Psychopathology and religious experience: could someone be experiencing a mental illness and having a religious experience at one and the same time?



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St Andrews University


Currently, psychiatrists and psychologists, and spiritual advisors from religious traditions, independently debate a similar puzzle: how can we tell the difference between psychopathology and genuine/salutary religious experience?

This debate relates to a number of different experiences, including hearing/seeming to hear voices, seeing/seeming to see visions, and religiously-inflected sadness or anhedonia. In presupposing that someone might only be experiencing either psychopathology or genuine/salutary religious experience, these debates overlook instances of people – including significant holy figures within religious traditions - whose experiences seem to be diagnosable or discernible as both. 

I will test the hypothesis that people might experience both psychopathology and religious experience simultaneously (the ‘both-and’ view). If correct, my hypothesis will revolutionise theory and practice in both medical and religious domains.

People with pastoral roles in churches want to know when to provide people with spiritual encouragement and when to refer them to a doctor – if my hypothesis proves to be correct, both may be appropriate.

Psychiatrists and psychologists currently refrain from diagnosing someone if they’re thought to be having a religious experience by their religious community. This can lead to underdiagnosis and prolonged suffering.

Conversely, when a diagnosis is made, people can come to assume that their experience has no religious meaning. If my hypothesis is correct, it is possible for medical/psychological help to be given and for meaning to be recognised and preserved.

Event: Psychopathology and Religious Experience symposium, April 2022, Saltaire




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