Arts & Humanities

When Religion Goes Awry

John Dehlin, a doctoral student at Utah State University investigating a new treatment for scrupulosity — a form of religious obsessive-compulsive disorder — will discuss his findings at a talk Feb. 21. He was invited by USU’s Religious Studies Program to present the results of his research and explain what the symptoms and treatment are for religious expression gone awry.

“Scrupulosity is a long word that says a lot,” said Philip Barlow, the Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at USU. “The United States is a deeply religious country, but religion is in rapid change these days. There are arguably healthy and unhealthy ways of religious expression.”

He invited Dehlin to discuss when religious expression achieves pathology. The talk, “Understanding and Treating Religious OCD,” explores what healthy and unhealthy religiosity is, Barlow said.

Dehlin researches the nexus of religion and mental health.  For his master’s thesis, he worked with assistant professor of psychology Michael Twohig to evaluate Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as a treatment for scrupulosity — a form of OCD centered on religious and moral behavior. Scrupulosity has appeared in Christian literature for centuries and is common across virtually all religious populations.

Scrupulosity symptoms typically involve obsessing over disturbing thoughts that violate one’s religious or moral standards. Individuals may become disabled or depressed at their inability to stop these obsessions. Behavioral and mental compulsions can manifest themselves in a variety of ways, including excessive guilt, confession and assurance-seeking from religious leaders, acts of self-sacrifice, excessive praying and excessive rumination, according to the International OCD Foundation.

Today, the primary treatment for scrupulosity is Exposure and Response Prevention, which involves individuals being introduced repeatedly to their obsessions in an effort to learn to no longer fear them. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a departure from this practice. Instead, it focuses on helping people accept their thoughts and move past them.

“It turns out that attempting to control thoughts often makes them worse,” Dehlin said.

While scrupulosity appears to be more prevalent in highly religious populations, the prevailing wisdom is that that religion itself is not to blame for the condition.

“OCD tends to attack the things that you care most about,” Dehlin said. “So if you care about your faith — you can be more vulnerable to scrupulosity in some cases.”

From 2009-11, Dehlin and Twohig examined the effectiveness of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for scrupulosity. The study involved approximately 10 weeks of free treatment.

“It is the first clinical psychology outcome trial ever conducted for scrupulosity,” Dehlin said.

During his talk, Dehlin will discuss scrupulosity, the most common forms of treatment, as well as a few case studies from his study.

“The condition is actually quite prevalent in the LDS community,” he said. “This is important to talk about. It can be debilitating, but the good thing is — it is highly treatable.”

Dehlin stresses that the treatment he and Twohig have researched does not weaken one’s religiosity; instead, it helps people cope better with their unhealthy thoughts and feelings.

Prior to studying anxiety disorders at USU, Dehlin worked as the executive director of the OpenCourseware Consortium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also USU’s former director of outreach at the Center for Open and Sustainable Learning.

A lifelong member of the LDS church, Dehlin is also the founder of “Mormon Stories Podcast” ( — a collection of audio and video interviews that deal with some of the more difficult topics within Mormonism such as feminism, sexuality, racism and LDS church history. Dehlin created Mormon Stories as a way to facilitate open dialogue for people attempting to navigate tough issues within the Mormon tradition.

“The goal is to encourage open, authentic religious dialogue around the issues that people are not as comfortable discussing on Sundays at church or with their friends and family,” he said.

After 16 years in the high-tech industry, Dehlin went back to school to study in Twohig’s lab, with the hope of combining his interests in religion, mental health and technology.  An overarching motivation was to find professional work that was more related to helping others.

For his dissertation, Dehlin is working with USU psychology professor Renee Galliher to investigate the prevalence and effectiveness of sexual orientation change efforts within the same-sex attracted LDS population. Preliminary results from their study indicate that around 65 percent try to change their sexual orientation through a variety of efforts, including personal righteousness, religious counseling and various forms of psychotherapy. They found that 80 percent of efforts are ineffective, moderately harmful, or severely harmful by participants, and that the overwhelming majority of those who attempt such change continue to identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual afterwards.

“These results are fascinating,” Dehlin said. “The most common methods of attempting sexual orientation change within the LDS population are also the least effective and most damaging.”

Dehlin hopes that these data will help LDS individuals who experience same-sex attraction, family members and LDS church leaders better understand the low success rates and high risks of attempting to change sexual orientation.

To learn more about scrupulosity and the various treatment options, attend Dehlin’s talk Tuesday, Feb. 21, at 4 p.m. in room 15 of the Animal Science Building. Attendance is free and open to the public. A question and answer session will follow.

Related links:

Writer: Kristen Munson, (435) 797-0267;

Contact:  Professor Phil Barlow, (435) 797-3406,

USU graduate student researcher John P. Dehlin

John P. Dehlin is a doctoral student studying scrupulosity and anxiety disorders at USU. He is featured in a free presentation sponsored by USU's Religious Studies Program Feb. 21, 4 p.m., room 15 of the Animal Science Building.


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