If one looks at Islam and the so-called prophet Mohamed and many of the early saints of the Catholic Church they share something in common. All claimed to hear God (or Allah) speaking to them. Nowadays, most medical and mental health experts would describe such people as suffering from mental health issues, yet far too many across the world continue to allow their lives to be controlled by the words and writings of what I increasingly view as the mentally ill. And mental illness surely seems to be what plagues Pat Robertson and so many of the professional Christian set - and a very large percentage of Republican politicians. Yes, as a piece in The Atlantic notes, there was a time when "hearing voices"- think Joan of Arc and Mohamed - or "hearing God speak" were thought to be signs of holiness or divine inspiration, but with what we know now in the realm of mental health, why do we continue to give deference to such people? Here are highlights from The Atlantic:
What is the difference between a homeless man who claims to speak to God and a saint who says the same? When I posed this question to Andrew Scull, the author of the recent book Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, he chuckled and cited a quip by the philosopher Bertrand Russell: “From a scientific point of view, we can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes.”
When Russell said it, it was an atheist’s diss against mystical visions, and against religion generally. Coming from Scull, it’s more of an invitation to explore the complicated relationship between religion and madness over thousands of years of cultural history. Scull argues that stories of the supernatural—often paired with stories of madness—have long been a source of power for religious organizations, proof of their authority to interpret the presence of the divine—and evil—on earth.
For a long time, the influence of God or Satan was a sufficient explanation for all sorts of phenomena, from so-called possessions to the kinds of visions supposedly experienced by Catherine of Siena or Teresa of Avila. Now, those who decode visions and possessions are psychiatrists, not priests, and explanations are rooted in the individual mind, not the interference of God or the devil.
In the deserts of ancient Israel, a homeless man who was said to have visions and perform miracles was revered by some as the son of God. Which leaves two questions: How should claims of divine encounters be interpreted in the modern world? And if a homeless man on the street were actually the messiah, would he be recognized?
Throughout biblical times, apparent mental disturbances were often seen as divine punishments or demonic possessions. Rarely, they were understood as heavenly visions. But even this boundary was fluid. “Saul is seen at one point as behaving like a prophet, then later on people see him as not entirely right in the head, attributing that to God punishing him for not slaughtering everybody when he was supposed to,” Scull said.
Divine visions were also an important part of how Christians proved their spiritual authority and claimed to distinguish their religion from that of pagans (although the legitimacy of the visions depended heavily on who was having them, and who was interpreting them). “The presence of miracles and saints was an important calling card of Christians—that’s the way they converted pagan Europe,” Scull said.
In Europe, things started to change in the 16th century. These were the first days of the Scientific Revolution and the so-called Age of Reason, marked by the rise of rational philosophy and scientific invention. The Catholic Church was still an incredibly powerful force in European culture, but it also wasn’t the same institution as 10 centuries prior. Powerful challenges to the Church’s authority had spread through Western Europe.
By the 19th century, particularly in Western Europe, many doctors who studied mental illness began to push back against divine interpretations of visions. A famous French neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot, claimed that all Christian saints were hysterics, experiencing mystical visions that were really just signs of underlying pathology. This, Scull said, was part of a deeper polemical argument against religion’s power in society. By that time, “most hospitals in France, and most of those ministering to the mentally ill, were the religious orders,” he said.
In early Islam, for example, prophetic healings for insanity included prayers, bloodletting, and “cauterization of the head with hot irons.” This last technique was used, Scull writes, because demons and spirits were believed to be afraid of iron. Not coincidentally, the Arabic word for “genie” or “spirit” is jinn—the word from which majnoon, or “crazy,” is derived.
In the decades following World War II, the focus of psychiatry shifted away from the psychoanalytic techniques advocated by Freud and his followers and toward biological factors and causes. As Steven Sharfstein, the former president of the American Psychiatric Association, put it, public discourse around mental illness transformed from “the biopsychosocial model” to “the bio-bio-bio model.” This shift matters for the relationship between religion and madness. Even those who remain deeply religious in the U.S. or other developed countries likely accept some version of the biological view of mental illness.
As “madness” became “mental illness,” the role of religion in explaining out-of-the-ordinary behavior has faded significantly, and medicine has taken its place.
Which brings back the initial question: In a time of prescriptions and psychiatry and an ever-increasing focus on the brain, what’s the difference between a homeless man who talks to God and a saint who does the same? To a skeptic, the question is irrelevant; both are equally insane.
But for the faithful, the difference between the homeless man and the saint may be one of history, more than anything; the homeless man suffers the distinct disadvantage of talking to God today, rather than 10 centuries ago. Stories of visions and possessions seem to be of an earlier time, when madness was seen as just another manifestation of the power of God, and the devil.
Again, why do we give deference to religious faiths founded by those who nowadays would be viewed as mentally ill? Crazy then or now, is still crazy. If science and objective reality show that ancient myths are wrong (e.g., the Adam and Eve myth), continuing to believe in them does nothing but give comfort to those suffering from their own psychiatric issues.