"I've never been happier
since I quit my 30-year addiction to Jesus."
Blogger and Christian Heretic
To a medical researcher, the word addiction has a specific biological meaning.
But in common vernacular, it means approximately this:
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:
Former Mormon Brandon Olson is even more emphatic:
In recent decades, the idea of recovery from religion has taken root.
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":
The result, says Esther, can be a destructive quest for righteous euphoria.
When does spirituality start looking like addiction?
Here are some highlights:
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.
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,
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,
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:
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.
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,
But the upside is this: