Jack of Many Trades

R is for Religious Scrupulosity and Pagans

Originally posted: 2012-09-07

Scrupulosity, especially religious scrupulosity, is mostly discussed in the context of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Most of the time, it manifests as an intense anxiety about sin, especially in the fear that one has sinned without realizing it. Even some of the most pious of Catholic saints, including Ignatius of Loyola, are believed to have suffered from it.

"Sin" is not a pagan concept, and I've seen very little written about religious scrupulosity outside of a Christian context. Aside from the occasional message board post, I have no way to know if any other pagans or heathens struggle with this. But I'm writing primarily in the hope that if someone else is, maybe this will turn up in Google for them.

Most pagans will tell you they don't believe in sin, but many do believe it's possible to offend the gods. After all, mythology is full of stories about how this or that god was offended (hello, Hellenismos) and it's not always the result of feeding the gods your own child in a meat pie. Sometimes it's as simple as not recognizing a god in human form, or not honoring them correctly, or... well, you get the idea. Even without the fear of sin, there's plenty of other anxiety to go around.

For example, I've begun a daily practice for Mara, Laima and Ganesha. Most days, I simply light two candles. Some days I offer a third candle, or fresh water. On the days I don't, or when I'm busy and almost forget to make the offering, I worry even after I've made that day's offering. What if I'm not doing it well enough? What if they want something else? What if I'm overlooking something obvious, or offending them in some way I don't understand?

Like the person in the thread I linked above, sometimes I fall back on divination as a kind of compulsive checking. Are the signs positive? How about now? Are they still good? Maybe I should pull one more rune just to be sure. And then I worry that the compulsive checking will also offend the gods.

Usually when I catch myself in that kind of Lizard Brain spiral, I can use meditation to slip out of it. I spend some time sitting, reaching out to the deity I'm worried I've offended. It serves the dual purpose of forcing me to calm down and opening that connection, in case the deity wants to use it.

The only deity I've never experienced this with is Kuan Yin. I suppose it's not surprising, given her role as the goddess of compassion and loving kindness. She's the one who tells me it's okay not to be hard on myself, and she's always been there for me in that respect. I think Lizard Brain knows that if it tried to convince me that I'd offended Kuan Yin, I'd laugh at it.

I'm not surprised there isn't much in the literature about religious scrupulosity in minority religions, though. The mental health system often seems at a loss to deal with people who have non-standard beliefs or activities that are helpful and positive, and thus those of use who do fall under those categories are left to flail around and try our best to apply what research is out there to our own situations, different though they may be.