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Religious delusions and the Jerusalem syndrome
by Graeme J. Davidson,
18 February, 2009

In the British Journal of Psychiatry, Yair Bar-El and his colleagues explain: “those who succumb to type III of the Jerusalem syndrome are unable to deal with the concrete reality of Jerusalem today – a gap appears between their subconscious idealistic image of Jerusalem and the city as it appears in reality”.

....Early last century, British psychiatrist Havelock Ellis quipped, “The whole religious complexion of the modern world is due to the absence from Jerusalem of a lunatic asylum”.
....The religious authorities of Jesus’ day had similar thoughts about the founder of Christianity, accusing him of being Beelzebub the Prince of Evil, which was their way of saying he was crazy and dangerous to the extreme. According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ family thought he was mad and his mother, Mary – whom the Church now reveres as the ideal mother – and his brothers and sisters came to one of his meetings to take him away, which Jesus rejected. He must have won them over as his mother is among the believers after Jesus’ death and his brothers headed the early Jerusalem Church.
....Since then, Christianity has had its share of crazies. In the fifth century, Simon the Stylite spent 37 years in the Syrian Desert on top of a very high pillar to be closer to God. In the Middle Ages, Christina the Astonishing prayed while rolling around on hot embers or while standing in a freezing river for weeks.
.... Then there were those who heard divine voices and saw heavenly visions – like Joan of Arc, the French teenager who led an army. Church authorities cremated her alive for heresy, then raised her from the ashes, a saint, 489 years later. And this Easter, we can expect press coverage of yet another fruitcake who graphically acts out Jesus’ crucifixion.
....In the 1930s, Jerusalem psychiatrist Heinz Herman noted how a number of otherwise sane people turned into religious nutters when they visited the Holy Land.
.... More recently, Dr Carlos Yair Bar-El and other psychiatrists at the Kfer Shaul Mental Health Centre in Jerusalem have identified three types of psychopathic tourists suffering from what they call the Jerusalem syndrome. There are those with a known psychotic illness who feel divinely called to Jerusalem, some thinking they are a messiah or a prophet; those who are non-psychotic eccentrics who start expounding oddball religious views; and those otherwise normal folk who have an intense temporary psychotic episode.
....Symptoms for this third group include becoming agitated when visiting Jerusalem’s holy sites, insisting on touring alone, becoming obsessed with purity, draping themselves in white bed linen as an improvised robe, singing hymns or reciting Bible verses, processing to a holy place and then delivering a confused sermon.
....In the British Journal of Psychiatry, Yair Bar-El and his colleagues explain: “those who succumb to type III of the Jerusalem syndrome are unable to deal with the concrete reality of Jerusalem today – a gap appears between their subconscious idealistic image of Jerusalem and the city as it appears in reality”. Most who try to bridge this gap through their bizarre behaviour are Protestant fundamentalists who recover within a week.
....I can think of religious nuts touched by the Jerusalem syndrome without visiting the holy city. My favourites are the 13 percent of the US population who believe Middle East conflicts are signs that Jesus is about to come again to Jerusalem. They seem to want to escalate these conflicts to hasten Jesus’ return so he can give Jews another chance to accept him as Messiah before the Apocalypse. A few crazies even want to bring on global warming so that Armageddon will come sooner and the faithful can be whisked into heaven in an end-time rapture while those of us who don’t believe in this silly nonsense will perish.
....We’ve been celebrating the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth. He and the lesser-known Alfred Russel Wallace independently came up with the theory of evolution through natural selection. Despite the overwhelming scientific data collected in support of the theory over the last 150 years, surveys show that most Americans still believe the Bible’s literal accounts of creation. They haven’t bridged the gap between creation folktales and scientific reality. This popular American delusion has to be another version of the Jerusalem syndrome.




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