A letter came to a pastor recently, from a middle-aged woman determined to take her own life. She has already made an attempt. She suffers from extremely low self-esteem, depression and other afflictions.
She feels desperate, “cut off from God” and beyond divine forgiveness. Certain readers will already be saying to themselves that she needs to be “saved,” to be “born again,” and to join a church where they “preach the Gospel.”
However, this woman has already been through all that. A Theologian read her letter and felt it was quite obvious that she suffered from far too much literalistic fundamentalism already. Like hundreds of similar others over the years, she is being tormented by the very religion she once turned to for comfort and “salvation.”
Briefly stated, she is suffering from a form of religion that is ‘bad religion.’ It’s growing and becoming very powerful in some quarters today. It can look successful on the outside, even imparting a glazed but glowing countenance, but it can tear apart people’s souls.
This form of ‘addictive’ religiosity is not confined to circles dominated by TV evangelists or excessively zealous priests. It cuts across all Christian denominations and, in varying degrees, all other faiths.
Here are some of its major characteristics. It touts black and white answers to every problem – from hormone issues (sex), to when and how the universe was formed. It encourages passive dependence on a host of authorities, from sacred texts, to faith leaders at every level. It fosters simplistic, ‘magical’ thinking. It diminishes one’s autonomy, self-reliance, confidence in one’s own inner voice and ability to grow either emotionally or intellectually.
It views all other faith stances as wrong – or even Satanic, leading to “Hell.” Such a system whines a lot about what “miserable sinners” we all are and yet never asks itself why it leaves such incredible guilt, anxiety and loss of self-esteem in its wake.
Yes, it can produce an overinflated ‘high’ at being on the “winning side,” as “God’s elect,” but at a terrible price. This is referred to as loss of authenticity and of one’s inner convictions. The God being served is too often a narrow, small, vengeful, tribal deity, who is nonetheless supposedly loving.
The Churchman reflected on this phenomenon as he worked on answering the suicide note. Suddenly, with a genuine synchronicity, his mail arrived with a copy of an article from Pastoral Psychology, a magazine dedicated to learned articles on various aspects of soul-care – mainly for clergy, psychotherapists and other counsellors.
It was titled “Religious Addiction, The Subtle Destruction Of The Soul.” It was written by Patricia Anne Venderheyden, a psychotherapist in private practice in London, Ontario. Her Master’s thesis is from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, and was focused on this same issue: religious addiction.
As she told him in an interview, this isn’t a subject that has received much attention in the past. It certainly deserves it today! She had pondered for many years, beginning with her own experiences of certain faith groups, why it is that so many in every religion gravitate to authoritarian cliques with such alacrity and yet, in the end, with such disastrous results.
She wrote: “I observed how people’s inner authority was compromised in order to fit in with a system of belief whose standards were impeccable – and unattainable. I saw people accepted into groups only if they ‘jumped through the right hoops’, dotted their i’s and watched their p’s and q’s.” The ‘addicts’ had a show of freedom, yet their proclamations seemed ‘hollow and empty.’
She saw many such persons blindly accepting the words and advice of religious elders. All critical awareness and thinking for themselves had long since been suppressed. “The addicts wanted to be told that he or she was absolutely right, and that any form of questioning is evil.” she said.
Certainly, authorities can help someone at first, but if they are compulsively used ‘as a way of avoiding one’s own reality,’ they ruin one’s hopes of ever becoming mature in either mind or spirit. The addicts she describes are ‘religious junkies,’ obsessed with mood alteration and a quick fix to face life.
There’s no need to assign blame. Religious leaders can nurture an addictive faith unwittingly by never stopping to ask questions of the style and content of their ministry, such as: To whom does it cater, and why? With what results?
Believers who are really avoiding the shame and pain within by refusing to tackle it, and by ‘leaving it all to God,’ need to stop and realize that the rigidity and exclusivity of addictive religion can one day leave you empty, out of touch with your real self and, hence, engulfed by fear and despair. 😦