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"When I speak to God, it's called prayer. When God speaks to me it means psychosis! - Why?" (Eckart von Hirschhausen)
We call delusion when people pathologically distort reality. Those affected hold fanatical beliefs that can be easily refuted - even against their own life experiences and logic. Religious delusion exists when those affected see these systematically false imaginations as an influence of supernatural powers.
What is delusion?
There is still no generally valid definition of delusion. Typical features that are considered symptoms of delusional ideas are, firstly, an extraordinary subjective belief that demonstrably wrong ideas apply, secondly, that they are not revised through experience or compelling conclusions, and thirdly, that the content is impossible.
Delusional ideas are not a detached phenomenon of the “insane”, but also mentally healthy people are affected again and again. Typically, these are ideas from people who otherwise get along well in everyday life, but, for example, believe that secret powers are targeting them.
Delusion is deeply human. People arrange their environment in constructions of consciousness, which they assemble from a wealth of unconscious perceptions. So because we are human beings, we always create a fictional world that never shows an “objective reality”.
As with other psychological disorders, this is only considered pathological in modern psychology if those affected suffer because the delusions restrict their lifestyle. A delusional disorder is characterized by the fact that a single delusion or various related delusions last for a long time. The content can be very different.
Here the delusions have religious content. Those affected often believe that they have been chosen and / or that they have received healing remedies from supernatural powers. Or they think they are being chased by demonic powers. Then it is often difficult to distinguish delusions of religion from paranoid schizophrenia. A third of all people with extreme psychoses (nothing else is schizophrenia) develop religious fantasies. Religious delusions flow into other delusional groups such as megalomania.
A delusional criterion is the objective impossibility of the content, combined with the fact that it cannot be substantiated or can easily be refuted. But both are also hallmarks of religions. Psychiatry therefore only speaks of a religious delusion if, firstly, the content lies outside the cultural horizon of experience and, secondly, it is not accepted in a larger group.
In other words, in a society where the belief in witchcraft is as established as in Papua New Guinea, we cannot call someone who believes that a wizard magically harms him delusional. Rather, it is a declaration inherent in culture. The content of the performance is - viewed from the outside - impossible, but within culture it is considered logical.
Delusion and belief
Religiousness and the delusion associated with it can also be distinguished by the uncorrectability of the delusional ideas, but the transitions are difficult to determine. Religious dogmas represent believers with the same fervor as delusional fantasies, and in both cases beliefs are incompatible with everyday experience and science. Regardless of whether it is Mohammed who rises to the sky with a winged horse, the Immaculate Conception of Mary or a journey to the afterlife.
The unconditional belief in the supernatural and the delusion also agree that both reject scientifically valid explanations for their imaginations: neurobiology can still explain exactly which biochemical processes take place in a supposed experience of the afterlife, and it can be proven long ago that it does the "bloody tears" of a saint figure is oxidized iron - the believer will still be convinced of the supernatural character.
Wish and reality
For a psychiatric diagnosis, the limitation of the person affected in his personal life is again crucial. A Mormon, Christian Orthodox or Hindu believer will usually get along with their ideas in their professional and private lives. It becomes pathological when those affected fixate themselves completely on the delusional content, reject any reflection on alternative explanations and repeat their delusional ideas as a monologue in continuous loops: So they do not have a dialogue, and when someone listens to them, they only unwind what they are tell yourself permanently.
Delusional religiosity typically occurs in life crises. Like all mental disorders, it makes sense. It thrives in the contradiction between reality and desire. The delusional now filters reality through his own imaginations. There is often helplessness behind it, the reality is unbearable for them. Here, insane people overlap with mentally healthier people whose brains also use this trick: After a breakup, when our partner dies and even in life-threatening injuries, we regularly first go through the denial phase. The brain is not yet making it aware that the deceased is gone.
This is where the difference between temporarily hiding reality and a delusion becomes apparent. A religious delusion, for example, could develop if those affected do not get out of the first phase of grief, denial - like a mother who is fanatically fixated that her child, who died in a traffic accident, lives on as an angel on earth.
Religiously underpinned people who are ill with consciousness therefore fail to cope with crises. The sufferers first brace themselves against reality with their imaginations, but in the second step they do not straighten these imaginations again, but increase more and more into them, and the more so, the more their ideas conflict with the tangible reality. The delusional are becoming more and more self-centered: whoever straightens up their misconceptions has no idea in their eyes. They are like the joke from the man who hears on the radio: "A ghost driver comes towards them on the highway" and says: "One? Thousands! "
The motor for the delusion is to replace the unloved reality with your own fantasies. But once this pattern is fixed, the maniacs with delusions will cement his missed content even more. So he refuses to admit that he is wrong.
Win and loss
In the beginning there is the supposed certainty. The delusion creates false security. Instead of knowing not knowing something, there is the illusion of knowing it. Religious delusional ideas go hand in hand with conspiracy delusion and overlap with paranoia - because nobody is as convinced to know the reality as a paranoid. Delusional illusion seduces when it connects with the supernatural. Religion now provides "explanations" for the erroneous content and gives it an additional "size".
For example, two women who both suffered from borderline syndrome and were both severely traumatized (by experiencing sexual violence at a young age) believed that they were actually angels who would suffer on earth and that suffering was a divine test for them. Madness and religion together take on the task of providing false security and explanation.
Delusional explanations are better than none at all?
In the psychiatric sense, delusional and “not disturbed” are just as close together in the motor of the delirious delusion as “disturbed” and “healthy” are gathered around delusion and religiosity. Our brain constantly produces patterns in which we move in our environment. It doesn't matter whether they are objectively correct. And for crises, for all people in the world of our subconscious, one explanation is better than none. It is not important whether this explanation is correct. It is important that it offers us orientation, shows a goal, gives us certainty and thus gives us the opportunity to decide. Associating unconscious content, so-called quick thinking, often even leads to the goal. Slow thinking and critical reflections cost more energy and time.
If religiosity and delusions are now cheering each other on, the sick get lost in a labyrinth from which they can hardly get out even with professional help. Those affected have already put a lot of effort into their error. The longer you maintain your delusion, the more difficult it becomes to understand that it is a mistake. Instead, they fixate themselves more and more on the error, a negative cycle begins. The sick are mistaken in their delusional ideas in order to attain supposed security. At first, they often suspect that they could be wrong. However, they suppress this notion by the fact that they (want to) believe in their error all the more fanatically and that arguments from the outside are less and less allowed. The certainty is an apparent one, but the fear of losing it is too great. Because the greater the error, the greater the uncertainty. At some point, the delusional ideas solidify into a self-contained delusion of the world.
Religion and delusion - identical twins
Any idea can go mad. We all know people who hold onto ideas, even though they are showered with contrary evidence (this also applies to ourselves). Studies also showed that people absorb what fits into their worldview and hide what does not. We speak of fixed ideas, and these are seamlessly transformed into delusional ideas.
While, in principle, any idea can develop into delusion, delusions mostly revolve around existential topics such as the position of people in the world. And since religions provide irrational explanations for precisely these questions, religiosity and delusion are identical twins.
Typical themes for delusions are self-determination versus fate, reward and punishment, to have meaning or to be nothing, belonging and exclusion, life and death, this and hereafter, the visible and invisible world.
Paranoid delusion is the most common of all delusional symptoms and merges with religious fantasies - religious figures such as demons, devils or witches appear as if they had arisen from delusional paranoia. Sick people believe that dark powers are chasing them. While the persecution fantasy is rooted in fear, the delusion provides apparent certainty - those affected gain "self-determination" by seeing through the "evil forces".
Religiousness also mixes with megalomania, especially as a messianic illusion. The sufferers create a supposedly higher intrinsic value by considering themselves as "reincarnation of St. Francis", prophet or "messenger of God". In fact, there are some indications that many gurus, “holy men” and founders of religion suffered and suffered from delusions, especially paranoia and megalomania, but also vocation and descent of descent.
When does religious delusion become dangerous?
Like all delusions, religious delusion can be fleeting; be it that people only have fixed ideas in a certain area, or be that they recognize an error. The decisive factor is whether psychological processes allow the insight to have gone wrong.
With religious as well as non-religious people, six factors are involved so that a delusion about a long-term disorder grows. Firstly, the delusion is linked to a basic psychological conflict: a person with an inferiority complex compensates for this with the delusional idea of being an undetected "warrior of God". Once the delusion is fixed, delusion and basic conflict create a wall that can hardly be broken through by psychotherapy.
Second, a delusion can be fixed if it connects with thoughts that those affected have had before and thus seems all the more logical - for those affected.
Third, those who do not accept themselves are particularly at risk for religious delusions.
Fourth, the insane ideas consolidate when the person concerned has a psychological interest in it, i.e. the insanity, for example, originally served to achieve a certain goal.
Fifth, religious delusion is often linked to people's problems with perceiving themselves and experiences in social relationships. Here, for example, someone develops the delusion that “they are different because they have a mandate from higher powers” when they repeatedly come up against resistance because of their inadequate social behavior.
Sixthly, people are at risk who perceive their environment as self-centered anyway and relate events that have nothing to do with them. This then slips into the delusion of seeing yourself as the “chosen one”.
Religious delusion becomes dangerous for patients (and others) when the delusion merges with the poles of the basic conflict. Now a pathological coordinate system is formed in which the sick no longer differentiate between the ego and the outside world, reality and fantasy.
How do you recognize religious madness?
You can recognize a delusion by the fact that those affected declare opinions to be absolute truth and reject any other possible view - delusional create a hermetically sealed space of thought. Early signs are temporary hallucinations, in which people on the way to the delusion believe, for example, to hear hidden messages about the approaching end of the world.
Do you have a close relationship with the sick person? Then you will notice a change of heart: You or he feels that he is no longer part of friends and relatives who “do not understand the truth”, suffers from it and loses himself in his own imagination, in which everything is related to himself. The sick no longer see themselves as the center of their own experience, but of what is happening in the world.
As these people alienate from them, whether spouse, friend or colleague, they feel a fictitious affiliation with the imagined powers that they “lead” or “persecute” them. For outsiders it looks like someone is talking to himself, "is on guard", senses "invisible" dangers or suddenly intervenes in conversations, whereby what is said has nothing to do with the topic - the people concerned associate their delusional world into relationships. These insertions in everyday conversations of others have to do with the “unearthly”.
You recognize delusion especially when you want to help those affected. For example, if the person has left their house key in the café and is convinced that mystical villains have stolen it, it won't be relieved if you bring the key and show her that she was wrong. In this, delusion differs from mere error. If a worse suspicion turns out to be unfounded, people are usually happy when he clears up. It is quite different with religious delusion: the systematically delusional shows an overwhelming unconscious interest in maintaining his distorted coordinate system. This becomes clear with the religious vocation delusion: Whoever believes himself to be a saint, messiah or tool of God defends this against banal explanations.
Even when the person sees himself haunted by demons, he is less depressed about his condition than confronting reality. Patients with religious delusions often switch between apparent dialogues (in which they use others as key words for their fantasy system) and monologues with the same content.
Delusions and religions
The above explanations already indicate that whether a person with the same symptoms is considered a maniac or a saint has a lot to do with whether a culture interprets such conditions as supernatural inspiration. Many creators of culture, founders of religion and prophets showed behavior that we must consider psychologically delusional: they heard voices like a psychosis and they felt persecuted by beings that no one else could see.
Dogmatic cults systematically promote delusions. Religious fundamentalism is nothing more than induced delusion. Anyone who promises salvation for unconditional faith like monotheistic religions demands nothing more than a delusional perception of reality. Religious dogmas are to be followed as absolutely as an individual delusion. Such dogmas are characterized by the fact that, firstly, they cannot be proven, and secondly, that any doubt is considered heresy. Religious leaders claim to be infallible - this is also a core element of delusional symptoms. Religious fundamentalism, like individual delusion, is a pathological solution to a psychological conflict.
In the therapeutic sense, a religious delusion now exists with an individual when he believes that he himself has a personal mandate from a deity to intervene in world affairs. In the meantime, it is part of the self-image of revelation religions that certain people had and have exactly these tasks, whether Jesus, Paul or Mohammed.
Religious mania, demonic depression
(Religious) delusional symptoms are usually not a disease of their own, but a symptom of mental disorders such as bipolarity (bipolar disorder), borderline, depression or severe psychoses. For example, a person suffering from severe depression can develop a delusion of sin and believe that he must go through hell already on earth because he can never pay his sins again.
Or a bipolar runs through the city in a manic phase, believes that he is Saint Francis and has to heal the world. Or someone suffering from schizophrenia (an extreme psychosis) sees himself surrounded by black magicians, vampires and evil priests. Or a person with a general anxiety disorder is afraid of demons lurking in subway shafts. Or a woman who is suffering from Borderline Syndrome thinks that the conditions in which she dissociates, i.e. she has no control over her actions and cannot remember them afterwards, are trips to the world of the afterlife.
Patients with diagnosed schizophrenia have 30 percent of their delusional experiences, so religious delusion is one of the most common delusions.
Delusions and obsessive thoughts
Religious delusions and compulsive thoughts distinguish the awareness of the problems: People who suffer from obsessive thoughts usually know that their thoughts conflict with the reality that can be experienced. The delusional is completely different. Their belief is unshakable and they filter every occurrence in the environment only in this pattern.
Deriving individual delusions of religious content from belonging to an organized religion is not enough. Brain damage is often the cause, especially Alzheimer's and forms of dementia. These are not purely mental illnesses, but organic brain changes.
When doctors diagnose religious delusion, they separate it from religious belief in that the delusional do not confess their beliefs, but view impossible perceptions as absolute knowledge. The boundary between the healthy, the pious and the insane is fluid, but for therapeutic practice it is the possibility of those affected to assess themselves and assess whether they need treatment or not.
the therapist is not concerned with whether religion itself is a “delusion of God”, as evolutionary biology Richard Dawkins called his standard work. Rather, the focus is on whether the patients adapt their own role within their frame of reference to a generally recognizable reality.
In short, a believer might well believe in the struggle between God and the Devil, but will generally not suspect that he is responsible for missing the bus to work in the morning. Delusional people, on the other hand, suffer from being overconfident and unable to distance themselves from their fixed ideas in details.
In the medical sense, religious delusion has nothing to do with deep religiosity (atheists can also experience such delusional symptoms). On the other hand, it is the result of an illness-related experience, regardless of cultural influences: The number of people with religious delusions within severe psychoses is proportionally the same in all societies.
Religious delusion poses countless problems. The loss of social relationships is obvious: friends turn away because they can no longer establish a connection to the mad world of those affected, bosses no longer consider sick employees to be portable, in almost all professions in which the sick have to do with people they no longer work in their delusion. This applies to an educator who tells children that she is an angel who saves the world, as well as to a caretaker who believes that the devil lives in the basement of the building entrusted to him, a saleswoman who accuses customers of hexing them or a secretary who smokes her manager's office to "drive the demons away".
Sick people can injure themselves and others, whether by whipping themselves for alleged sins or even believing that “God wants them” to crush their testicles.
The sick fixate themselves on their delusions in such a way that they neglect their other areas of life: the apartment neglected, they do not pay the rent, forget to buy food, do not wash, do not submit their tax returns. Without early help, homelessness, job loss and social isolation can result. All the consequences are all the more difficult because the sick are unable to take steps themselves to get out of these abysses because of their delusion.
How does the doctor recognize the disease?
People who suffer from religious delusion rarely go to the doctor because of their delusion. For example, they see a doctor because they can no longer sleep. Or relatives take the person concerned to the hospital because they refuse to eat.
When to the doctor?
People with religious delusional symptoms rarely have insight into their illness. It is up to relatives, partners or friends to seek medical help. These are warning signs if the person concerned annoys outsiders, holds monologues, influences their environment without being asked, insults, behaves aggressively and / or injures himself or puts himself in dangerous situations.
Religious delusion is about first of all that the sick show insight and recognize that they are sick. Once this most difficult hurdle has been overcome, therapies can take effect.
Religious delusion is a symptom, the underlying disease is treated. Medicines prove to be successful in extreme psychoses, sociotherapies, occupational therapies and behavioral therapies are also popular in mood disorders. Occupational therapies are considered helpful in the case of delusional illnesses, because those affected can thus regain a structured everyday life that they lack and can free them from the coordinate system of their imagination.
Psychotherapy should strengthen self-acceptance and self-organization, since unresolved conflicts with one's own self-image play a role in many delusions. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
- Michael Pfaff: Schizophrenia and Religious Madness - A Comparative Study of the Time of the Inner German Division, Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the LWL Clinic in Bochum, (accessed August 13, 2019), BRS
- Wibke Bergemann: Crazy or enlightened ?, Psychologie Today 6/2006, page 58, (accessed August 13, 2019), Link
- Ronald Mundhenk: Being like God: Aspects of the Religious in Schizophrenic Experience and Thinking, Verlag Die Brücke Neumünster, 3rd edition, 2007
- Hans Krieger, Dorothea Sophie Buck-Zerchin: On the trail of the morning star: Psychosis as self-discovery, Verlag Die Brücke Neumünster, 5th edition, 2014
ICD codes for this disease: F22ICD codes are internationally valid encodings for medical diagnoses. You can find e.g. in doctor's letters or on disability certificates.