Mental Context – A Delicate Subject

Differentiating psychotic experience from religious experience is a delicate matter. The discussion that follows is not intended to validate psychotic experience or denigrate religious experience. Rather, it is meant to address the questions of whether hallucinations and delusions can be distinguished from religious experience.

M. Pierre, a noted researcher, wrote an article entitled “Faith or delusion? At the crossroads of religion and psychosis”. In this article, he evaluates clinical psychiatric or psychological practice concluding that, “in clinical practice, no clear guidelines exist to distinguish between ‘normal’ religious beliefs and ‘pathological’ religious delusions.” Clearly, differentiating psychotic experience and religious experience represents a difficult conundrum.

It should be noted that both psychotic experience and religious experience largely rely on events in the mental realm. Scientists who attempt to empirically evaluate and validate religious experience often overlook the fact that facts emerge from and in the material world, and religious faith is generated from mental experience perhaps in synchronicity with material experience. As such, religious experience is subjective instead of being objective. However, this does not mean that it is invalid.

Synchronicity is a concept that can explain religious experience. Synchronicity is defined as the simultaneous appearance of events which appear significantly related but have no discernable causal connection. Religious experience relies on the reality that there are no discernable causal connections regarding the synchronicity of parallel events in the material and the mental realms. Synchronicity may be characteristic of religious experience, and it is the lack of a causal connection that forms a basis for individuals to understand this experience as miraculous. Causal realities are thought to rely on chance events. When experience appears to be meaningful but strongly improbable, it is thought not to be based upon chance events.

The psychotic individual may experience synchronicity of chance events, but in terms of this experience, synchronicity generates delusions instead of faith in religious ideas, including miracles.

Psychotic ideation and religion may be differentiated, and the key to this differentiation may be based on the context in which they occur. Religious ideas usually occur in the context of benevolence, perhaps that of God, as well as a positive view of the world in terms of non-normative experience. Psychotic ideation occurs in the context of a punitive and deceptive state of mind and the world. Religious experience is sought in the mental and the material worlds, while psychotic hallucinations and delusions result in the psychotic individual cringing in both the mental and the material worlds. It should be noted, however, that what is defined by religious experience can be negative, as well. However, it may be meaningful to the individual whether it is positive or negative, while psychosis tends to be dismissed by the non-psychotic as not meaningful.

I’ve suggested in previous articles that the mind is whatever we imagine it to be. This is a simple and perhaps dubious statement, but it is not entirely dissimilar to and incompatible with the idea that the mind is Skinner’s “black box”. The appearance of what constitutes experience outside of what can be considered causally explicated may be understood as relying on the mental context of this experience.

While religious individuals may welcome “miracles” nonjudgmentally, paranoid psychotic individuals go to extremes of thought in order to make sense of them or avoid them. The psychotic individual may not be able to make sense of “religious experience” because, to them, the only rational and logical ways of understanding psychosis rely on metacognition instead of faith. If psychotic individuals could exercise faith that hallucinations are just that – hallucinations – then they would function in a more positive way.

It is the case that psychosis is ego-dystonic, incompatible with the self-conception and the- definition of the psychotic individual. This may be the result of stigma that accompanies the self-denigration by the psychotic individual or the possible insidious, but relentless, auditory hallucinations that may clamor within the mental experience of the psychotic individual. What clinicians treating the mentally do not seem to realize is that, while the psychotic should accept psychosis, psychosis may be unacceptable.

Overall, it seems to be the context of religious and psychotic experience that differentiates them. The specific religious context of this perceived experience may determine whether this experience is positive or negative. Even though religious experience can have positive or negative connotations, it is still regarded as more meaningful than psychotic experience, and it is responded to with faith. Faith implicates a tendency on the part of the religious person to accept with little evaluation the perceived meaning of experience. Faith, like self-confidence, may elicit faith or trust in religious experience as defined by the individual, and this faith or trust may frame experience in a way that is compatible with a perceived unification with God. If the mind is whatever we each imagine it to be in terms of projection onto the mental realm, then religious experience will have an appearance of validity simply because this validity is expected.

Psychotic experience remains more problematic to the individual dealing with hallucinations and delusions. Often, psychotic individuals imagine their minds to be punitive arenas that present as deceptive. Because they imagine their experience to be irrational, as is told to them by clinicians, their experience of their minds and even their material environments are confusing and painful.

While a perceived experience of God or the identification as experience emanating from God within the mental realms of the religious person, one is forgiven, loved and trusting. God is represented as faithful in doing what is best for the individual, even when the experience of what seems to be God’s will can be painful. When the imagined mental context represents God as trustworthy, good thoughts and feelings will emanate from this experience. Conversely, the experience of the psychotic mind is painful. Due to the difference in the way mental experience is framed in terms of religion and psychosis, the subjective realities of the mind’s presentation will conform to divergent representations of reality in both the mental and the material realms.

This discussion is not meant to imply that religious experience is invalid or that psychotic experience should be considered valid. The essential idea that is proposed in this article is that the mind is whatever it is imagined to be by the individual experiencing it. Although this idea may be identified as a weak explanation of the mind, this understanding of the mind implicates projection onto the mental world of what the mind is believed to be by the individual. What the mind is believed to be then generates a context of the mental realm, and the appearance of psychosis and religious views of the mind rely on context.


Pierre JM (2001). Faith or delusion? At the crossroads of religion and psychosis. Journal of psychiatric practice, 7 (3), 163-72 PMID: 15990520

Image via umbertoleporini / Shutterstock.

Ann Reitan, PsyD

Ann Reitan, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist and well published essayist of fiction and creative nonfiction. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from University of Washington, Master of Arts in Psychology from Pepperdine University, and Doctorate of Clinical Psychology from Alliant International University. Her post-doctoral research at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, involved personality theory, idiodynamics and creativity in literature. She recently published Illuminating Schizophrenia: Insights into the Uncommon Mind.
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