characterised by being sometimes detached from reality) and pathological (i.e. extreme, uncontrolled and caused by a mental or physical disease). Symptoms include hallucinations (typically hearing voices), delusions, paranoia, and disorganized thinking. Therefore, as already noted, it is sometimes suggested that people experiencing more intense religious episodes are suffering from schizophrenia (although this is unlikely because most don’t show many of these symptoms).

But there are people (described as “schizotypal”) who are perfectly normal psychologically and experience some similar symptoms to schizophrenia. Common symptoms include:

  • solitary or socially detached, not good at relationships
  • seen as odd or eccentric,
  • exhibit meta-magical thinking (meaning interested in the strange or “paranormal”),
  • OCD and obsessed with ritual.

Schizotypal thus is more of a description than a diagnosis. And again, it indicates that many people experiencing visions or voices are not suffering from a pathological disorder, but are psychologically normal. Schizotypal is a spectrum disorder, so that many people may exhibit these symptoms to only a mild degree.

Those who identify religious experiences as schizophrenic without proper diagnosing are likely to be confusing schizophrenia with schizotypal.

I have provided more information on schizotypal disorder and outlined Sapolsky’s understanding of how it relates to religious figures such as Jesus, in Did Jesus suffer from a mental disorder?

Where is God in all this?

All the above is based on current medical science. But what does it say about how God might relate to people?

It seems clear that God could, if he chose, communicate to and via people with mental disorders such as schizophrenia. But it is also clear that most people who say they have seen visions, heard God’s voice or had some overwhelming but unspecific sense of a presence, are normal psychologically. Some of them may be schizotypal, but that isn’t a pathological condition.

Jesus and the apostles

The same applies. Maybe some of Jesus first followers were suffering from a mental condition. Some may have been schizotypal. But most seem to have been ordinary people, maintaining relationships and respected in their community, certainly within the christian community.

It is contrary to the evidence to say that the resurrection appearances were hallucinations, because hallucinations are individual. We need to be accurate in our use of the word “hallucination”.

Those who believe Jesus wasn’t actually resurrected need to find another explanation for these appearances. Perhaps they were illusions (misinterpretation of natural events, but of what events?), suggestion (once one person had the illusion, others may have been suggestible), or mass hysteria due to excitement and expectation (but the evidence suggests the disciples were in quite a different state of mind). Or else, contrary to most scholars, that the stories were invented.

I don’t find any of those hypotheses plausible, but others may.

Since schizophrenia is a debilitating condition that has adverse social consequences, we can say quite clearly that Jesus was too socially aware and capable to be schizophrenic. We can also assess Jesus against the symptoms of schizotypal:

  • He wasn’t solitary, detached or bad at relationships.
  • He wasn’t odd or eccentric, but recognised as a rabbi and prophet. It is true that his enemies said he was demon-possessed but he answered that charge very effectively.
  • He did exhibit what may be called meta magical thinking in teaching about God and his own role in God’s kingdom. But his “abnormality” lay in his position as son of God.
  • He certainly wasn’t obsessed with ritual, but spoke and acted against some of the rituals and rules current in his day.

Thus we can say that Jesus exhibited one or two of the symptoms of schizotypal, but only those that are assocxiated with his role as son of God. If he was son of God, he was beyond normal in a good way. If he wasn’t then he may have been mildly schizotypal.

Conclusion

  1. Religious people generally have better mental health than average.
  2. Some people who say they have seen visions, heard God’s voice or had some overwhelming but unspecific sense of a presence, are likely suffering from a mental condition, but most are normal psychologically and the experiences have positive effects in their lives. Some may be on the schizotypal spectrum, but this isn’t a pathological condition.
  3. The evidence indicates that Jesus wasn’t schizophrenic. If he was truly son of God, he was beyond normal in a good way.
  4. The resurrection appearances of Jesus cannot be explained by mass hallucination, because hallucinations are individual events in the mind. Other natural explanations are required for those who don’t believe Jesus was resurrected..

Photo: Pixabay

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6 Comments

  1. Very well rounded article. I suspect I’ve found a lot of the same people as you in my private studies and readings. I find the fact that our brains/minds are even capable of conceiving of the concept of God quite telling. And the fact that sincere belief in a loving fatherly/motherly god or godlike being seems to have such a positive physical impact on our neurology and as well as our cognitive functioning…..well I find that also very telling. I can’t conceive why either would be the case in godless physicalist universe. (Though of course, god or no god, my ability or inability to conceive things doesn’t say much on the truth of things 😂).

    I have been wondering, that if one wants a spiritual experience (and I most certainly do), does that make the likelihood of having one even more unlikely? Also, if I did or have had such an experience, would I recognise it as such? I’ve had moments of profound wonder when focusing my thoughts onto the fact that some how, I actually exist as a thinking feeling individual. Iv had moments where I’ve been forced to face the fact that I am a finite being who will pass away one day. But I’m not sure either of those qualified as “spiritual experiences”. More over, I can see myself rationalising such an experience, which I fear would prevent me from learning from it (assuming it is genuine and there is something to learn).

    Just my novice thoughts on the subject

    Keep them coming Eric, I really enjoy your musings and the way you communicate them

    Aaron

  2. Hi Aaron, thanks for the encouragement.

    Yes, I feel similarly to you that our natural propensity to believe in gods and the spiritual is more likely in a God-created universe. If our cognitive faculties have evolved to be efficient (as they appear to have been), then they can generally be trusted, including in this case.

    I think that if someone wants a spiritual experience, it must be more likely – either because God grants it, or because of wish fulfilment. However the more intense experiences apparently don’t particularly come via seeking.

    Further, we all think sometimes analytically and sometimes intuitively, with the mix being different for each person. It seems to me that those who tend to favour analytical thinking (like me) are less likely to have these experiences than those who are more likely to think intuitively. My feeling is that God gives us several ways to know truth and believe – via authority (especially when we are children), or via experience or via reason – and we are each most likely to use the one most suitable to our brains. Does that make sense?

  3. Yes that makes a great deal of sense to me. I’d consider myself more analytical (not that it makes me smarter) in my approach to things. Personally I think it very unlikely I’ll ever have such an experience irrelevant of what my beliefs are. I suspect that if I ever did, I’d spend the rest of my life trying to figure out if it was just wishful thinking or the real deal. I further suspect I’d never settle on an answer much to my own self annoyance 😂

    Aaron

  4. I wonder if it was truly from God, maybe it would be so clear we wouldn’t mistake it? But maybe not.

  5. I think that raises a good question. I’d expect that if it was the real deal there would be no doubt whatever (at least to the individual who experienced it). It’s just speculation, but I’d think that god, by virtue of being the source of sustained existence for physical law and therefore biological processes, can simply manipulate mind/brain impulses to make an experience as real as needed. But I don’t see how we could ever know if that’s the case.

  6. I recall Richard Dawkins once commented that even if God wrote a message in the sky in an obviously “supernatural” way, he would believe it more like that he was having a mental breakdown or something. So unless God åctually manipulated our brain cells, our response to some amazing experience will always be interpreted through our worldview.

    If we considered some experience analytically, we might decide based on which has the greater probability – that God exists and did this, or that he doesn’t exist and it happened by some “natural” mechanism. So even then our preconceived view about God’s existence will play a part in our decision.

    Tricky stuff.

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