God's wrath in mental illness

Religion is present in two of the illnesses I treated and studied. I am fairly certain that, in both of these mental conditions, it had to do with the patients’ belief system prior to the illnesswith whether the individual was primarily motivated by money and status or by religion and morality. In a small number of cases, melancholia would present as the patient having the conviction that he or she had been condemned by God and had been cast into an irreparable state of damnation. I remember that one of these patients had the conviction that he could smell himself rotting.

In the three cases that come to my mind, there was nothing whatsoever that these individuals had done, and to the contrary, my impression is that they had probably been excessively concerned about their rectitude. That is why I think the actual content of their illness had to do with their belief system, which then had been spun up into a sickness. It was similar to those who believed in money, power, and status—feeling in sickness that they had been condemned to live in the obscurity of poverty. It is important to emphasize that the delusional content of these illnesses was secondary and that the intense feelings of shame and guilt were identical, and the core of the illness, in every instance.

Perhaps a bit more frequently, the content in schizophrenia took a religious form. I talked at great length to a man whose entire youth was dominated by a mother who would frequently enter into extended bouts of feeling that God was directly communicating to her that she was condemned to live in hell forever. His childhood was one long nightmare of her anguish year after year, with multiple ineffective treatments including several electro-convulsive procedures. My patient suffered the consequences of such a childhood. Another patient fended off continual thoughts that God was condemning her by spending much of her life obsessively reciting prayers in order to counteract them.

But then there were those with schizophrenia who had emotionally positive experiences that God was anointing them for a special mission and it was their withdrawal and eccentric behavior that was problematic. Always in the illness of schizophrenia there is the underlying pathological intensity, specifically in the reception of their thoughts from an outside source, that is the tip-off.

George Price of the Price equation

I interviewed two individuals who had had sudden religious conversion experiences, which was not why they were consulting me. One had been a man in the prison. Both spoke of suddenly feeling the “presence” of God, which was peaceful and far from the emotional intensity of schizophrenia. However, I was fascinated to read about the mental condition of someone who was to become a key figure later on in my thinking, George Price. He was a mathematical genius who thought up what is known as the Price equation, which simply and elegantly proved mathematically that natural selection could proceed at any level—the gene, the individual, the group, the species, and all the way up. Consistent with the Price formula, it was to be my eventual claim that the momentous evolutionary transformation six million years ago was to emerge to exert its influence at the level of our entire hominid family.

Book about George Price

As described in Oren Harman’s The Price of Altruism (2010), it certainly sounds as though Price descended into schizophrenia at the end of his life, turning to religion, giving away all of his money to homeless strangers, and finally committing suicide. And yet there is a sense in which his belief in altruism and compassion was what spun out of control and seized his mind.

Reading about him got me thinking that the evolutionary transformation between ape and hominid did not just entail the suppression of the individual id by the force of moral law, but also enlisted and concentrated all the rudiments of compassion and justice in animals that have been the recent focus of Frans de Waal in Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (2009) and other works such as Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (2009) by Bekoff and Pierce. In a Science article “Empathy and the Laws of Affect” (2011), Jaak Panksepp hypothesizes ancient internally mediated neurochemical rewards for prosocial behavior in all mammals. After reading about George Price, I began wondering about the relationship between sickness and health when contemplating great religious figures such as Moses, Jesus and Mohamed. I do not imply for an instant that these individuals were sick in any way—rather geniuses in that they possessed an intensity of positive religious feeling and communication with God.

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