Over at the Salt Lake Tribune, Peggy Fletcher Stack has written a nice article on the fine and sometimes indistinguishable line between religious inspiration and madness. Because Stack’s audience in Utah is predominantly Mormon, she perforce tap-dances around some delicate issues (i.e., Joseph Smith’s mental health). But this portion of the article particularly caught my attention:
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.”
Christian writer C.S. Lewis said that Jesus was either the son of God or “a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg.”
It surely cannot be the case that the determining whether someone who claims special spiritual powers is mentally ill depends on whether or not s/he is able to gain followers. The followers, after all, may not recognize the illness or may be ill themselves. Reverend Jim Jones had followers but this did not make him any less of a psychopath.
The focus obviously needs to be on the alleged messiah or prophet, whose behavior and ideas may or may not fit one or several categories of DSM-IV illnesses. My guess is that most self-proclaimed messiahs and prophets would comfortably fit within several categories of mental illness. Such a guess has obvious inferences when it comes to answering C.S. Lewis’s either/or assertion.
As the sociologists Rodney Stark and William Banbridge have observed, the success or failure of new religious movements depends on a complex array of factors, only a few of which depend on the mental health of the originator. They distinguish between religious schisms, which more often tend to be successful, sect formation, and cult formation. While these are slippery terms subject to normative abuse, Stark and Bainbridge provide us with the analytical tools necessary to begin considering such issues.
Finally, it should be noted that ethnographers have long wondered whether shamans self-select on the basis of what we would today recognize as mental illnesses. Numerous articles have been written on the subject, with the general consensus being that many shamans would be considered mentally ill in a modern setting, but that others do not display the classic signs of schizophrenia or mania. It may be the case that pre-modern societies dealt with the mentally ill by considering such people to have great spiritual insight and encouraging them to engage in shamanic practices.