Religion and Madness

“The rolling exercise consisted in doubling the head and feet together, and rolling over and over like a hoop…The jerks consisted in violent twitches and contortions of the body in all its part” This description refers to a variant of religious expression carried out by a group labeled The Holy Rollers. Such religious behavior–eccentric, physical, emotional–was and continues to be considered aberrant, indicative of a pathology rather than reflective of “appropriate” religious interpretation and worship. The following will examine how the intersection of religion and madness, as it has manifested historically since the 19th century and into contemporary culture, has been addressed in six sources. These treatments explore the understandings of those religious believers whose modes of religious expression have been interpreted as madness. First, there is a pervasive understanding across the authors that the labeling of religious actors as insane was reflective of the fringe and therefore threatening quality of those actors’ religious affiliation. Second, due to the widespread medical practice of labeling religious behavior as deviant, thus stigmatizing religious adherents and religious practice more broadly, there is an attendant prescriptive tone advocating increased cultural sensitivity in approaching cases of purported irrational religions. Ultimately, the literature on the subject of religion and madness reveals a decided lack of familiarity with religious practice, and, by extension, a resolute lack of investigation of religious practice as it was experienced by the individual deemed mad.

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