Mania and hyper-religiosity

Questions:

  • Why are some humans hyper-religious? 
  • Why do the grandiose delusions of mania often have a hyper-religious component?
  • Why are religious beliefs often held with an undeserving certainty?

That experiences of mania often having a hyper-religious component is acknowledged by Brian Jost in the following quote from a blog at the International Bipolar Foundation.

Just this past week, I traveled with my wife and our seven-month old son to Winona, Minnesota, La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Viroqua, Wisconsin to share my experiences of living with bipolar disorder with four different audiences. At the end of two of the presentations, I was asked a question that I am often asked when I present my story. The question was “Why is it so common for hyper-religiosity to be part of mania?” This question often comes up because I speak to people about my manic and psychotic episodes which have all included feelings of understanding and knowing God and noticing an unquestionable faith, a faith that is more difficult to maintain when I am stable. At the most extreme of these experiences was the time that I actually thought that I was Jesus, followed by my manic and psychotic mind taking the delusion even further into believing that I was God. An enormous amount of information flooded my brain as I seemed to take on super-natural powers, acquiring knowledge that I believed was flowing from other dimensions that “normal” people are unable to detect. However, now experiencing stability, I don’t have all of that false information, nor do I have the answer to the question “Why is it so common for hyper-religiosity to be part of mania?”

Some mothers have postpartum mania with delusions of grandeur and religiosity. Here is a quote from the Postpartum Psychosis forum at healthunlocked.com. (To find this particular post, I suggest doing an internet search for the exact quote.)

I have often wanted to share these aspects of my own illness in 1988. I wondered if anyone else had similar delusions and experiences that they can also share. Early on before I was sectioned and diagnosed I thought I had won the lottery in the Today newspaper we were coming into a great fortune. I also thought there was a stream of people at the front door wanting to come and see me and I kept going to open the door and looking out – there was no one. As the days progressed I thought I had supernatural powers for healing, communicating with my daughter in a psychic way and at one point thought perhaps I was Mary and the baby was Jesus. I was hallucinating dead relatives and was sure I was going to die if I slept. I was obsessed with heaven and hell and a place of judgement. On good days I wanted to wear white and on bad days it was black. During the illness in the psychiatric unit I was convinced I was actually in hell. As the illness continued I thought I was God and was quite comfortable telling my psychiatrist and CPN. I thought the Queen wanted to meet me and also that President Reagan from the United States wanted to hear from me. At one point I thought I was in hospital because there had been a major catastrophe in the area and I was needed for the collection of breast milk to feed the babies. I can smile about this now but at the time it felt so real.

Here’s a quote from a paper entitled “Religion, spirituality, and psychotic disorders” by Harold G. Koenig:

While about one-third of psychoses have religious delusions, not all religious experiences are psychotic. In fact, they may even have positive effects on the course of severe mental illness, forcing clinicians to make a decision on whether to treat religious beliefs and discourage religious experiences, or to support them.

Here is a quote from a paper entitled “Psychological characteristics of religious delusions”.

Delusions are a cardinal feature of psychotic illness, present in around three quarters of people with a schizophrenia spectrum diagnosis. Religious themes are common across delusion categories and types, with between a fifth and two-thirds of all delusions reflecting religious content. To be classified as a religious delusion, the belief must be idiosyncratic, rather than accepted within a particular culture or subculture. Strongly held beliefs that are shared within an existing religious or spiritual context would not, therefore, be considered to be religious delusions, irrespective of co-occurring psychosis. For example, believing oneself to be able to hear the voice of Jesus is not uncommon in a Christian society and thus would not in itself be classified as a religious delusion.

Author Chris Cole (who has Bipolar Disorder) wrote the following about his delusion:

“After a few days of trying to convince my parents that I was returning humanity to the Garden of Eden, they realized my condition might not be from taking psychedelic drugs as they had thought. I was escorted to my local psychiatric hospital, and once medicated, came down from my messianic mission to create heaven on earth. The only problem was, I had never been more certain of God in my life, and the clinicians just kept telling me that it was normal for grandiose delusions to take on religious and spiritual themes. I was not convinced.”

Here’s a quote from an article entitled “Why religious belief is not a delusion” by Dean Burnett:

That’s actually one of the signs of delusional beliefs: they’re very resistant to being challenged, no matter how inconsistent they are with reality. Because the brain isn’t “working” like it should, logic and reason aren’t as potent they might otherwise be.

But then, that begs the question, why do religious beliefs get a free pass? People are very resistant to those being challenged too. And believing that there’s a kindly-but-all-powerful father figure in the sky who watches and judges everything you do and his son who died but came back to life two millennia ago is going to return any minute, surely that’s no less likely than someone being targeted by a shadowy government conspiracy? It’s substantially less likely, in actual fact. What gives?

The article also happens to discuss why politicians feign being religious and contains this punchline from the TV show House MD: You talk to God, you’re religious. God talks to you, you’re psychotic.

Conclusion

Hyper-religiosity is often a component of psychotic experiences.

I am skeptical of all hyper-religious views and beliefs, even when held by people who seem to have other aspects of their lives under control. Perhaps a psychotic person has many screws loose whereas a non-psychotic hyper-religious person only has one screw loose.

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