P. Monroe Butler, “Psychopathology in the personality dynamics of the Religious Genius”

Response by P. Monroe Butler, M.D., Ph.D., M.T.S.

I applaud the work of Dr. Goshen-Gottstein in his original position paper on the approach to building the concept of religious genius. He collates an impressive set of information on individuals with exceptional religious sensitivities in attempt to build a pluralistic concept of religious genius. As a theologically trained neuroscientist and physician, I make the brief point in this response paper that we need to consider the prominent role that psychopathology plays in the personality dynamics of the religious genius (RG).

My main point is that the model of RG needs to be able to accommodate a broad range of phenomena, including the complexities and intense personal conflicts often times inherent to those with heightened religious consciousness. Examining the hypothesis that complex, often conflicting psychological dynamics are common in the religious genius based on analysis of case studies might help to further define the category of RG. The interrelationship between psychopathology and extraordinary religiousness has been acknowledged by William James, Emile Durkheim, L. Swetenham, amongst others.

Dr. Robert Neville writes in one of his responses, “I think we need to thematize the serious flawed religious genius, not just as someone who has not achieved integration on all levels but as someone with something seriously wrong”. Neville cites the sexual deviance and academic indiscretions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to illustrate his point. I agree that our model of religious genius needs to be able to accommodate such imperfections. It may be the case that the cost of the RGs capacity for intense internal mental life both positions them to access divine secrets and be at risk for a range of psychopathologies and aberrant behavior.

The position paper cites a curtailed version of the following quote from William James, which highlights the connection between RG and pathology.

“Thus, when a superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce–as in the endless permutations and combinations of human faculty, they are bound to coalesce often enough–in the same individual, we have the best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries. Such men do not remain mere critics and understanders with their intellect. Theirs ideas possess them, they inflict them, for better or worse, upon their companions or their age”.[1]

James goes on to discuss the continuum of emotions that the most religiously sensitive individuals are able to access. Divine happiness is still felt as a form of intense happiness. Existential melancholy is just an exaggerated form of depressed feeling. Altered states of consciousness or trance-like states are as such, transient fluctuations in the sense of self.[2] I think this is an important point to emphasize that religious sentiments are not outside of nature’s order altogether.

Emile Durkheim also acknowledges this connection, when he writes,

“Men of extraordinary religious consciousness–prophets, founders of religions, great saints–often show symptoms of an excitability that is extreme and even pathological; these physiological defects predisposed them to great religious roles…it can be said that religion does not do without a certain delirium”.[3]

Regardless of psychopathology, the RG is defined by his or her “fruits” according to James. He writes,

“What right have we to believe Nature under any obligation to work by means of complete minds only? She may find an incomplete mind a more suitable instrument for a particular purpose. It is the work that is done, and the quality of the worker by which it is done, that is alone of moment; and it may be no great matter from a cosmical standpoint, if in other qualities of character, he was singularly defective–if indeed he were a hypocrite, adulterer, eccentric or lunatic”.[4]

Much has been written in the historical/medical literature on the potential neuropsychiatric illnesses of notable figures in the history of religion. Religious figures with alleged epilepsy or neuropsychiatric disease, include Amenhotep IV (1411-1375 BCE), Ezekiel (c 597 BCE), Buddha (c 563-483 BCE), St. Paul (c 64 CE), St. Cecilia ( c 176 CE), Mohammed (569-623), St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), George Fox (1624-1691), Anne Lee (1736-1784), Joseph Smith (1805-1844), and St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897) to name a few.[5] The “acute fever” that James spoke about[6] marked the RG as a person prone to cognitive and mood disorders, such as bipolar disease, cyclothymia, or epilepsy. Nowadays, they can get some help with this thanks to medical advancements such as Blessed CBD oil, as well as medicinal marijuana, being legitimate options to consider for treating these conditions. Tolerance for these options are growing, as more and more countries and American states are permitting the use of them for medicinal purposes. But this is only a recent change in the world, and it is doubtful that these historical figures could have used the likes of Connecticut marijuana dispensaries.

Psychopathology is by no means prerequisite for profound religious experience or ideation but I believe it is encountered more often in the individual with RG capacity. Insofar as any individual can experience feelings of profundity, the important feature of the religious genius is his/her ability to make these experiences shared or plausible to the many. The patient seized by schizophrenic ideation feels the profundity of meaning when he believes the radio is delivering a powerful message just to him at that moment. For him at that moment the experience draws from the well of deep and powerful emotion, but it drowns in the isolation and subjectivity of the moment. It is not a socially transmissible or shared experience. Others do not have access or at least find it obscure or absurd.

From a neuroscientific perspective, the operations of the mind are probabilistic and iterative. Along the continuum of human experiences and emotions, certain temperaments can capture and encode feelings of profundity and ultimacy. In turn, the internal becomes external in a chosen few — the ability to transmit the insight of these experiences comes together in a driven, charismatic person.

In addition to my main point, I offer a few scattered observations about the methodology for construction the concept of RG. I find the 6-dimensional attribution model to be useful as presented in the position paper. The term “model” was used loosely to mean “ideal”. I think it is more accurate to suggest that the RG “model” connotes a “simplified” version of reality (both psychical and social). We are describing the personality structure of an individual based on their writings and the thoughts of others to interact with the ideas and/or person. The model we construct from the available data collates subjective 1st person, third person singular and plural realities, which in turn have acted on one another to shape further 3rd person perspectives. From this varied pool on information, we attempt to extract the degree in which six descriptive categories apply to the spiritual reality of the RG under question. All of this information gathering and filtering is “impressionistic” and contingent on expert opinion. I do not say this as a criticism, but merely suggest that we be up front in stating that at the core of the methodological approach is the impressionistic facilities of key scholars of religion. The method is not purely “inductive” as stated in the paper. It is a “double-inductive” or “inductive-deductive-inductive” approach. What I mean is that the “particular” instances of RG that we examine to help to define/refine the category of RG itself have already undergone a filtration process that we can only partially access, due to constraints of the arbitrariness of history, availability of historical documents (varying degrees of reliability), and the local vagaries of each religious tradition included to deem a given patron a saint, guru, Tzadik, and so forth. The paper does suggest one quantitative criterion for RG selection (albeit with an implicit level of expert-filtration without parameters for selection). In the section “Populating the category of religious genius” the author suggest the criterion of “one in a billion or half-billion” persons. Conservative estimates of the total population of modern humans (Homo sapien sapiens) from 50,000 BCE to the present is roughly 100 billion individuals have been born.[7] This would mean our goal would be to create a database of 100-200 RGs and use the common features of each’s spiritual life to refine our model.

All of the bias’ in the approach to build this conceptual category RG ought to be acknowledged because many of them are unavoidable, such availability of reliable historical documents related to the RG of question, the uneven representation of religious traditions that have been more successful in recruiting adherents, the “impressionistic” selection process utilized, the circular attempt to impartially create a database of select RGs which will in turn re-define the category based on induction.


[1] James, W. Varieties of Religious Experience. 1902/2008 pp. 23-24. Online edition from htp://books.google.com/books published by Arc Manor, Rockville:MD.

[2] ibid. p. 25.

[3] Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, (1912, English translation by Joseph Swain: 1915) The Free Press, 1965: HarperCollins, 1976: new translation by Karen E. Fields, Free Press 1995: p 218, 228.

[4] James, W. p.33

[5] Multiple authors including: Devinsky, O. & Lai, G. (2008). Spirituality and religion in epilepsy. Epilepsy & Behavior. 12: 636-643; Bryant JE. Genius and epilepsy: brief sketches of twenty great men who had both. Concord, MA: Ye Old Depot Press; 1953; William, Margaret Lennox. Epilepsy and related disorders. Boston: Little Brown & Co; 1960; Landsborough D. St. Paul and temporal lobe epilepsy. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 1987;50:659–64; Hansen H, Hansen LB. The temporal lobe epilepsy syndrome elucidated through Soren Kierkegaard’s authorship and life. Acta Psychiatr Scand 1988;77:352–8; Garcia Albea E. The ecstatic epilepsy of Teresa of Jesus. Rev Neurol 2003;37:879–87; Landtblom AM. Did St. Birgitta suffer from epilepsy? A neuropathography. Seizure 2004;13:161–7; d’Orsi G, Tinuper P. ‘‘I heard voices..”: from semiology, a historical review, and a new hypothesis on the presumed epilepsy of Joan of Arc. Epilepsy Behav 2006;9:152–7; Altschuler EL. Did Ezekiel have temporal lobe epilepsy? Arch Gen

Foster, L. The psychology of religious genius: Joseph Smith and the origins of new religious movements. Cultic Studies Review, 2007, 6(2), 173-194. Trimble, M. & Freeman, A. An investigation of religiosity and the Gastaut-Geschwind syndrome in patients with temporal lobe epilepsy. Epilepsy & Behavior, 2006, 9: 407-414; Wallace, A.F.C. Revitalization movements. American Anthropologist. 38:264-281.

[6] James, W. p. 30

[7] http://www.prb.org/Articles/2002/HowManyPeopleHaveEverLivedonEarth.aspx