We often focus on addiction in terms of substances, but behavior problems can be just as powerful, and dangerous. In this context, religious addiction is looked at within the broader context of spiritually abusive structures.
Spiritual Abuse Part III: Religious Addiction Presented by Bob Munson, ThD Administrator, Bukal Life Care & Counseling Center
Most of this presentation (part III of theseries) comes from the following book: “When Good Things Become Addictions: Gaining Freedom from our Compulsions” by Dr. Grant Martin (Victor Books, 1990).
Review: What is “spiritual abuse”? 2 definitions:“misuse of a position of power, leadership, or influence to further the selfish interests of someone other than the individual who needs help.”“the manipulation and exploitation of others by the misuse of spiritual privilege and power.”Part II of the series focused on the abuser, but this one focuses on the abused.
There may be many reasons why people become members of an abusive religious structure. However, one main reason, and certainly a common compounding problem, is Religious Addiction
Addiction1. Addiction is a PROCESS not a state of being.2. Addiction is a process or method of avoiding pain through substitution3. Process involves: (a) Experience of emotional pain, (b) Desire to avoid emotional pain, (c) Act out with a substitute behavior that relieves the pain for awhile, and (d) Return of pain... often with the addition of remorse.
NOTE1. While the process of addiction may appear to be a cycle, it tends to be more like a spiral... spiralling toward a destructive end.2. The destructive cycle comes from the fact that the original emotional pain is not dealt with, and the addict builds a tolerance making it more and more difficult for the substituted behavior to provide the needed relief.
“Addiction to religion occurs when the focus is taken off of God, and emotional priority is given to people or programs. The spiritual addict then uses religious ritual and emotional manipulation as the object or experience to produce a change in mood. The difference is that in true worship, our varied emotions and intellectual response is to the presence of God as facilitated by the forms of worship. In religious addiction, the primary goal is to obtain some type of emotional encounter.” <Martin, pg. 133-134>
“A cue to religious activity being addictive is that persistent and continued use brings about negative and destructive consequences.” <Martin, 134> Negative consequences include -Family disunity -Church disunity -Leader upheld rather than God -Material wealth amassed for personal, not Kingdom, use -Damaged emotional/spiritual well-being
Characteristics of the Process of Religious Addiction? #1. High emotional susceptibilty.Individuals susceptible to the addiction tend to react quickly to feelings. They are not prone to analyze the validity or relevance of their feelings.
Characteristics of the Process of Religious Addiction?#2. Blind Belief. Individuals susceptible to the addiction may be intelligent, but are unhealthfully trusting.Often there is the belief that faith is an absence of doubt, rather than trusting (a cognitive, emotional, and volitional process) in what is true and good. (Note Hebrews 5:14)
Characteristics of the Process of Religious Addiction?#3. Black-and-White Thinking. Addicts tend to categorize ideas, values, preferences and people into COMPLETELY GOOD and COMPLETELY BAD categories. “If you are not for us, you are against us.” “Small differences are BIG.”
Characteristics of the Process of Religious Addiction?#4. Theological Isolation. Addicts become separated from alternative viewpoints, and isolated (often socially) from individuals with these other viewpoints.As we move into characteristics #3 and 4, we are moving more away from the prior characteristics of addicts, to the ones being developed within the abusive structure.
Characteristics of the Process of Religious Addiction? #5. Obsessive Participation. Addicts become involved in excessive fasting, prayer, attendance, public testimonies, or confessions (or other ritualized behaviors).This behavior is part of the control and isolation of the abusive religious structure. However, the ritualized behavior of the addict, tied with the gradual failure of the activity to relieve pain, also creates the obsessive behavior.
Characteristics of the Process of Religious Addiction?#6. Harsh and Angry Attitudes. While the early stages of the addiction and the abusive structure may involve peace and love, gradually black-and-white thinking leads to judgmentalism and angry, critical intolerance.
Characteristics of the Process of Religious Addiction?#7. Strong Attempts to Persuade. While it is common for a religious person to share their faith with others, the addict will compulsively talk about their (excessively narrow) beliefs.This is related to the judgmental viewpoint and the obsessive ritualization of behavior.
Characteristics of the Process of Religious Addiction?#8. Symptoms of Tension. The addicts spiral of more extreme activities leads to greater problems: Physical symptoms of poor stressmanagement may include chronic headaches, back pain, high blood pressure, weightproblems, anxiety attacks, depression, sleep disorders, and allergies.
Religious Addiction Seems so Bad, so Why Does it Happen? What Does it Provide? 1. Avoids Intimacy. Addiction generally avoids intimacy. In the case of religious addiction, preoccupation with a particular ceremony, experience, or doctrine keeps God (who may be scary to many) at a comfortable distance.
Religious Addiction Seems so Bad, so Why Does it Happen? What Does it Provide? 2. Avoids Emotional Pain. Avoiding emotional pain is key in addiction. For religious addicts, they might be thinking something like:“I am such a terrible unworthy person that God would not accept me the way I am. I must do these things to earn His acceptance. Then I can share my pain, and He will do something about it.” <Martin, 139>
Religious Addiction Seems so Bad, so Why Does it Happen? What Does it Provide? 3. Elevates Mood. Addiction provides a short-term emotional “high” that also deadens pain (for a time). For religious addicts, a special “spiritual high” or emotional exhilaration is sought. In fact, getting the feeling again becomes the obsession of the religious addict.
Religious Addiction Seems so Bad, so Why Does it Happen? What Does it Provide? 4. Compliance to Authority. Some feel a very strong desire to lead... but submission to authority is a strong desire for many as well. The Bible describes human authority as limited... requiring a cautious, enlightened submission. (Consider I Cor. 16:16, Heb. 13:17, I Peter 5:3,8, I Cor. 12:8-10, I John 4:1, Col. 2:6-23)
Religious Addiction Seems so Bad, so Why Does it Happen? What Does it Provide? 5. Group Pressure. Humans are social beings, leading to the desire to be part of a group (an “Us”). This desire and the need to adapt for social groupings to exist leads to a powerful pressure to comply with group wishes.
Religious Addiction Seems so Bad, so Why Does it Happen? What Does it Provide? 6. Evidence of Spirituality. Addictive religious behaviors often look “spiritual.” Somehow we often think that a person who prays 5 hours a day is more spiritual than someone who prays 15 minutes a day. <But is this true... or based on a poor understanding of the nature of our relationship with God?>
Stages of Religious AddictionRecalling that addiction is a process (a spiraling degenerative process) what are the major stages?Stage #1. Intoxicating Religious Experience. There is a Euphoria at this stage. Much of the rest of the addictive process is a seeking to restore this “honeymoon” period.Somewhere in this stage, the experience and the feelings take priority over God.
Stages of Religious AddictionStage #2. Loss of Control. There is a gradual loss in ability to control when a behavioral pattern is started or stopped.The family and friends begin to sense problems. There is also a “spritual deadening” as repeated rituals take precedence while the fruit of the spirit is lacking or shallow.Usually the person hands more and more power over to a leader. Increasing focus is given to a specific belief, doctrine, or to the personality of the leader.
Stages of Religious AddictionStage #3. Life Breakdown. The activities that had been sustaining the addict are now losing their mood altering effects. But the addict is still afraid to withdraw. The reason is, in part, fear of the effects of withdrawal.The addiction is now having adverse effects at work and at home. Irrational (even immoral or criminal) thoughts may now be attributed to coming from God. Extreme suspicion and secretive behavior becomes evident.Violation of prior moral codes may now occur while resisting/rejecting outside accountability for behavior.
What to Do?This is talked about in other presentations in this series. However, the basic steps are simple enough (although accomplishing them... especially without a strong support system is very difficult).1. Acknowledge that there is a problem (a very difficult and important first step). Many will feel that such acknowledgement is risking their soul.2. Talk to someone (on the outside) who can help and is willing to help.3. Find a support group. Everyone needs to the support of others who have gone through similar experiences.4. Stop the behavior. A major part of ones life is now allowed to die... a painful but important step.
References Martin, Grant. “When Good Things become addictions: Gaining Freedom from our Compulsions.” Victor Books. Enroth, Ronald M. “Churches that Abuse.” Zondervan. Bozzi, Vincent. “A Healthy Done of Religion.” Psychology Today, NOV 1988, 14-15. Ryan, Dale S. and Jeff VanVonderen. “When Religion Goes Bad: Part 2-- Religious Addiction.” www.spiritualabuse.com/?page_id=46