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  • When Religion is an Addiction

    Bob Minor


    I remember hearing popular psychological speaker and writer John Bradshaw say that the "high" one gets from being righteous was similar to the high of cocaine. As both a former monk and addict, he knew the feelings personally.

    As the religious right pushes its anti-gay, anti-women's reproductive rights, anti-science, pro-profit agenda nationally and in state capitals across the nation and wins, that high is a sweet fix for the addicted. It gives them a comforting feeling of relief that they're really right, okay, worthwhile, and acceptable.

    Like all fixes, though, it doesn't last. So, the addict is driven to seek another and another - another issue, another evil, another paranoiac threat to defeat. It can't ever end. Like the need for heavier doses, the causes have to become bigger and more evil in the addict's mind to provide the fix.

    This mind-altering fix of righteousness covers their paranoid shame-based feelings about the internal and external dangerous stalking them. The victim-role language of their dealers, right-wing religious leaders, feeds it. Like alcoholism and drug addiction, the fix numbs the religious addict against any feelings about how their addiction affects others.

    Religion doesn't have to be this way; it can be healing. But what we see in the dominant religious/political right-wing fundamentalism that's driving the debate on most conservative issues (political, social, economic, international) is anything but healthy. It's what addiction specialists call a process addiction, like sex or romance addiction, or workaholism. In an addictive society, such addictions are encouraged.

    Like substance addictions, it takes over, dominates life, pushes other issues to the background, tells them how and what to feel to prevent them from facing their real feelings about themselves and life, creates a mythology about the world, protects its "stash," and supports they're denial that they have a problem. Addiction specialist Anne Wilson Schaef would say, like all addictions, religious addiction is progressive and fatal.

    If you're outside the addiction, you've probably wondered about what's going on, what's the dynamic that's driving the right-wing religious agenda that looks so hateful and destructive. Why is it so hard to crack? Why won't evidence or logic work?

    If you're an enabler or the addict yourself, the above must sound over the top. You'd prefer to deny or soften the reality of the addiction.

    Yet, if we're going to think clearly about the right-wing juggernaut's use of religion, and not function as its enablers, we must realize that we're dealing with an addict. Right-wing political-religious fundamentalism can destroy us too if we're like the dependent spouse who protects, defends, and covers-up for the family drunk.

    So, what can we do to protect ourselves, maintain our sanity, promote a healthy alternative, and confront religious addiction? What's the closest thing to an intervention when we're dealing with the advanced, destructive form of religious addiction that's become culturally dominant?

    It takes massive inner strength and a good self-concept. There's no place for codependency and the need to be liked or affirmed by the person with the addiction. ALANON knows that. It requires clarity of purpose, freedom from the need to fix the addict, and doing what maintains one's own health and safety.

    Addicts reinforce each other. Fundamentalist religious organizations and media are their supportive co-users. So the person who deals with someone's addiction cannot do it alone. They must have support from others outside the addiction.

    You can't argue with an addict. Arguing religion to one so addicted plays into the addictive game. Arguing about the Bible or tradition is like arguing with the alcoholic about whether whiskey or tequila is better for them. It's useless and affirms the addiction.

    You can't buy into the addict's view of reality. Addicts cover their addiction with a mythology about the world and with language that mystifies. This means we must never use their language. Never say, even to reject it or with "so-called" before it: "partial-birth abortion," "gay rights," "intelligent design," "gay marriage," etc. Speak clearly in terms of what you believe it really is. Say "a seldom used late-term procedure," "equal rights for all," "creationist ideology," "marriage equality."

    Don't let the addict get you off topic. Addicts love to confuse the issues, get you talking about things that don't challenge their problem. When you do, you further the addiction.

    Never argue about whether sexual orientation is a choice. It doesn't matter.

    Never argue about sex. Our country is too sick to deal with its sexual problems.

    It's okay to affirm that you don't care or these aren't the issues. You don't need to justify your beliefs to a drunk or druggie.

    Get your message on target and repeat it. Get support for your message from others so that they're on the same page. Make it short, simple, to the point, and consistent.

    Don't nag addicts. Don't speak belligerently or as if you have to defend yourself. Just say: The government and other people have no right to tell someone whom to love.

    Don't accept that the addiction needs equal time. Stop debating as if there are two sides. Get over any guilt about a free country requiring you to make space for addictive arguments. You don't have to act as if here are "two sides" to the debate. Addicts and their dealers already have the power of the addiction and addictive communities behind their messages.

    Model what it is to be a healthy human being without the addiction. Addicts must see people living outside the addiction, happy, confident, proud, and free from the effects of the disease. In spite of the fact that we're a nation that supports both substance and process addictions so people don't threaten the institutions and values that pursue profits over humanity, live as if that has no ultimate control over you.

    Don't believe that you, your friends, children, relationships, hopes, and dreams, are any less valuable or legitimate because they aren't sanctioned by a government, politicians, or religious leaders that are in a coping, rather than healing, mode of life.

    Dealing with addictions takes an emotional toll on everyone. Yet, recognizing religious addiction as an addiction demystifies its dynamics and maintains our sanity.


    Robert N. Minor, Ph.D. is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas and author of Gay & Healthy in a Sick Society and Scared Straight: Why It's So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It's So Hard to Be Human. Reach him at www.fairnessproject.org.

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