Friday, April 1, 2011

A Comparitive Analysis of Religious Ritual and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

The similarities between the practice of religious ritual and the compulsive symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are unavoidable. These connections are immediately apparent when learning of the elaborate and explicit rules of which most rituals are composed (if not when first told only of the degree of cleansing often involved!), and are prevalent in historic religious practice through to the modern day. Without seeing the analogy through, one could easily be influenced by these initial similarities and align oneself with either a total denial of the legitimacy of religious practice or of the apparent and seemingly harmful correlations. Hence, it should be made clear from the outset that the purpose of this paper is not to pathologize the practice of religious rituals; such a design is best left to more qualified minds. This paper seeks only to examine religious ritual in comparison with descriptions of OCD, with respect to the similarities and differences. Such an analysis serves the purposes of understanding both “how far” the comparison is applicable and by extension the importance of the religious ritual to it's practitioners with respect to it's deviation from the described OCD experience.

The most striking similarity between religious ritual and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder lies in the description of the Compulsive symptoms a patient of the latter often suffers. “Repetitive behaviors...or mental acts...that the person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession, or according to rules that must be applied rigidly” (P. Silva, “Culture and obsessive-compulsive disorder”). Such compulsions are “aimed at preventing or reducing distress, or preventing some dreaded event” (G. Craig et al, “Relationship Between Religion and Obsessive Phenomena”), the dreaded events are usually believed to threaten the individual or those close to them (G. Craig et al, “Relationship Between Religion and Obsessive Phenomena”). The beliefs surrounding Inkosazana in the Zulu culture are fairly typical in this regard; it is believed that if the rules and rituals surrounding the figure are not adhered to, “she will inflict them [the community] with...drought, floods or tornadoes, starvation and disease.”(P. Bernard. “The Fertility Goddess of the Zulu: Reflections on a calling to Inkosazana's Pool”) The fear of 'punishment' for violation of Inkosazana's rules is readily comparable with the experience of the sufferer of OCD. However, the concerns of dreaded events are generally not limited to only the individual rather, the impact of a digression from the rules effects the entire community. It is, however, worth noting that in some cases such as the unwelcome individual trespassing into a sacred space of Inkosazana's pool, the consequences affect only the individual. One could hypothesize that such an expansion of the “effect radius” of a straying from practice is the result of a more encompassing sense of community and family. This “effect radius” can even expand to encompass the entire world, as is the case with the Huichol indians who believe that their annual peyote pilgrimage is necessary to prevent the destruction of the world (B. Myerhoff, “Peyote hunt: the sacred journey of the Huichol Indians”). A further deviation from the compulsive ritual is that often a believer who follows the ritual correctly receives a reward, rather than simply avoiding punishment. It could be argued that for this reason, religious ritual is not obsessive in nature as the compulsive actions do not serve only to reduce the anxiety surrounding the obsessive thoughts and in fact, the religious practice is not based on an individual experience of obsessive concerns- such concerns are shared by the entire community.

From the psychological point of view, obsessive compulsive disorder cannot be diagnosed unless “the obsessions or compulsions cause marked distress, are time-consuming...or significantly interfere with...usual social activities or relationships.” (P. Silva, “Culture and obsessive compulsive disorder”) The Huichol Indians in their peyote pilgrimage make a trip through the desert, often taking many days to complete (B. Myerhoff, “Peyote hunt: the sacred journey of the Huichol Indians”), Penny Bernard describes a rather long journey through difficult terrain as she answers the calling of Inkosazana (P. Bernard. “The Fertility Goddess of the Zulu: Reflections on a calling to Inkosazana's Pool”), and Tibetan Buddhists spend twelve days in ceremony creating a “Mandala” out of sand ( B. Bryant, “The wheel of time sand mandala: visual scripture of Tibetan Buddhism”). If an office worker in a western context were compelled to partake in rituals of such duration in accordance with an obsession and in addition to his usual societal obligations and beliefs, the diagnosis would certainly apply. This brings us to the key difference between religious ritual and OCD; religious ritual follows societal norms. Practitioners of ritual are not prevented from performing duties that would be considered “normal” as the rituals they practice are part of what the society deems “normal” (One can imagine a community of Huichol Indians in which a member felt compelled to dress in a suit and tie every morning and couldn't help but work in an office 8 hours a day to abate his obsessional fear of dependence). This in itself brings us do a further difference, the rituals of the Obsessive Compulsive are private, based on the individual's internal logic (S. Freud, “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices”), wheras religious ritual is based on the cultural beliefs and the logic built upon such. Furthermore, Obsessive rituals are “not realistically connected to what they are intended to prevent” (J. Abramowitz et al, “Obsessive-compulsive disorder”). In the case of religious practice the term “realistically” causes us to pause for a moment. In the sense of Western scientific understanding of the processes of the natural world, there is no realistic connection between making a desert pilgrimage to consume peyote with the prevention of the end of the world, nor is the maintaining of a special garden necessarily related with the success of the community, however the cultures who practice such rituals believe strongly that the actions and the consequences are unavoidably linked. The problem encountered is once more that of cultural context. The worldview surrounding these rituals makes the connection between the anxiety and the ritual a very real and definite one.

The practice of religious ritual bears some baseline resemblance to descriptions of Obsessive Compulsive disorder, however, upon further examination, one finds that such similarities are perhaps little more than superficial. Religious ritual acts in accordance with societal beliefs and is not generally detrimental to an individuals function within that society. It is often considered to be beneficial by those who practice it, and serves as the logical extension of the values of the culture. Sigmund Freud once described the experience of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as “ a travesty, half comic and half tragic, of a private religion,” and perhaps it is so that the comparison is presented in the wrong order, not that religion bears a resemblance to a psychiatric ailment, but that OCD could be seen as an individual's expression of a sort of religious system.


J. Abramowitz, S. Taylor, D. McKay. Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Vol 374, August 8, 2009
C. Gonsalvez, A. Hains, G. Stoyles. Relationship between religion and obsessive phenomena. Australian Journal of Psychology, Vol 62, No. 2 June 2010
P. Silva. Culture and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Elsevier Ltd, 2006
B. Myerhoff. Peyote hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol indians. Cornell University Press, 1976
B. Bryant. The wheel of time sand mandala: visual scripture of tibetan buddhism. Snow Lion Publications, 2003
S. Freud. Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices. Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition, Vol. IX. Translated by James A Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press, 1959.
P. Bernard. The Fertility Goddess of the Zulu: Reflections on a calling to Inkosazana's Pool. Deep Blue: Critical Reflections on Nature Religion and Water, London: Equinox Publications, 2008