Can Religion Be an Addiction?

We throw the word addiction around too casually sometimes. When a woman claims she is addicted to shoes, or an athlete says running is addictive, are these statements true? The idea of behavioral, or process, addictions is gaining ground in the addiction community. And, yes, it is possible for one’s obsession with buying shoes or working out to become harmful to the extent that some experts would use the word addiction. What about religion? Is being devoted to God and going to services regularly something that can turn into a process addiction? It is possible to become so dedicated to worship that it overtakes everything else. Like any other behavioral addiction, this obsession is related to emotions and to the brain and shares signs and symptoms with substance addictions. And, like other addictions, it can be treated with dedication to quality therapy

Religion and the Process Addiction

A process addiction is one that involves an activity or a behavior, rather than a chemical substance like alcohol or heroin. Experts in the field of psychiatry have already officially recognized problem gambling as an addictive disorder. The recognition is based on the scientific evidence, provided by researchers, that compulsive gambling shares many characteristics with substance addictions. Although no other behaviors have been officially included in the addiction category, there is evidence that just about any activity can become an obsession. From there it is a short road to something very similar to addiction. As with chemical addictions, process addictions can lead to destroyed relationships and finances, feelings of withdrawal, and even changes to chemical pathways in the brain related to rewards and the experience of pleasure.

Signs of Religious Addiction

How can you tell when someone has crossed the line from fulfilling and healthy religious worship to harmful obsession? Here are some signs that religious beliefs have gone beyond normal and helpful and have become something like an addiction:

  • Avoiding responsibilities — When worship gets in the way of going to work, taking care of family duties and maintaining relationships, and any other type of responsibility, it may be a problem.
  • Obsession with rules — Religions typically set out guidelines and rules to live by. Someone with a dangerous relationship to religion begins to follow these rules strictly, regardless of the consequences. He does not stop to question them, but simply adheres to the rules with a single-minded obsession. He may also spend hours thinking about interpretation of rules and what is considered to be a sin.
  • Financial problems — Someone with an unhealthy devotion to church may begin tithing beyond her means. She may spend money that she cannot afford on religious charities or on spiritual retreats.
  • Detachment from the real world — Being spiritual involves some sense of detachment from material goods, but for a religious addict, this may go to the extreme. Someone obsessing over religious beliefs may give up all his things and devote himself entirely to spiritual well-being.
  • Mood swings — If someone is addicted to religion, she may feel wildly happy and upbeat while in prayer or attending a service. On the other hand, if she cannot get to a service, her mood may swing down and she may mope and feel badly about herself.

What Causes a Religion Addiction?

What causes an individual to develop any kind of obsession or addiction is variable, but there are some common threads. There are genetic factors, but addictive behaviors can also be triggered by trauma, such as abuse experienced as a child. Stress, low self-esteem and other negative feelings can contribute as well. In some cases, an addiction to a religion may be transferred from another addiction. Sometimes when drug addicts or alcoholics are in recovery, they switch their compulsive behaviors from substance abuse to something more healthful, like religion. This can turn into an addiction in itself, however. Some people turn to religion for the feeling of togetherness that they experience in a community. Becoming a part of that group may be a healthy answer to loneliness and the search for meaning, but it can also turn into an obsession. In the case of a cult, the consequences can be severe. Regardless of the motivation for seeking out comfort in religion, if worship becomes an addiction, there are ways to get help. As with any type of process addiction, a trained therapist can help the addict learn how to control his impulses and obsessions. With regular counseling and the support from loved ones, there is such a thing as recovery from religious addiction.

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