Sunday, February 17, 2013

Case Studies, Religious Fanatics, and the X-Files

I spent my Saturday morning hanging out on a street corner with an anti-abortionist religious group (Church @ the Rock) who was protesting Choices Clinic in Jamaica, Queens on the basis that abortion is one of the many services the clinic offers. Though my main job was to help people in and out of the clinic and through the slew of aggressive protesters  I also stood in front of fake images of aborted fetuses to block them from view, distracted ranting protesters by directing attention towards myself, and engaged in passive conversation in attempt to gather information about the protesters for the clinic. Many of the volunteers commented on the stability of the protesters  minds, referring to them as crazies, cooks, schizophrenics, and other terms suggestive of a lack of sanity. After spending hours interacting and witnessing this extreme group’s demonstration, I felt that implicating insanity as cause for their views was just as narrow a view as the views of the protesters  What makes a person jump from finding abortion as ethically wrong to likening it to the genocide of millions of Jews in the holocaust is beyond me, but I felt the fanaticism of the protesters was not more extreme than other kinds of fanatics that simply invest in less socially and politically involved enthusiasms, such as a book series or sports team.

The Bible and thumping of such has been around a lot longer than say the Twilight Saga and Twi-hards, and religious fanaticism seems to both hold the largest presence and receive most criticism in society than all other kinds of overly enthusiastic groups. While I would attribute aspects of “group-think” to the mentality of the protesters and as an explanation for the lack of critical thought processes in terms of their arguments, I felt that the more I engaged with the protesters on an individual basis, the more I learned about the group as a whole. In this sense, I felt that if I was going to study the psychology of Church @ the Rock or religious fanaticism in general I would think a case study would better serve to answer what causes individual thought to become influenced by group-think or uncritical and extreme beliefs.

In 1998, The American Journal of Psychiatry published an article, “Psychiatric Evaluation of a ‘Monk’ Requesting Castration” by Laura Weiss Roberts, M.D., Michael Hollifield, M.D. and Teresita McCarty, M.D. The article describes and discusses a case study that deals with religious fanaticism and how it affects an individual. ( This study focused on Brother David, one of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult---all who famously committed suicide in 1997 in Rancho Santa Fe, California under the belief that they would “evolve into a supernatural life form.” According to the study, eight of the members who died had undergone castration, the very procedure Brother David was hoping to receive after the study’s evaluation due to his sexual desires (which also happen to be toward men) inferring with his religious practice.

What I found most interesting about the psychiatric evaluation was the positive results. The doctor concluded that Brother David’s desire for castration was sincere, not impulsive, and was “nonpsychotic in nature.” In other words, Brother David’s desire for castration did not come from a place of insanity or instability. The psychiatrist concluded after five evaluations that Brother David was fit to undergo castration by a consenting medical doctor if he could find one. No urologist that Brother David was referred to agreed to perform the operation, and he was instead treated with hormones, to which he said he responded positively.
But in lieu of the Heaven’s Gate cult suicide, the study underwent an evaluation of its own. The article states:
Our field's diagnostic nosology does not yet adequately capture psychological aspects of cultic phenomena, nor does it offer an explanatory model to help understand the impact of sexual issues, conflicts, and behavioral expectations experienced by individuals affiliated with cults. Few empirical data in such areas exist.
The article mentions that a psychiatrists “critical role” in treatment might accidently do more harm than it does help the patient. The unusual element of religious fanaticism is not what some of these people believe but rather the fact that some people believe in certain extreme views not because of a psychological issues, but because they genuinely believe it.

When reading about Brother David I couldn't help but compare the individuals from Church @ the Rock that I encountered at Choices clinic. I had to consider if my gut disapproval with Brother David and Church @ the Rock came from a sort of theological xenophobia, a fear of such foreign beliefs. For one, I do think society suffers from some kind of fear of what others believe. For example, Islam and Christianity, despite their historical and ideological similarities, have been cast against each other in the media and society as if both are so radically different that they fit in a spectrum of normal versus alien.

There seems to me to be a general inability or refusal to accept the fact that there is nothing wrong with a person that you cannot understand. A case study is perhaps the best method of attempting to understand an individual, but I think, in most cases, understanding should not be expected. Brother David and the members of Church @ the Rock may not be the easiest people for me to relate to or understand, but that does not make them psychologically unfit as “crazy” as some of them may seem. I think the best way to approach a case study would be in a similar vein of the X-Files (a television show which certainly has fanatics of its own on and off screen). Even if, as most often is the case, Mulder and Scully don’t understand what exactly caused the strange events they were investigating by the end of the episode, Scully and Mulder still manage to save the day. Most X-Files episodes begin with the tag-line “The Truth is Out There.” While religious fanatics tend to believe that they have found the truth, I think psychiatrists performing case studies would better serve patients by keeping the idea of truth as being “out there.” 

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