Religion and Madness

From a discussion at Religion Bulletin regarding the impending execution of John Errol Ferguson, a schizophrenic man with delusions of being “the anointed Prince of God,” who killed somewhere between 8 and 12 people in 1977 and 1978. These posts bring up some really good questions, ones that are worth thinking about: What is religion? What is madness? Where is the line between a religious belief and a paranoid delusion?

The question of whether Ferguson is mentally competent to execute appears to be hopelessly entangled with the theological claims of his delusion. If he believes he will ascend to sit at the right hand of God before the state can execute him, then he does not meet the standard outlined in Provenzano v. State. On the other hand, if he believes that, like Jesus, he will be executed, resurrected, and then ascend into heaven, he may be competent to execute under Florida law. In the later scenario, Ferguson does understand that he will be physically dead, if only temporarily. In contemplating this problem, it should be noted that Ferguson’s delusion does not have the consistency of a religious creed but rather shifts over time. …

All of this discourse assumes an “either/or logic” in which a religious worldview cannot be insanity and visa-versa. Dr. Tonia Werner, one of the psychiatrists who examined Ferguson, explained that he had a “hyper-religious” belief. The prefix “hyper” appears to be an attempt to make a categorical distinction between Ferguson’s delusions and mainstream religious views. Of course, religion scholars have long argued that “religion” is a second-order category that is always imposed on the beliefs of others from the outside. For this reason, the distinction between religious truth claims and mental delusions cannot be taken for granted. Furthermore, the sociology of knowledge teaches us that the distinction between madness and religion is often socially constructed. …

In The Principals of Psychology, William James argued that the supernatural claims of religion and the claims of “sheer madness” both represented alternative worlds separate from our shared world of “practical realities.” However, our legal system requires that these subjective worldviews––however we classify them––do have consequences in our everyday word of practical reality. The case of John Errol Ferguson demonstrates the need to think more critically about categories such as religion and madness. These categories are not given but socially constructed. They are so fluid precisely because they deal with beliefs and experiences that exist outside of our shared reality. When those in authority apply inconsistent or self-serving criteria to define these categories it becomes a particularly insidious form of hegemony.

The Curious Case of John Errol Ferguson: Part 1
The Curious Case of John Errol Ferguson, Part 2

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