If God Spoke to You, Would You Tell Your Psychiatrist?

As a young Christian, I remember being anxious as an agency treatment team meeting approached. A young woman I counseled reported strange things began happening to her soon after she started to read a Bible. Although her experiences seemed to have a spiritual aspect, they were also borderline delusional. And I had suggested that she read her Bible.

The thought crossed my mind to not say anything at the treatment team meeting. But I reported the woman’s experiences and my suggestion that she read her Bible. I said I did not think she was becoming psychotic, gave my opinion why, and held my breath. After a slight pause, the psychiatrist said to let him know if her condition deteriorated. The woman continued to read the Bible; the strange experiences stopped; and she eventually went to YWAM (Youth With a Mission) for a short time.

Beginning with Sigmund Freud, psychiatrists have been less religious than the general population; and sometimes even anti-religious. Freud himself was a life-long atheist and critic of religion. He said religion was a “universal obsessional neurosis.”

In 1928 Freud published a short paper entitled: “A Religious Experience.” There he psychoanalyzed an American physician who had attempted to convert him. The American doctor wrote of a time when he himself questioned whether or not God existed, and heard an internal voice say: “ I should consider the step I was about to take.” This was a religious turning point for the doctor. He said knew then that Jesus was his only hope; and that the Bible was God’s Word.

Freud wrote that he was glad the experience enabled the man to retain his faith, but that God had never allowed him to hear an inner voice. He commented that if God did not hurry, it would not be Freud’s fault if he remained “an infidel Jew.”

The American doctor wrote back that being a Jew was not an obstacle to true faith. Prayers were being “earnestly addressed” that Freud be granted faith to believe. He begged Freud to give thought to the matter of life and death. After describing this exchange in his paper, Freud said: “I am still awaiting the outcome of this intercession.”

Freud then gave an “obvious” analytical explanation of the doctor’s religious experience. “All of this is so simple and straightforward that we cannot but ask ourselves whether by understanding this case we have thrown any light at all on the psychology of conversion in general.”

By the 1970s, internal changes began in psychiatry that largely threw over the influence of psychoanalysis on the field. Research studies began to demonstrate that religion has many psychological benefits. But psychiatrists continued to be less religious than other physicians.

In 2007, a study published in the journal Psychiatric Services found that psychiatrists were less religious than other physicians. Psychiatrists were less likely to believe in God than other physicians (65% versus 77%). And they were less likely to say they looked to God for strength, support and guidance (36% versus 49%).  See the original study here.

Not all psychiatrists, even those who don’t believe in God, would view an individual who said God spoke to them as delusional or psychotic. But there is a risk that what the person sees as a purely religious experience will be interpreted as a symptom of schizophrenia or a delusional disorder.

So should Christians who believe that God actually spoke to them tell their psychiatrist of that experience?