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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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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Take Your Time God

Tragedy strikes in a variety of ways. Storms, wrecks, sickness, death, job loss, the list is endless. Adding insult to injury, are those wishing to assign purpose and meaning to misfortune. They seemingly can’t help themselves when it comes to offering senseless, pat antidotes–especially on social media.

This past weekend, while people were fleeing the raging wild fires consuming homes and businesses near Redding, CA the following post popped up in my FB newsfeed:

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We know this is creating space for God to show up and do some amazing things in peoples lives… Jesus be near.

In my former, religious frame of mind, I never really liked such sentiments, but idly stood by without opposition. Now however, when reading this free of my past superstitions, everything inside of me bristled! It left me troubled and upset for hours. I couldn’t shake the sentiment being conveyed: God will show up AFTER everyone has suffered and lost everything.

Time to Show Off

For centuries, religion has sought to answer the ageless quandary of suffering. Countless theologians have weighed in with too many cooked up antidotal recipes to post here. Regardless, the choice dish devotees prefer to serve up to the hurting masses is: the divine uses calamity in order to show off his greatness.

Along this line of thinking, it’s not tasteless for God to quietly stand by while people are abused, enslaved and consumed. After all, there is a biblical precedent for this. In Israel’s ancient past, he waited 500 years before showing up and showing off. At first, neither the Hebrew slaves nor Pharaoh their oppressor were convinced of his power and intentions. But the final dish God served, featuring roasted lamb for the Hebrews and dead babies for the Egyptians, motivated everyone to be compliant.

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Continuing in this same line of thought, perhaps it’s reasonable for God to let the nations rage for countless millenniums? According to ancient prophecies, he’s just waiting for the right moment to make his grand entrance! His first order of business will be to slaughter the majority of earth’s human population, serving their flesh up as a hearty meal for the birds of the air.

Afterwards, he will sit down to a victor’s feast with his chosen few who gleefully assisted him in committing mass genocide. Apparently, roasted lamb will be on the menu again. Following the dinner party, he will graciously provide the earth’s remaining population with eternal peace and prosperity as they recover from PTSD.

Heavy Lifter

No one in their right mind would ever entertain such unconscionable reasoning or behavior. And if they did, they’d need to enter a temporary insanity plea to hopefully avoid an extended lockup. Sadly, God and his chosen people persist in this line of thinking. Theologians, ministers, rabbis and mullahs are eager to supply them with creative loopholes and exemptions.

Thankfully though, humane laws exist to prohibit the earthbound faithful from preemptively acting out in the hopes that God will be enticed to show up, show off and finish off.

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Meanwhile, back on social media, while the religious continue to post their mindless antidotes and dark predictions, humane reasoning quietly does the heavy lifting behind the scenes.

Breakthroughs in medicine and science continue. More effective building codes are enforced. Relief aid is funded. First Responders evaluate and test improved procedures. Environmentalists combat pollution and promote healthier food sources. Peace keepers protect the innocent. Industry gives bonuses for maintaining clean, safe workplaces.

I’d say, the work of showing up is in good hands right now.

So… take your time God.