Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder which involves intrusive thoughts known as obsessions, and repetitive compulsions involved with these obsessions. These obsessions represent exaggerated fears which are unlikely to occur, and many of those with OCD even acknowledge that they are unlikely to occur. The purpose of compulsive rituals is to neutralize the power of these obsessions have by taking action to prevent the feared outcome.
OCD frequently shows up among the religious in an especially severe form. Those with such OCD are preoccupied with intrusive blasphemous thoughts, compulsive prayer, excessive concern about having committed a particular sin, such as the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and obsession with washing rituals, death, fear of hell or punishment, preoccupation with having performed a religious ritual incorrectly, and so on. This pattern is sometimes referred to as “scrupulosity.” The scrupulous may become preoccupied with certain aspects of their religious beliefs while ignoring others.
Religious obsessions, according to one study, are the 5th most common obsession. Six percent of the participants considered it their primary obsession. Approximately 25 percent of individuals with OCD suffer from religious obsession. Highly religious Protestants are especially predisposed to OCD, and one study has found that they exhibit the highest severity of these symptoms. In general, an individual’s OCD can be highly influenced by their religion and culture. Plutarch, for example, recorded obsessive-compulsive disorder in connection with the religion of his time and culture:
“And so is the soul of the superstitious man. He turns pale under his crown of flowers, is terrified while he sacrifices, prays with a faltering voice, scatters incense with trembling hands, and all in all proves how mistaken was the saying of Pythagoras that we are at our best when approaching the gods. For that is the time when the superstitious are most miserable and most woebegone….
“When Timotheus at Athens was singing a hymn to Artemis and calling her “Ecstatic, prophetic, frantic, demented,” Cinesias the song-writer stood up from among the audience and cried, “May you have a daughter like that!” But in fact superstitious people do imagine things like that and worse about Artemis…. No more suitable than these are the ideas they have about Apollo, about Hera, about Aphrodite. They tremble with horror at all of them.
…[N]o malady is so variable, so charged with emotion, so compounded of ideas opposed to and conflicting with one another, as superstition.”
Compulsive rituals are connected with obsessions connected with their particular religion. They tend to be more likely to seek out religious counseling than medical treatment. The more “negative” or punitive their conception of God, the higher the degree of scrupulosity. Interestingly enough, 20 percent said that their OCD, in one study, helped them observe the tenets of their religion. The purpose of compulsive observance of rituals does not produce fulfillment, but instead, only relieves anxiety.