Treating Woo-Woo

Jules Evans over-worries:

I had evangelists either side of me at dinner. The woman on my right was beautiful, charming and, technically speaking, psychotic. I mean that in the nicest possible way. Her eyes grew wide as she told me how God regularly spoke to her, cared for her, entered her. She believed she had witnessed many miracles, that her eyes had been opened to a hidden level of reality.

A western psychiatrist would nod and tick off the classic symptoms of psychosis: hearing voices, feeling guided by spirits, feeling singled out by the universe, believing you have magical abilities to save the world. Our psychiatric wards are full of people locked up for expressing such beliefs.

We define ourselves, as a culture, by our attitude to such experiences. Before the modern age, they were very common and were categorised as heavenly or demonic visitations. Some of the founding figures of civilisation were, technically speaking, psychotic: Socrates, the father of western rationalism, had a daemon who gave him orders.

But since the 17th century such phenomena have been shifted to the margins of our secular, scientific, post-animist culture and defined as pathological symptoms of a physical or emotional disease. Today, if you tell your doctor about such experiences, you are likely to receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia and be prescribed debilitating anti-psychotic drugs.

And yet such experiences are very common. A new paper by Heriot-Maitland, Knight and Peters in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology (BJCP) estimates that 10-15 percent of the population encounter “out-of-the-ordinary experiences” (OOEs) such as hearing voices. By automatically pathologising and hospitalising such people, we are sacrificing them to our own secular belief system, not unlike the Church burning witches.

Actually, it’s completely “unlike”. There were no (true) witches, while the pathological conditions are real. That they are far from rare that doesn’t make them any less of a disease.

But that doesn’t mean that the treatment always has to be medical in the conventional sense of the word, and here Mr. Evans makes a good point:

Perhaps we need to find a more pragmatic attitude to revelatory experiences, an attitude closer to that of William James, the pioneering American psychologist and pragmatic philosopher. James studied many different religious experiences, asking not “Are they true?” but rather “What do they lead to? Do they help you or cause you distress? Do they inspire you to valuable work or make you curl up into a ball?”

We can evaluate the worth of a revelatory experience without trying to find out if the experience “really” came from God or not.

Fair enough, therapeutically speaking, but keep the pills handy….

H/t: Andrew Sullivan

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3 Responses to Treating Woo-Woo

  1. vandelay says:

    Come off it Andrew, this is an eye-roller I see in the atheist and skeptical community all the time, pathologizing people who speak in religious terms. As though the critic simply can’t understand the concept of a religious experience and the particular language that the religious have used to describe those experiences for centuries. It actually says more about the antisocial tendencies of the non-religious than it does about the mental state of the religious.

    Also, what’s with your man-crush on Sullivan?

  2. Andrew Stuttaford says:

    Vandelay, I agree with you that in some cases, there can be a willful refusal on the part of the non-religious to accept some of the language of religious experience as metaphor or wishful thinking. Nevertheless, many of those who claim to have heard voices/seen visions or the like clearly believe that what they heard or saw was real. At that point, looking for some sort of medical explanation (fasting can induce hallucinations, for example) seems entirely reasonable, even if it does not always involve a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

    Andrew Sullivan? I’ve been reading him for years. His blog can be infuriating and unfair, but it is tremendously readable and, at various different levels (not least the insight into the thinking of a smart, politically adroit Obama partisan) highly informative. At the weekend, he includes a lot of God/spirituality stuff of a type that raises topics that I sometimes think might be interesting over here. Expect more links!

  3. vandelay says:

    I read Sullivan’s blog regularly too, mainly because he is among the Internet’s most deft and prolific linkers. (Or is that the work of his underbloggers?) But his commentary basically constitutes a war on his own credibility. I can’t remember the last truly thought-provoking piece on that blog actually written by Sullivan himself. It was likely something to do with Sarah Palin’s uterus.

    Anyways, I retract the mocking tone of that comment. I’d probably just read something stupid on the Dish before coming here.

    Re the original point: I think this might be a case where the fact that the experience is “far from rare” is actually an indication that it’s anything but a “disease”. People who claim strong religious experiences are most often high-functioning members of society who you’d otherwise identify as very emotionally healthy. It’s a sign of successful socialization within religious groups, setting aside the question of whether they’re real or not.

    And if not real, wouldn’t that actually bolster the person’s status as emotionally and psychologically healthy, especially within a highly religious milieu, since it would leave socialization as the dominant explanation?

    Not that I have any studies or anything to back that up. Just makes more sense to me than the idea that half the population needs to be on anti-psychotics.

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