Although he quit believing in God as a teenager, 50-year-old Brandon Osborn feared hell and damnation until he was 35. Raised in the “holiness movement” branch of the Church of LDS after escaping his mother’s abusive home, Osborn finds addiction and recovery fitting symbols for his experience.
“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,” he says. “Religion is as poisonous and as attractive, to many, as heroin—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.”
Can you really become addicted to religion? Well, the risk of any activity or substance becoming an addiction depends in part on the characteristics of the substance or activity, and in part—some experts believe most significantly—on the characteristics of the situation and user.
For even the most intense pleasures—those that tend to create the highest rates of compulsion—most users retain their capacity for autonomy and balance. Most people can ingest a pleasurable neurotoxin like alcohol or even cocaine in moderation, for example, while others find themselves drawn inexorably toward self-destruction. The same can be said about pleasurable activities like sex or gambling. And the same is logically true of religiously-induced pleasures—including intense feelings of euphoria, transcendence, hope, joy, absolution, security, immortality, certitude, purity, purpose, belonging, or superiority.
Chris Scott, a former devout Bible-believer from Phoenix, notes how the euphoric feelings spurred by religion have the potential for poor outcomes. Scott says that his experience was “most definitely” like an addiction. “The best definition of addiction that I’ve ever heard,” he says, “is anything that provides a mood-altering experience but has adjoining negative consequences, and yet the behavior is continued anyways.”
In recent decades, the idea of recovery from addiction to religion has taken root, particularly in Christian America. A proliferation of websites provide platforms for sharing stories, like exChristian.net, or offer support and help, like RecoveringfromReligion.org. There are self-help books, too: When God Becomes a Drug, by Father Leo Booth, promises readers “practical ways to overcome excessive devotion and attain healthy spirituality.”
Thousands of testimonials leave no doubt that going cold turkey—abruptly quitting a faith or religious community—can leave people who quit religion experiencing both residual symptoms from their time in the religion, and withdrawal symptoms.
“Here I am, a 51-year old college professor, still smarting from the wounds inflicted by the righteous when I was a child,” reads an anonymous online testimonial. “It is a slow, festering wound, one that smarts every day—in some way or another … . I thought I would leave all of that ‘God loves … God hates…’ stuff behind, but not so. Such deep and confusing fear is not easily forgotten. It pops up in my perfectionism, my melancholy mood, the years of being obsessed with finding the assurance of personal salvation.”
“Despite the fact that I’ve intellectually broken from Christianity, however, I cannot seem to let go of my beliefs. Every single day is a nightmare, plagued with mild panic attacks, de-realization, doubt, OCD, etc.” relates another former Christian in the book Christianity Is Not Great. “Sometimes I think, “Oh, but this is exactly what they warned me about, the world can’t be trusted, and it doesn’t matter what reason says, the fact is that Christianity is true no matter what and even if it flies in the face of all reason. Reason is unreliable and you just have to keep believing. I know this is illogical, but every time I try to convince myself that, my brain just stubbornly insists that I just believe, believe, believe. My life is a living hell.”
Dr. Marlene Winell, a human development consultant who works with people who identify as being in recovery from addictions to religion, says that her clients are not simply people who would otherwise struggle with mental health issues. Rather, they are people who get sucked into toxic versions of religion because they care deeply about doing good and living well, and once free, many transition to other world-views that promote both meaning and happiness. The book A Better Life offers a window into how former believers, including Winell herself, find joy and purpose.