Divine Inspiration or Religious Insanity?

Peggy Fletcher Stack has a provoking article on Religious News Service that discusses the difference between divine inspiration and religious insanity:

A teenager says God and Jesus appeared to him in a grove and told him to start a new Christian church. Another person claims the Almighty talks to him through the radio.

A French girl gets messages from heaven to lead an army against the British, while a Utah woman thinks she is meant to have Jesus’ baby and 12 husbands.

Some of these figures were considered prophets and saints, while others were judged insane. The question is: How do you tell which is which?

Brian David Mitchell, convicted Friday (Dec. 10) of kidnapping and raping Elizabeth Smart, insisted that God gave him license to do so, though his attorneys argued he was mentally ill.

The main difference between a prophet and a psychopath, says Ralph Hood, who teaches psychology of religion at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, is “whether or not (they) can get followers.”

Read the whole thing.

(Though I do find it ironic they’re getting advice from Mormons about the issue!)

  • http://lydiafromtexas.wordpress.com/ LRA

    In other words, there is no difference between a psychopath and a prophet…

    • wintermute

      Psychopathy is a lack of empathy, strongly amoral behaviour and an ability to mask these, so as to appear to be a regular human.

      Schizophrenia, featuring auditory and visual hallucinations, disorganised thinking and bizarre delusions is probably a better match.

      • UrsaMinor

        I’d agree that schizophrenia is a better match, on the whole, but I can still envision an occasional psychopathic prophet popping up.

        • wintermute

          Oh, I’m certainly not going to claim that they’re mutually exclusive; just that they’re not interchangeable.

          • drax

            sounds like a psychopath with schizophrenia is a very dangerous combination.

      • Len

        “Schizophrenia, featuring auditory and visual hallucinations, disorganised thinking and bizarre delusions is probably a better match.”

        Sorry – where do you know me from?

  • Lana

    That is an interesting article. The final quote from Elizabeth Smart is just heartbreaking — especially considering Joseph Smith’s penchant for doing pretty much exactly that. Helen Mar Kimball, daughter of Heber C. Kimball, was only 14 when she was pressured into marrying the “prophet” Joseph Smith to ensure her family’s entry into the Celestial kingdom: http://www.wivesofjosephsmith.org/26-HelenMarKimball.htm

    All told, Joseph Smith had about 35 wives in his lifetime. Of them, 11 have living husbands when Joseph Smith told them to marry him. About 5 of them were young girls (between 14-17), and another 3 were 19. Most were in their 20′s. He had a habit of approaching the men supporting him and “testing” their faith by asking if he could take their wives. Despicable man.


  • Mike

    “Line between divine inspiration and religious insanity is a narrow one”

    Really? How about “Line between divine inspiration and religious insanity is non-existent”?

  • nazani14

    It will be interesting to see what happens to Mitchell in prison. Will he maintain his claims of prophecy? How will other inmates treat him? My guess is he’ll keep up the scam, and the other cons will see through it and ‘mess him up.’

  • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

    I’m not sure I buy the idea that there is a thin, perhaps invisible, line between religion and mental illness. There’s a good deal more to being mentally ill than just having delusions that may or may not have some religious flavoring to them. Mental illnesses all have more than just that one symptom, and they manifest in various aspects of a person’s life.

    The currently-accepted — if flawed — criteria for mental illness can be found in the DSM-IV and is multi-axial in nature.

    As for psychopathy, there will always be just-plain-evil people who cloak themselves in the mantle of religion — and/or hide behind a facade of mental illness — in order to prey on people. Some psychopaths trying to pass as mentally ill are detected as such (it’s known in psychiatry as “malingering” and there are criteria for determining that).

    Unfortunately there is no religious counterpart of for detection of “malingering.” This means it’s easier for a psychopath to use religion to convince people of his/her sincerity and manipulate people than it is for him/her to pass as mentally ill (although the latter does still occur).