Can Religion be an Addiction?

Addicted to Jesus“I’ve never been happier since I quit my 30-year addiction to Jesus.” – Blogger and Christian Heretic Sandra Kee

To a medical researcher, the word addiction has a specific biological meaning. But in common vernacular, it means approximately this: the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, such as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.

Based on this definition some religious experiences seem a lot like addictions—at least that’s what former believers say.

Blogger Sandra Kee, a self-described “Christian Heretic,” looks back at her family history and sees religion and addiction as a messy tangle: “My family for several generations was in a dysfunctional and addictive religious life, using God (or what we believed about God) as a drug. Many of the family who left religion simply traded for another addiction. The generations that entered into religion did so to escape alcoholism and other addictions (though it wasn’t called addiction back then). Many who remained in religion developed additional addictions as well.”

Former Mormon Brandon Olson is even more emphatic: “Karl Marx said it right, ‘Religion is the opiate of the masses.’ I’m still recovering from it. Part of my recovery is helping others get free,” says Olson. “I quit believing in a god when I was a teenager, but I was afraid of hell / damnation until I was about 35. It took me until I was 40 to speak up and revoke my LDS cult membership. I am now 50, and I consider religion to be an imposed addiction – no different than holding a baby and shooting it up with small doses of heroin, increasing the doses as the baby grows.”

In recent decades, the idea of recovery from religion has taken root. Recovery websites provide platforms for sharing stories, like exChristian.net, or offer support and help, like RecoveringfromReligion.org. Many draw on the language and strategies of other recovery programs.

Even within Christianity, some people use 12-Step language to talk about religious addiction or what a newly-released book calls Sober Spirituality. Author Elizabeth Esther describes how church experiences produce a “high”:

There’s the ubiquitous mood lighting so that you can only see what’s meant to be seen… Loud music ensures you hear only what is meant to be heard… Several high-energy warm-up acts make you feel only what you’re supposed to feel… By the time the featured attraction steps on stage… you’re so amped up you’ll hand over your body, soul, and wallet. It doesn’t even occur to you that this might be destructive, because feeling elated is the desired outcome.

The result, says Esther, can be a destructive quest for righteous euphoria. Father Leo Booth similarly uses the language of Alcoholics Anonymous in his book, When God Becomes a Drug, which promises readers “practical ways to overcome excessive devotion and attain healthy spirituality.”

Addiction symptoms

When does spirituality start looking like addiction? On the internet, checklists abound (for example, here, here, and here) and include symptoms that would sound familiar to any addict or Al Anon member.  Here are some highlights:

  • Do you use religion to avoid social and emotional problems?
  • Are you preoccupied with religion to the point of neglecting work?
  • Would people who know you describe your religiosity as extreme or obsessive?
  • Does your commitment to a religious leader or institution take precedence over your children or other 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?
  • Are your religious contributions financially imprudent?
  • Do you feel irritated and act defensive when someone questions your religion?

Broader mental health questions

But religious addiction checklists and other self-help materials often also include symptoms that, while psychologically unhealthy, may have little to do with diagnosing addiction.

  • 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 violence against 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 threaten others with divine punishment or otherwise try to control them?

Without a doubt, a yes to any of these questions suggests that something is out of whack. Patterns like these can interfere with healthy self-esteem, personal empowerment, work, community service, and loving relationships. They are toxic. That said, a worldview can be toxic without being addictive, which may leave the question of religious addiction murky at best.

Looking back on his years as a Christian, non-theist Tony Debono says “While I have no desire to return to religion, I definitely miss the highs of religious worship, as well as the friendship and support of the community. Is that more like missing a substance of addiction, or like missing the delirium and strange dreams of a high fever? I’m not sure.”

Psycho-social benefits?

To make matters even more complex, a set of beliefs can be false without being either toxic or addictive, and in some situation false beliefs may even be adaptive. Also, research suggests that participation in some forms of religious community or spiritual practices like meditation may have benefits independent of any truth-value in the community’s distinctive claims.

Recognizing this, humanist and atheist groups have begun experimenting with how to create secular churches and humanist assemblies—communities that lack supernatural beliefs but that nonetheless meet regularly to channel wonder, provide mutual support, talk about deep values, and inspire service. These experimental communities are exploring how to keep some of the best of religion without supernaturalism and without the other parts that can lead religion to feel harmful. In the future, secular spiritual communities of this type may ease the transition for people leaving a religion that feels unhealthy or addictive, or that no longer fits for other reasons.

Your results may vary

The risk of any activity or substance becoming a compulsion depends in part on characteristics of the substance and in part on characteristics of the situation and user. We know, for example, that nicotine is more addictive than marijuana. But for even the most intense pleasures—those that create the highest rates of compulsion—some users retain their capacity for autonomy and balance.

Some people can ingest a pleasurable neurotoxin like alcohol or even cocaine in moderation, while others find themselves drawn inexorably toward self-destruction. The same can be said about pleasurable activities like running or gambling. And the same is likely to be true of powerful religious pleasures—intense feelings of euphoria, transcendence, hope, joy, absolution, security, immortality, certitude, purity, purpose, belonging, or superiority.

In the end, the question of whether religion is addictive for you or someone you care about comes back to the definition of addiction itself, which includes words like enslaved, habit, and trauma: Has your religion consumed your life? Is it freely chosen? (Try on the thought of what might happen if you let it go.) What price are you or others around you paying for the good stuff you get?

Addiction aside, the bigger question may be whether a specific set of religious beliefs or practices contributes to wellbeing or harm. Human development consultant Marlene Winell describes a pattern she calls religious trauma syndrome, which can be triggered either by experiences within religious communities—especially those that are authoritarian, isolationist and fear based—or as a consequence of leaving. Winell’s diagnosis is unofficial, but when she writes on the topic, former believers by the hundreds respond, saying that they see themselves in her words and stories.

A growing array of options

Fortunately, for those who find their former religion to be harmful, addictive or otherwise a bad fit, options in most of the world are growing. It has been said that there are as many gods as there are believers, and some people who shake free from one form of religion find themselves at home in another. But a growing number of former believers, say they are one or another kind of post-religious, and that’s ok. There’s plenty of downside to all of these differences. As Jon Stewart put it sardonically, “Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by . . . religion.”

But the upside is this: Anyone able to open their door finds a whole world of possibilities just outside.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder - www.WisdomCommons.org.
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21 Responses to Can Religion be an Addiction?

  1. Paul Abrams says:

    Hi Valerie,V good.Christopher Hitchens often spoke of religions, esp christianity, of deliberately frightening chldren, challenging their claims to being ethical and moral.  What ethical or moral person deliberately frightens children? Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Pingback: Faith as addiction | Civil Commotion

  3. koppieop says:

    I know that religions have been, are, and unfortunately will, for some long time to come, remain a serious problem, but this article frightens me more than others. Frankly speaking, I have not yet read it completely, still I would like to quickly type two comments:

    —– Jon Stewart’s remark “Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by . . . religion.”—–
    So true! I find it really pathetic, hearing people saying in all naieve earnestness: “I always pray for peace in the Middle East”. In spite of prayer having been proved to be useless (by unbelievers).

    —–But the upside is this: Anyone able to open their door finds a whole world of possibilities just outside—–
    Fair enough. But a door (if well closed) will open only when the person behind it WANTS to do that. And which firm believer would desire to change his mind?

    Like

  4. It was really tragic hearing of the dysfunctional religious experience of Olson who wrote, “I quit believing in a god when I was a teenager, but I was afraid of hell / damnation until I was about 35. It took me until I was 40…”

    No doubt there are millions who have experienced the hellish side of religion as an addiction. I’ve read thousands of Internet posts and some books by former religious individuals who speak of the horror of their addictive religious past.

    On the other hand, in the 55 years I was a committed Christian, I never experienced or encountered any others like Olson’s fear of hell, etc. It seems there is a huge difference between hard fundamentalistic religion versus moderate religion.

    Addiction seems to belong to religious conservative movements of all sorts, and including various secular ideologies, but not to moderate religion or moderate ideologies.

    Some thinker said that religion brings out both the best and the worst in humans. Sounds true.

    Look at religious individuals like civil rights worker Bayard Rustin or human rights advocate Thich Nhat Hanh, etc.

    Religion was a bright light for them, not the hellish experience people such as Olson had.

    Valerie, I’m curious if you have come across any studies showing religious addiction in “mainline” churches?

    Have any readers who suffered addiction been part of moderate religious movements?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff says:

      Daniel,

      I was raised Southern Baptist, yet a moderate strain of that odd form of protestantism. I eventually realized that each day I followed the invisible was a day that I didn’t take responsibility for my own action, was a day that I didn’t live fully. Life is better in reality.

      Jeff

      Like

    • I’m with you here. Spiritual faith is a positive force for many people. I think religious addiction is associated with extreme religious groups – that are very authoritarian and exclusive. Any addiction is a crutch. Religious addiction serves to buffer pain, even as it stunts personal growth.

      Like

      • Gunther says:

        “Religious addiction serves to buffer pain, even as it stunts personal growth”

        I agree with you Ms. Chateau that religion stunts personal growth. It also stunts your reasoning and logic since it plays on your emotions to control you.
        .

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Lowell Bushey says:

    Hi, Valerie,

    Wow, did you ever hit the nail on the head! Much of the behavior that you described accurately portrays my ex and two of my siblings.

    My observation indicates that your comparison of an addiction to religion and a drug addiction is entirely accurate. I’ve observed people that, quite literally, get “high on God” in much the same way that one would get high on a drug. When their “religion high” wears off, and they get back to reality, they experience a “low” that can only be ameliorated by another “religion fix”. In addition, an addiction to religion often supersedes the well being of family members, and creates isolation from friends, in much the same way as a drug addiction might. I regard the fundamentalist religious establishment as analogous to the tobacco companies, in that they know that their “product” is toxic and addictive, but continue to push it.

    The scary part, IMO, is that most people have a benign view of religion. I’m the only one I know who regards religion as a major factor, if not the main factor, in every 20th/21st century genocide!

    Like

  6. Martha Carey says:

    This conversation about good vs. toxic religion and the effects of religiosity itself is most refreshing and long-overdue in the public square. As CS Lewis said: “we read to know that we are not alone.”
    And as the crusty old Greeks observed: ‘its the use or abuse of something, not the thing itself.’

    The toxicity and addictive potential of all unexamined belief systems becomes an intrinsically entrenched part of compulsive thought-habits, like a groove in a broken record, which translates into manifested rites and rituals, which then becomes morphed into the habit itself, compulsively doing something over and over…just for the sake of the habit. Thus, the habit itself becomes the drug, the religion, and the questions and examinations of ‘why am I doing this’ become silenced.

    I don’t like to reduce this to an either/or however, I see the religious condition as being part of personal-collective-cosmic consciousness vs those remaining in unconsciousness. On this blog alone, listen to the departure-recovery stories and THE LANGUAGE that describes and accompanies them. It is the wisdom language of real religion itself: “I was blind and now I see, or, I was asleep and now I’ve awakened, or like the powerful story of Nicodemus to Jesus saying: “how can I return to my mother’s womb and be reborn all over again?!” How do I wake up?

    Here, I want to contribute to “Can Religion be an Addiction” by going beyond the behavioral, the measurable, the manifested, the painfully experienced. Rather, there is a deeper and far more primal reason as to why ‘the human masses’ through the ages have resorted to the opiate of religion.

    I intuit that it has something to do with an underlying personal loneliness, a wishful aching and longing for belonging, a sense of place in a church pew in a run-a-way cyber tech world. As the root word and etymology means, Religio, in its original wisdom intention, is meant to tie back and re-connect. In its most life-giving, compassionate in justice sense, it should re-connect us to our true selves, to one another, to an authentic and nurturing creational response.

    But more and more wonderful and not so wonderful religious folks are neither benefitting nor growing due to false religion’s ferocious denial and grieving-glaring absence of a creational and co-creational understanding of our sense of personhood, presence and authentic sense of place here. It all lacks the ONENESS that all good religion is suppose to provide.

    We see the devastation, demoralization and waking grief in the midst of the worst of the three Abrahamic religions over the centuries: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There is no more rabid and rapacious ravaging than these in their fundamental extremism. They do not tie themselves back but render themselves and others in pieces and leave yet another false god of carnage, powerlessness and slavery. They kill the spirit, rather than protect and promote it’s promise. Worse, their ‘god’ has nothing to do with any of this, if it exists or not. I would say to these: I don’t HAVE a soul, I AM a soul.

    The only wisdom religions that recognize and respond to this are: the creation-centered spirituality’s, a human being’s hands-on, heart’s and soul’s involvement with the natural world, with all its wonders, terrors and mysteries. More than ever now, a Creation-Centered Spirituality is the ONENESS that is beckoning us to wake up and become conscious!

    This has been a much longer than intended response. Valerie, I honor and learn much from your website—thank you! Somehow, the seeking and finding are seeking and finding each other. “If there is hunger, then there must be bread.”

    Liked by 2 people

  7. allanmerry says:

    Valerie, Yes most certainly, Religion (as all we “realists” characterize in “our” vernacular) is addicting. (In my view, the specific biological medical definition of the extends naturally to any addiction, as you have reformulated it.) Thus Religion is a very widespread addiction, (in innumerable individual iterations), and an addiction, considering all its manifestations, with a very big Negative impact on our Survival. (And an aside: Same applies to all forms destructive theory and practice, with or without an identified medical component.) And like other addictions it cries out for wide and more effective interventions. And there’s the Rub. What specific forms of intervention have we found for IT? What remain to be discovered and devised?? What more, specifically can we, each and collectively, do to learn more effectively how to intervene in the Religion addictions? Obviously one I/we can do is to apply some – more?- my time and energy to activism in the Political arena, where Risk to Freedom-From-Religion is unusually HIGH and dangerous right now. But what more? I’m thinking. I’d love suggestions.

    Like

  8. jimbo says:

    I appreciate your posts, especially since I have lost so many friends to what you write about. In most cases I’ve left them but a few objected to my atheistic leanings, and the questions I have for them. But the common thread among these lost friends is they are all right wing zealots. In all cases these learned their political leanings at their fathers knee, their fathers were Republican and all be damned they are Republicans. So in these cases the strong religious feelings have been in concert with their blind authoritarian tendencies, suggesting that there is a way to get to these folks to begin to understand.
    I’m waiting to see if your site allows me to comment once again. WordPress has banned me and censored me on several sites, especially at Mikey Weinstein’s MRFF site (if you haven’t it’s a great place to see push back against dominionism in the military), and at Tulsi Gabbard’s site, where WordPress tried to censor me and I was able to contact her staff to enlighten then on the dangers of using WordPress. To understand my concerns, I believe WordPress and Disqus are staffed with dominionists, and as such they are Trojan Horses emplaced to disrupt liberal discussion in the event of another coup attempt ala GWB in 2000. I’m positive about the dominionism thing, discovered while watching Disqus manipulate and censor for propaganda purposes on so-called liberal sites.

    Like

  9. Gunther says:

    I believe that religion was used on people in order to keep them under control by our top political, social and economic leaders.

    Like

  10. Andrew Klein says:

    Reblogged this on andrewpaulkleinblog and commented:
    Serious food for thought !

    Like

  11. Religion (particularly the Abrahamic religions), is an addiction in service to a superstitious mind.

    Like

  12. Lara/Trace says:

    Reblogged this on ☀️ army of one ☀️ and commented:
    Former Mormon Brandon Olson is even more emphatic: “Karl Marx said it right, ‘Religion is the opiate of the masses.’ I’m still recovering from it. Part of my recovery is helping others get free,” says Olson. “I quit believing in a god when I was a teenager, but I was afraid of hell / damnation until I was about 35. It took me until I was 40 to speak up and revoke my LDS cult membership. I am now 50, and I consider religion to be an imposed addiction – no different than holding a baby and shooting it up with small doses of heroin, increasing the doses as the baby grows.”

    Like

  13. Lara/Trace says:

    I don’t know who said “Organized religion is the greatest evil in the evolutionary history of mankind.” It’s obviously mind control.

    Like

    • Gunther says:

      I agree with you organized control. It is like drugs and alcohol in that it hinders and destroys your brain development growth plus stops you from developing analytical, critical thinking skills. It is also like the military – you are not paid to think, I do the thinking for you.

      Like

  14. Perry says:

    “…some people who shake free from one form of religion find themselves at home in another.”

    I’ve seen that first-hand with many who escaped the same extreme, spiritually abusive fundamentalist Christian cult I did. They quit that cult, but joined churches or groups with many of the same abusive doctrines, while I escaped and became a humanist and atheist. It was as if we both escaped the same dangerous captor, but they simply moved across the street, while I moved to the other side of the world. I had to get as far away from them as I could, so I could not be tempted back by the allures of religious addiction.

    Extreme, fundamentalist religious belief is an addiction, and addiction is a mental illness. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/comorbidity-addiction-other-mental-illnesses/drug-addiction-mental-illness Therefore, extreme fundamentalist religious belief is a mental illness. One only has to consider the dogmatic beliefs taken literally to understand how delusional such believers are. I know, I once was one.

    It is also interesting to consider the fact that drug addiction can be transmitted to babies in the womb. Religious addiction can be transmitted in a similar way. My religious addiction began with my mother’s addiction before I was even conceived. I was hooked from birth, I never stood a chance. I wasn’t a “crack-baby” I was a “christ-baby”, my life stunted by that deadly dogma.

    p.s. regarding my atheism, I use this anonymous quotation I found online to describe myself on one of my twitter feeds:
    Skepticism is my nature; FreeThought is my methodology; Agnosticism is my conclusion; Atheism is my opinion; Humanism is my motivation

    Like

  15. Pingback: Can Religion Be an Addiction? – Oases Club- Conscious Living and Learning Community

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  17. Hi Valerie,
    I started my blog, Save Paradise, during the summer. Unfortunately, I am having a run in with some Mormons who believe that the church is more important than the Constitution of the United States, the laws of the U.S. and harassment laws in place in the state of California. The part of the Mormon faith that I am seeing displayed definitely is a CULT. If I were to tell you the details of this “non touching” harassment, you would find it totally unbelievable. But, with modern technologies and people who believe their religion is the only one – and more important than laws or one person’s life………….well, I understand more than I did three years ago – I basically stopped functioning for a while. I wouldn’t be surprised if high up in the church haven’t used less sophisticated measures for decades on church members and non church members. So, I yes, for these people, their religion is an addiction. It also crosses the line into being a cult. More recently, I have had numerous cars pass me by, swerving as though they were going to hit my car – these events have taken place on quiet suburban streets. I just hope that enough people come forward over time to expose this vigilante group harassment (most people who write about this sound crazy). This time, I try not to figure everything out and sing a lot in the car. If you want more details so that you can tell people what to ask those “crazy” individuals out there what they are experiencing let me know.

    Shelley in Petaluma.

    Like

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