One Man’s OCPD: An Atheist’s* Faith

This blog addresses the topic of OCPD frequently and often with anecdotes to highlight the lived experience of the disorder. The thing about OCPD though, like many mental illnesses, is that the straightforward diagnostic criteria can make the disorder seem more monolithic than it is.

Quickly, the current diagnostic criteria for OCPD are as follows (requiring four or more of the following be present together):

  1. Is preoccupied with details, rules, lists, order, organisation, or schedules to the extent that the major point of the activity is lost. (check)
  2. Shows perfectionism that interferes with task completion (e.g., is unable to complete a project because his or her own overly strict standards are not met). (half-check)
  3. Is excessively devoted to work and productivity to the exclusion of leisure activities and friendships (not accounted for by obvious economic necessity). (check)
  4. Is over-conscientious, scrupulous, and inflexible about matters of morality, ethics or values (not accounted for by cultural or religious identification). (check, and the focus of this piece)
  5. Is unable to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value. (check)
  6. Is reluctant to delegate tasks or to work with others unless they submit to exactly his or her way of doing things. (check)
  7. Adopts a miserly spending style toward both self and others; money is viewed as something to be hoarded for future catastrophes. (half-check)
  8. Shows rigidity and stubbornness. (check)

While these criteria may seem straight-forward, remember that the specifics may vary greatly from person to person. With item 1, whose rules? With item 2, we are discussing subjective standards. With item 4, what informs this inflexible sense of mortality, ethics, or values if not cultural or religious identification?

“…what informs this inflexible sense of morality, ethics, or values if not cultural or religious identification?

I, for example, enjoy the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but I have not been an active member of the Roman Catholic Church in many years. In fact, I do not care for organised religion; while I admire faith in religious people who meet my standards of morality, ethics, and values, I dislike what religious adherence seems to do to many people.

For me, the OCPD connects with a source somewhere in my anxious mind that needs confirmation and certainty. The scientific method holds tremendous appeal to me and I tend to distrust anything not subjected to the rigours of that process.

Not to “yuck someone else’s yum,” but I find organised religion difficult to swallow when the authority is faith. Someone else shares specific stories about the truth of the universe and it gets passed over generations. There is no scientific validation of that truth. This does not dismiss religion – I merely seek to explain that it does not compel me and religious arguments will not persuade me to a position.

Morality or ethics based on religion therefore also fall flat. Even where my sense of morality, ethics, and values correspond strongly with those of (many) organised religions, no religion is the source of that sense.

Likewise, no cultural system appeals to me because I find it subject to the same failings. One can examine (most?) any culture and discover a troubled history. I do enjoy my life in the United States, but one cannot deny a history of morally abhorrent actions as a nation. I do not think that vilifies an entire culture, but a culture should reckon with those failures and all struggle to do so.

To the annoyance of atheists and theists alike, I tend to use the term agnostic to describe my attitude towards theology and organised religion. It stems from that scientific attitude that I cannot prove the existence of God and so I find that a poor premise for anything else. That said, I also cannot disprove the existence of God and find atheism a bit extreme.

A colleague once highlighted that even atheism deals in terms of belief and the question is whether one believes in the existence of a deity or not, effectively nullifying agnosticism as a concept. To that I say, I’m not sure what I believe and I’m also not a fan of syllogism (I am what I am by definition regardless of what I choose to call myself), so we can proceed with atheist*.

I believe in physics and atoms and forces. I believe the big bang theory regarding the origins of the universe (while acknowledging hypothetical room for God in there, religious friends). God or not, we know certain things exist and we have verifiable evidence that they behave certain ways. That is where I find comfort.

The irony, I suppose, is that my understanding of the universe is objectively cold and calculating. Everything is natural systems behaving according to physics towards their natural conclusion. One belief that I will explore further in a separate piece is in determinism, a chaos-related understanding that cause-and-effect dictate a particular sequence of events. Sure, I “choose” to write these words right now, but really my lived experience and innumerable other variables combined to compel this action. If conditions were at all different, I’d be doing something else.

I do not believe in an afterlife as I again do not see evidence of it. One might exist (ah, that would be a wonderful discovery), but it makes as much sense to me to live my life according to belief in an afterlife as it does to base my life on any hypothetical.

Here again I find irony. Christians, the dominant religious group in my life, have often questioned my general sense of morality as a non-Christian, agnostic, or atheist. Without God’s law or even a belief in God, what keeps me from being an amoral monster? Why behave in moral or ethical ways towards anyone without a fear of eternal damnation or the promise of eternal salvation?

I suppose that is where my divorce with Christianity began. Being already well down the road of OCPD, I obsessed about morality and ethics from a young age. Faced with the question of doing the wrong thing to make sure the final elevator moves in the correct direction, I began to question the morality of any system related to personal outcome rather than the objective morality of the action itself.

That is, if I were to undertake a particular action not because I believed it was the right thing to do but rather because I was told it was the right thing to do and eternal damnation was the punishment, would I be doing the moral or ethical thing? Alternately, if my motivation were as selfish as eternal salvation does that change the calculus of the action?

Yes, I loved “The Good Place”.

Even in my cold, calculated world with no afterlife, morality and ethics still exist. As it applies to my personal behaviour and accountability, I would break the foundation into two important parts: reason and the social contract.

Reason applies to the logical sense of the action. Is murder unethical? Well, it’s certainly illegal, but ethics and law are not so symbiotic as one would hope. I would say without ambiguity that killing someone or something with no purpose is unethical. When we get to some of the finer points though (killing in times of combat, killing in self-defence), then I find it necessary to take a closer look.

This also gets into the subjective nature of the OCPD criteria. What does one consider a purpose? As what I imagine would be most closely thought of as existentialist thinking, I tend to regard everything and nothing as having purpose. One can assign purpose to a thing, but nothing has intrinsic purpose. So while I would say going outside and shooting an animal “because I felt like it” lacks purpose and is therefore immoral and unethical (which I do), someone else might argue that the satisfaction gained from it is a purpose and negates my attitude.

Simply put, I often avoid behaviours that do (or might) cause harm to something else because I deem them without purpose. This is apparent in several of the diagnostic criteria for OCPD, and it makes me seem holier-than-thou to some. Others willingness to engage in certain behaviours can likewise put me off them and further serves to isolate me from people.

Which is a nice segue into the other element: the social contract. Beyond reason itself, humans are animals and we do have animalistic tendencies built into our psyche. The social contract is the basis for society and civilisation, our collective agreement to make life more pleasant for everyone by agreeing to live according to certain standards.

Here my beliefs do conform to a degree to those of many cultures. Jefferson, Locke, and Rousseau were influential philosophers on my adolescent moral mind, and they were principal voices in the formation of modern American, English, and French society.

These add a layer of rules to the aforementioned reason and, in a word, complicate matters a bit. For example, as creatures of the wilderness my definition of “self-defence” would be far broader than it is living in a society. Within the confines of the social contract, we already agree to live according to a more peaceful means and that includes conscious efforts to avoid violent confrontation.

As an example, I oppose stand-your-ground laws. I find they negate the premise of the social contract and therefore invalidate the contract. As with any legal contract, the moment people can decide specific elements do not apply or that they may suspend the social contract when it no longer benefits them, the entire contract becomes void.

Imagine if you could void your mortgage for several years because the interest rate was not in your favour? Imagine if the interest rates changed so much the other direction that financial institutions could decide to void your mortgage and reclaim the house? If such conditions existed, no legal foundation would exist in the first place.

My OCPD kicks into hyperdrive where I find the latter occurring (and I often do, mostly because my sense of morals, ethics, and values are, by definition, far stricter than most). Being party to or even witness to violations fills me with anxiety and unease.

I am not talking about the big stuff, like should abortion be legal? I am talking about when one goes to Disney World and the staff informs everyone that the crowd entering the theatre should move all the way across the aisle to make room for people entering behind them and someone decides to stop in the middle anyway. I am talking about when a two-lane road has an obstruction in one lane and a motorist moves into the oncoming lane to pass out of turn.

Little things that to you might be a pet peeve or minor annoyance will dominate my thoughts for hours or days and turn my stomach. They are behaviours born of selfishness and inconsideration (which in my world amounts to immoral).

They become obsessive thoughts not because I worry that this person’s soul faces eternal damnation or because I want to make sure I have enough points to reach the afterlife. I think I’m going into nothingness of which I will have zero consciousness – a thought that I am sure sounds bleak to some but to me adds tremendous value to this life. I obsess because I think, “There is no real reason for this. This is a sort of chaos that does not belong in the universe.”

I tend not to judge the other person. I judge the behaviour. I obsess over the behaviour. The other person will leave my mind as little more than a faceless avatar in my obsessive thoughts. This rigid sense of morality might make me seem like the sort to fly into a rage or belittle others for their behaviour, but (perhaps due to or as a cause of my social anxiety) I am actually quite calm, diplomatic, and even-tempered.

I regard the specific case as the necessary outcome of the conditions. Selfish also gets a bad reputation at times. A considerable degree of self-centeredness is necessary to a healthy life, and I recognise that I do not know the circumstances leading to what occurred. Plus, people make mistakes. A bad behaviour does not a bad person make. In fact, people are neither good or bad. They simply are. The individual actions are good or bad.

What I should be able to control but cannot (this is a disorder, not something I do for fun) is that compulsion to obsess about the incident for as long as I do. Like Chidi on “The Good Place,” it can paralyse me with indecision at times as I try to avoid the immoral or unethical behaviour. Other people might make an emotion-driven mistake in a moment, but that does not excuse mine. When I inevitably, and frequently in this rigid value system, make mistakes, I berate myself for extended periods.

This is my personal brand of OCPD. Another person struggling with OCPD could, believe it or not, have a diametrically opposed sense of morality, ethics, and values. People with OCPD could, and likely do, strongly disagree with one another about what sort of behaviour is acceptable and will relate to those around them differently. While my social anxiety, introversion, and conflict-averse nature serve to make me more amenable, even in the face of constant violations of my system, it might make someone else angry.

The important thing to remember with OCPD or any mental illness is that there is a person behind the disorder and it’s not monolithic. What we share is the obsessive and compulsive thought behind our belief systems rather than a specific belief system itself.

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