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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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?