Archive for Saturday, June 15, 2013

Faith Forum: Where would you draw the line between religious fervor and unhealthy obsession?

June 15, 2013


Dennis Karpowitz, emeritus associate professor of psychology at Kansas University and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

My response focuses on individual religious fervor and unhealthy obsession. It does not deal with extreme group behavior like terrorism.

Religious beliefs for many bring meaning, comfort, joy, hope and peace to their lives. It is natural to want to share their faith with others. This is healthy in moderation but like any correct principle, when taken to the extreme, it can become unhealthy.

Most mental health problems are extremes of normal behavior. For example, everyone has a “blue” day. When every day is “blue,” we call that depression. Many individuals are orderly and well planned. They repeat thoughts and actions regularly such as thinking about a scripture passage that encourages one to make positive change or attending church regularly. When these activities are taken to the extreme, such as mentally reviewing past mistakes 50 times a day or attending church 30 times a week, we call these obsessions (thoughts) or compulsions (acts). Two principles may assist in defining the line between healthy religious fervor and unhealthy obsession/compulsion.

First, when a thought or action gets in the way of one’s own reasonable goals or objectives, it becomes unhealthy. For example, a person wants to be self-sustaining and has a desire to be of help to others. If the volunteer service takes so much time that the person is fired from her or his employment, then the volunteer service has become unhealthy.

Second, when an action infringes on someone else’s appropriate freedom or agency, then it becomes unhealthy. I share a spiritual message with a friend, but the friend indicates that he or she is not interested. If I continue to persist with my message, then I am infringing on my friend’s freedom or agency and this is unhealthy and disrespectful.

— Send email to Dennis Karpowitz at

The Rev. Matt Sturtevant, First Baptist Church of Lawrence, 1330 Kasold Drive:

Maybe you came to the wrong Baptist pastor for an answer to this question. Charles Kimball, Baptist pastor, theologian and professor of comparative religion at Wake Forest University, has answered this question with more detail and wisdom than I in his book, “When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs.”

Kimball names five warning signs of unhealthy faith. First is absolute truth claims, reading holy texts with a simplistic and unhealthy literalism. Next is blind obedience, or dysfunctional trust of a charismatic leader as the only one who can speak for God. The third warning sign is establishing the “ideal” time, either glorifying the “good old days” or suggesting that radical ideology is acceptable because God has appointed this time and this place in a special way. Another is the end justifies any means, justifying any radical behavior as blessed by God. Finally, declaring holy war is about sanctioning all levels of violence in the name of God.

When religious fervor crosses the line into absolutist thinking, it runs the risk of moving into what Kimball calls “religiously sanctioned evil.” This is an important distinction in an age where we often settle for “just enough” information. We hear just enough about Islamist jihad, but don’t know enough healthy expressions of the faith to know there is a difference. We hear just enough about Christian militias and sign-toting protesters, but don’t give equal time given to the healthy expressions of the Christian faith to know that the Church is capable of great good as well as great harm.

Kimball gives us more information, and some wise words, in order to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy manifestations of faith. Hopefully, Kimball spurs us to critical thinking (i.e. thinking twice before you re-send that Facebook post) and careful balance as we draw a line between healthy and unhealthy faith.

— Send email to Matt Sturtevant at


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