A generation ago, most people—even those who were not religious—thought of religion as mostly beneficial or at least harmless. But these days opinions are more mixed—with good reason. On the political stage, conservative Christians quote chapter and verse to justify bigotries that they call religious freedom, while conservative Muslims quote chapter and verse to justify beheadings and rape that they call jihad. Both groups of true believers seem determined to turn back the clock on secularism and modernity. Meanwhile, at the individual level, conversation has opened up about psychological harms of Christianity—everything from damaged self-esteem or stunted curiosity to sexual hang-ups to depression and anxiety to full-blown religious trauma syndrome.
Why do people persist in beliefs and practices that seem obviously false and harmful from the outside? How do religions compel decent people to say and do things they would otherwise find troubling or worse? Why are some people more protective of their religion than even their children?
Cognitive scientists and social scientists are just starting to examine religion as a natural phenomenon. In the meantime, recovering believers must draw on analogies to describe their experience. A number of writers have suggested that religion may be addictive, at least certain variants; and some addictions treatment programs now offer recovery from toxic religion as part of their services.
A brief scan of the internet leaves little doubt that religion can be harmful to both societies and individuals, but how well does the addiction model fit? I asked former Christians what they thought, based on their own experience. Some said the parallel between religion and addiction resonated. Others balked, and offered other analogies that more closely fit their experience. Rather than distilling their comments, I have chosen to share them in full so that readers can weigh the relevance to their own religious experiences and draw their own conclusions.
Some Say Yes
Some of the most messed up folks I’ve known who “got religion” never seem to be satisfied with just the Methodist church down the street. They invariably go for the mega-church charismatic leader type experience. I feel it is a substitute addiction. – Megan Sheppard
Charismatic Christianity certainly is [an addiction]; that’s my background. You live for the high of having a metaphysical encounter with God, but more than anything you hope to have that experience in the presence of other believers. . . . From conference to conference, waiting to see or hear the next great prophet or miracle worker. The substance of their message is often secondary to their “spiritual anointing.” It can make your Christian career if one of these celebrity pastors singles you out during a service, so you attend each & every one. –Nate Zimmer
I know only that religion has contributed to the ongoing destruction of my life. I consider it as damaging to my mind and behavior as alcohol. I’m 61, and I’m trying very hard to wean myself from the habit of thinking God is real. I’ve struggled through fundamentalism, and “relapsed” many times. The “habit” started when I was around ten, when I became convinced I had committed an unpardonable sin. Periods of sanity have been interrupted by alternating waves of self-loathing, fear, anger, and irresponsible behavior. Taking some control of my life through deliberate rational choice is helping, but I still rage at a God I don’t believe in intellectually. It’s a crippling way to live. Like an addiction, religion has facilitated the worst, not the best, aspects of my personality. —LB
Religion perpetuates a dependence on identifying as broken and needing to be fixed. [It] teaches codependency from the earliest memories, and codependency is a form of relationship addiction, something I talk about quite extensively as a method of coercive persuasion used by evangelical religions. My position is that without the indoctrination (and internalization) of codependent behaviors (it’s a relationship, after all!), religion wouldn’t continue from generation to generation. –Sarah Morehead
I think David Brin is onto something (here): people use these states of consciousness to release endorphins etc in a very addiction-like process. If you are indignant all the time, you stay boosted up on brain chemicals. —D.B.
I would say the similarity between religion and drug addiction is that, in both cases, you relinquish self-control to an external controller, whether that be a god/clergy or drug/dealer. Once that hierarchical structure is established, blame for things gone awry can be blamed or attributed to the controller in either case. –DS
As one who has many experiences with both religion and drugs, I can draw parallels. The initial visitation to a church where established members are loving and accepting of you, or the recitation of the sinner’s prayer – the acceptance of Jesus into your heart – would be analogous to a marijuana high… a brief light headiness, joyfulness, giggling, a smile that can’t be wiped away.
Likewise, the deep dive into Christian apologetics, daily devotional time, obedience to clergy, literal interpretation of the Bible, rebuking and being rebuked, and baptism by the Holy Spirit would be parallel to taking LSD, an intense trip that can last 4 to 12 hours. Your brain tries in vain to rationalize and align reality with feelings, your body appears to be disjointed with your mind, you may experience uncontrollable muscular twitching, and at times you just want it to end but there’s no way to stop it. It is simultaneous pleasure and pain, good and bad, desiring both continuance and completion. –Daniel S
It does have withdrawal symptoms. –Alan Chidister
I noticed the withdrawal when I realized I had to quit church to survive. The peace on a quiet Sunday morning continues to be incredible but it was such a lifelong habit. – BS
Some Say No
It’s like an elaborate stage play, and when the house lights come on, you see it for what it is. – Nate Zimmer
My experience of being a Christian was more like an episode of The Office. People were all crazy. They seemed crazy from the get go. But the reading and the love of philosophical debate was what engaged me, and the idea of having a moral core. None of the people, especially the priests and nuns were people I could say I looked up to or admired. They were mean and weird…with some very rare exceptions. The only hard part about leaving was the disappointment of my mom. Otherwise, it seemed a natural part of becoming an adult. –Andrea John Smith
It is a core identity, an ingrown family business, a mutual admiration society, a competition, and a self-aggrandizing platform for ego-stroking. And yes, it is a system of codependency so fragile that anyone leaving it is treated like an enemy. I cannot decide if it is an addiction for some; I do not think it was for me. (Christian from birth through age 55. Now atheist.) – Linda File
I was a very dedicated Christian for 38 years. I thought what I knew was the truth and was not afraid to face the hard issues head on. Once I left Christianity I was a Wiccan for a while then agnostic before realizing I was just a plan ‘ol atheist after all. I didn’t become a pagan because of addiction but because of left over brain washing. I believed believing in something was healthy. – Lorenakoran
I would guess [it was not an addiction], for me, since there was never any temptation to go back to it. Once I was willing to admit that it was all bogus and a waste of my life, there was no danger of taking up the old habits. No need for a 12 step program or the encouragement of fellow apostates; the disgust at having been self-deluded was more than enough disincentive. –Matthew Snook
In my experience it was more like an infection; one that leaves lasting scars…like pockmarks. Once I learned to think differently I was able to clear the infection. —Tony Debono
It’s more like an abusive relationship. United Methodism, at least, teaches you that you are worthless without god, and that they are the gatekeepers. –JS
Christianity was actually a self-loathing guilt-ridden drudgery for me. Sure there were high times and good fellowship throughout yet it was an extreme burden trying to please our deity. Prayer and Bible study were daily struggles and being a deacon and leader in my church were intertwined with feelings of inadequacy.—Ryan Burton
For me it was the introduction of fear into what was once a simple life of love and birth and death.—Charlene VanNattan Hohulin
Not an addiction but an abusive relationship. – Bethany Brittain
It’s perhaps as pernicious as an addiction, but in my case, it was: my family, my extended family, my social circle, my ethics, my safety net, my idea of science, my outline of history, my eternal future, (and my compartmentalizations, rationalizations, judgmentalness, prejudices and secret anxieties!) – simply my whole world. – David Fitzgerald
It’s not an addiction. it’s more of a prison that you can’t really escape from. They’re everywhere. – HK
I was born into it — my parents were missionaries. It was socialization, education, indoctrination, the matrix within which my mind and sense of self developed. That’s not addiction; it’s brainwashing from birth. So when you leave it, you’ve got to remake yourself in basic ways. –RI
I feel I was brainwashed. Not addicted. Herded into church like a dumb animal without questioning anything. I had to step back and rewire my brain so I could think for myself. —Quinn Hoesli
During intense Bible sharing and prayer with a friend in the 80’s he confessed to me, “If I ever find out this is not true, I will commit suicide.” I told him, “Not me, If I found out this was not true I would fight it for the deception it has been”… I still feel like i was deceived…and it still pisses me off…I hate seeing children being deceived. –RZS
I would say more brainwashing than addiction. I didn’t suffer any withdrawal symptoms when I decided I had been the recipient of my mother’s sad, dangerous thinking. When you are born into it, and spoon fed all of the Christian thinking/stories/Sunday School/prayers, etc., you are bound to be stuck for a while. But there IS light at the end of this tunnel. For some of us, sooner than others. —DK
It was forced upon me. I had no choice. By my teens I was tired of it and just quit going. My life is no different from any Christian. I get up, work, support my family, help others by volunteering. I don’t need a crutch to lean on or someone to tell me right from wrong. —SM
It was a nightmare since I was about 15 years but the pressure and indoctrination was crazy. I vowed when I was that young I would not let my children go to church almost daily and 3/4 times on a Sunday by well-meaning parents. I kept my vow. My children are 26 and 15 and they’re just awesomeness defined.—Isaac Jansen
Addiction/dependence being defined in terms of tolerance, withdrawal, and growing investment of psychic energies to obtain the depended upon substance, I have to say “No, it’s not an addiction.” I see it more as what Erik Erikson would have likely termed fanaticism, the result of a failed attempt at identity formation (unhealthy resolution of the identity vs. role confusion stage of psychosocial development), evidenced by cult, hate-group, terrorist-group, or other fanatical group affiliation and involvement. —D Henderson
I think of the film ” A Beautiful Mind” which portrayed so well the hallucinations still following the schizophrenic even AFTER he realized they were not real. These images that were once held so tightly with such passion and love do not always fade so easily… plus there is always the self-doubt–“maybe I’m wrong”…so it has been a wrestling match within…though, I’ve seen too much to ever go back. The god I once loved is too petty, too self-absorbed, more interested in serving “justice” than offering Grace….I think I can see through these theological quagmires now…and when I get glimpses I feel deceived and angry. –RZS
Some Say Kind-Of or Maybe
I’d say it was more like a talisman that helped me deal with life and make sense of it, although religion can certainly become an obsession with addictive qualities. —Erik Olson
For me, it wasn’t quite like an addiction. It was more of a community-based activity that became a habit. My family and many of my friends attended the same church (Lutheran), and it was our “social circle.” I was very involved in the music, and that was what kept me involved after I no longer believed in most of the rhetoric. I think most people who don’t leave “the church,” stay because of family/community ties that are hard to break. There is often nothing equivalent to replace that feeling of community that a church provides. –Katharine Bressler
I think it’s kind of like an addiction that you make yourself have, because you’re afraid you’ll lose it if it isn’t all encompassing, and the consequences would be dire (eternally, in this case). For me it was like learning to be bulimic from hearing other people’s stories. It wasn’t something I was drawn to, but if I didn’t cultivate it, I’d get fat. And then . . . you keep at it even though it’s destroying you because it’s RIGHT. And all of the people who say you’re taking it too seriously just don’t understand that everything hinges on it. –Elexis E
I was born in an evangelical Christian home. My parents were ministers that started a church in the basement of their home. I wouldn’t say it was an addiction for me, but definitely was for some. I really think it’s why you see alcoholics and drug addicts “reform” in that faith. They need the euphoria. For me I followed out of fear of rejection and hell. I left when I realized that I was actually a hostage with an open door. —CC
Your Results May Vary
It goes without saying that religions vary widely, and given that Christianity has fractured into more than 30,000 denominations and non-denominations it should come as no surprise that former Christians describe their experiences in different terms. Some former believers point out that their Christianity offered pleasures that they miss to this day or now pursue through other channels: music, wonder, community, clarity of purpose, a sense of belonging.
Can the euphoria of worship or relief of confession, or even religiously-induced guilt and shame create a biologically-based compulsion that keeps people coming back for more? The answer likely is yes. In everyday vernacular, we use the term addiction when people pursue pleasure to the point that it causes harm, either to themselves or those around them—when the drive to seek that pleasure trumps good judgment and good health. And yet if we consider even highly-pleasurable neurotoxins that create clear physical dependency—cocaine, for example, or alcohol or narcotics—most users don’t become addicts.
As the study of religion as a natural phenomenon progresses, scientists no doubt will clarify the areas of overlap between biological or psychological addiction and religion; and criteria for clinical forms of religious addiction may crystalize. In the meantime, believers and former believers will need to judge for themselves whether their spiritual quest has become simultaneously compulsive and harmful. What is your own experience?
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.
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