We’ve all heard of people who are “high on Jesus,” but what happens when a religious person can’t get enough of that high feeling and will do anything in their power to keep that high going?
That’s called addiction and according to a new book from Dr. Robert N. Minor, religion can be a source of addiction for many people. In When Religion Is an Addiction, Minor outlines what constitutes religious addiction and most importantly, what we, who must deal with those addicts, can do to stop enabling them in their addiction.
In a recent interview with Whosoever, Minor, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, said he wrote the book after investigating literature on addiction and realized there was a parallel with religion that he couldn’t ignore anymore.
“An addiction can be a process addiction or a substance addiction that keeps a person from dealing with their issues. Those issues could be as personal as ‘I hate my work’ but instead of going through a difficult process of thinking about how you relate to work and what it does to you and how you might make changes you just come home at night and have a couple of beers and feel better but won’t make changes. There’s nothing wrong with the substance but how it’s being used,” Minor said.
When religion is the addiction, Minor said the addict is hooked on righteousness.
“The goal of addiction is to get the high and if the high is ‘I am righteous’ and the feeling that I’m righteous then whatever I do will be to get the feeling of ‘I am righteous’ again. No matter who gets stepped on or whatever happens that’s the goal,” he said.
In reality, addicts use religion to avoid thinking about the hard realities of life, preferring a black and white set of beliefs that provide easy answers. This takes away the addict’s need to take responsibility for their lives or their beliefs. Religious addicts can easily be spotted by their rigid, either/or thinking, perfectionist thinking and an inability to take responsibility for their positions.
As GLBT Christians we’re familiar with the sort of addict Minor describes in his book – those who tell us if we don’t like the Bible’s condemnation of us, it’s not their fault and we should take it up with God.
“A common way to deny personal responsibility so as to blame God and look as if it’s not the believer’s own problem is to say: ‘I love the sinner, but I hate the sin,’ a phrase never found in the Bible. Again, the religious addict is saying, it’s God and his teachings; it’s not me. I’m for everyone. ‘Me, I’m innocent of any consequences.’ When people blame God, then their abuse is not their abuse. God is the abuser. They’re the innocent bystander. So, they can respond as if they are the victims: ‘please don’t kill the messenger.'” (p. 69-70)
What’s at the heart of that addictive thinking is low self-esteem, Minor said.
“Addictive thinking begins with a poor self concept. The doctrine of evil that dominates conservative religion is the ultimate in poor self-concept. They believe, ‘I’m rotten, there’s nothing I can do about it and the only thing that makes me valuable is somebody else likes me.’ It’s the difference between a theology that says God loves us because we’re valuable and one that says you’re only valuable because God loves you.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that we’re called to coddle the addict simply because, at their heart, they don’t feel good about themselves. Liberal Christians, however, are guilty of enabling religious addicts, Minor said.
“Whether it’s a person as extreme as Fred Phelps or like Jerry Falwell was or whether it’s just our parents who are stuck this way, we look at them and blame ourselves. We say, ‘If I just understood them better. If I were nicer to them. If I could just love them more. If I just realize they are hurting, too.’ We don’t want to be misunderstanding of people. We like to think we are understanding. We begin to sound like an abused spouse, ‘He really does love me, I’m just not nice enough.’ This is called enabling and co-dependence. We talk like the whole problem is ours. We’re afraid to say, ‘You’re a religious addict and you need help.'”
That’s exactly what we need to do, according to Minor. Instead of letting the addict set the terms, we should put aside our liberal tendency to play nice and confront the addict on their beliefs. Before we do that, however, we need to make peace with religion on our own terms.
“The first thing we have to do is look at our own issues around religion. There is always an internal and external part of the journey. We have to look at how we get hooked because that keeps us from thinking creatively,” Minor said.
Without coming to terms with our own relationship with religion and what it means to us, we’ll forever be drawn into the addict’s game and continue to enable them. Instead, Minor said we must stop playing by the addict’s rules and get them out of the driver’s seat where they are effectively working to control public policy against GLBT people.
“They are the center of attention in society just like an addict is the center of attention in their home. We have to stop responding to their initiatives and start believing that what we have to say is true and good and right. That’s hard because it sounds so absolute, but we have to start the initiatives,” Minor said.
Those initiatives like marriage equality, job non-discrimination measures like ENDA and even just adding sexual orientation or gender identity to city, county, state or university diversity statements may fail, but Minor said we have to begin to take control of our own issues instead of reacting to the addict’s actions against us.
“The only way you know that someone really values something is if they’re willing to lose for it,” said Minor. “If our goal is just what will keep me elected or what is going to win now as opposed to what do you value then we’re not ready to say we value it because I have to lose sometimes for my values. If my goal is just to win, it’s not really a moral goal. If the goal is to say I’ll stick with my values at all costs then we’re really living our own life and facing our own fears.”
When we’re taking the initiative and refusing to play the addict’s game, then we are in control the next time one of us condemns us to hell, according to Minor.
“If a religious person tells me I’m going to hell, how do I respond? Do I become angry, resentful and defensive as if their beliefs really are more than just their problem? Or do I think, and even say, something like: ‘That’s an interesting idea. Tell me how hell functions in your life for you.'” (p. 134)
That sort of the turning the tables on the religious addict works well in any case. Another example Minor gives is when religious people claim all humans are evil and deserve hell. Instead of responding defensively, simply ask, “That’s interesting. Tell me how evil you are?”
Disarming the addict is one of the best ways to stop enabling them. In this way, we deny them their high of righteousness and perhaps can help them to one day understand their addiction and seek recovery. The task, Minor said, is really ours. The addict is not going to change their ways until we stop allowing them to continue in their addiction. Minor’s book is a great guide for those ready to begin the intervention.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.