Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Religion and Mental Illness

This article tells us the story of Julia, a religious fanatic who stuffed Bible pages into her six week old baby’s mouth and then smothered her to death by sitting on her. The family was being intermittently monitored by health workers due to their mental instability and religious fanaticism. On a previous visit to the home social workers were disturbed by the father praying loudly and shouting to, “take the devil out of [Julia].”

These social workers actually visited the family the day of the murder remarking that the baby and mother were nowhere to be seen and that the father was intensely engaged in prayer. They believe that the baby was either dying or dead while they were visiting.

Sentencing, Mr. Justice Cooke said that Julia’s bipolar disorder meant she suffered from “grandiose delusions of special powers, religious delusions of identity, and auditory hallucinations.”

I think all of us will happily agree that this woman is profoundly mentally ill. Murdering your own baby offends the deepest senses of our moral intuition. As the comments of the article suggest, this is repulsive to people on both sides of religion. Right? Right.

My question is this: Is it even the slightest bit possible that this woman’s religious beliefs contributed to her mental instability? Will you allow room for that? After all, she wasn’t shoving Charles Dickens in her baby’s mouth. This is what concerns me, folks. I’m not saying that without religion this woman would not have been mentally ill. I’m simply asking if you believe it might have had something to do with it.

Yours in reason,

Clint Wells


Mike said...

I had the unfortunate experience of having to commit a relative due to extreme bi-polar disorder. In the process I talked with several folks who had to do similar.

In the manic phase of this illness, the person will be delusional about whatever's occurring at the time. Could be work (my coworkers are conspiring to have me killed) religious beliefs (there are 7 times 7 bricks in the wall...I counted), the stoplight they're at (the yellow light is talking to me), or whatever (the black van behind me is the FBI and they're trying to kill wait, they've told this blue van ahead of me...ALL VANS are the FBI!).

Thus, if they're religious they may latch onto that. But it really has nothing to do with it, nor does it contribute to it any more than anything else will.

The delusion basically has to do whether or not something is actually occurring.

Is God talking to you? I don't know, only you know that. But I can say that there is no tracking device in your car, and that there are no voices in the water we're listening to.

Clint Wells said...

Sorry to hear about your relative, Mike. Thanks for the insightful comment.

Robert said...

There's a chance that she wasn't mentally ill at all. Just extremely wicked and likely demonized. Regardless, its all speculation.

Slightly off topic... Did you, by chance, see "The Exorcism of Emily Rose"?

Anonymous said...

No one ever states what kind of "extreme fanaticism" she exhibited. That's what I'm interested in. What does that mean exactly? Would the 9-11 hijackers have been homicidal maniacs if they hadn't been Muslims? How can we know?

Can we even define sanity in a really comprehensive and satisfactory way? Apart from saying "the absence of mental defect."

By the way, I think it is interesting that when she was interviewed, this woman said she didn't know why she did what she did. She didn't make any claim that God told her to kill her child. (That I can see, anyway.)

What is the most relevant to me is that this is a woman with a long and documented history of mental illness who either wasn't given or didn't take advantage of any postpartum mental-health care. Why would a visiting social worker not press to see the baby and interview the mother? That's the lapse. We all know about postpartum depression and psychosis, right?

Believe in God or don't, but this world doesn't make it easy to be a woman or a child. Or a person, for that matter.

Maybe you're asking a chicken-and-egg question here.


Clint Wells said...

S – I think those are good observations. The only details in the article the social workers gave were the loud and intense prayers of the father and the talk about the devil being “inside Julia.” It’s easy for me, based on that tiny description, to get a pretty fair picture of what these people were like.

As far as 9-11 there is no doubt that those attacks were motivated by Islamic jihadism and not insanity. The 19 men who hijacked those planes were not bipolar and had no history of mental illness. They simply believed they would be rewarded in eternity for their martyrdom. In other words, their religion WAS their mental illness.

Can we define sanity? Sure.

Sane - of sound mind; mentally healthy. Having or showing sound judgment; reasonable.

I personally find it telling that they were praying about the presence of the devil and this woman was shoving the Bible in her baby’s mouth. But you are right. She never explicitly says that GOD told her to do it. Let me direct you to some more pertinent articles.

In this article ( you can read about a woman in Tyler, Texas who took a rock and smashed the skulls of her 8 and 6 year old boys as well as her 15 month old baby, who unfortunately survived the attack with life-long impairments. From the article:

“…Laney (mom) believed that God had told her the world was going to end and ‘she had to get her house in order,’ which included killing her children.

‘The dilemma she faced is a terrible one for a mother,’ her lawyer said. ‘Does she follow what she believes to be God's will, or does she turn her back on God?’

Her lawyer said he would present witnesses who would corroborate Laney's love of her children as well as her belief ‘that the word of God was infallible.’”

In this article ( you can read about a woman in San Francisco, CA who threw her three kids (6, 2 and 16 months) into the San Francisco Bay. She claimed GOD told her to make a human sacrifice out of her kids. From the article:

“While Harris (mom) believes she heard God's voice, it took a series of rational decisions to take her children from Oakland to the pier, undress the boys — one of whom struggled with her — hoist them over the railing and drop them into the water, the prosecutor said.

‘She knew you had to die to get to heaven. She knew how to get them to God. They had to die first, and that was her plan.’”

In this article ( you can read about a woman who murdered her baby by cutting off its arms because she believed GOD told her to.

In this article ( you can read about a woman who used an iron to beat her baby to death. From the article:

“Police said that the mother of the child did not regret the murder because God had told her the boy was evil and became the son of the devil.”

What makes these people different from Abraham or Jephtha?

Robert said...

What makes these people different from Abraham or Jephtha?

The details and context of the story intentionally omitted by a reductionist, revisionist apologetic.

BTW: Is there enough evidence from the text (for a Pearlist) to suggest that Jephthah's daughter was physically sacrificed?

Clint Wells said...

Who intentionally omitted details?

BTW: Is there enough evidence from the text (for a Pearlist) to suggest that Jephthah's daughter was physically sacrificed?

Good point! I suppose thats a textual criticism issue. What do you think happened in the story?

Anonymous said...

Obviously, the had documented medical issues. Her own warped mind where she even warped some religious beliefs had a contribution, but obviously her medical issues contributed in the most primary manner.

We can cite many stories where religion or irreligion motivates sick people to do sick things. Irreligion certainly influenced the two murderers at Columbine more than 11 years ago. Christianity, Islam, Atheism, name any ideology...they all have had their good guys/gals and their bad guys/gals.

Clint Wells said...

Robert - It was clearly impractical for me to quote the entire article, which is why I linked you to it in the very first sentence. Linking the actual article can hardly be said to be intentionally omitting details.

Further, I acknowledged to "S" that this story does not hold that the murderer explicitly blamed GOD. Which is why I linked four more articles where the murderer does. And the question you were responding to follows those articles.

The point is: do beliefs matter?

Robert said...

My point isn't that you or the media omit details from a story. It's that the context and details of scripture are treated this way.

Clint, beliefs do matter. When it comes to "God" there are many impostors.

This is a "man bites dog" argument. You won't find a lot of write ups about how planned parenthood encouraged someone to murder their child for the sake of their reputation or career goals. But it happens every day. Hundreds of times. Dog bites man.

Anonymous said...

Okay, forgive me for being obtuse. Many interesting things in your response, but before I really get at the questions I have about them, I need to ask: Is your underlying assertion here that Islam and Christianity are mental illnesses?

I'm very, very interested in what you've said, but debating that particular resolution isn't something on which I want to spend my brain cells.


Clint Wells said...

Robert - I see your point.

S - I personally think that a normal person's mental capacities can be warped by religious belief. Am I saying that all religious people are mentally ill? No.

The main point of this entire post is that I think beliefs matter. They are not some benign, nostalgic sideline forces in peoples lives. If you REALLY believe that the end of the world is coming soon and that the end of the world is the best thing that can happen to you because you will go live forever with GOD, then you will not make a good neighbor in the human enterprise. Why? Because you are preoccupied not only with your own death but with the death of the entire world. That is fucking creepy.

Stay or leave. I don't care for the subversive bullying anyway. I'd hate for you to waste any of your brain cells.

Anonymous said...

Clint, you are right in saying that beliefs do matter.

However, as one who has studied world religions, I can tell you that your description (end of the world is coming soon, better to die and be with God than stay on this world, etc.) does not qualify as Christian orthodoxy. Orthodoxy would state that being in this world is good and that we should work for the betterment of our neighbor and of the environment since this earth will one day be renewed into a new earth for all to live on.

Still, I think this particular story with this mentally ill woman is different since her faculties are no "all there" in their proper state of function. While moral intuition invades all of humanity, this does not apply to the mentally ill.

Anonymous said...

Subversive bullying? What the hell, man? That's nutty.

I'm interacting with you on this topic because it interests me a lot. My interest is selfish and I'm using you to hash out some thoughts. Because it's challenging and interesting and potentially useful to me. So, that's all. (Is that bad?)

I agree with your assertions about the importance of belief. I've often wondered if beliefs shape reality in some way.

I'm dissatisfied with your definition of sanity, but only because what is reasonable or rational isn't and can't be qualified and therefore, can't be expected to be manifested consistently across culture and time.

What I'm curious about is do fanatical religions attract crazy people or do they make people crazy? I'm also interested in the limits we can put on religious expression before we define mental illness. Additionally, is there some role patriarchal oppression plays in the occurrence of infanticide? Is it too big a jump to say that patriarchy is a critical element of fundamentalism?

Is it possible that hearing God ask you to kill your child is a symptom of postpartum psychosis?

If you have some thoughts about that, I'd love to read them. If not, whatever.

I kind of take being called a Subversive Bully as a compliment. Maybe I'll have a t-shirt made.

S. (Or S.B.)

Clint Wells said...

Anon1 - Are you really saying that ideas of the apocalypse do not fit into mainstream world religions?

Are you really suggesting that Christ's message was not an apocalyptic one? The kind, tolerant and well educated folks over at Apocalypse Soon ( would disagree about your defintion of Christian orthodoxy. In fact, you'd both likely both consider each other to have missed the point all together. There is no consensus amongst believers about what constitutes as orthodox Christianity.

I agree with your last paragraph. What about the other four articles I linked, though?

A question to cut through the mire: Would you consider a person mentally ill for stoning their disobedient children? Yes or No.

S.B. - Not bad at all. I'm glad you're here. I just resent the whole, "I'm interested in this but if you're talking about 'x' then I'd rather not waste my brain cells." No thanks.

True. Sanity is evolving with us. Several hundred years ago you were considered INSANE if you thought witch burning was nonsense. However, as we learn more about the natural world we are able to more onjectively begin to define what was once a subjective and abstract concept. Sanity can now be held as a model to consist with observable reality. I understand the philosophical idea behind questions like, "what IS sanity" and "what IS knowledge" and "Am I even here in realty typing on a computer right now?"

Interesting questions for a bar and some drinks. But you and I both adopt some sort of objective definition of sanity every day of our lives when we go to work and drive on the interstate and make our coffee and watch the news, etc. etc. etc.

What I'm curious about is do fanatical religions attract crazy people or do they make people crazy?

What are fanatical religions? Presumably you would exclude Christianity from a fanatical religion. But why?

Is it possible that hearing God ask you to kill your child is a symptom of postpartum psychosis?

It's a hell of a lot more possible if you believe God talks to you every day, wouldnt you agree? If you reject the god hypothesis and, due to an illness like postpartum psychosis, begin hearing voices, it might be easier to dismiss the voices.

I want one of those t-shirts.

Anonymous said...

I am confused at to why you feel it necessary to talk about a religion you no longer believe in so damn much.
Get over it. You don't believe it, you think it is stupid-we get it. It is just getting boring at this point

Clint Wells said...

Confused Anon - I write and think about religion a lot because it is arguably the most powerful force in the world. Beliefs matter.

In regards to Christianity, all of my writings about it are a response to the culture around me. You'll notice that most of my blog posts are responses to articles or common misconceptions about nontheism. Christianity is evangelical by nature and so I exist in a world where religion is at best being offered to me at every turn and at worst it is assumed to be true by everyone.

A power in the world that with such an overwhelming appeal to authority should be regarded with skepticism.

I think about other things a lot. Mostly about music and art and relationships. But it so happens that in this particular phase of my life I'm very interested in discussing religion and promoting skepticism.

Anonymous said...

Don't resent it. I'm busy and you're busy (I guess) and I seriously don't have an unlimited number of brain cells.

I definitely would not exclude Christianity. I don't believe it is necessarily entirely fanatical, but it has its elements. Fred Phelps, for example. Not orthodox by a long stretch, but he technically is a Christian, right? Dude knows the bible, anyway. I find him utterly repugnant in every way, I admit.

I think that whatever cultural petri dish you're swimming around it has a lot to do with what religion you cling to when the wheels come off your bus. Perhaps we don't hear more about the nut-jobs from other religions who kill their kids because our media has some bias. Or because it just isn't sensationalized in predominately muslim/buddhist/whatever cultures. I still think it happens, though. Religion is necessarily nebulous and fertile ground for fruitcakes. But I don't see a true cause-effect relationship there. How can you prove that given the large "control" group of not-crazy religious people. My background includes large Islamic and Christian influences. I've seen crazy and not-crazy both. If that makes sense. I've also known sane and insane atheists. Crazy is an equal-opportunity employer in my experience.

I've exhausted this topic in my mind, so I won't post again, but I do appreciate your comments.


I'll definitely get you a shirt if I ever have one made.