William James, Mental Illness, and God: How OCD Helps Me Understand Certain Varieties of Religious Experience

by Matt B. on March 25, 2012

In his lecture on “The Reality of the Unseen,” William James describes how some people perceive gods or spirits just as vividly as they perceive objects directly in front of them. He quotes a fellow professor on his experiences with a mysterious, spirit-like presence.

For several nights, the colleague writes, he felt the presence steal into his rooms, and in one case even grip his arm. “I knew its presence far more surely than I have ever known the presence of any fleshly living creature…[T]he certainty that there in outward space there stood something was indescribably stronger than the ordinary certainty of companionship when we are in the close presence of ordinary living people. The something seemed close to me, and intensely more real than any ordinary perception.”

James is asking us to understand something elemental to the study of religion. Put aside for a moment your intellectual qualms about the existence of gods and spirits, he seems to be saying. Recognize that some people simply cannot not believe in them, for that is the nature of their experience.

*            *            *

I can relate. I have experiences of a very similar kind, albeit perhaps from a different source.

I have OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD is characterized by intrusive thoughts that trigger intense fears. (In my case, these thoughts tend to have to do with physical risk – I’m shaving the wrong way, and I’m going to cut my eyes. It’ll be intensely painful, and I’ll go blind. I won’t be able to see or write, and my life will be miserable.)  These fears tempt sufferers to engage in rituals to try to make the thoughts go away. (Put the blade down. Look in the mirror and decide exactly where you’re going to place the blade on your cheek. Now pick it up and trace that pattern precisely.)

Sometimes, the intrusive thoughts are so strong that I can’t actually determine whether they’re fears or memories. And sometimes, I become convinced that they are memories. In other words, I think that the things I’m afraid of happening have already happened. And I don’t just think that way; I have memories (or what feel exactly like memories) – complete with vivid visuals and physical sensations.

There is something undeniable about these thoughts and feelings, which is why denying them doesn’t work. (Thankfully, there are other ways of dealing with them.) In these moments, I ‘know’ that what I’m afraid of is true, just like you know you’re reading this blog post right now.

This is what James is getting at, I think. My experiences with OCD – shot through with magical thinking as they may be – are in some sense exactly parallel to certain kinds of religious experience. You can’t talk me out of them, just like I could never talk an evangelical out of her conviction that she has a personal relationship with Jesus. And it’s not because either of us is right or wrong. It’s because we can’t help believing what we believe.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Christopher Michael Luna March 26, 2012 at 8:42 am

If you want to talk about this more some time, I’m doing a reading and research course this semester that looked at William James (and many others) on this very question — the relationship between experiences we describe as religious and those that we describe as unhealthy, or symptomatic of mental illness.

Chris March 26, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Thanks, interesting post!

My experiences with OCD – shot through with magical thinking as they may be – are in some sense exactly parallel to certain kinds of religious experience. You can’t talk me out of them, just like I could never talk an evangelical out of her conviction that she has a personal relationship with Jesus. And it’s not because either of us is right or wrong.

This part seems not quite strong enough — surely there *are* many evangelicals who’ve discarded their previously-strongly-held conviction of belief in Jesus due to talking or reading, and are now no longer evangelical?  How would that happen, in this model?  (I think it must often be because they decided that their belief was wrong even though their direct perception felt right.)

It sounds like you think that level of rationalizing away a perception is pretty impossible for OCD, though.  Maybe this suggests that there could be (at least) two classes of religious belief — belief due to direct perception of the presence of God that is so strong as to be unmovable by conscious thought, and belief that isn’t that strong?

If so, I wonder how those levels of belief might be distributed amongst religions and the religious.  Does every religion have an “evangelical” arm that consists of people who have untouchable perceptions of a God, or just some religions?  Or is it more evenly distributed, with the same proportion of (say) Episcopalians as evangelicals in each set, even though evangelicals have a reputation for having more unshakable beliefs?

Hunter Thompson March 26, 2012 at 2:26 pm

It’s a jungle out there.

Matt March 26, 2012 at 5:04 pm

I’d love to! Let’s chat.

Matt March 26, 2012 at 5:04 pm

These are awesome questions, Chris, and I really appreciate you pushing me here. I think I probably overstated: all I meant to say is that there are moments in which certain kinds of religious experience impress themselves undeniably on the person experiencing them (just as there are in my OCD). 

As for what happens afterward, though – I think that’s an entirely open question. You’re right – some religious people ultimately come to believe that while they experienced something, that something doesn’t provide sufficient evidence for a particular metaphysical scheme (James called these latter notions “overbeliefs”). Same goes for me with my OCD – afterward, when I’ve calmed down, I don’t necessarily believe that my feelings and ‘memories’ actually represent truths about what took place. 

W/r/t to the distribution of “untouchable perceptions” of god – no idea, but it’s interesting as hell!

Lgj March 26, 2012 at 5:20 pm

But then sometimes I remember something, and it really did happen. 

Maggie March 26, 2012 at 10:08 pm

My Mom is an evangelical who purports to speak with the voice of God.  God tells her or leads her to say or do something and when she inevitably gets pushback she is absolved from any responsibility because she is just doing what he wanted……I have to believe this is a coping skill for some sort of mental disorder perhaps OCD.

lava March 26, 2012 at 11:51 pm

fascinating. i never knew about this aspect of your OCD experience. i also have never had a religious experience along those lines, which must be partly why i tend to veer toward the abstract in religious debates. the closest i come is an overwhelming feeling of getting what “it” is about — like when i think about the connections between people, or marvel at how many co-centric circles of people had to put love and work into producing some banal object in my room (a shirt, a poster, a chair), or — i admit — standing at the shoreline with bare feet as the tides come in and out. of course, the myth making we do about our society and our own lives inevitably involves something akin to “inventing memories.” but this vivid stuff is something i’ll have to struggle to try to relate to.

Matt March 27, 2012 at 10:59 am

 Thanks for sharing, Maggie. I’ve had some similar experiences with family members, folks who don’t want to take responsibility for their actions and seek to deflect it all onto God. But I’m not sure I see that as evidence of a mental disorder. Seems to me that that’s not uncommon among deeply religious folks. (Of course, non-religious folks are also quite good at coming up with reasons to avoid responsibility.)

Matt March 27, 2012 at 11:06 am

I’m always blown away by how much struggle you’re willing to put into stuff like this, Jess. It’s really great.

As for the nature of your religious experiences, they don’t strike me as falling short in any way. Some people have really specific visions and so forth, but my guess is that that correlates pretty heavily with belief in a really specific metaphysical program. I don’t think you share those kinds of specific metaphysical beliefs, so it makes sense to me that your experiences would be less specific in those ways – that you’d feel something more general, more conceptual and oceanic. A kind of thought-feeling or mood or atmosphere.

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