Religious Addiction

A couple of years ago, in the midst of marriage and family problems, I began to question whether my nightly glass of wine, which had recently grown to two, might indicate I was developing an addiction to alcohol. I knew I was seeking relief from the pain of life (much of which I have now come to understand resulted from spiritual abuse). I decided to go to an AA meeting.

The meeting was held in a local church. I was the only woman there. We all drank coffee as the five men each shared their stories in turn. As they talked, they read from their copies of Alcoholics Anonymous (which they called “The Big Book”) with tattered covers and pages as worn and marked as many Bibles I’ve seen. A couple of the men had attended AA meetings daily for decades. Though I found their commitment to sobriety admirable and their stories inspiring, I couldn’t help but wonder if they hadn’t traded one addiction for another.

“Hi, I’m Grace Maginnis, and I’m an alcoholic.” Somehow that statement didn’t ring true within my soul. In fact, I wasn’t an alcoholic. What I didn’t understand then was that my addiction was not substantive, but behavioral. Just like the men around the table with their tattered books, I was addicted to meetings. Mine were called church.

People who study addiction have in recent decades increasingly recognized that behaviors can be as addictive as substances. Gambling, sex, computing, dieting, and even exercise have joined substances like alcohol, drugs, and food as commonly treated addictions.

Whether substantive or a behavioral, addictions have common characteristics.

  • The addict finds physical or emotional pleasure or relief from the substance or behavior.
  • The addict develops tolerance and must indulge in increasing amounts of the substance or behavior to experience the desired effect.
  • The addict cannot stop using without experiencing withdrawal.
  • The addict will go to extreme lengths to secure adequate supply.
  • The addict often engages in risky behavior in association with the addiction.
  • The addict is unwilling or unable to admit the addiction or change even in the face of dire consequences such as physical illness, loss of relationships, financial crisis, or even death.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but when we take a close look at it, we see how for many like myself, religious observance has become an addiction. Just listen to how some people talk.

“I have to get my Jesus fix every week”

“How do people live without church?”

“That worship service was awesome! Everyone was drunk in the spirit!”

“I had such a spiritual high after the conference, and now I’m just crashing.”

Just yesterday, a Christian friend of mine asked me for prayer and advice. She said she thought she was under spiritual attack because an ear infection she had treated with antibiotics seemed to be coming back. She felt discouraged and defeated because she was not receiving a miraculous healing.

I did pray for my friend, for about 30 seconds. I prayed that her ear infection would be healed. Then, I told her to call her doctor and make an appointment. This wasn’t a spiritual attack. She was just plain sick. But to her, it had to be spiritual. This way of thinking is typical with religiously addicted people.

For those of you who wish to learn more, here are some articles and books on religious addiction:

When Religion Goes Bad: Part 2 – Religious Addiction, by Dale S. Ryan and Jeff VanVoneren

Can Religion Be an Addiction?

When Religion is an Addiction, by Robert N. Minor

Toxic Faith: Experiencing Healing Over Painful Spiritual Abuse, by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton

Symptoms of Religious Addiction

Can Religion Become an Addiction?

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