This week we are diving into the science behind the treacherous thinking that is Religious Scrupulosity. Scrupulosity becomes an issue for someone when their behaviours are motivated by controlling or reversing their obsessions with compulsive behaviours rather than trying to establish a genuine connection to their faith. There is a huge difference between reciting repetitively to overcome one’s anxiety and reciting repetitively with the intention of pursuing a connection to the Almighty.
For this reason, we are going to talk about the cognitive side to scrupulosity. Having religious obsessions can often result in people thinking that their thoughts are unacceptable, which leads to feelings of fear, sadness, anxiety and frustration. According to cognitive science, our emotional suffering is directly because of our internal thoughts where we think we are failing spiritually. Such thoughts can even become unrealistic, irrational and unreasonable. These are called cognitive distortions (Abramowitz & Jacoby, 2014).
Amongst the many examples of cognitive distortions, here are a few common ones:
– All-or-nothing thinking
‘I mispronounced a few words when I was praying today. Allah (SWT) must be so angry with me.’
‘I had ‘bad’ thoughts while I was fasting, so I must repeat my fasts again perfectly without bad thoughts or my mother will get punished.’
– Catastrophizing or magnification thinking
‘I did not listen to my parents today, Allah (SWT) will definitely punish me and send me to Hell.’
– Minimizing positive thinking
‘Even though I recited my dua (supplication) today, I am selfish because I don’t do it every day.’
– Perfectionist thinking
‘I must follow all the Islamic teachings 100% literally, otherwise I will become a hypocrite.’
– Selective abstract thinking
‘I’ve heard that Harry Potter is a wonderful film, but because it has witches, wizards and magic, we can’t watch it otherwise we will all go to hell.’
Usually when we get a random intrusive thought about our religious belief or moral values, our mind can interpret this as a significantly important thought. When this thought is given importance, it becomes a cognitive distortion, because it can lead to doubt about one’s belief, fear of committing a sin and being punished by God, and distress and anxiety about how to control this reaction. This reaction can be explained as an intolerance to uncertainty – where we can’t stand to be uncertain or unsure about something, or we find change/newness and ambiguity to be a threatening thing. We feel that everything must be black and white, with no areas of grey.
When we try and control or find answers to such thoughts, we often begin practicing repetitive/compulsive rituals, try to avoid the situation altogether or find reassurance from other people (usually religious scholars). The advantage of these are that we can temporarily reduce our anxiety and obsession. However, the disadvantage comes when we realise that we are not dealing with the actual problem, and that if these thoughts keep coming up in our minds – the same thing can happen again and again. Sooner rather than later, these thoughts become an intrinsically automatic part of our daily lives.
Just like with every mental health issue, there are ways in which we can deal with our minds’ cognitive distortions. One of the best methods that is known to work very well is called cognitive restructuring. This is a method of psychotherapy where an individual can learn how to identify and rationalise with their cognitive distortions using different strategies. Let’s take an example:
‘I must follow all the Islamic laws 100% literally, otherwise I will become a hypocrite.’
One of the strategies is to keep a diary or log book of all obsessive and intrusive thoughts that can cause a person distress. This creates an awareness for the individual about their thought patterns, and is also a method used in therapy for people experiencing anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Another strategy of cognitive restructuring involves picking up on an intrusive or irrational thought and starting to look for evidence for this thought, or to reason with the thought by asking oneself further questions:
– Look for the origin of your thought:
‘Why did this thought come into my mind?
– Is there any evidence to support your thought:
‘Does it tell me in the Qur’an/Sunnah to do this? Where?’
– Try to think if this has happened in the past, and whether there were any consequences that you faced:
‘Have I followed all Islamic teachings 100% literally in the past? Has it made me become a hypocrite?’
By performing these mental exercises regularly, you can ultimately teach yourself long-term how to positively and rationally reason with any obsessive thoughts. For instance, using the above example, Islam tells us the importance of reflecting and pondering on its verses. If we were supposed to take everything literally, then there would be no need to ponder.
“Do they not then ponder deeply about the Qur’an, or are there locks upon their hearts?”
~ Qur’an 47:24
There are several other strategies in cognitive restructuring, which can be used according to your specific cognitive distortions by your therapist. The goal of all therapeutic methods for OCD and scrupulosity is for you to learn that you can peacefully coexist with unwanted and uncertain thoughts, without resorting to compulsive behaviours. Also, allow us to note that cognitive restructuring is not the only helpful therapeutic method for those experiencing scrupulosity – stay tuned for our articles in the coming weeks which will take a closer look at other treatment and therapy options for scrupulosity.