Addicted To Religion

Those who suffer from RTS are prone to a variety of trauma-induced dysfunctions, including addiction. Commonly, when the word “addiction” is mentioned, alcohol and drugs immediately come to mind. Rarely, do we think further, and certainly we don’t consider how religion may actually enable addiction. 

Actually, it’s common to view religion as being a cure for addiction. After all, many addicts in rehab begin their road to recovery by appealing to a “Higher Power.” With such a powerful connection to divine omnipotence, one would think the success rate of programs like Alcoholics Anonymous to be miraculous. It’s actually quite the opposite. Some researchers report it to be as little as 1%, while others indicate it’s no higher than 12%. It’s difficult to get accurate data from an organization that is anonymous. 

Breathing Under Water

As a former evangelical minister of 26 years, I’m interested in the connection between addiction and religion. Certainly, I’ve dealt firsthand with those addicted to substances and ironically, those addicted to religion. I know the connection is not something commonly thought about, but what can I say? I’m different! My life experience has given me a front row seat to a lot of “different” circumstances and experiences.

Early in my career, I observed many desperate, hurting people were attracted mentally/emotionally to religion. I also observed how a few among the masses testified of tremendous transformation, while unwittingly demonstrating an addiction to religious practice. Interestingly, both groups had a hard time seeing how much they both had in common. 

As a local church pastor, this troubled me greatly. In an effort to help both groups, I adapted “transformational” language in my sermons, and directed church programs towards a focus on helping people takes “steps” towards greater levels of freedom. I found Richard Rohr’s book, Breathing Under Water, a great resource. Actually, one of the most well-received sermon series I did, was based on it.

Magical Results?

I wish I could report incredible success, that I helped hurting people transform ashes into beauty and motivated religious people to transcend into Christ-levels of compassion and healing. But, my success rate wasn’t much better than AA. In admitting as much, I’m certainly not detracting from a handful of magical results and widespread impact for the good. I’m simply being objective and sincere with my confession.

What I often observed was, the initial “conversion experience” enabled many to continue through life, blinded to their deep level of personal and social dysfunction. And, as their time and involvement progressed, most became inoculated to internal reflection and evolutionary maturity. I suppose you could blame me since I was at the helm, but I can assure you, my experience is not uncommon, largely speaking.

Over time, I came to acknowledged the sad reality: all my efforts were encapsulated in a system that actually enabled addictive behavior. Sure, there were those who eventually kicked bad habits, albeit largely due to therapy, medicine and group programs. But, in the context of religious practice, many learned to exchange their dysfunctions for a religious form of codependency. Some even used religion as an excuse to not take their meds or seek professional help. How frustrating!

The common outcome for many was to throw themselves headfirst into services, volunteering, weekly groups and pastoral counseling sessions as often as possible. This was predictably a tradeoff, one addiction for another. Honestly, I saw the connection early on and quickly partnered with credentialed professionals who could counsel both myself and all those I referred to them. Sadly, they were all super religious themselves and encouraged the people I sent them to “do more” in the church.

Take a Break!

I can remember a number of times when I actually told people to “TAKE A BREAK,” to limit themselves to one service/group a week, to spend more time with their family and outside in nature. By their reaction, you would have thought I had told them “GOD IS DEAD!” They acted as if I were kicking them out the church, a classic sign of someone who’s codependent, even treating God like a drug. OMG!

With that in mind, consider this: Is it possible to become addicted to religion? In September of 2016, The Pacific Standard published an article on the subject. The following are questions the editorial staff posited:

  • Do you use religion to avoid social and emotional problems?
  • Are you preoccupied with religion to the point of neglecting work?
  • Does your commitment to a religious leader or institution take precedence over your children and family relationships?
  • Does religion isolate you from outside friends and activities?
  • Do you use religion as an excuse when you are abusive to friends or family members?
  • Would people who know you describe your religiosity as extreme or obsessive?
  • Are your religious contributions financially imprudent?
  • Do you feel irritated and act defensive when someone questions your religion?
  • Do you use guilt to beat up yourself or others?
  • Do you think of sex as shameful or dirty?
  • Do you use religion to manipulate or exploit others?
  • Does your religion threaten aggression towards people who believe differently?
  • Are you uncompromising and judgmental, quick to find fault in others or evil in the world?
  • Do you find yourself arguing against scientific evidence to defend your religion?
  • Do you wait for God to fix things in your life or blame your problems on supernatural forces?
  • Do you tell other people “what God wants” or the “right” way to interpret the Bible?
  • Are you preoccupied with sin and the afterlife?
  • Do you experience psychosomatic symptoms, like headaches and backaches?
  • Do you threaten others with divine punishment or otherwise try to control them?

I hope you spend some time with the above questions, answering them for yourself, and not for others as tempted as you may be. Whether or not you determine religion is addictive for you, is solely predicated upon how transparent you are with your answers. 

The First Step

For me personally, I had to sit with the questions for a prolonged season. Ultimately what followed was an enlivened season of deconstruction. Admittedly, I was initially terrified, but I quickly discovered even Jesus did not object! After all, consider how passionately he railed against the religious phrarisees of his day. And consider his impassioned call to the masses: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion?…Get away…rest…learn to live freely and lightly.”

The first step with every addiction/dysfunction is admitting the truth to yourself. Then, where you choose to go for help will determine how successful your next steps will be. Consider wisely and don’t fear the process of deconstruction/reconstruction. It may seem overwhelming at first, even terrifying! But, I can assure you it will be worth it in the end.

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For inspiration, check out Love Is My Religion by Ziggy Marley.

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