Sigmund Freud apparently described religion as a ‘universal obsessional neurosis’. As someone who’s struggled with both Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and religion all my life, I feel I’m in a good position to comment on that analysis. It’s one I both agree and disagree with, depending on the type and quality of belief system or religious experience we’re talking about.
I would certainly say that obsessional neurosis has a lot in common with certain forms of religion – ones that I would characterise as unhealthy or less healthy.
Obsessional neurosis and unhealthy religion
Obsessional neurosis often sets up complex rituals and litanies (particular forms of words imbued with significance) which have to be performed or said correctly, even ‘religiously’. And the aim of these rituals and litanies is to appease or propitiate, to turn away wrath and punishment, to ward off evil and pain, to provide security and safety, to assuage guilt, and to cleanse from a sense of sin and uncleanness. The connection with certain aspects of religious belief and practice is obvious.
Crucially, obsessional neurosis arises from fear, guilt and a lack of security, rather than from a sense of being loved, accepted and cared for. There is in it a terrible sense of not being safe and not being loved (or lovable); a deep feeling of being bad and a deep fear of being abandoned. There is also in it a desperate striving for perfection and completeness, but approached in an unhelpful way that can never attain what it strives after.
It seems to me that so much of what I would call unhealthy (or less healthy) religion comes from the same place of brokenness, and leads to the same kinds of fear-driven rituals of appeasement and propitiation.
I recognise that a lot of my own praying falls into the obsessional category. I sometimes use prayers as ritualistic talismans to ward off evil, or I use the word ‘sorry’ as a token to ward off wrath rather than seeing it in a context of loving relationship and restoration.
The fear of hell is surely exactly that same fear of parental wrath, punishment and abandonment writ large and translated into a spiritual or eternal dimension. The need for religious sacrifice and ritual and litany is surely the same striving after perfection in order to win acceptance. The idea that we can secure safety and blessing for ourselves by saying, doing or believing the right things, and lose safety and blessing by doing or believing the wrong things, is just superstitious or obsessional thinking translated into a religious context.
This kind of religious belief is, in my view, pathological. I don’t see that it is liberating or life-bringing in any way. It’s not good news. But unfortunately it’s more or less what you find in a lot of churches, including many that call themselves ‘Bible-believing’. I’m not saying this to blame or accuse. The leaders and congregations of such churches desperately need emotional healing; they need to come to a sense of being loved, wanted, accepted and secure. This is not an easy process, but it’s one that perhaps we all need to undertake in our journey towards wholeness.
Striving for unattainable perfection
Another aspect of OCD that I think chimes with religious belief is the striving for (impossible) perfection. Part of the obsessive’s drive lies in an inability to accept less than perfection, or less than everything. They can’t give up or let go until they have it all, have it perfect, get it completely right.
So you keep trying to get rid of the bad feeling, the anxiety or fear by performing some ritual, or by washing your hands, or repeatedly checking, or putting things in order. You feel that if you could only get it perfectly right just once, you’d never need to do it again; you would finally attain peace and security.
But you can’t; you can never achieve the perfection you crave and which you feel will somehow solve the whole problem. It’s an illusion. If you go down the road of attempting to banish the badness by performing the rituals, you will need to keep on doing it forever.
It’s the same with addiction. Part of what makes addiction so addictive is the failure to achieve the perfection and completion that the addict craves. The experience, whether it be drugs or sex or something more wholesome (even religion), promises perfection, offers complete fulfilment. If you could only achieve it, you would have really made it, have found what you seek; have gained access to heaven. You would be complete, satisfied. You wouldn’t thirst again, as Jesus puts it in John 4.
But with addiction as with OCD the rub is that you can never quite get there; it always recedes away from your reach, always just eludes your grasp. You have to keep trying again, and again. Sometimes you feel tantalisingly close, convinced that next time you’ll get there. But you never do, and never can. It promises heaven, but ultimately delivers the opposite; promises release, but brings slavery.
Religion as addiction
It strikes me that we can all too easily approach religious ritual and spiritual practice in an obsessive or addictive way. If you could only just learn to pray or meditate perfectly, or could only manage to overcome your ‘unspiritual’ inner desires, you could make it, could achieve enlightenment or perfect communion with the divine. But you can’t. You can get close, but never fully there.
The whole Old Testament sacrifice system smells the same to me. You have to keep on making sacrifices for sin, but no animal sacrifice can perfectly cover the human sin, and nor does it stop you sinning again. So you’re doomed to continue endlessly performing sacrifices, perhaps in the hope that one day you will be able to make the Ultimate Sacrifice that will end all sacrifices, and indeed end all sin.
So perfectionist, addicts, OCD sufferers and religious people are all alike trapped in this endless cyclical system. They are all equally caught up in this fruitless seeking after the ultimate, perfect performance or ‘high’ or sacrifice that will bring an end to the whole damn thing.
So our seeking for heaven brings us to hell – metaphorically but none the less truly. We can never achieve the perfect high that will truly satisfy us, nor perform the perfect ritual or sacrifice that will set us truly free. We just don’t have it in us, and nothing just of this earth has that power or ability either.
The way of renunciation
Since addicts can never achieve perfection, they will often settle instead for satiation. You fill yourself up so full of the thing you crave that you can take no more, in the hope that you will be ultimately satisfied. It does actually work for a while, or at least appears to, giving the illusion of satisfaction. But the satiation always wears off eventually and the craving returns as strong as before, if not stronger. You can as easily fill a black hole as you can satisfy an addiction.
Of course, the alternative path to addiction is renunciation. When we realise that we cannot achieve the satisfaction or freedom we’re looking for through our striving, we can take the opposite path and give it all up, seeking freedom in abstinence instead. The drug addict can go cold turkey. The person with OCD can face the discomfort of not performing the rituals, living through the horrible anxiety or feeling of contamination that brings. The religious person can abandon his or her sacrifices or rituals, knowing that they will not bring salvation.
There’s much to be said for this route. It can really work, up to a point at least. With help and support, you can come off drugs this way, and you can overcome the domination of OCD. You can’t completely rid yourself of the cravings, but you can learn to live with them and (for the most part) not give in to them. Perhaps you can even cure yourself of religious obsession, the fruitless attempt to earn salvation.
For me, part of this has been giving up aspects of my evangelical belief system, my biblical certainties and approved religious practices – at least for a time.
But renunciation is only the start, not the end. In and of itself it cannot bring the completion or perfection – the ‘salvation’ – that you’re ultimately seeking. Unless you also completely renounce the goal of freedom and wholeness, you still need something that will be able to take you there. You can helpfully renounce the hopeless and destructive paths of drugs or OCD, but the renunciation itself still won’t get you where your heart longs to go.
Jesus and a healthier kind of faith
I said earlier that unhealthy religion arises from fear, guilt and lack of security, rather than from a sense of being loved and accepted. Conversely, a truly healthy faith arises from a deep sense of being loved, of being okay. No sacrifice we can make will ever get rid of all the guilt or fear that drives unhealthy religion, nor is there anything we can do to buy the love and security that underpins healthy faith.
But Christ offers these things freely.
I’m not saying that Christ is somehow the perfect drug, or even the perfect ritual-performer (though that’s one possible interpretation of the cross). Nor am I saying that Christ offers you full perfection, completion or freedom in this life or this world. Far from it. But the path of Christ leads to the kingdom where our desires for wholeness and freedom and complete acceptance can and will be fulfilled.
‘If you drink water from this well, you will thirst again. Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst again,’ declares Jesus to the Samaritan woman in John 4. Jesus offers that which alone will satisfy our souls – his Spirit, his life, his love, his reality. He offers grace, a way out of our desperate striving to make the perfect sacrifice or performance, or to achieve the perfect high. He offers the full assurance of his eternal, unchangeable love.
Of course Jesus’ peace, freedom and wholeness often work in paradoxical ways. We may find his peace though we are outwardly in turmoil; his inner freedom when we are outwardly in chains; his deep wholeness though our bodies are broken. Jesus doesn’t offer the perfect high and all our problems solved; he offers himself and all our problems redeemed.
Over the years, Christ has gradually been liberating me from OCD and from superstitious, obsessional forms of religion, freeing me up to love and to trust. I’m not there yet, but the journey has begun.
- I’m okay, you’re okay vs we’re all miserable sinners
- Christianity and mental health
- Christianity and counselling
- Personality and spirituality
- Self-denial or denial of self?