Open the doors to a psychiatric ward, and the doors to a church, and you’re liable to find the same thing; you’ll find God inside people who truly believe it to be so. Approximately 60% of individuals on the schizophrenia spectrum or with psychotic disorders have grandiose religious delusions (as, it seems, do the heads of many religious institutions). Some believe they are a saint, some believe they are God, some believe they are the devil; a prophet; even Jesus. Yet these beliefs are most always written off as madnesses, and are condemned by devout Christians who cast sufferers off as sinners saved only by their eventual repentance to a capital G-God. So what’s the difference between the plight of people with mental diagnoses finding God in modern day, and the figures of worship inside the Bible? In reality? Not much.
Hallucinations can be a symptom of psychotic and schizophrenic disorders, with auditory and visual experiences being the most common sensations. Co-occurring visual and aural hallucinations are prevalent in up to 84% of cases of schizophrenia; they are perceived to be real, tangible images, and the individual experiencing the sensation frequently responds by reacting to the event directly. Too often, these hallucinations include visions of fire, God, the devil, saints, faeries, and hearing the voice of God—sound familiar? Let’s review some biblical literature.
There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. … When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” (Exodus 3:2-4)
Moses, one of the most significant Jewish prophets, responsible for leading the slaves in Egypt to the Holy Land, perceives a burning bush and promptly hears the voice of God. “Moses answered, ‘What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?’” (Exodus 4:1), approaching the bush and answering, he acknowledges the existence of the sound as specific to only him, conforming to the features of hallucinatory experiences. That’s not to say Moses didn’t see a burning bush, or hear God in it, or that his staff didn’t indeed become a snake in the events which followed, “Moses threw [the staff] on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it,” (Exodus 4:3); in fact, when it comes to hearing an almighty being, he’s not the only one; virtually every biblical figure is led by an intangible voice of guidance on their journey as a prophet:
And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (Kings 19:12-13)
God heard the lad crying; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter with you, Hagar? Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. (Genesis 21:17)
But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Genesis 22:11)
“Father, glorify Your name ” Then a voice came out of heaven: “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.” (John 12:28)
and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.” (Luke 3:22)
Great, good for them, so that brings forward the question: “what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived?” (Deuteronomy 5:26) and here’s the answer: either someone with psychosis, or someone with abilities of biblical proportion. So why do those claiming the voice of God in modern day offend contemporary evangelicals? And more importantly, why are those experiencing these symptoms discarded as the disgraces of our society whilst others spearheaded a religion followed devotedly still to this day?
The nature of psychiatric wards, which house people suffering from ailments which impact their daily functioning, are maintained as undesirable and ultimately un-healing places which serve the purpose of segregation rather than convalescence. There is a process of fear-mongering in the wider community which suggests the public is in more danger than those actually suffering from mental illness—and the media doesn’t aid that, with films and religious propaganda enforcing the notion of possession by evil forces. Christian psychiatry itself pushes the agenda of sin as a potential explanation for people’s maladaptive behaviours, claiming they must want to seek redemption by the grace of God in order to renew their human nature. And in schizophrenia and psychotic disorders, the lifetime risk of suicide mortality is estimated to be 5.6%; there is an awareness of the self as something existing beyond what is deemed normal, and the continual fear and disgust expressed towards them that worsens their struggle with mental illness. These are real people, living real lives in modern day, yet speaking many of the same things as those inside a book regarded as God’s word to the religious.
To praise the vision of one man’s eye and condemn the same image in another contradicts the very beliefs held by the self-proclaimed pious, and perpetuates a public stigma liable to further enhance self stigma and increase rates of self-harm and suicide amongst those who need our support and understanding. So what’s my point? In a sentence? Your interpretation of faith is fucked if a man in a book is worth more to you than a real human life.
Religion is great when it’s used right, but there is drastic hypocrisy when you use your beliefs to undermine the experience of people with mental diagnoses. Who’s to say these people aren’t actually prophets of the new age? The fact is the vilification and demonization of these people turns religion into a standing of superiority, diminishing the reality of psychosis and painting individuals as immoral sinners choosing to defy the word of God. People don’t choose to suffer, and they don’t choose to become society’s outcasts. If you decide to preach the words of a book which depicts hallucinations so vividly, you should support and understand those undergoing the same experience in this lifetime too.