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Pascal's Wager: OCD and Scrupulosity

The line between religious devotion and OCD pathology can be a little hazy.

Key points

  • For those who suffer from scrupulosity, in moments of great anguish, OCD and religious devotion can be synonymous.
  • Pascal’s wager proposes we must gamble how much of our limited time on earth we’re willing to devote to appeasing a possibly nonexistent deity.
  • The pursuit of spiritual perfection can come with many personal costs.
Source: Ric Rodrigues/Pexels
Source: Ric Rodrigues/Pexels

I was raised Catholic and suffered from severe, undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). If there's one useful thing I learned from the whole miserable experience, it is this: only a sucker sells his soul to the devil.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder fixates on matters of life and death, on existential dangers. OCD does not tolerate uncertainty in matters it deems important. OCD does not allow you to forget about danger, to think about something else, even for a few minutes; anxiety is the only thing that matters, and therefore, logically, the only thing you are allowed to think about is whatever your greatest source of anxiety happens to be in that moment.

Nor does OCD tolerate inactivity. OCD doesn't care if there's nothing you can do to resolve the issue: it will invent tasks for you, often only tangentially related to the problem. Given the choice between passive acceptance of a distant threat or inane, pointless activity, OCD always demands action. And the repetition of that action. And the repetition of that action and another repetition again. OCD is not patient; it is not kind. It is diligent and intolerant of imperfection and irrationality.

OCD and Scrupulosity

If you suffer from OCD, the line between religious devotion and obsessive-compulsive pathology is always a little hazy. But in moments of great anguish, OCD and religion are synonymous. There is no meaningful difference. Experts call this manifestation of the disorder "scrupulosity." You're doing your best, but God might still be judging you; there's no way to know for sure. You say one more quick prayer, grit your teeth, and ask for one more lash of the whip. And when it's over, and you don't feel any better, you go back for another.

A Mythical Illustration

To wit, a few weeks back, I found a really nice antique credenza on Craigslist. I probably should have realized something was up when I agreed to meet the guy at a gallows tree by a crossroads at the stroke of midnight. He had an immaculate goatee, a lobster-red complexion, and a dreadful center-part hairstyle covering up two very suspicious protuberances on his forehead. And he had the credenza, sure, but then he immediately started trying to upsell me on a solid gold enchanted fiddle at the cost of my immortal soul.

What kind of idiot would take that deal? I'm only going to be on earth for another fifty, maybe sixty years–how are the extremely tenuous benefits of solid-gold fiddle ownership for fifty-odd years anywhere close to adequate compensation for an eternity of hellfire and brimstone? (I did, however, buy the credenza. There's a huge scratch on the tabletop you couldn't see in the photos, and I'm pretty sure it's possessed by the spirit of alleged serial killer Elizabeth Bathory, but it was only twenty bucks, so whatever.)

But I'll give old Lucifer's establishment exactly two-thirds of a Yelp star for one reason: their commitment to total transparency. He laid out all the terms and conditions, clear as anything: these were the services to be provided, and this was the price to be exacted. In this one area, at least, Hell is objectively a more ethical business than its chief competitor. Because, believe me, I've been trying to talk to the alternative's upper management for literal decades, and not one of His mealy-mouthed customer service reps will answer my questions, the only questions that matter in a theistic universe. Just give me a straight answer:

What is the cost? Where is the contract? What goods and services must I provide to ensure I do not burn forever? How do I sell my soul to God?

That is what scrupulosity feels like.

Pascal's Wager

The economics of sin and salvation were calculated by the 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal, who attacked the problem with comically dispassionate pragmatism. God may or may not be real, Pascal argued, but there's no way to know for sure–so every individual must gamble how much of their limited time on earth they are willing to devote to appeasing a possibly nonexistent deity. If God is indeed real, then when you die, the outcome of your wager is instantly, incontestably clear: you fly, or you burn. "If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He is."

But I think the more interesting outcome, by Pascal's logic, is if God does not exist. Pascal argued that a life "wasted" on piety instead of self-actualization is a small price to pay, given the stakes of the game: "there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite."

Pascal is wrong. The cost of Pascal's wager is a lifetime of scrupulosity, and although human life is finite, the pain of scrupulosity is not. When you prostrate yourself before the altar of uncertainty when you take up the yoke of pathologized dogma–that anguish cannot be explained in finite terms. With every repetition, the sufferer experiences the indignity, exhaustion, and utter futility of Sisyphus, that lurch in the gut as the weight of the boulder shifts backward. You find damnation in the space between moments.

There is no easy solution to the devilish arithmetic of obsessive scrupulosity. Every religious ritual is (at least a little) neurotic; every believer must build their faith around (at least a little) doubt. But for any of you struggling with scrupulosity or other forms of religiously-inspired OCD, I'd ask you to take a moment and think about Pascal's wager. Think about what the pursuit of spiritual perfection has taken from you, the aggregate cost of all those little moments of damnation.

A well-lived life (I believe, at least) is not about the scrupulous avoidance of sin but the courageous pursuit of virtue–even in the face of uncertainty.

Copyright Fletcher Wortmann, 2022. Please credit the original author, Fletcher Wortmann, and Psychology Today.


Jonathan Grayson. (2014). Freedom from obsessive-compulsive disorder (Updated Edition). Penguin Random House, New York, NY.

Blaise Pascal. (1958). Pensees. E.P. Dutton, New York, NY.

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