2007-08-26

Scrupulosity, OCD and the Doctrine of Hell

For approximately five years, from 1999 until my deconversion in 2004, I suffered greatly from an obsession with sin, death and hell known as scrupulosity. The condition is usually considered a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder and is normally treated with counseling and medication. While I respect the general opinion of mental health professionals in this matter, I always insisted that my own problem was not the result of abnormal brain chemistry but simply of sincere belief in the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding the afterlife and I think that the almost three years of my life since then, without any belief in the supernatural and without the slightest hint of obsession, have vindicated that opinion. My belief that God might damn me to hell forever almost drove me literally insane and the terrible anguish which it caused contributed to my sustained antipathy toward the idea of the Christian God.

The Catholic Church preaches two entirely incompatible doctrines which led to my scrupulosity:

  1. God loves each person perfectly and unconditionally.
  2. God will damn a person to hell forever if they commit a mortal sin and then die without having confessed or at least having made an act of perfect contrition with the intention to confess as soon as possible.
It also seems that one must engage in doublethink to fully accept both of these conflicting dogmas and that my eventual inability to reconcile them in my mind was indeed the source of my problem.

Let's say that I'm not certain whether I have committed a mortal sin despite knowing that it must be a gravely immoral act committed with full knowledge of the intellect and full consent of the will. A confessor would most likely instruct me that if I'm not certain, then it cannot be a mortal sin and I don't need to confess it. The problem is that there is no absolute distinction between certain and uncertain in any of the three elements and I was frequently uncertain about whether I was certain! The prospect of literally never-ending torture meant that I couldn't risk even the very slightest chance that I culpably judged wrongly and that obsession was the only rational response to infinite danger. I was often told that I had to trust my current confessor absolutely, but my confessors had directly contradicted each other, directly contradicted official church documents, and even told me that I was right in leaving other confessors who had instructed me wrongly. I was told even more often that I had to trust God because he loves us, but it was simply impossible for me to really believe this. If he really and truly loved us, then he would never assign us infinite punishment for finite sins or make our salvation so heavily dependent on the hour of our death. I was told that I was wrong to view God as a policeman who is constantly waiting for us to do something wrong so that he can punish us, but the image seemed to fit rather well except that, unlike a policeman, God had unlimited control over me, my world, the rules and the punishment! I simply couldn't love a being who threatened me with eternal fire if I didn't follow his rules exactly and who would just completely give up on me once I died. The Christian God was a monster in my eyes whom I grew to fear and despise more and more over the years.

My scrupulosity was treated by confessors, counselors, and even with medication from a psychiatrist. Their assistance granted me a certain limited amount of relief, but it was always only temporary and my condition never really improved beyond being simply bearable. My deconversion, which included the rejection of the concepts of God and hell as absurd, on the other hand, resulted in complete, instantaneous and permanent relief without any counseling or medication because my obsession was rational and had nothing to do with brain chemistry or my “failure” to trust and love God. Here is an example. Like sufferers of actual OCD, I had an obsession with washing and cleanliness. The typical OCD obsession is based on the small possibility of becoming sick and the minuscule possibility of becoming fatally sick from lack of washing and cleanliness. My obsession was based on the possibility of sinning by getting me or someone else sick from lack of washing and cleanliness. The worst that happens with an OCD obsession is that someone gets sick or dies. Everyone dies eventually, so while it makes sense to be careful, it doesn't make sense to be so careful that it ruins one's life. The worst that happened with my obsession, however, was that I burned in hell forever and ever. It really would be worth ruining one's life to avoid an eternity of pain, so my reaction was completely proportionate to the danger. Once I realized that there was no danger of hell, however, I returned to normal immediately. I started washing my hands only after using the restroom and sometimes before eating. I could touch anything without worrying about germs. I could drop a cookie on the ground and eat it without thinking about it except to laugh at how easy it had become. That is simply not possible for someone with abnormal brain chemistry and irrational obsessions. Of course, I would argue that my belief in hell was essentially irrational, but my scrupulosity itself was a perfectly rational response to that irrational belief. The infinite nature of hell had completely disrupted my normal pattern of ordinary risk management and created obsessive thinking, and the church's liturgy had forced me to participate in compulsive rituals such as mass and confession to eliminate these obsessive thoughts. My scrupulosity was thus generated by belief in the church and was thus resolved by disbelief in the church.

A fundamentalist Protestant might respond that one's salvation is assured upon accepting Jesus as one's lord and savior. (As an aside, I don't understand why they usually think Catholics haven't done this except that they don't use those exact words to describe their faith.) At first this seems to avoid the problem of always having one's salvation in doubt, but there other problems which only become apparent upon further reflection. If one's salvation were truly assured, then they could sin with impunity without any fear of hell. Fundamentalists respond that sinning greatly would be an indication that a person was never saved in the first place. This entails that one can be mistaken about whether they are truly saved because they also might sin greatly in the future and therefore they have no assurance of their salvation! One cannot argue that they know they would never do that because many people have been very devout in their faith and then sinned greatly. I have heard of fundamentalists who repeatedly tried to become saved after sinning because they didn't know whether it worked the other times. Since fundamentalist hell is just as terrible as Catholic hell, the same infinite danger merits the same obsessive response.

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1 comment:

Todd said...

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