The Case of the Overly Scrupulous Monk

A 16th-century Augustinian monk finds his vocation after he is nearly struck by lightning, bargaining with God that he will take monastic vows if his life is spared. The fear inspired by this near miss becomes the dominant emotion in his religious life thereafter. He is terrified that he will make a mistake while celebrating his first mass as priest, thereby condemning his soul for eternity. He is haunted by the thought he will overlook some minor stain on his soul that could damn him, so he spends hours each day examining his own conscience for the merest hint of sin. He spends more hours confessing his faults until his exasperated spiritual advisor orders him to stop burdening his confessors with inconsequential “peccadilloes.” Even more ominously, blasphemous thoughts enter the young monk’s mind unbidden when he is trying to pray, and he is constantly distracted with mental images of the “devil’s behind.” A modern-day psychiatrist might conclude that the monk’s extreme scrupulosity and intrusive thoughts were symptomatic of an obsessive-compulsive disorder and prescribe an appropriate course of therapy. However, there was no such diagnosis in the 16th century, and the monk’s odd behavior would have been marked down to excessive piety at worst. Instead of therapy, the young monk, who was named Martin Luther, started the Protestant Reformation and changed the history of Western Christianity.

Luther has become something of a poster child for skeptics who point out the similarities between certain types of religious behavior and the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD sufferers may feel compelled to perform repetitive and ritualized actions. They are tormented by recurrent thoughts and impulses that keep them in a state of high anxiety. They may become fixated on purity and impurity, leading to constant hand-washing and concerns about how food is prepared. They are compulsive counters. They know their behavior is abnormal but feel it is the only way to keep their demons at bay.

Abnormal or not, people with OCD fit right in among certain religious communities, notably those emphasizing elaborate rules and rituals. The Deuteronomic Code in the Old Testament is a virtual recipe book for OCD suffers, with its mind-numbing dietary laws, instructions on ritual offerings and strictures on hygiene. We must ask: Why does God regard it as an abomination to eat meat from an animal that chews its cud but does not have a cloven hoof, or alternately from an animal that has a cloven hoof but does not chew its cud? Why are Brahmins required to face east when they defecate? Why are devout Catholics taught to count rosary beads when reciting certain devotional prayers over and over? For Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, the answer is clear: the people who laid down these rules were all afflicted with OCD.

It is one thing to note that people with OCD have an affinity for certain types of religious practice and quite another to maintain that OCD sufferers, in effect, invented religious rituals, as Sapolsky does. Raised as an Orthodox Jew, he had first-hand experience with some of the elements common to each. But correlation does not constitute causation, as any scientist must know. More likely, each has a common motivation, at least insofar as some of the elements of religious observance resemble symptoms of OCD, and that is fear. One can imagine a distant tribal ancestor of Martin Luther recoiling from his own near-fatal lightning strike and offering up supplications to the unseen forces that he believes control his destiny. The storm passes, and he offers up these same supplications to ward off other threats to his well-being. In time these actions are incorporated into the religious rituals of the tribe, perpetuated by priests or shamans who believe their prayers and sacrificial offerings have been ordained by their gods.

No doubt a thousand generations of this sort of thing lay behind the spiritual crisis that eventually caused Martin Luther to turn against the Roman Catholic Church. No doubt he had been driven half mad by the fiendish interplay between his mental quirks and the requirements of his religious vocation. Yet when presented with the opportunity to refashion his faith to suit his own inclinations, he chose not to indulge his obsessions further. His religious reforms stripped away many of the features of Roman Catholicism that were catnip to OCDers. Of course, he did not know he had OCD, and even if he had, there was no remedy for it at the time. His spiritual advisor urged him to study Scripture, which he did. His breakthrough came reading St. Paul, a onetime religious zealot like Luther who found a better way. "He who through faith is righteous shall live," Paul wrote. Luther had no doubt read this passage a thousand times without grasping its meaning. Until that moment he had always feared God’s righteousness, knowing that he could never hope to attain it himself. Now he understood that he didn’t have to. The key to salvation was faith, and faith alone.

His mental aberrations had forced him to see that moral perfectionism as a path to salvation was a dead end. “If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk,” he later said, “then I would indeed have been among them." What sets OCD apart from some other types of mental aberration is that the victim knows his behavior is abnormal. Perhaps this is why Luther eventually called into question his whole approach to religious observance. He found inspiration in St. Paul, who lauded Christ for “abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances” and promised “if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law.” It was perhaps too much to expect that Luther’s mental quirks would simply disappear. But at least he now knew the fate of his soul did not hang in the balance. He was free.

Robert Sapolsky, “Belief and Biology”
Romans 1:20
Ephesians 2:13
Galatians 5:18

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