God and Schizophrenia

Question from David:
What is the general consensus amongst atheists about the experiences of schizophrenics? Perhaps this is a naive question but bear with me.

I am referring particularly to the profoundly spiritual aspects of the experiences often had by schizophrenics, particularly in regards the feeling of depersonalisation and spiritual isolation and/or feeling of connection and closeness to God and depth of these experiences. This is often the case with people who have previously been complete atheists. I thought this type of spiritual conversion process might well be of interest, especially because it is considered a psychological/ physiological issue.

Any replies or insights would be helpful.

Answer by SmartLX:
Many Christians, especially those belonging to charismatic churches which celebrate, encourage and actively seek dramatic personal experiences of God or Jesus, will tell non-believers the stories of their own experiences because they think it’s the best way to convert them. This is because a perceived personal encounter with a deity can be so convincing that it makes people forget how much less convincing it is to hear others testify about the same thing. It’s a lot easier to suspect that another person is either lying or wrong about such a thing than to suspect your own senses.

Schizophrenics have it tougher than the rest of us in this respect. The condition produces aural and/or visual hallucinations which seem to the sufferer to be unambiguously real. In many cases they can be demonstrated not to be, but hallucinations people keep to themselves may never even be questioned. If I saw God in a full-blown ecstatic delusion, and didn’t know I was delusional, as far as I was concerned I’d have really seen God and I might not question it until I was diagnosed with a mental illness…maybe not even then.

So what do the intense experiences of schizophrenics and victims of other mental maladies tell the rest of us about ourselves? That our brains, though incredible, are fallible and susceptible things. We have a hard enough time sorting lies and falsehoods from truth and facts at the best of times; any impairment to our own faculties might make the task impossible. (That includes temporary impairment: intoxication, sleep deprivation, migraines, you name it.) We ourselves are among the things we must question in order to improve our understanding of reality.

One thought on “God and Schizophrenia”

  1. “We ourselves are among the things we must question in order to improve our understanding of reality” – very well said.

    Even without being schizophrenic, one can have vivid spiritual experiences that can touch one to the core.
    I’ve had friends who’ve had visions when they went trekking in the mountains, I know people who have visions while in meditation. I’ve slept under the stars sometimes and felt as if each one of them was connected to my being in some way. I’ve had dreams that seem real that sometimes have shaken me, and have other times seemed real but been nonsensical just like other dreams.
    In all cases there are rational explanations for these phenomena – thin mountain air and the strenuous exercise, auto-suggestion, emotional release after intense exhaustion, vivid dreams or plain neural mis-firing.

    The problem is that the rational explanations and facts tend to “dehumanize” or “depersonalize” the experience, while religious explanations and allegory tend to personalize them and make them special.

    Should the rational explanations take away the joy of the experience from us? Such experiences probably bring forth to us what’s there in our unconscious, albeit in a very disorganized / jumbled or deeply emotional sort of a way. Maybe they reveal a bit more to us about ourselves. Maybe they are to be cherished but not taken very seriously (much like the on-screen antics of Charlie Chaplain of old – with the brain fulfilling the role of the actor).

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