What Is Religious OCD, And Can It Be Treated?

Updated February 6, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, commonly referred to as OCD, is a mental health disorder that typically causes repeated, unwanted thoughts or sensations that often result in the urge to do something repeatedly. Obsessions are unwanted thoughts or sensations, and compulsions are activities that are often used to respond to or find relief from them. There are different types of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and each is based on the nature of the symptoms a person experiences. Religious OCD is one example of how the disorder can manifest, and for many, its symptoms can be upsetting, difficult to manage, and significant enough to affect daily life.

What Are The Types Of OCD?

There are several different forms that OCD may take. Each type of OCD is typically associated with specific underlying fears, including things like contamination, causing harm to oneself or to others, or even losing control of one’s actions. Below are some common manifestations of OCD along with the compulsions and obsessions that might accompany them.

Harm Obsessions With Checking Compulsions

Are You Experiencing Symptoms Of Religious OCD?

Harm obsessions often involve intense thoughts related to harming oneself or others.  This sort of OCD is usually accompanied by compulsive rituals that involve checking things. This sort of behavior can give a person a sense of control and reassurance, but relief is often short-lived; as a result, the cyclical pattern of fear, response to fear, and compulsive behavior can seem to take over an individual’s life.  For instance, a person with a checking compulsion may constantly lock and unlock doors to make sure the locks are working correctly to prevent a break-in.

Symmetry Obsessions

People with symmetry obsessions may experience a strong urge or need to arrange and rearrange objects.  Generally, a great deal of detail goes into making sure that everything is in order.  Symmetry obsessions may involve moving books on a shelf repeatedly to make sure they go in order from tallest to shortest or vice versa, making sure that pens line up evenly on a desk or hanging shirts according to type and color in a closet. Oftentimes, these sorts of compulsions are rooted in a fear of something going wrong if things aren’t organized.

Contamination Obsessions With Cleaning/Washing Compulsions

A person who has this subtype of OCD will generally focus on feelings of discomfort that are associated with contamination.  Many who experience this type of OCD find that the fear of experiencing disgust is more distressing than the results of contamination (i.e., getting sick, being exposed to toxins, etc.), though specifics can vary from person to person. They may wash their hands constantly or clean excessively.  Some of these behaviors may be repeated for hours.

What Is Religious OCD And What Makes It Different?

Religious OCD, often referred to as scrupulosity, is not a separate obsessive-compulsive diagnosis.  Rather, it is a specific manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder that often causes a person to obsess over spiritual fears.  These fears generally involve compulsions related to things that the person is trying to prevent happening.

For example, if a person with religious OCD is afraid of going to hell, they may pray constantly to become worthy of salvation.  While religion is a source of comfort for many people, those who experience religious OCD often feel fear and overwhelming emotional pain related to their perceived religious shortcomings.

Like other forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, the cause of religious OCD is not completely understood.  Some research suggests that an imbalance of chemical messengers in the brain may contribute to its development.  Further, genetic and environmental factors may also be contributing factors.

People with religious OCD typically have persistent negative thoughts about their own spirituality.  These thoughts may be so strong that they can interfere with the person’s daily functioning.  For many, it is difficult to suppress or ignore these thoughts or obsessions.

Although scrupulosity may appear different from other manifestations of obsessive-compulsive disorder at first, people who experience religious OCD generally experience the same obsessive-compulsive cycles as people with other forms of OCD.

Obsessive thoughts associated with religious OCD often manifest with the affected person asking “What if” questions.  For example, “What if God is real and I go to hell because I didn’t believe it?” or “What if I accidentally commit adultery by thinking of someone else?”  In fact, triggers for scrupulosity can be an image, thought, place, person, or feeling.  

Anything that cues an obsession can cause the need for obsessive or compulsive behavior.  For instance, seeing a person give a large offering could cause the person with religious OCD to have thoughts of taking money from the other person.  This, in turn, could result in an obsessive desire to undo the negative thought with the hope of being redeemed.

Symptoms Of Religious OCD

Individuals who experience religious OCD or scrupulosity generally have strict standards of moral, ethical, and religious perfection.  They may feel easily condemned by what others may consider the simplest standards or guidelines.

In addition to feeling extreme guilt for “unholy” or “unclean” thoughts and behaviors, a person with religious OCD might often experience symptoms of anxiety and depression. A person with religious OCD may feel an overwhelming urge to engage in any compulsive behavior that may lead to forgiveness or that will restore good religious standing.

Some examples of religious obsessions include:

  • Fear of going to hell

  • Fear of committing immoral or sinful behavior

  • Fear of being unclean or spiritually contaminated

  • Fear of not having enough faith

Compulsions related to different types of OCD, including religious OCD, are typically categorized as avoidance behaviors, reassurance-seeking behaviors, mental compulsions, or overt-behavioral compulsions.

Examples of religious compulsions include:

  • Seeking constant approval or reassurance from religious leaders or authority figures

  • Going to religious or church services more than what is typically scheduled in a person’s religion

  • Engaging in excessive prayer: The person may repeat a prayer dozens of times or more until they get it right

  • Performing extreme acts of self-sacrifice or denying oneself the benefit of things that bring pleasure or joy

What Religion Do People With Religious OCD Practice?

Religious OCD is not specific to any one religion.  In fact, people of various religious backgrounds can experience religious OCD. It may be more likely to develop in those who belong to stricter religious groups, but because the root of this disorder is the mind of individual themselves, it’s hard to say that any one religion is more likely to cause symptoms than another.

Can Religious OCD Be Treated?

Treatment for religious OCD is available and can be highly beneficial. It typically involves some form of psychotherapy, which is generally focused on helping the person manage anxiety without undermining their quality of life.  Several types of therapy can be helpful in treating religious OCD.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)is a type of therapy that can be extremely helpful for treating anxiety, OCD, and many other mental health disorders. It is focused on helping people detect, understand, and divert negative thoughts.

Family Counseling

If religious OCD affects a family unit, family counseling may be helpful. Additionally, couples therapy may be indicated for people whose relationship is affected by religious OCD.

Cognitive Restructuring

With this type of therapy, individuals are taught ways to effectively challenge the accuracy of their unwanted thoughts and behaviors.  Cognitive restructuring focuses on teaching healthy ways to identify and address obsessions and compulsions while preserving one’s faith.

Exposure And Response Prevention Therapy (ERP)

In ERP, a person is intentionally exposed to an anxiety-producing thought or situation that may trigger an OCD episode.  When the trigger occurs, the individual purposefully avoids any compulsive behavior. 

This type of therapy can be difficult as it may require the affected individual to feel as if they are doing something that is sacrilegious.  In the long-term, however, exposure and responsive prevention therapy can help a person reduce the occurrence of unwanted compulsions and begin to function and practice faith more freely without the risk of guilt or shame.

Seeking Help For Religious OCD

Are You Experiencing Symptoms Of Religious OCD?

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of religious OCD, it  may be important to seek help.  You may choose to consult a pastor or religious advisor for guidance, but when it comes to managing symptoms of OCD itself, speaking with a mental health professional can also be beneficial.  

For some, the thought of meeting someone face-to-face can feel frightening or even unsafe.  If you need to talk to someone but aren’t comfortable meeting with a counselor or therapist in-person, online counseling may be an effective alternative.

In addition to being convenient and approachable, online therapy can also be effective. Research suggests that online treatment options can be just as helpful as in-person therapy for treating symptoms of mental illnesses. One literature review examining the efficacy of online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) found that internet-based treatment can be just as successful at decreasing symptoms of anxiety, depression, panic disorder, PTSD, and more. If online therapy sounds like it might work for you, you can rest assured that you likely won’t have to compromise on the quality of your care simply due to its format.


Religious OCD, like many other forms of the disorder, typically involves deeply rooted anxieties about spiritual immorality and the consequences that might come with it. The disorder often causes intrusive thoughts, often known as obsessions, and compulsions, or behaviors meant to help an individual manage these fears. Treatment for religious OCD is possible, and through the support of a mental health professional, it’s likely that you’ll experience a reduction in your symptoms and the ability to redefine your relationship with religion.

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