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Religion and psychosis - Johannes Aagaard

Thoughts on the relation between religion and pathological states of mind


At times religion is put on a par with the mental state of psychosis by people who believe that religion is actually a kind of insanity.

There are many reasons for this. One is that religion may assume the characteristics of psychosis, making the distinction difficult. Another is that some mental processes in religious and psychotic phenomena resemble each other and are mistakeable even though sometimes mutually contradictory.

I shall argue for a Christian religiosity (meaning a religiosity which has been christianized) as protective against, and a healing from psychosis by its very nature.

This does not mean that the same function cannot be found outside the christi­anized religiosity. Religion is a many-sided phenomenon, and even though there actually are people whose religion has been “psychotisized”, there is good reason to look at other sides of the broad phenomenon of “religion” in relation to psychosis.

The heart of all Lutheran Christianity is the forgiveness of sins. There are variants of Lutheranism that stress sin more than forgiveness, but we are talking of an attitude to life that by its very nature makes God´s forgiveness towards man and men´s forgiveness towards each other the main issue. Naturally, this is an impressive antidote against depression, and it goes without saying that it is the most suited therapy against guilt neuroses.

God´s grace is the center of all Christianity, against all human compulsion for self-asserting achievements. By nature this is a healing medicine for all obsessions with personal insufficiency and uselessness. No self-contempt can reduce God´s groundless irrevocable goodness to his children.

The function of yoga


It is an established fact that yoga – at least in the form that has become pervasive today, viz. Hatha yoga and Kundalini yoga – may release and possibly create psychotic states in the mind of the practitioner, withdrawing his or her interest from the outer world in ways reminiscent of the kind of psychosis called autism.

Still, it cannot be ruled out that the very same yogic techniques may have been put to use, with a positive result, as a kind of therapy against psychosis in the course of India´s history! What else could the Indian do when life became sheer suffering, apart from withdrawing into himself to cut the ties to the painful impressions from outside?

When such a withdrawal was questioned, for instance, when others blamed the yogi for doing nothing to solve the problems, but rather running away from them, or when the outer problems increased by being neglected – then it was natural to ideologize the withdrawal. The holy men of India have had plenty of reason to systematize their lack of interest in the world as a more developed way of life and as “higher consciousness” compared to that of ordinary people. In the process they invented the special yoga-language understandable only to the initiates.

Thus, you cannot conquer your mental disease, at least you can adhere to it and recognize it as a way of life, even as a higher way of life, indeed, as the ideal of life.

A two edged sword


This kind of acceptance concerning mental diseases can even be interpreted as a positive form of survival. Learning to live with a psychological illness may bring great spiritual productivity. We know that from Church history also.

On the other hand there is reason to propose that mental techniques which are useful in protecting particularly sensitive minds from painful influences may also mean an unnecessary and dangerous isolation for people who are not originally situated in painful surroundings. In the course of a training in yoga methods healthy persons may lose contact with the world around them and disappear into psychotic states of mind. This possibility is even more real since the ideology built around the withdrawal from life has become fascinating to people without becoming transparent to them.

Sleeping pills may be beneficial to an insomniac. But the very same pills can become a serious problem to a person who eats them because it is the “in” thing to do. In the same way a yogic reduction of contact with the outside world may be beneficial to traumatized persons and harmful to a person with normal relations to his surroundings.

Dreams and their meaning


Let us have a look at the problem from another angle: the many attempts today at reading of dreams. Normally as humans we are quite concerned with our dreams. We imagine that they are also meaningful to us when we are awake.

Still it is part of our nature that “the curtain comes down” upon awakening, so that only for a short while do we have a kind of memory of the content and character of the dream. The reading of dreams therefore has its natural limits, and some things suggest that our own nature takes measures against dreams in order to keep them from drifting into our daytime reality. Maybe it is even best for us that dreams stay in the world of sleep where they have their function.

People who turn psychotic to a severe degree may become schizophrenic. At that point their consciousness is totally pervaded by dream consciousness, and they are dreaming while awake. A schizophrenic person is unable to distinguish between dream and reality.

The same thing happens in certain forms of new religiosity, and possibly in some forms of Christianity too. A magical universe is built without a real cause-and-effect relationship, like dreams. The multitude of daily occurrences, every one of them part of the network of causes and effects, become symbolized - meaning that an occult (and not really logical) order is attributed to them. Their meaning rests in the world of magic, which dreams represent.

Prophets and dabblers


Popular textbooks and courses in systematic dream reading may therefore be seen as illegitimate methods of bringing material from the human dream world into the waking state. Dreams have their function within their own element. They are there to interpret the occurrences of the day in order for them to enter the depot of memories, later to be recalled at the speed of light. “Normal” memory by means of signs (e.g. letters or ciphers), is slow and meticulous. Contrary to this, symbolical recall is quick and sure and it is is very likely being created by our dreams.

But can dreams not have other functions? Is it always wrong to try to interpret their content? Not necessarily; there is ample reason to seeing certain types of dreams as warnings. But what they warn against is a deeply personal matter. To interpret the warnings of your dreams is to choose your own life. Nobody else can do that for you.

Hence dream readers are by nature prophetic figures doing religious service with a divine mandate, or they are dabblers manipulating others, and very often with harmful results – and maybe leading them into psychotic states.

True prophets are rare, and you must demand a dramatic legitimation from them if they are to be recognized. Dabblers are plentiful, and they must be fought and exposed as dangerous manipulators. True religion and its representatives have an important task in doing the dirty work of exposing false prophecy.

There is no way of avoiding it. If the representatives of the true religious traditions do not accept this unpleasant but necessary job, they will have to accept themselves being lumped with the dabblers.

Johannes Aagaard

was born in 1928. He studied theology at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, where he also earned his doctorate in 1967. He is a respected scholar in the fields of missiology and ecumenical theology. He began his research into the new religious movements in the 70’s. A result of this is the Dialog Center International, an institution for the spread of information on and critical analysis of current religious trends. Dr. Aagaard’s work has not remained unnoticed - Scientology has labeled him the “current main who” in Denmark, and in the Christian Churches of Europe he is a recognised authority on new religions.