Don’t Pathologize Religious Experiences

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Jules Evans, a journalist and writer with a deep interest in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, writes a piece for Wired Magazine on the tendency of religious or out-of-the-ordinary experiences to be “shifted to the margins of our secular, scientific, post-animist culture and defined as pathological symptoms of a physical or emotional disease.” Evans cites a new study in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology that compares “psychotic-like phenomena in clinical and non-clinical populations” and finds that context is vital in determining how that experience is treated and integrated into someone’s life.

The Dream of Solomon by Giordano.

The Dream of Solomon by Giordano.

“It is not the OOE [‘out-of-the-ordinary’ experience] itself that determines the development of a clinical condition, but rather the wider personal and interpersonal contexts that influence how this experience is subsequently integrated. Theoretical implications for the refinement of psychosis models are outlined, and clinical implications for the validation and normalization of psychotic-like phenomena are proposed.”

This leads Evans to call for a more pragmatic approach from health care professionals when confronted with a patient’s experience of an ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ experience. Positively noting support organizations like the Hearing Voices Network that help people integrate and find support for what they are going through.

“Perhaps we need to find a more pragmatic attitude to revelatory experiences, an attitude closer to that of William James, the pioneering American psychologist and pragmatic philosopher. James studied many different religious experiences, asking not “Are they true?” but rather “What do they lead to? Do they help you or cause you distress? Do they inspire you to valuable work or make you curl up into a ball?” We can evaluate the worth of a revelatory experience without trying to find out if the experience “really” came from God or not.”

I think these developments are important, because revelatory, shamanic, magical, and liminal experiences are often a vital part of modern Pagan religious practice, though we are hesitant to share or describe these experiences with outsiders, particularly with health care professionals, for fear that we might, as Evans puts it, “receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia and be prescribed debilitating anti-psychotic drugs.” This could lead to situations where someone who is truly in distress might avoid a mental health professional, resulting in bad outcomes for the patient, and for that patient’s community.

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

To be sure, Pagans often find the contextualizing and integrative help they need solely from their immediate community. Using unexplainable experiences as a positive and productive driver in their lives, framed within the context of religions that honor mystical experiences. As Evans points out, many productive and influential people have acknowledged having an extra-ordinary experience that placed them on their life path, but such a destiny could be destroyed if recounting an unusual experience to the wrong person leads to institutionalization. Evans explicitly ties this phenomenon to the witch-hunts.

“By automatically pathologising and hospitalising such people, we are sacrificing them to our own secular belief system, not unlike the Church burning witches.”

It seems obvious a balance must be struck. People who are experiencing harmful, or debilitating, out-of-the-ordinary experiences need proper treatment, while those who are simply confused on how to contextualize and integrate an unusual occurrence into their existing lives might only need some support, either from a therapist, or a sympathetic community. Current diagnosis guidelines in the United States under the DSM-IV seem pretty clear that intervention hinges on whether the experiences “significantly hinder a person’s ability to function” not on the nature of the visions or experiences themselves. This necessitates that a doctor (or therapist) visit becomes a safe space where the patient relaying OOEs knows that intervention would only happen if their quality of life started to suffer. An equilibrium needs to be established so that those of us who do invite or honor out-of-the-ordinary experiences can trust that there’s a safe place to turn should we feel that such experiences are no longer beneficial, and are instead symptoms of a disorder that needs outside intervention.