Religious delusion

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A religious delusion is any delusion involving religious themes or subject matter.[1][2] Some psychologists, beginning with Sigmund Freud, have characterized all or nearly all religion as delusion. Other psychologists focus on solely pathological cases, such as those involving schizophrenia.

Definition and Currents[edit]

Individuals experiencing religious delusions are preoccupied with religious subjects that are not within the expected beliefs for an individual's background, including culture, education, and known experiences of religion. These preoccupations are incongruous with the mood of the subject. Falling within the definition also are delusions arising in psychotic depression; however, these must present within a major depressive episode and be congruous with mood.[3]

Researchers in a 2000 study found religious delusions to be unrelated to any specific set of diagnostic criteria, but correlated with demographic criteria, primarily age. [4]

In a 2010 study, Swiss psychiatrists found religious delusions with themes of spiritual persecution by malevolent spirit-entities, control exerted over the person by spirit-entities, delusional experience of sin and guilt, or delusions of grandeur.[5]


In a 1937 essay, Sigmund Freud stated that he considered believing in a single god to be a delusion,[1] extending his comments in 1907 that religion is the indication of obsessional neurosis.[6][7] His thoughts defining "delusion" perhaps crystallized from the notion of the religion formulations of the common man (circa 1927) as "patently infantile, foreign to reality"[8] and additionally in the same year, stating that religion "comprises a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality, such as we find in an isolated form nowhere else but amentia, in a state of blissful hallucinatory confusion".[9]

Earlier propositions that religious shamans were motivated by delusions and that their behaviour resembled that of patients with schizophrenia were found to be incorrect.[10][11]

Behaviours out of the ordinary were traditionally viewed as demonic possession,[12] although disavowed entirely by modern psychiatry,[13] are evaluated by clinicians only such that they fall within the safety of a treatment programme.

A paper suggested that, when compared with experiences today, psychiatric conditions associated with psychotic spectrum symptoms may be possible explanations for some revelatory driven experiences and activities such as those of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Saint Paul. However, the paper admits that the study was not aimed to deny supernatural elements, nor was it conclusive on whether their experiences were delusional in part or not at all.[14]


In one study of 193 people who had previously been admitted to hospital and subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia, 24% were found to have religious delusions.[15] In a comparative study sampling 313 patients, those with religious delusion were found to be aged older, had been placed on a drug regime or started a treatment programme at an earlier stage. In the context of presentation they were found to have functioning globally, worse than another group of patients without religious delusions. The first group also scored higher on the Scale of Assessment for Positive Symptoms (SAPS),[16] had a greater total on the Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale (BPRS),[17] and were treated with a higher mean number of neuroleptics of differing types during their hospitalization.[4]

Clinical examples[edit]

An example of a supposed religious delusion occurring in a developed condition of psychosis is given as the individual Daniel Paul Schreber.[18]

Examples from a study in Lithuania with 295 subjects, showed that the most common religious delusion amongst women were of being a saint and amongst men of being God.[19]

Religious delusion was found to strongly correlate with temporolimbic instability.[20]

A study found adherents to new religious movements to have similar delusionary cognition, as rated by the Delusions Inventory, to a psychotic group, although the former reported feeling less distressed by their experiences than the latter.[21] Religious delusions have generally been found to be less stressful than other types. [4]


Hearing the voice of God compelling one to commit acts of violence is recorded in antiquity in the case of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham.[22] The connection between religious experience of communication from heavenly or divine beings where the results of such a test of faith were not favorable for the person is La Pucelle.[23] In contemporary times persons judged to have experienced auditory hallucination include those that experience hearing voices or a voice instructing or motivating them to commit violent acts. These auditory experiences are classified by psychiatry as command hallucination.[24] Persons acting to commit murder are reported as hearing voices of religious beings such as God,[25][26][27][28][29][30][31] angels[32] or the Devil.[33] Within the psychiatric community religious auditory hallucination is qualified by some as, those that hear the voice of God talking to them are experiencing schizophrenia, while those that instead talk to God but hear no response, i.e. pray do not.[34]

A 1999 study identified that religious delusions were often present or expressed in persons with forensic committal to a psychiatric unit.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Freud, Sigmund Freud (1939). "Moses and Monotheism".  cited in: Sims, A. "Is Faith delusion?". Royal College of Psychiatrists. [verification needed]
  2. ^ Spitzer, Manfred (1990). "On defining delusions". Comprehensive Psychiatry 31 (5): 377–97. doi:10.1016/0010-440X(90)90023-L. PMID 2225797. 
  3. ^ Lieberman, Jeffrey A.; Stroup, T. Scott; Perkins, Diana O. (2006). The American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Schizophrenia. American Psychiatric Publishing. p. 199. ISBN 9781585626465. 
  4. ^ a b c Raja, M.; Azzoni, A.; Lubich, L. (2000). "Religious delusion: An observational study of religious delusion in a population of 313 acute psychiatric inpatients". Schweizer Archiv für Neurologie und Psychiatrie 151 (1): 22–9. Archived from the original on 2012-03-22. 
  5. ^ Mohr, Sylvia; Borras, Laurence; Betrisey, Carine; Pierre-Yves, Brandt; Gilliéron, Christiane; Huguelet, Philippe (2010). "Delusions with Religious Content in Patients with Psychosis: How They Interact with Spiritual Coping". Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes 73 (2): 158. doi:10.1521/psyc.2010.73.2.158. 
  6. ^ Freud, Sigmund (1907). "Religion as obsessional neurosis". Freud Museum. 
  7. ^ Dein, S. (2004). "Working with patients with religious beliefs". Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 10 (4): 287. doi:10.1192/apt.10.4.287. 
  8. ^ Freud, Sigmund (1931). "Religion as a mass delusion". Freud Museum. 
  9. ^ Freud, Sigmund (1927). The Future of an Illusion. ISBN 978-0-393-00831-9. OCLC 20479722.  cited in: Koenig, Harold G. (2007). "Religion, spirituality and psychotic disorders". Revista de Psiquiatria Clínica 34: 95–104. doi:10.1590/S0101-60832007000700013. 
  10. ^ Noll, Richard (1983). "Shamanism and schizophrenia: A state-specific approach to the 'schizophrenia metaphor' of shamanic states". American Ethnologist 10 (3): 443. doi:10.1525/ae.1983.10.3.02a00030. 
  11. ^ Polimeni, J; Reiss, JP (2002). "How shamanism and group selection may reveal the origins of schizophrenia". Medical hypotheses 58 (3): 244–8. doi:10.1054/mehy.2001.1504. PMID 12018978. 
  12. ^ Wooden, Cindy (2005). "Real possession by devil not that common, exorcists say during lesson". Catholic News Service. Retrieved 2012-01-23. 
  13. ^ Peck, M. Scott (4 Jan 2005). Glimpses of the Devil: a psychiatrist's personal accounts of possession, exorcism, and redemption. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-5467-8. 
  14. ^ Murray, ED.; Cunningham MG; Price BH (2012). "The role of psychotic disorders in religious history considered". J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neuroscience 24 (4): 410–26. doi:10.1176/appi.neuropsych.11090214. PMID 23224447. 
  15. ^ Siddle, Ronald; Haddock, Gillian; Tarrier, Nicholas; Faragher, E.Brian (2002). "Religious delusions in patients admitted to hospital with schizophrenia". Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 37 (3): 130–8. doi:10.1007/s001270200005. PMID 11990010. 
  16. ^ Andreasen, Nancy C. (2007). "SCALE FOR THE ASSESSMENT OF POSITIVE SYMPTOMS". Psychiatric University Hospital Zurich. Retrieved 2012-01-30. 
  17. ^ "Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale (BPRS)". The University of Iowa. Retrieved 2012-01-30. 
  18. ^ Corveleyn, Jozef (2009). "Religious Delusion in Psychosis and Hysteria". In Belzen, J. A. Changing the Scientific Study of Religion: Beyond Freud?. Springer. ISBN 9789048125401. 
  19. ^ Rudaleviciene, P; Stompe, T; Narbekovas, A; Raskauskiene, N; Bunevicius, R (2008). "Are religious delusions related to religiosity in schizophrenia?". Medicina 44 (7): 529–35. PMID 18695349. 
  20. ^ Ng, Felicity; Mammen, Oommen K; Wilting, Ingeborg; Sachs, Gary S; Ferrier, I Nicol; Cassidy, Frederick; Beaulieu, Serge; Yatham, Lakshmi N et al. (2009). "The International Society for Bipolar Disorders (ISBD) consensus guidelines for the safety monitoring of bipolar disorder treatments". Bipolar Disorders 11 (6): 559–95. doi:10.1111/j.1399-5618.2009.00737.x. PMID 19689501. 
  21. ^ Peters, Emmanuelle; Day, Samantha; McKenna, Jacqueline; Orbach, Gilli (1999). "Delusional ideation in religious and psychotic populations". British Journal of Clinical Psychology 38: 83–96. doi:10.1348/014466599162683. PMID 10212739. 
  22. ^ Katz, Claire Elise (2001). "The Voice of God and the Face of the Other: Levinas, Kierkegaard, and Abraham". The Journal of Textual Reasoning 10. 
  23. ^ "Saint Joan of Arc". Retrieved 2012-01-23. [self-published source]
  24. ^ Shawyer, F; MacKinnon, A; Farhall, J; Sims, E; Blaney, S; Yardley, P; Daly, M; Mullen, P; Copolov, D (2008). "Acting on harmful command hallucinations in psychotic disorders: An integrative approach". The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 196 (5): 390–8. doi:10.1097/NMD.0b013e318171093b. PMID 18477881.  Also see: Gaines, James R. Gaines (March 9, 1987). "Mark Chapman Part Iii: the Killer Takes His Fall". The People 27 (10). 
  25. ^ Puxley, Chinta (March 4, 2009). "'God' told man to kill bus passenger". Toronto Star (The Canadian Press). Retrieved 2012-01-23. 
  26. ^ Coryell, Lisa (28 February 2011). "New trial ordered for Morrisville man who says God told him to kill". New Jersey Times. 
  27. ^ Spoto, Maryann. "Man Who Says God Told Him to Kill Girlfriend Gets New Trial". Ethics Daily. 
  28. ^ Gamiz, Jr., Manuel (30 November 2010). "Allentown slashing suspect says God commanded him to kill". The Morning Call. 
  29. ^ "Man says he killed his son because God told him to". Current. Archived from the original on 2012-07-17. 
  30. ^ "Dad: God told me to kill my son". United Press International. 12 February 2009. 
  31. ^ "'Allah' Told Him to Kill His Family". NBC Chicago. 
  32. ^ Petrie, Andrea (22 July 2010). "Schizophrenic stabbed grandmother to death 'after hearing voice of angel'". The Age. Retrieved 22 January 2012. 
  33. ^ LaCapria, K. (28 July 2009). "Horrific: Mother kills, eats baby in Texas". The Inquisitr News. Retrieved 23 January 2012. 
  34. ^ "Professor Thomas Szasz on Schizophrenia as a Disease". Citizens Commission on Human Rights International. Retrieved 23 January 2012. 
  35. ^ Kunst, Jennifer L. (1999). "Understanding the religious ideation of forensically committed patients". Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training 36 (3): 287. doi:10.1037/h0087835.