Playing Devil’s Advocate With Key Religious Figures And Mental Illness Correlations.

Disclaimer: Not my own thoughts, the research is from the Journal of Neuropsychiatry – The Role of Psychotic Disorders in Religious History Considered. This blog entry is me playing devil’s advocate to provoke debate; I’m not in any way trying to undermine a person’s religious beliefs, simply trying to encourage discourse underlying subconscious preconceptions of mental illness within religion.  


Thoughts to be considered before reading:
-Why would it be so bad if the inspirational figures in religious history experienced mental illness?
-Why do we subconsciously reject the thought that God wouldn’t work through people who have mental illnesses?
-Does being mentally ill make you exempt from God’s work and unable to meaningfully participate in worship when one in four people have been statistically proven to suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives.

The awkward moment when it becomes plausible that Jesus suffered from Schizophrenia (Just to clarify: this wouldn’t in anyway take away from his religious position, history and achievements).

A study was conducted by psychiatrists when they were presented with a concept by a paranoid schizophrenic patient, who claimed that he could read minds and was selected by God to provide guidance for mankind. The patient refused to take the medication because they stopped the voices, presenting his doctors with the question: “How do you know the voices aren’t real…How do you know I am not The Messiah…God and angels talked to people in the Bible”. The patient raised interesting questions, how does one distinguish between people with mental health disorders and those of religious figures in history?

One of the examples the doctors used in their journal article was Jesus, by examining passages within the bible they located specific areas that presented symptoms of mental illness:
Paranoid-type (PS subtype) thought content: Matthew 10:34–39, 16: 21–23, 24:4–27; Mark 13:5–6; Luke 10:19; John 3:18; John 14:6–11

Auditory and visual hallucinations: Matthew 3:16–17, 4:3–11; Luke 10:18; John 6:46, 8:26, 8:38–40, 12:28–29

Referential thought processes: Mark 4:38–40 (Figure 3); Luke 18:31

Within the New Testament Jesus exhibits behaviours that closely resemble the DSM-IV-TR– Auditory hallucinations, Visual Hallucinations, delusions, referential thinking, paranoid-type, (PS subtype) thought content, and hyper-religiosity. Through the text Jesus also displays signs of disorganization, negative psychiatric symptoms, cognitive impairment, or debilitating mood disorder symptoms. The article poses the question about whether starvation and metabolic derangements caused some of the behaviours as Jesus experienced hallucinatory-like visions whilst he fasted for 40days in the desert (Luke 4:1–13).

Jesus’ experiences appear to have occurred over the course of at least the year before his death. There is a notable lack of physical maladies which suggest psychiatric aetiologies as more plausible. There is a 5%–10% lifetime risk of suicide in persons with schizophrenia.  Suicide is defined as a self-inflicted death that has intention to end one’s life. The New Testament recounts that Jesus was aware that people intended to kill him.  Jesus took the steps to ensure that his followers were aware that his death was necessary for his return (Matthew 16:21–28; Mark 8:31; John 16:16–28). These passages appear to present Jesus to deliberately place himself in a situation wherein he anticipated his execution. Schizophrenia is often associated with increased risk of suicide.

There is a term called ‘suicide-by-proxy’, any incident whereby a suicidal individual causes their own death to be carried out by another person.  Jesus’ behaviour before his death has parallels with someone who premeditates a form of suicide-by-proxy. In the passage Mark 3: 21: Jesus was on occasion viewed as mad or “beside himself.” People from Jesus’ hometown and the religious authorities of the day also did not accept his message. Subsets of individuals who have psychotic symptoms appear to be able to form intense social bonds and communities, despite having distorted views of reality. The study analysed the religious figures from a behavioural, neurologic, and neuropsychiatric perspective. The research indicates that the experiences of the individuals coincide with psychotic symptoms, suggesting that manifestations of their experiences had a primary or mood disorder-associated psychotic disorder basis.

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A main goal of this research was to evaluate the influence of individuals with mental illness and their effects on shaping the Western civilization, hoping that the findings will help to increase compassion and understanding in relation to mental illness. Within the research it should be noted that they did use explicit passages from the bible, but each passage should be examined in its own context. It is generally acknowledged that biblical scholars are not unanimous about the literality of the scriptures nor are psychiatrists completely unanimous about the DSM (basically the bible of psychiatry). The research conducted a form of psychological profiling by people that aren’t saddled with the preconceived notions and biases that encumber those that have studied their field in depth, allowing a fresh take on ideas that have been overanalysed by people in the same area of study.

Only by joining multiple areas of study can any true concept of history be interpreted, attempting to remove the elitist theories that dominate popular thought. It needs to also be acknowledged that historians aren’t the sole area of study that can interpret history, other fields of study have valuable insights that historians can lack.  The article didn’t stipulate and designate that religion was the cause for psychological symptoms, neither did it go into the scientific explanation, but it still needs to be acknowledged that religion does play a dominating role for some psychoses, especially with delusions. Does the motivating factor of religion in mental illness make it a definable feature??

I’m increasingly intrigued by the article when it encourages speculation on our inability to disprove that a person who is schizophrenic is a mouthpiece of God or is suffering from psychoses. The opposing opinions from both sides need to be taken into consideration; biases from long term studies ultimately detract from the viability of the research. The study showed the correlations that religious historical figures had with the current DSM, they acknowledged their limitations, like either psychological or biblical should do, my main question is this: why would it be wrong if they had suffered from a mental illness, it doesn’t detract from their accomplishments or their religious foundations, each person’s beliefs will always be grounded, who’s to say that God didn’t use psychoses to achieve his end.

I didn’t want to post this all week, didn’t want to ruffle anyone’s feathers. I came across this article, it really interested me, I understand its controversial, I am in no way promoting and detracting from either side and hope my post won’t be interpreted as such. Thank you.

Author and Article Information

From the Dept. of Neurology, McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Belmont, MA (EDM, BHP); Dept. of Psychiatry, McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Belmont, MA (MGC); Dept. of Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Belmont, MA (EDM, BHP).

Murray, E., Cunningham, M. and Price, B. (2012). The Role of Psychotic Disorders in Religious History Considered. JNP, 24(4), pp.410-426.

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13 thoughts on “Playing Devil’s Advocate With Key Religious Figures And Mental Illness Correlations.”

  1. Excellent post! I agree with you completely though mental illness in religious figures may ruffle some feathers. I think the problem stems from the fact that if these iconic religious individuals suffered from a mental illness (un-medicated) that the entire religion may be called into question. Since mental illness is highly stigmatized, I am sure the priests in Vatican City wouldn’t take too well to rambling disciples.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like stimulating conversation, and appreciate your disclaimers.

    I appreciate your going out on a limb here. I can see advantages to pointing out similarities between Jesus and people with diagnosed illnesses. During a bible study, we discussed personality types, and tried to determine which one Jesus was. We found that bible stories showed that he exhibited all of them, and considered that this fits the idea that Jesus is God, and God is all.

    I want to point out that during my psychology studies, I found agreement that a mental illness diagnosis requires the patient to feel impaired by the symptoms. I recall that Jesus wasn’t always thrilled to have all of his traits.

    I also like to remember that the Bible as we know it is a translation of a translation of a translation… of a tiny fraction of the stories recorded.

    I look forward to the upcoming discussion here. I hope that this post attracts many commenters

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Fantastic post, thought provoking, challenging and a tasty cream cake of a post with a cherry on top for the open minded of us. It made me think of a fellow patient during my stay in a mental health clinic. He was sectioned under the MH Act during his voluntary stay and put on 1:1 observations because he became a suicide risk, all down to the fact that he started seeing dead people wandering around, talking to him and antagonising him. I mentioned this to my partner, who retorted ‘how do you know that he is not REALLY seeing dead people’. I had no answer for her. Whilst not religious in context, there are parallels. Very interesting, thank you, and I will share your post !

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  4. It’s not so much connected to your article, but I have learned to connected my depressions with God. I mean, He loves me and I believe He “gave” me these problems for a reason. It helped me a lot, I learned to look for the things I have learned from it, what it gave me, like being more sympathetic to other people and to problems our society has and so on. Yes, it’s more difficult to live with depressions, but I am happy with the person I became because of this, because I believe it happened for a reason.

    The research is interesting, but I agree with the first comment, the problem is that so many people take religion as something just made up and they also take mentally ill people as simply crazy…and the combination might cause something pretty bad :-/.

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  5. Psychology is psychotic: it interprets all mental experience as originating in the material substance of the brain. The model imposes constraints of linear causality and local effect that are violated in everyday experience.
    Everybody has their limit for such experience – it is not always pleasant, particularly in a world dominated by fear. What Jesus and other great religious figures demonstrated is that surrender of the self and a commitment to unconditional love are essential to survival in that engagement.
    So what I read in the New Testament is evidence that Jesus was perhaps the most supremely sane individual ever born: he was so sane that he was able to enter into a system that survived by generating fear, to prove its ineffectuality, and demonstrate the way out. That psychologists seek to isolate people such as him is an indictment of their profession. In many cases, I think their fear is rooted in knowledge that they are incapable of even approximating the powers of mental healing that are brought into the world by great religious figures.

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  6. Very intriguing post. I would like to point out that these evaluations of jesus are partly based on the bible and assume the complete validity of the bible. That is a very shaky assumption to make. However since I am not a Christian, I could be mistaken.

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    1. I completely agree, but you can never completely prove the unbiased nature of any written work. I just decided to fence sit on this post to avoid offending people. The bible being written by people from a different historical context and agenda in contrast to the scientific stance which alienates people with religious beliefs. Thanks for the feedback, appreciate it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Before I start, I’ll quote the late Bill Hicks, who said, “If Christians are offended, shouldn’t they turn the other cheek?” As an atheist, I feel it incumbent to point out that looking for signs of mental illness in Jesus says a lot more about those looking than him.

    I am categorically NOT saying that those who do are mentally unwell.

    Misguided perhaps.

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    1. I agree definitely with the first part, I see the psych analysis of religion as interesting, mostly the profiling, similar to any profiling the psychologists and historians do on historical figures. Maybe it is people just seeking to find what they want in things as well.

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  8. Very intelligent and intriguing post!! I grew up in many different Christian communities, and have no problem speculating that God works through mental illness. I refuse to surround myself with Christians who would be closed-minded and angry at this inquiry. I honestly roll my eyes at these people on a regular basis, thanks to Facebook. Thankfully I have been in communities where people are not ashamed of mental illnesses, and they condemn Christians who surround mental illness with stigma. I think it is great to humanize a huge religious figure like Christ in this analytical way.

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    1. I agree completely with you. I try and not be too offensive to people, so I take the middle ground. Humanizing figures helps people be more content with themselves as well. I’m very over facebook and the religious spile and bias interpretations they plaster over it. Its great that you’re surrounded by such an understanding community, wish there was more like them.

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