Surveys show that religion and spirituality play a central role in the lives of most of the population in human experience. Gallup (1989) found that 53% of the U.S. population considers religion to be very important in their life, and another 31% considered it fairly important (p. 176). The religious and spiritual dimensions of culture were found to be among the most important factors that structure human experience, beliefs, values, behavior, and illness (Browning et al., 1990; James, 1961; Krippner and Welch, 1992).
Researchers however, report that some individuals have problems that concern their religion. Members of the American Psychological Association reported that at least one in six of their clients presented issues that involve religion or spirituality (Shafranske and Maloney, 1990). In another study, 29% of psychologists agreed that religious issues are important in the treatment of all or many of their clients (Bergin and Jensen, 1990, p. 3). Psychotherapy can sometimes be effective in treating religious problems. Robinson (1986) noted, “Some patients have troublesome conflicts about religion that could probably be resolved through the process of psychotherapy” (p.22).
Religious problems can be as various and complex as mental health problems. One type of psychoreligious problem involves patients who intensify their adherence to religious practices and orthodoxy (Lukoff, Lu, and Turner 1992, p. 677). Generally when people speak of addictive diseases they imply a medical problem. In the past few years the term addiction has been used to characterize behaviors that go beyond chemicals. Dr. Robert Lefever (1988) views addiction as a “family disease” involving self-denial and caretaking, domination, and submission (p. ix). Gerald May (1988) states that addiction is a “state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire” (p.14). Shaef (1987) defines addiction as “any process over which we are powerless” (p. 18). She divides addictions into two categories: substance addictions -alcohol, drugs, nicotine, food) and process addictions -money-accumulation, gambling, sex, work, worry, and religion.
Research in the area of religious addiction is deficient, however there were a few older related studies found in the literature. Simmonds (1977) reports that there is some evidence to indicate that “religious people in general tend to exhibit dependency on some external source of gratification” (p. 114). Black and London (1966) found a high positive correlation between the variables of obedience to parents and country and indices of religious belief such as church attendance, belief in God and prayer (p. 39). Goldsen, et al. (1960) showed that people who were more religious consistently showed tendencies toward greater social conformity than did the nonreligious, a finding consistent with the notion that religious people seek external approval. These results are supported by Fisher (1964 p. 784), who reported that a measure of social approval and religion were strongly associated. Religious people show dependence not only on social values, but also on other external agents. Duke (1964, p. 227) found that church attendance indicated more responsiveness to the effects of a placebo. In a study of 50 alcoholics, it was found that those who were dependent on alcohol were more likely to have had a religious background (Walters, 1957, p. 405).
The few research studies aforementioned seem to suggest that religious people develop a dependency on religious practices for social approval. Since religious people seem to be describable in terms of relatively high levels of dependence, it seems useful to borrow a concept suggested by Peele and Brodsky (1975)- that of “addiction.” According to these writers addiction is “a person’s attachment to a sensation, an object, or another person… such as to lessen his appreciation of and ability to deal with other things in his environment, or in himself, so that he has become increasingly dependent on that experience as his only source of gratification” (p. 168).
There are a variety of definitions for the concept of religious addiction. Arterburn and Felton (1992) state that “when a person is excessively devoted to something or surrenders compulsively and habitually to something, that pathological and physiological dependency on a substance, relationship, or behavior results in addiction” (p. 104). They indicate that, “like any other addiction, the practice of religion becomes central to every other aspect of life…all relationships evolve from the religion, and the dependency on the religious practice and its members removes the need for a dependency on God…the religion and those who practice it then become the central power for the addict who no longer is in touch with God” (p. 117).
Spirituality can also have pathological aspects to it. Vaughan (1991) reports that “the shadow side to a healthy search for wholeness can be called addiction to spirituality” (p. 105). He indicates that this can be found among people who use spirituality as a solution to problems they are unwilling to face. Van-Kaam (1987) presents a viewpoint of addiction as a quasi religious or falsified religious presence. He reports that “an understanding of the relationship between religious presence and addiction allows potential dangers of receptivity to be identified in order to realize the real value of true religious presence and the shame of its counterfeit, addiction” (p. 243). McKenzie (1991) discusses addiction as an unauthentic form of spiritual existence. He says that, “addiction is born of the human desire for transcendence which is often perverted or misplaced by societies that encourage their members to seek ultimate meaning in dimensions that have no regard for the transcendent” (p. 325). Heise (1991, p. 11) explores the fundamentalist Christian’s focus on perfectionism, and it’s possible contribution to an increase in dysfunctional individuals, family systems, and addictions.
Until recently, research in this area has primarily focused on religious cults. Estimates of the number of cults range from several hundred to several thousand, with a total membership up to three million (Allen and Metoyer, 1988, p. 38; Melton, 1986). According to Margaret Singer, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in cult phenomena, “the word cult describes a power structure,…what really sets a cult apart is that one person has proclaimed himself to have some special knowledge, and if he can convince others to let him be in charge, he will share that knowledge” (Collins & Frantz, 1994, p. 30). The Jim Jones People’s Temple mass suicide has been documented in the news, and more recently David Koresh’s Branch Davidian Christian cult. Cults, both destructive and benign, have been with us in various guises since time immemorial. Many psychologists and psychiatrists have become knowledgeable about destructive cults in the course of their work with patients affected by the problem.
Within the past few years, however, traditional Church members have faced their compulsive behavior and harmful beliefs. Doucette (1992) reports that “many people are waking up because they have seen their religious leaders fall. Some researchers believe that the magnitude of the tragedy of religious addiction and abuse was revealed by the TV evangelist scandals documented in the news media which involved: Jim and Tammy Bakker; Jimmy Swaggart; and Oral Roberts (Brand 1987, p. 82; Woodward 1987, p. 68; and Kaufman 1988, p. 37). These personal confessions have exposed not only how these supposed men of God had betrayed people’s trust, but how many of those who had been abused, betrayed, and bankrupted never seemed to question what was happening and continued to support these individuals.
Booth (1991) states that “the Bakker, Swaggart, and Roberts scandals created a national intervention that served to interrupt the progress of this unhealthy phenomenon” (p. 38). What had previously been viewed as fanaticism or zealotry increasingly began to be called religious addiction and religious abuse. Booth (1991) defines religious addiction as “using God, a church, or a belief system as an escape from reality, or as a weapon against ourselves or others in an attempt to find or elevate a sense of self-worth or well-being” (p. 38).
Other researchers use the terms spiritual and psychological abuse to describe the characteristics of religious addiction. Enroth (1992) says that his book “Churches That Abuse is about people who have been abused psychologically and spiritually in churches and other Christian organizations” (p. 29). He reports that “unlike physical abuse that often results in bruised bodies, spiritual and pastoral abuse leaves scars on the psyche and soul…the perversion of power that we see in abusive churches disrupts and divides families, fosters unhealthy dependence of members on the leadership, and creates, ultimately, spiritual confusion in the lives of victims” (p. 29). The scandals involving TV evangelists created a national intervention by bringing religious addiction and abuse too close to home to be ignored. Those scandals spurred people to act and call for change.
During this period, I had the unique opportunity to conduct a literature review and survey on the relatively newly recognized phenomenon of religious addiction within Christianity in the State of Hawaii for my dissertation while pursuing my doctor of psychology degree (Psy.D) in clinical psychology. After studying the symptoms, beliefs, and stages of religious addiction along with the characteristics of religiously addictive organizations, I came to believe that having an intense faith or religious ferver is not equal to having a religious addiction. Most people experience healthy religion and a spiritual life in which obedience to God is balanced with a freedom to serve others in ways of individual experession.
I also discovered however, that church leaders in Hawaii that were self-appointed (not elected/ appointed by their church) significantly identified more with religious addictive beliefs, symptoms and practices compared to their counterparts.
For more info see: Hawaii and Christian Religious Addiction
Addictions Recovery Management Services
James Slobodzien, Psy.D., CSAC, is a Hawaii licensed psychologist and certified substance abuse counselor who earned his doctorate in Clinical Psychology. He is credentialed by the National Registry of Health Service Providers in Psychology. He has over 20-years of mental health experience primarily working in the fields of alcohol/ substance abuse and behavioral addictions in hospital, prison, and court settings. He is an adjunct professor of Psychology and also maintains a private practice as a mental health consultant.