A just published study that looked at the religious beliefs of different types of medical doctors in the US has found that psychiatrists are the least religious among the medical specialities.
The study also found that non-psychiatrist physicians who were religious, were least likely to refer a patient with symptoms of mental illness to a psychologist or psychiatrist, and were more likely to refer them to a member of the clergy or religious counsellors.
There’s also a few interesting facts about the demographics of US psychiatrists:
Compared with other physicians, psychiatrists were more likely to be Jewish (29% versus 13%) or without a religious affiliation (17% versus 10%), less likely to be Protestant (27% versus 39%) or Catholic (10% versus 22%), less likely to be religious in general, and more likely to consider themselves spiritual but not religious (33% versus 19%).
Perhaps the fact that psychiatrists are least likely to be religious is not surprising since they deal with lots of people who have experiences that they explain as neurological disturbance but which often appear as no different from what would otherwise be considered spiritual experiences.
For example, Joan of Arc had experiences which could be easily classified as auditory hallucinations, as did many saints, visionaries and prophets throughout history.
This is still a pertinent issue. In a classic 1997 paper psychiatrist Bill Fulford and psychologist Mike Jackson examined some written records of (admittedly intense and atypical) contemporary spiritual experiences and noted that they would fulfil the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia – except for the fact that they were of immense benefit to the people concerned.
More recently, psychologist Ryan McKay noted that current neuropsychiatric models of delusions would also include religious beliefs if they were considered under the same criteria [pdf] – although it could be said that this is just as likely to be a criticism of our scientific understanding of delusion as it is a consideration of spiritual belief.
However, it’s probably true to say that spending a great deal of time explaining seemingly mystical experiences as the result of biomedical disturbance probably makes you a little more sceptical of some of the mystical experiences on which many mainstream religions are based.