The origin of religion-8: Religious observance as obsessive-compulsive behavior

In the previous post in this series, I discussed neurologist Robert Sapolsky’s theory that the charismatic founders of religious cults had schizotypal personalities. He then goes further and tries to identify what traits might be at work amongst the followers of religion. What is it that makes them adopt ritualistic practices that serve no useful purpose? He suggests that the conscientious observance of time-wasting rituals that characterize devout followers of religions is a milder manifestation of what we now call obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD).

There’s a remarkable parallelism between religious ritualism and the ritualism of OCD. In OCD, the most common rituals are the rituals of self-cleansing, of food preparation, of entering and leaving holy places of emotional significance, and rituals of numerology. You look in every major religion, and those are the four most common ritual forms that you see.

You could look at any of these organized religions — though we’re very accustomed by now that, when we think of religion, it’s often interspersed with good works or a sense of community — and see that religion in its orthodoxy is about rules: how you do every single thing all throughout the day. You look at orthodox versions of any of these religions, and there are rules for which direction you face after you defecate, which hand you wash, how many swallowings of water, which nostril you breathe in with, which nostril you breathe out — these are all rules that Brahmans have in order to get into heaven. Numerological rules: how many times you have to say a certain prayer in a lifetime.

Orthodox Judaism has this amazing set of rules: every day there’s a bunch of strictures of things you’re supposed to do, a bunch you’re not supposed to do, and the number you’re supposed to do is the same number as the number of bones in the body. The number that you’re not supposed to do is the same number as the number of days in the year. The amazing thing is, nobody knows what the rules are! Talmudic rabbis have been scratching each others’ eyes out for centuries arguing over which rules go into the 613. The numbers are more important than the content. It is sheer numerology.

Then, obviously getting closer to home for most people here, there is the realm of the number of rosaries and the number of Hail Mary’s. Religious ritualism is shot through with the exact same obsessive qualities.

Once again, these rules are time wasting and maladaptive for most people. But not for all, because if so they would have disappeared over time. They work to the benefit of those who make the rules. Sapolsky suggests that religious rituals originate with people who have OCD-type symptoms because it provides them with a livelihood. The rabbis and imams whose job is to perform the rituals that ensure that animals are slaughtered correctly, the priests who hear confessions and conduct services, the pope, are all people would have to get real jobs if there weren’t these structures that provided a perfect match, a socially approved outlet, that allows them to benefit from what is essentially a disability. As Sapolsky says, “Outside of the realm of religion, OCD destroys people’s lives. It is incompatible with functioning. Not only can you function with those rituals in the religious context: you can make a living doing it. People make a living doing rituals ritualistically in the context of religion.”

So according to Sapolsky, schizotypals are the kinds of people who originate religions and people with OCDs make up the ritualistic rules that surround them and are its most ardent followers, who form the core fundamentalists who take the magical claims of the originators literally.

But protecting them and their beliefs are those with milder versions of this trait, the average person in the church, synagogue, mosque, and temple who are more modernist believers who kinda-sorta believe and kinda-sorta obey the rituals but not ‘religiously’. (It is interesting that the metaphor of doing something religiously is used to characterize someone who never fails to perform a specific action at the requisite time and place.) Such people construct a protective belt of metaphor and obfuscating language to create the illusion that the beliefs make sense and that the rituals have a rational basis. They deflect attention away from the fact that at it core, the beliefs are factually false and unsupportable. The need for the existence of this group to allow religion to flourish ties in with the computer modeling work of James Dow that I wrote about earlier in this series.

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people – those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

“Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them,” Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

So perhaps the schizotypal personalities of Jesus and Mohammed and other cult leaders have features that attract even non-believers (many atheists have nice things to say about Jesus and Buddha as persons, Mohammed and Joseph Smith not so much), and this is sufficient to give the unreal message they propagate survival value.

People constantly ask why we new/unapologetic atheists argue against all religion and not just ‘bad’ religion consisting of the extremists, the fundamentalists, and the blatantly crazy and murderous. In this passage from an audio clip that I linked to recently, comedian Marcus Brigstocke explains why he thinks all religion is bad. After listing the crazy things that religious extremists do, he says:

I know that most religious folk are moderate and nice and reasonable and wear tidy jumpers and eat cheese like real people. And on hearing this, they’ll mainly feel pity for me rather than issue a death sentence. But they have to accept that they are the power base for the nutters. Without their passive support the loonies in charge of these faiths would just be loonies safely locked away and medicated, somewhere nice, you know with a view of some trees, where they can claim they have a direct channel to god between sessions making tapestry drinks coasters, watching Teletubbies, and talking about their days in the Hitler youth. The ordinary faithful make these vicious tyrannical thugs what they are… Without the audience to prop it up… fundamentalist religious fanaticism goes away. (my italics)

I am not sure if Brigstocke is familiar with the work of Sapolsky, Dow, and others about the neurological bases of religious leaders and their followers, but his words do seem to be perfectly consistent with it.

We will not be able to get rid of religious extremists as long as ‘moderate’ religion continues to exist.

Next: Strategies used by religions to grow.

POST SCRIPT: Marcus Brigstocke on living according to the Bible


  1. says

    This is a really interesting post. I’ve never heard someone liken OCD or schizotypals with religious extremists.

    I guess it makes a lot of sense, but on one hand--it’s not necessarily fair to generalize daily religious habits or actions, and then liken them to disorders.

    Like, “the most common rituals are the rituals of self-cleansing, of food preparation, of entering and leaving holy places of emotional significance, and rituals of numerology.”

    Religion, no matter what denomination, are rules and guidelines to live your life by. And it’s easy to liken these guidelines to other things, but OCD is not one of the ones I think of.

    Just think of the motifs?

    Self-Cleansing, you can’t tell me this is only religion. Atheists take showers too I hope--cleanliness is transparency of state, something I believe every human strives for. Cleanliness, simplicity these things bring pleasure. It’s more poetic than OCD.

    Food Preparation? Really? This is OCD? Eating is part of life--it is literally the subsistence by which you live by. What better poetic justice than to connect your spiritual well-being and subsistence to your physical needs.

    I think the argument is strong, but far from sound.

  2. Robert Allen says

    @Business Coach Northridge
    Atheists take showers and cook food too, but we don’t feel the need to make up a hundred pointless OCD rules about it. I think that was the point.

  3. says

    OCD in religious observance is the same as any superstitious behavior. It serves to place order on a disorderly mind and a disorderly world.

  4. Debbie says

    I’m a big fan of this blog, Dr. Singham. However, respectfully, as a mental health professional, I must object to this OCD post and the schizotypal post.

    In brief …

    Dr. Sapolsky’s characterization of OCD is simply not accurate. (Interested readers can look up the DSM definition).

    As for the schizotypal argument, anyone who can launch a movement — sacred or secular — is going to be a unique individual. Unique individuals by definition tend not to meet the criteria for “normal” behavior.

    Finally, in American culture, slapping a mental health diagnostic label onto someone is frequently a way of dismissing them. We in America do it with “terrorists”. When adolescents engage in harmful acts, we label adolescents as mentally ill.

    Using these labels serves no purpose. Doing so interferes with engaged, constructive dialog. It is little more than an “ad hominem” logical fallacy applied to a group.

    I would strongly invite you to stay away from fallacious arguments such as these, Dr. Singham.

    You are far, far better than that.

  5. says

    I love the point of not being able to get rid of (or more appropriately, eradicate) religious extremists as long as there are moderate religious followers.
    The neurological bases of these people is something that would be a fascinating and very extensive study in and of itself!

  6. says

    Interesting article. I am by trade a numerologist, however I have a background in science and technology. I can certainly see how certain extreme religious behavior can seem to parallel the symptoms of psychological disorders like OCD. However lumping all religion and belief of the ‘unreal’ into the same basket as those who have serious mental health issues is at best short sighted and at worst succumbing to the same reductionist thinking that fundamentalist of all religions exhibit. I understand that many people in the scientific community would love to see the belief in religion completely eliminated from the human condition, however that kind of attitude ignores the fact that irrational, emotional and yes even mystical beliefs are a part of being human. They key is to understand the underlying reason humans seem to crave religion. Religion is one of the few areas of study that attempt to understand and explain the symbolic nature of reality. Human behavior is largely governed by the subconscious and the subconscious is governed by symbolism. The symbolic nature of reality and mans understanding of these symbols are at the heart of religion and mysticism. I believe that by studying mans universal use of symbols, we can help to guide humanity to more constructive behaviors. The article specifically mentions numerology and as a numerologist I can tell you that my practice is more about understanding these universal symbols and figuring out how they relate to our live than it is about blindly adhering to some religious doctrine.

  7. says

    Hm, interesting indeed… I wasn’t aware that there is any connection between religious observance and obsessive-compulsive behavior.

    But I somehow feel that I wasn’t alone 😉


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