Christianity and Insanity

ONE of the saddest chapters in human history is that which describes the cruel manner in which the insane were treated in times past. Notwithstanding that it is happily a thing of the past, it will be instructive to inquire from what causes the barbarous usage sprang; for it was not common to all nations and all times; on the contrary, it had its birth in the ignorance and superstition of the dark ages of Christian Europe.
--DR. HENRY MAUDSLEY, Responsibility is a Mental Disease, p 6.

THERE is no bigger blot on the pages of history than Christianity's treatment of the insane. "The insane," says the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "were frequently tortured, scourged, and even burned to death."

In ancient Egypt and Greece, the mentally sick were treated as victims of disease. They were cared for kindly and intelligently, while music and art were employed to quiet the nerves. With these sedatives went occupational activities of a diversional or recreational nature. Crude as some of the early methods were, they were nevertheless based on a sane and sober realization of the pathological condition underlying lunacy. It was left to Christianity to introduce an interpretation of insanity as insane as insanity itself. For 1,500 years its despicable doctrine of demon possession ruled Europe, with the result that every madhouse was a monstrous center of brutality.

"The prevailing idea of the pathology of insanity in Europe during the Middle Ages", writes Dr. Frederick Peterson, Professor of Psychiatry, Columbia University, "was that of demonical possession. The insane were not sick, but possessed of devils, and these devils were only to be exorcised by moral or spiritual agencies . . . Torture and the cruelest forms of punishment were employed. The insane were regarded with abhorrence, and were frequently cast into chains and dungeons."

Prior to the 19th century there were no real hospitals for the treatment of the insane in the whole of Christendom. There were merely places of restraint, crude prisons where victims of mental derangement were shut up under the most horrible conditions. Christianity had but one method to offer for the treatment of madness: prayer and incantation. Celestial magic alone was depended on, and resorted to effect a cure. Exorcism, visits to miracle shrines, and even floggings were employed to cast out the demons that were supposed to possess the insane. Their plight was pitiful. Some, more fortunate than others, were whipped and driven out of town by the public executioners, and left to wander through the countryside like wild beasts. Shunned and abandoned by those who adored Jesus, these outcasts at least fared better than those who remained behind to endure torment at the hands of pious stupidity. So long as Christendom believed that insanity was due to demon possession there was no hope of reform. And as this belief had divine wisdom and Scriptural authority behind it, it was unthinkable to question it. Had not Jesus cast out demons and driven a legion of them into a herd of swine? If the founder of Christianity had so regarded the insane, what could one expect from his equally ignorant followers but strict conformity to his examples and precepts?

The early Christian fathers were gluttons for superstition. Among the big brains of the Church who believed in demonology were Justin Martyr (150 A. D.), Tertullian (220 A. D.), Clement of Alexandria (220A. D.), Origen (254 A. I), Lactantius (325 A. D.), St. Chrysostom (407 A. D.). They believed, not only that demons caused disease but brought on storms and famines. St. Augustine, in a mammoth work on miracles, solemnly relates the following story, cited by Bronson C. Keeler, in his "A Short History of the Bible" :
"A young man possessed of demons was relieved by the prayers and hymns of some women, but in departing the demons struggled fiercely, so that one, in passing out through the young man's eye, knocked that organ from the socket. It fell on his cheek, and hung there by a vein till one of the women returned it to its place, and, by seven days' praying and singing it was entirely healed."

Bedlam, the first lunatic asylum in England, has long symbolized all that was vile and vicious in the treatment of the mentally deranged. "It became," says the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "famous and afterwards infamous for the brutal ill-treatment meted out to the insane." Here in what was known as Bethlehem Hospital, Christian ignorance and Christian cruelty inaugurated a reign of horror that was surpassed only by the Spanish Inquisition.

A quarter of a century after the great reformer Piner had unchained lunatics in the asylums of Paris and pleaded for humane treatment of the insane, his pupil, Esquirol, writing of conditions throughout Europe, said:
"These unfortunate people are treated worse than criminals, reduced to a condition worse than that of animals. I have seen them without clothing, covered with rags, and having only straw to protect them against the cold moisture and the hard stones they lie upon, deprived of air, given to mere gaolers and left to their surveillance. I have seen them in their narrow and filthy cells, without light and air, fastened with chains in these dens in which one would not keep wild beasts. This I have seen in France, and the insane are everywhere in Europe treated in the same way."

Nor is belief in demonology entirely discarded by the Christians of our time. To this day, the Roman Catholic Church regards "demon possession", not as a medieval superstition or a survival of savage culture, but as a fact, recurring at times in isolated cases throughout the world. Turn to your Catholic Encyclopaedia (article "Exorcist") and you will find precise instructions given as to the procedure a priest should follow in casting out devils. He is told even how he must dress while exhorting the demons to depart :
"In Christian countries authentic cases of possession sometimes occur, and every priest . . is liable to be called upon to perform his duty as exorcist. Each case is to be carefully examined and great caution to be used in distinguishing genuine possession from certain forms of disease. If expulsion of the evil spirit is not obtained, at once, the rite should be repeated, if need be, several times. The exorcist should be vested in surplice and violet stole."

And how was the reform brought about? By the work of the Materialists, by the efforts of that despised body of men who rejected the existence of spirit and who believed only in the activities of matter.

If religious writers have ever used the word "crass" to decry anything they detest more than they do the doctrine of Materialism, we have yet to hear of it. It is always "crass Materialism" they berate, that feared and wicked doctrine, which, in spite of being constantly assailed and "exploded"' by theologians, returns to plague them with its resplendent record of humane and beneficent accomplishments in every field of endeavor.

And it was this materialism, repudiated and besmeared by every lackey of religion, that stood for the sane treatment of the insane and for the inauguration of an era that was to supplant the driveling idiocies of Christian faith. It.was men like Diderot and Pinel, materialists both, who made war against the monstrous evils of demoniacal belief.

"It is certainly true as a historical fact", writes Viscount Morley in his "Diderot and the Encyclopaedists", vol. 2, p. 175, "that the rational treatment of insane persons, and the rational view of certain kinds of crime, were due to men like Pinel, trained in the materialistic school of the eighteenth century. And it was clearly impossible that the great and humane reforms in this field could have taken place before the decisive decay of theology."

To sum up, it was crass Christianity, with its vulgar notions and gross ignorance concerning insanity, that alone was responsible for the ill treatment of the insane and for the unspeakable barbarities committed against thousands of supposed victims of demon possession. Chained to staples in a wall and left to rave out their misery in fetid dungeons, these victims of Christian brutality found no escape except through their release by death. Christianity, in every sense of the word, was as crazy as those it had in its care. It had forgotten -- if it ever knew -- all that the great Greek Galen had taught the world hundred of years before.

And it was precisely our much-maligned and religiously-scorned "Eighteenth Century Materialism" that recognized insanity as a pathological disturbance of the brain rather than as a possession by devils, and which sought, by medical means, to lessen the suffering of those whose mental affliction had been aggravated by priestly stupidity.

Such, in brief, is the story of Christianity's treatment of the insane, a record of infamy that came to an end only through the triumph of Materialism and by the overthrow of a priesthood that had long usurped the province of science. With the downfall of demonology came the brilliant discoveries of clinical medicine, with the biologist, the bio-chemist and the neuropathologist replacing the Christian quack.


  1. May the hands of Jebus Christ smite ye with all of the might of heaven and gods hands mama to kill you and sent you into hell.

  2. I wish to beat the satan out o ye and save ye with an iron maiden so you get taken up to heaven's airplane with Jebus and liv in the sky.