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Many of us take our religion very seriously. We have learned our lessons over time and practice in good faith the teachings that help us live a good and moral life. But what if things are taken too far and religious devotion goes beyond an honest living and faithful practices? Is it possible to take your religion too seriously, to the point where it causes problems? The answer is yes, it’s possible.

People for whom religion takes over their lives to the point of causing stress and unhappiness may suffer from scrupulosity, or religious obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Those dealing with scrupulosity often experience extreme and intrusive thoughts and feelings about their own behaviors as they relate to their religious beliefs. This can create a number of very serious problems in a person’s life that affect their quality of life and actually make it harder for them to honor their religion and their God they way they want to.

What is Scrupulosity?

It’s important to understand that scrupulosity isn’t the same as being devout. There is nothing wrong with being devoted to God and practicing your religion faithfully. And there’s nothing wrong with living your life serving God if that’s your choice. But an unhealthy focus on the repercussions of every thought and action and worry over divine retribution is something different. Suffers of scrupulosity are actually dealing with a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that create persistent, uncomfortable, and unwanted thoughts and worries. They’re consumed with guilt, concern with God’s vengeance, and the fear that their actions will ultimately lead to damnation.

A person suffering with scrupulosity may fret constantly about sins they feel they’ve committed, sins they worry they may someday commit, and even just their thoughts about them. In their minds the thought of something that could be perceived as a sin will result in punishment. They are certain that no matter how faithful and devout they are, it’s not enough. Their devotion to serving God becomes obsessive, uber-controlling, and unhealthy. Becoming consumed with worry that they are somehow disappointing God and will be punished.

This obsession will lead to desperate, disruptive, and compulsive behavior. A person may seek relief by focusing on certain elaborate rituals that demonstrate their devotion, or repetitive patterns of behavior like requesting forgiveness and absolution, constant praying or recitation of scripture, or consulting religious leaders with inappropriate frequency.

Recognizing scrupulosity can be tricky as you want to avoid passing judgement on the way someone practices their faith and honors God. Generally, those things are personal and a matter of preference. Scrupulosity goes far beyond these boundaries, however, and can actually cause problems for the sufferer in their lives and relationships. It’s also a psychological problem more than a religious one. Some of the more common signs that faithful practices may have crossed the line into religious OCD include the following.

  • Incessant fears about sins in their past or sins that have yet to be committed.
  • Concern about being unworthy or that their soul can’t be salvaged.
  • Seeing evil and the devil’s handiwork in nearly everything.
  • Obsession over dress, speech, and personal interactions that may somehow displease God.
  • Persistent and unshakable shame.
  • Magical thinking related to rituals, prayers, or activities that will lead to a greater acceptance by God, or repercussions if they aren’t performed correctly, at specific times, or in a specific location.
  • Rejection of people and relationships because of worry that God will be displeased.
  • Irrational fears related to morality and behavior and the belief that any slip will lead their soul being damned to Hell.

This is by no means a complete list of the potential symptoms of scrupulosity. Behaviors related to this particular form of OCD can vary from individual to individual.If, however, you or someone you know is suffering from any of the above, you should be concerned.

What to Do if Someone is Suffering From Religious Scrupulosity

It’s crucial to remember that someone dealing with this form of obsessive-compulsive behavior is suffering. In all likelihood they feel helpless to control their thoughts and behaviors. They may feel like they are “going crazy” and need constant reassurances from those around them that they aren’t. This is something that can feel difficult to do if their behaviors are extreme. And, although the focus is centered around religion, their thoughts and behaviors aren’t necessarily a true reflection of their beliefs, nor are they indicative of what that person truly needs from his or her religious leaders and community.

Effectively supporting someone suffering from scrupulosity means understanding they need help. What that help looks like and who provides it will depend upon the person and the severity of their behaviors. They may need the assistance of a qualified counselor and/or the support of a religious leader who’s familiar with the condition. Fortunately, there are a number of resources available to both families and clergy to assist with guiding someone into the proper treatment.

It’s also important to understand that it isn’t religion itself or even likely the teachings they’ve received that are at the root of their behavior. Friends and family members need to recognize this and be careful not to blame religion or the religious community. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a psychological and behavioral issue that requires treatment. This means that without help people dealing with this are at high risk of developing further issues with depression and are in need of the help and love of a support system.

People suffering with scrupulosity typically see God as punishing rather than forgiving. This is an opportunity to remind them of God’s love and that they are worthy of it. These reminders and your support likely will not be all they need to recover, but they can play a big part. The help they need won’t be effective overnight either, so practicing patience is crucial. With your love and support, the guidance of religious leaders and the help of a qualified counselor, recovery and a healthy relationship with God and religion is certainly possible.

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