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.

Religious Trauma Syndrome

Recently, I did an interview with an east coast journalist who’s researching Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS).

  • RTS is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith and faith community. It can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD.

Over the course of our hour long conversation, we discussed the latest research and questioned whether RTS is limited only to fundamentalism. I emphatically stated it is not, and that all genres of faith-practices which demean gender, sexuality and inclusion should be brought to task.

I wish I had confidence in the Church-at-large to police themselves, but I do not. Whether Catholic or Protestant, all too often, the standard SOP has been to cover-up abuse, silence traumatized victims and continue business as usual. Ironically, it has taken outside investigative reporting, such as recently done by the Houston Chronicle, to challenge the status quo. See Abuse of Faith.

Leading up to my recent interview, I’ve been exploring how religious, faith-base belief systems are woefully susceptible to becoming cultures of control, abuse and victimization. Within the context of my former evangelical experience, I’ve been reflecting on the impact of fear-based theology, which leads to splintered personalities, and stunted psychological development. See The Damn Dark Room.

Even though Dr. Marlene Winell, Ph.D. published her groundbreaking RTS research a few years ago, her findings still remain unknown to many. With this post, I hope to enlighten a few more.

The following are key RTS dysfunctions she identified:

  • COGNITIVE: Confusion, difficulty with decision-making and critical thinking, dissociation, identity confusion
  • AFFECTIVE: Anxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicidal ideation, anger, grief, guilt, loneliness, lack of meaning
  • FUNCTIONAL: Sleep and eating disorders, nightmares, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, somatization
  • SOCIAL/CULTURAL: Rupture of family and social network, employment issues, financial stress, problems acculturating into society, interpersonal dysfunction

I have plenty more to say on this topic, and will do so in posts to follow. For now, I’ll leave off with a few questions to ponder:

  • FEAR: How much of your faith practice is influenced by fear? Fear of God? Fear of hell? Fear of eternal loss? Fear of disapproval?
  • EXCLUSIVITY: Do you largely view others with a dualistic exclusivity? Insiders? Outsiders? Lost? Saved? Gay? Straight? Republican? Democrat? Do your faith-beliefs keep you from engaging others as simply human beings like yourself?
  • PARANOIA: Do you feel you’re always being watched, evaluated and graded? By God? By others in your faith community? If so, who do you go to, to be understood and listened to?
  • AVOIDANCE: Have you ever avoided relationships because you knew your “brothers & sisters” might disapprove? And/or, have you felt compelled to manipulate relationships with evangelistic maneuvers?
  • DISMISSAL: Do you tend to dismiss or ignore scriptural passages which offend basic, human sensibilities? Why?
  • EXCLUSION: Do you readily shun or passively exclude others who don’t share your faith or convictions? Friends? Co-workers? Family?

Answering the above questions with honesty, is the first step to addressing the lines between us, which traumatize many on both sides.
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Finding My Voice

Recent news reporting has been inundated with the racist yearbook photograph associated with Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. Whether the photo is of him or not, is in question. However, TO SAY THE VERY LEAST, these pictures are truly despicable!

It’s sickening to see images like those, which hearken to a day when slavery and segregation were legal and socially acceptable. What turns the stomach even further, is the reality that those days were less than a generation ago! Even though the legalization of segregation was outlawed in 1954, the horrific ideology and bigotry which justified such gross inhumane behavior, continue to harm innocent lives and divide our nation.

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Last weekend, I spent some time with a good friend discussing racism, past and present. As we drove through his old neighborhood and talked at length, I asked him if he’d be willing to write his thoughts down so I could share them with you. The following is his submission:


“Finding Your Voice” by the Invigorated Observer

Recently, I re-read Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech, which he delivered at the March on Washington in 1963.  When I was in 7th grade, a guest speaker came into our classroom and read the speech in it’s entirety, with the intention of the original passion in which it was given. While a 12-year-old is not necessarily “changed” by a speech, there are aspects of it I heard that day, which profoundly resonate with me to this day.  

What I love about this speech is that it doesn’t have a one-dimensional perspective.  He certainly addressed the unjust treatment of black citizens in our country, but it doesn’t stop at that, it goes revolutionary further:

  • MEANING—It talks about the people in this country living out the true meaning of all peoples being created equal, and being granted the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  
  • VALUE—It talks about people being valued for the content of their character above and beyond their skin color.
  • HARMONY—It recognizes the religious conflict in our society and then culminates in painting a picture of those from various factions holding hands to commemorate their freedom with one harmonious song.

Dr. King’s dream speaks of a world in which I would like to live in. It’s a world and a perspective that I’ve done my best to instill in my kids. For me, it stems from the mentality of recognizing that, despite our differences, we still have many similarities to unite around. Furthermore, if we put ourselves in another’s shoes, we would treat one another like we would want to be treated.

Sadly though, if you’re addicted to 24/7 cable news and talk radio, Dr. King’s dream seems to have been gravely diminished. I believe Dr. King was speaking not only against actions, but against the ideology and mentality that precipitates those actions. The bottom line is: people are looked down upon and treated badly because they are viewed as inferior. People do this as individuals, and to keep a status of “good standing” within their groups, right leaning or left.

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It pains me to acknowledge, in our day and age, the issue of equality has been grossly complicated beyond the issue Dr. King cited so long ago. In many respects, the divide has grown seemingly beyond bridging!

  • RACE RELATIONS have actually gotten worse in many respects. The racism Dr. King spoke against still exist in many circles, has festered, and become extremely bitter for all sides involved. I understand saying this is not politically correct, but TV writer Norman Lear understood this well when he created both the Archie Bunker and George Jefferson characters. I long for the day when we all operate on “the high plane of dignity and discipline” that Dr. King spoke of. 
  • IN POLITICS, the rifts that exist today are not only differences of opinion between opposing parties, but also vastly differing ideologies. The language between them has become downright insulting and nasty. Things that were formerly unacceptable or unconscionable are a regular occurrence today. As “talking points” trickle down to the places where we work and live, the “ties that bind” us together as family and friends are stretched beyond the limits of decency, rational and compassion. The altercations which ensue often lead to irreparable damages.
  • IN RELIGION, people are supposed to worship and serve a loving God. Oftentimes though, they themselves exhibit the exact opposite. Complicating their hypocrisy, is the fact they rarely comprehend that what they are participating in is largely based on cultural preferences—religiously justified biases and prejudices. What a shame it would be to cut off members of one’s family based on some “religious holy war,” only to learn the belief which led to a “shunning” turned out to be wrong, unjust and inhumane!  

So-called “leaders” in our society, religious and political, seem to go out of their way to keep increasing these divides, AND SO MANY BLINDLY FOLLOW. Observing all the resulting hostility, hatred and abuse HAS CAUSED ME TO SIMPLY FOCUS ON BEING A BETTER HUMAN BEING. To do so, I have tried to adopt the following principles for my life:

  1. PERSPECTIVE: I come from the perspective of a kid growing up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, WI. I know this perspective best, because I lived it. Others in my circle of friends and acquaintances come from different backgrounds and experiences, and each of us brings something of substance to the table of friendship. For me, I’ve purposed to find the beauty in each of these perspectives and (here’s the shocking part) the humor in them as well—mine included. I reason that we’ve all gotten so preoccupied with being offended and have lost our collective sense of humor. I however, have not; nor have most of my friends.
  2. OPENNESS: With regard to national politics, I’m purposing to be open-minded and not choose a side. I am choosing to align my stance on topics with something larger – compassion and understanding. Personally, I believe that many politicians have decided to silence whatever their core values are in order to march in lock-step with their specific party’s talking points. In doing so, it has allowed them to turn off their consciences and line their pockets. For that reason, I refuse to wear their labels.
  3. FREEDOM: I’ve set aside my religious affiliations. By choice. On purpose.  As a 20 year volunteer in the evangelical church, serving in just about any and every role, I feel like I’ve seen and heard most everything. And a lot of “it” is just crap! What in heaven’s name is wrong with us that we would claim a connection to a loving God and act so immoral or hateful? Gossip! Lies! Rumors! Judgmentalism! Back-stabbing! Arguments! The list of egregious behavior goes on and on; all because somebody clings to some theology that they “believe,” believing they have all the answers to all the questions!?! I’ve decided I don’t need to have all the answers; rather, I need to be content with asking questions and embracing the beauty of life.
  4. EQUALITY: I’ve decided that I’M NOT GOING TO THINK OF ANYBODY AS INFERIOR, except for those people who can’t navigate a traffic circle or roundabout. Okay, I’m joking! But, I do struggle with this one when I find myself frustrated sitting behind somebody who’s stopped in a roundabout waiting for no one!  But… I digress. Seriously though, I’ve determined to personally treat others like I would like to be treated.

I’m far from perfect and I fall off of the wagon with these principles plenty. But I get back up, dust myself off, and keep moving forward. While I may not change the entire world by trying to be a better human being, I can dream. As I do so, I personally put action to thought with my simple guiding principles. Maybe, just maybe, I/we can eventually transform the discord in our nation “into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

Here’s to the pursuit of the “dream,” and to becoming a “moral leader” in our everyday lives. Here’s to passionately demonstrating for our generation the “soul-force” needed to achieve equality and freedom for all peoples, regardless of skin color or social status. For this resolve, I thank Dr. King.

Click & Listen:

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Becoming Human

Mic’ed up and with cameras recording, the interviewer asked me point blank, “Do you believe in God?” Immediately, numerous responses flooded my mind, but quickly a question formed. As if I were having an out-of-body experience, I heard myself ask, “Which God?” 

There was a short pause and then the conversation continued. It meandered about in numerous directions, while my internal dialogue continued in the background. Eventually the mics and cameras were turned off, small talk ensued and finally warm goodbyes were exchanged. Then, as if nothing significant had occurred, life quickly returned to normal. However, in the background, my internal dialogue continued to ebb and flow. Why had I asked, “Which God?”

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Loaded to the Hilt

When replying with a question, I wasn’t trying to be cheeky or snarky. I was sincerely searching for a context. Which one? Allah? Yahweh? Vishnu? Ganesh? Jesus? Apollo? Ra? The Universe? Ether? And we wouldn’t want to exclude women: Athena? Aphrodite? Sophia? The Holy Spirit?

In that moment, it would have been helpful if the question had been phrased, “Do you believe in my God?” After all, if this conversation had occurred centuries ago with the Jewish Patriarch Abraham, he undoubtedly would have asked, “Do you believe in…MY GOD…the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?”

Obviously, the topic of “believing in God” is always personalized and often loaded to the hilt with emotion. As it concerns Allah, one has to establish which version is being inquired about. Sunni? Shia? Khumra? And we shouldn’t exclude the marginalized Sufis. Personally, I’m a big fan of their witty and humorous poet, Hafiz.

When it comes to Greek or Norse gods, our modern day society has largely decided to retire them to a mythological status. However, they are experiencing somewhat of a big-screen revival thanks to CGI and millions of contribution$ from Marvel, DC and Warner Brothers. The scads of obscure island gods have yet to claim the same mass fame, largely remaining on small, local stages entertaining gawking tourists. However, I’m hoping Aquaman can open a door for a few of them.

Continental gods, such as those throughout South America, have largely died from starvation, due to a scarcity of young virgins and bleeding hearts. On a small scale, eastern gods have extended their lives by appealing to hippies and hipsters. In India, it seems no amount of deities have proven sufficient enough to provide an upper hand or leg up. And recently, the Judeo-Christian Jehovah has been stumbling a bit, first with the Holocaust and now with ceaseless conflict in the Middle East. However, he did manage to get a win in the 2016 Presidential Election. #MAGA

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Cherry Picking

When it comes to Christianity, many assume the discussion would be obvious and understood. But with a disputed 30+ thousand sects active around the world, it’s proven to be quite the opposite. For those of us who’ve gone on short-term mission trips, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Located within blocks of one another, you’ll often find a dozen, maybe even twenty or more denominations competing for converts. They all read from the same book and practice faith in similar ways. Though rarely, they are on speaking terms. Why? Financial support aside, their ideologies keep them far apart as the east is from the west.

Orthodox? Catholic? Protestant? Baptist? Pentecostal? Charismatic? Methodist? Lutheran? Fundamentalist? Conservative? Liberal? Progressive? Prophetic? Apostolic? Non-denominational? Inter-denominational, Unitarian? Universal? Whew! I’m out of breath and I haven’t even gotten started! Obviously, the divide is massive. Maybe now’s a good time to admit: we’ve been cherry picking sacred texts for a long time, crafting preferred versions of the Divine we either could defend, or stomach for a season.

With such an admission, I know I’m asking a lot. After all, confession is rarely easy. For me, it took a few years of self-searching and decluttering. In the beginning, it seemed heroic to dismiss and ignore all the divine decrees regarding diet, menstruation, fashion dos & don’ts, polygamy, celibacy, justified violence and slavery. As a matter of fact, I was often praised for doing so, and encouraged to continue.

Later, when I was willing to relinquish the pro-misogamy references, I experienced my first serious pushback. But the heat really got turned up when I did the same with anti-LGBTQ references. All I can say about that is, “WOW!” Nonetheless, each experience caused me to dig deeper. Eventually, I could no longer ignore the countless contradictions, both within the Bible and within myself.

beinghuman_us Being Human – One of my all-time favorite series depicting the struggles of a vampire, ghost and werewolf reclaiming their humanity. It portrays the ugliness and beauty of finding love, forgiveness and redemption.

Becoming Human

In the end, I was left holding onto a very thin sliver of what some still considered sufficient for faith. It was largely a collection of metaphors, a bit of sacred poetry and a few words of wisdom. I lovingly held it close for a season, until one day I had an epiphany: My relationship with supernaturalism was over, and I would survive. Heck, I might even thrive! So, with the same veracity of commitment and moral devotion of my religious past, I decided to pursue simply being human and all it entails.

It wasn’t long until I discovered, my humanistic endeavor was considered by many as heretical and foolhardy. In some faith circles, simply being human is actually tantamount to committing a crime. Nonetheless, I’m undeterred. After all, everybody is a heretic to somebody. In my defense, I like to point to the fact that most religions share a similar narrative: at one time or another, many of the gods (including “God”) pursued the same thing—becoming human.


Postscript

I’m not so naive to think that this article will answer all my critics, or for that matter please every one of my supporters. What about NDE’s? The afterlife? Eternal punishment & reward? OI VEH! For now, I suggest we stay on point with what it means to be human. Personally, I feel this topic is far from being exhausted. Here’s a few links to get things started:

Ze Frank: Are You Human?

Daniel Wendler: What Being Autistic Taught Me About Being Human

Erwin Raphael McManus: What Makes Us Uniquely Human?

Sonia Sanchez: What Does It Mean To Be Human?

Bob McDonald: What If Everything You Know Is Wrong?

 

Killer Conundrums

Her unfamiliar face and obvious baby bump solicited stares and hushed whispers. She was new and different in a community which wasn’t accustomed to the like. The only new and different things making an appearance were those speeding through the only four-way stop in my tiny town. However, here she was at a full stop, parked in my home room with a compelling story very few were willing to approach or inquire about.

Cigarettes & Short Skirts

Sadly, I confess I never spoke to her. Her “condition” was far outside of my comfort zone. Besides that, my parents would have grounded me if I had done so. I was already out of their good graces for coming home smelling like cigarette smoke. My girlfriend had borrowed my jacket, lit up and left me with the lingering odor of rebellion.

In case you’re wondering, that is the truth and surprisingly my parents actually believed me. Nonetheless, I was buried alive under loads of extra-chores because… having a girlfriend was forbidden! The fact that she was a cheerleader made my offense seriously grave. My parents cringed when they thought of how every Friday night she could be found dancing around the gym floor in a short skirt before a rowdy home crowd.

Sternly, they warned me how I was to “live in the world” but “not be of this world.” From now on I was to avoid scandalous relationships, which could potentially screw me out of experiencing God’s perfect plan for my life. Clearly, I would have to be careful around the new girl in my home room. Thankfully, I had a lengthy chore list in hand. My dad believed firmly that manual labor would cleanse my soul, and I honestly had no reason to doubt him.

Inoculated

My off-the-beaten-path public school was a perfect place where pregnant teens could lay low for six months. Then, as spontaneously as they had appeared, they disappeared, arriving home alone as if returning from an exchange student program. Sorry to say, due to the general ruse and temporary nature of the situation, befriending them wasn’t a high priority. Furthermore, heavy doses of religious fear, swallowed three times a week on Sundays and Wednesdays, served to inoculate me against having a conscience.

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The drama of teenage pregnancy is as old as the Bible and still much older. During the Christmas season, it’s rigorously celebrated with ritualistic fervor. For weeks on end, the airwaves swell with tunes and melodies extolling the pregnant maiden who was whisked away by her gobsmacked fiancé to give birth in a stable. Certainly a scenario like this today would prompt someone talking to someone, an intervention at the very least or maybe even criminal charges. But who wants to be a “scrooge” by disparaging a beloved tale?

Killer Conundrums

Amidst plastic replicas of singing angels, serene barnyard animals and eastern wise men illuminated by a cheap star blinking overhead, the matriarch of teenage pregnancy is enshrined. People of faith worldwide gather to stand silently in reverence before the blessed maiden and her holy child. They rehearse her story with hushed whispers and humbly bow to the fruit of her womb, a molded plastic baby representing the “Sacrificial Lamb,” a.k.a the ultimate human sacrifice.

Obviously, to this day, remnants of ancient blood rituals live on in the religious psyche, enlivened by centuries of sacred paranoia. These time-honored superstitions serve to provide irrational justifications for a host of killer conundrums and bad behavior. Sadly, opportunities for dialogue, understanding and meaningful relationships often get placed on altars of blind obedience.

Rarely do faithful adherents consider what has truly been sacrificed. I should know. For the longest time I never stopped to think, just like I shamefully never thought to speak to the pregnant teenage girl sitting in my home room.

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