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.

The Damn Dark Room

Lately, I’ve been thinking about fear as it relates to belief systems and wrestling with some challenging questions. A few of them are as follows:

  • Where is the line drawn between healthy and unhealthy fear?
  • To what extent is fear-mongering practiced within belief systems. i.e. religion, politics, academia, etc.? FEAR-MONGERING: exaggerated habits and tactics which purposefully arouse fear.
  • How do fear-based ideologies evolve into accepted facts, truths and beliefs for individuals, groups and institutions?
  • At what point does critical mass occur, when fear-based ideologies become institutionalized by morphing into doctrines, policy, curriculum, methods and messaging?
  • What methods have proven the most effective in dealing with delusional, socially accepted fears? DELUSION: irrational ideas and thought patterns so fixed that nothing, including rational evidence, can persuade a person that what they feel or believe is not true.

For me, these questions are very personal, especially as they pertain to religion.

Love Wins?

I grew up in the “Bible Belt,” served as an evangelical minister for over two decades, and travelled the world with mission endeavors. My interactions with thousands of people, from various walks of life and numerous cultures, have produced a plethora of quandaries and observations.

Midway in my career as a full-time minister, I started to discern how largely fear factored into numerous doctrines and widely accepted practices. Years of experience had opened my eyes to the extent of damage caused, and how it tends to produce symptoms related to PTSD (RTS). Eventually, I began to speak out publicly. But, as you can imagine, my words weren’t always received with “open ears or hearts.”

In time, my clarity sharpened, and so did my message. I labored tirelessly to reverse the damage caused by religious fear-mongering, superstitions, biases and even paranoia. Weekly, as I spoke to small and large groups, I had a center-stage view as to how fear-based ideologies grip people of faith with an almost omnipotent hold. Seeing this motivated me all the more to understand: how fear takes hold, and when it achieves the upper-hand. Unsurprisingly, I traced it back to the initiating point of conversion.

Ask any convert, new or old, why they converted and you’re sure to hear a myriad of answers. Eventually though, it always comes down to one major catalyst—the fear of hell and eternal damnation. To question these sacred beliefs is to solicit strong reactions. Just ask Rob Bell, author of “Love Wins.”

For many laypersons, the chief rationalization for the doctrine of hell rests in the belief that God “loves sinners but HATES SIN!” This love/hate revelation quickly becomes a cherished mantra for converts. And over time, it produces fear-induced changes in their thought patterns, personalities and behaviors. Affectionally, this all-encompassing change is referred to as “sanctification.”

Here’s a look at how it generally works, when fear is the leading catalyst in a person’s religious experience.

The Splintering Effect

In the beginning, this love/hate conundrum indelibly produces hairline fractures within the new convert’s psyche. Though difficult to detect at the onset, eventually the splintered fractures multiply, grow and become obvious. Oftentimes, this happens at a rapid pace, prompting the new convert to exhibit early traits of a split personality–acting one way with some and another way with others. 

Insider peers are prepared for this early stage of conversion/sanctification, and eagerly offer advice focused on “dying to self” and “becoming fully possessed” by God’s will. This counsel initiates a test of loyalty for the convert. Please self? Others? God? The splintering effect increases and intensifies.

Wrestling with self-worth, purpose and identity issues, the convert begins to suffer with bouts of intense anxiety and mild forms of depression. Both are symptomatic of irrational, fear-induced trauma. But there’s a fix! It’s called confession. No one can argue that honesty and authenticity are worthy attributes. However, religious confession is often tethered to fear-ridden, limited viewpoints, which promote exaggerated negativity and criticalness. 

In short time, the convert becomes fully consumed by harsh, self-judgement. They are taught, their thoughts are untrustworthy, their hearts are wicked and their bodies are sinful. Everything about themselves needs to be taken captive, beaten, crucified and killed daily. Not doing so, could potentially result in eternal punishment or loss of reward! At this point, their vulnerability to fear-mongering, denial and delusion reaches an all-time high. I should know. Not only have I witnessed it repeatedly, I’ve experienced it myself.

By age four, I was a celebrated, newbie convert. By age nine, I had proven myself proficient with confession and laying “my all” upon the altar. What exactly was “my all?” Obviously, I was too young to comprehend or vocalize it, but this didn’t stop my religious peers from praising my achievement. By age seventeen, I was fully vested, vetted and recognized as an emerging spiritual authority.

Spiritual Authorities

Spiritual authorities are extremely important. They stand center stage in a throng of desperate converts, serving as valued connections to godly wisdom and revelation. Their dogma is rooted in an ancient Eastern honor/shame paradigm, and stained with centuries of blood atonement rituals.

They have little to no understanding of either, both being completely foreign to their cultural experience and modern framework. However, thanks to elaborate Western (Greco-Roman) systems of theology, massive gaps in understanding are inventively filled in. Personally, I feel if there’s anything the Church at large needs most today, it would be a good “de-Greecing!”

Nevertheless, spiritual authorities often manage to modernize the archaic for their contemporary audiences. Today, MEGA-efforts employ thick catalogs of trendy music, scads of diverse programs, groups, resources, and loads of cheap merchandise.  All this proves highly costly for the masses, but very profitable for a few at the top of the pyramid. Regardless, the impact of ancient, fear-based dogmas is profound, even for the casual participant. After all, history confirms, people of every generation, background and culture respond in-like to the fear of suffering.

Fear Normalized

Over time, the convert learns to accept their group’s normalization of irrational fears and biases. The motivation to do so is strongly anchored in their psyche by the dualistic paradigms of love/hate, honor/shame, punishment/reward and loss/gain. If, for one reason or another, they cannot conform to their group’s expectations, they often quietly adopt the necessary level of denial and secrecy to maintain status quo.  

Eventually, the convert’s mental landscape evolves and adapts to their social-religious conditioning, i.e. Fundamentalist, Conservative, Moderate, Progressive, Liberal, etc. Thought patterns, personality traits and behaviors shift accordingly, giving rise to cognitive dissonance. Predictably, members of their host group often applaud and encourage their “progress.”

Overtime, the convert’s worldview changes and they come to see themselves, others and the world with “new eyes”—a splintered, dualistic, “us versus them” narrow-minded viewpoint. It’s no surprise then, that many in faith circles believe themselves to be harshly judged, misunderstood, marginalized and persecuted by those outside of their group.

I cannot tell you how disheartening it is to speak clearly with those trapped in this fear-induced delusion, knowing full well they are both deaf and blind to what I’m saying and revealing. Unfortunately, the part of them which is inherently present at birth to receive rational instruction, has been religiously crucified over and over again.

The Damn Dark Room

Sadly, many faithful converts remain none the wiser that fear has become the basis of their religion, judgmentalism their addiction and fear-mongering their dogmatic message. From day one and thereafter, fear has reconfigured their thought patterns and splintered their identities. It has narrowed their viewpoints, stunted their maturity and enslaved them with a form of religious psychosis—an impairment of both thought and emotion so strong the host has lost contact with reality.

Unwittingly, they become entrapped in white washed sepulchers, where legions of fear-mongering influences lie in wait with intent to exploit. There, in the dimness of only “seeing in part,” converts learn to exercise blind faith. In time, they come to feel a great sense of belonging in this entrapment, claiming it as their refuge, fortress and strong tower.

My friends and I call this place “The Damn Dark Room.” The reason being, you’re damned in staying, and damned for leaving. I remember when I first cracked open the door and saw the light; I literally cried for four straight hours.

As I write this, I’m keenly aware of those who are still on the inside, contemplating leaving “The Damn Dark Room.” I’ve heard from many of you in the past few weeks, and I know full well what you’re going through. I sympathize with the anxiety you’re feeling right now as you wonder: Is it safe to open the door? Will it be worth it? Is there’s really freedom and clarity on the outside? Or, will there just be more fear and self-loathing awaiting me?

Friend, I want you to know, you’re not alone. There are many more just like you, longing for sanity. Please keep asking, seeking and knocking. And be fearless in doing so! I personally am a witness to the fact, there’s a wonderful life awaiting you just outside “The Damn Dark Room.”

For inspiration, check out Christina Cobb’s:

The Beauty of it All

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Click pic to view an interview with Christina Cobb.