Scrupulosity as the Religious Expression of OCD
Can People Be Too Consumed by Their Religious Commitments?
Posted Apr 22, 2018
The relentlessness of the moral and spiritual tacking by the seventeenth century Puritan writer, John Bunyan, in his memoir, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, is nothing short of dizzying. Bunyan wrote this autobiographical work during his twelve year stay in the Bedfordshire jail. (It was during this imprisonment that Bunyan also began work on his best known book, Pilgrim’s Progress.) As a Puritan non-conformist, Bunyan’s preaching technically violated laws at that time aimed at insuring the preeminence of the Church of England. The authorities’ zeal for enforcing such laws increased considerably with the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660, when Bunyan was prosecuted. For so steadfast and devoted a prisoner of religiously-informed conscience, though, the spiritual life Bunyan portrays in Grace Abounding seems unexpectedly wobbly.
Bunyan establishes the moral waywardness of his youth. He also covers the requisite episodes when, his ungodliness notwithstanding, it appeared, retrospectively, that God had saved him from a premature death. Bunyan comments, though, that throughout his youth he was “greatly afflicted and troubled with the thoughts of the day of judgement . . . fearing that it would be my lot to be found at last amongst . . . devils and hellish fiends.”
It was in his young adulthood that his engagement with religion became simultaneously more serious and more fraught. He discusses his spiritual vacillation, describing many efforts to forego the delights he took in what he had come to regard as problematic entertainments such as dancing, bell ringing, and playing games. He reports that he would alternate between what he regarded as the highs of godly endeavor and the lows of sinful conduct repeatedly in the same hour. Even as Bunyan addresses and encourages his readers, he repeatedly acknowledges his struggles to escape his recurring doubts.
Recurring doubts, especially arising so soon and so consistently after all too brief moments of religious confidence, are a symptom of what has come to be regarded as a pathological form of religiosity known as scrupulosity. Scrupulosity is a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Scrupulous individuals fret incessantly about committing religious or moral offenses or overlooking religious or moral obligations. As with other forms of OCD, scrupulous people often focus on matters that other (religious) people regard as minor or trivial (e.g., daydreaming during prayer).
They exhibit all of the prominent patterns associated with OCD. Scrupulous individuals accord great moral and causal significance to their thoughts. They agonize about their inability to control their thoughts and, particularly, their problematic intrusive thoughts. That leads to constantly performing rituals and pursuing reassurance wherever it can be found. Bunyan’s memoir includes multiple instances of his unending need to seek certitude about his salvation in the face of these concerns. These measures are endlessly duplicated because their effects are quickly undone by the scrupulous’ thoroughgoing intolerance of uncertainty about what are matters for which no certainty can be obtained.
Pathological Religiosity or the Protestant Order of Salvation?
Whether Bunyan is well-understood as an exemplar either of scrupulosity (as a form of pathological religiosity) or of OCD or of both is not uncontroversial. Paul Cefalu cautions against applying contemporary standards anachronistically. He holds that Bunyan and others from sixteenth and seventeenth century European Christianity exemplified a “rather common form of excessive . . . non-pathological, religiosity” which constitutes a crucial stage in what Cefalu calls “the Protestant order of salvation.”
Not all, not even most, Protestants, then or now, suffer from scrupulosity. Alternative routes to such spiritual ends were and are available for Protestants. But Cefalu’s underlying general point is valuable. Different cultural circumstances may lead to different standards for what counts as pathological religiosity. Norms about such matters may vary considerably from one culture to the next. Something very much like the patterns in the mental lives and conduct of people with OCD that are idiosyncratic and profoundly troubling can prove normative and affirming within accommodating frameworks that some religions provide.
Bunyan, John. (1666/1987). Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. London: Penguin.
Cefalu, Paul. (2010). “The Doubting Disease: Religious Scrupulosity and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in Historical Context” Journal of Medical Humanities 31 p. 111-125.