Organised religion = mass obsessive compulsive disorder?

It’s not a very popular opinion, granted. However, the similarities between certain practices and outcomes of organised religion and OCD keep hitting me.

Let’s jot down a definition of obsessive compulsive disorder, for those who have never experienced it or met someone with it. Per Psychology Today: “Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder in which people have unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations (obsessions) and engage in behaviors or mental acts in response to these thoughts or obsessions.”

Now let’s take a real-life example of religion in action.

I went to the grocery store this weekend, and got to the checkout. I was paying my bill, and noticed a gentleman standing about a metre off the far end of the checkout belt – about four metres away from me. For a few seconds, as I paid my bill, I thought he was just standing there chatting on a phone headset, and I just happened to be in his line of sight.

As my card was processing, I looked at him again. He was still staring at me, and muttering something along the lines of “There’s no room, I can’t come in.” I realised at this point that there was no very small phone headset I’d missed because it was the end of a long day: he wasn’t putting his groceries on the belt because that would have entailed approaching a woman. Goodness knows how he gets groceries under normal circumstances; my local Safeway’s checkout attendants are predominantly female.

So let’s look at that definition of OCD again. Anxiety disorder, in which the sufferer engages in acts that, to those who don’t share in their obsessions, appear to be irrational or even harmful. This man, due to his belief that approaching 50% of the human population is either forbidden or actively harmful to his chances of a pleasant afterlife, take your pick, was apparently unable to place his groceries on a checkout belt until all female presences had cleared the area. Sure enough, when I looked back from the exit, there he was, paying for his groceries (and still staring at me).

If you want another example, let’s take a look at the Catholic practice of self-flagellation. “Flagellation is the beating or whipping of the skin, most often on the back, and often drawing blood, as a bodily penance to show remorse for sin.” By and large, self-flagellation is practised by the extremely devout: the late Pope John Paul II, for example. (For a more pop-culture reference, see Opus Dei, most recently documented in the Da Vinci Code.) The practice is based in the belief that this life is simply a preparation for death and eternal life thereafter; suffer in this life, stock up brownie points for the next.

Now, I agree completely that some things that Catholicism defines as sins, let’s say murder, are pretty drastic. Some remorse is undoubtedly in order. However, do please raise your hand at this point if you’re aware of any cold cases pointing to the last Pope as a serial killer.

See again that definition of OCD. Because some individuals on the fundamentalist end of Catholicism believe that suffering now will give them a pleasant eternity after they die, they engage in acts that are actively self-harming, not merely offensive to those around them like my friend from the grocery store.

Someone’s going to say that socially-accepted misogyny and self-harm aren’t all there is to organised religion. I agree. I’ve known some exemplary folk who were very devout in one religion or another. My point is that the underlying practices overlap remarkably with a well-documented anxiety disorder. They’re, at root, a defence against fear.

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