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Is Religion An Addiction?

Updated on March 9, 2015
Thomas Swan profile image

Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. He specializes in the cognitive science of religion.

Could religion be addictive?
Could religion be addictive? | Source

The God Addiction

Religious belief has been described as a delusion, a weapon, a parasite, and even a virus, but it may be more appropriate to call it an addiction. The similarities between religious belief and drug addiction are numerous, profound, and alarming. Spanning the psychological and the physiological, this article will compare the causes, effects, and symptoms of both conditions. Fourteen points of comparison are made, making a strong case for the classification of religion as an addiction.

Religious Conversion and the Onset of Addiction

1. Many people use the analogy of a virus to describe religious conversion, but a virus would suggest the process is involuntary for both parties. Conversion is a voluntary act where one person espouses the wonders and comforts of their religion to another. Converts will display a curiosity for the supernatural, or a desire for divine rewards. Drug users will similarly communicate the ecstasy their drug imparts. Based on this testimony, the vast majority of addicts will voluntarily surrender to their curiosity, or their desire for pleasure. Thus, both conditions involve spreading the affliction to friends and acquaintances by demonstrating joy and offering rewards.

Sadness and vulnerability can lead to drug addiction or religious piety.
Sadness and vulnerability can lead to drug addiction or religious piety. | Source

2. The pleasure derived from drug use typically appeals to individuals in vulnerable states. Indeed, addiction often follows tumultuous life events that leave the victim depressed. The pain may be superficially alleviated by a drug, and continued use will aim to keep the affliction subdued. Nevertheless, drugs do not cure the pain, they are a mask to contain and postpone it.

Similarly, a terrible event such as losing a family member in an accident can force one to dwell upon the fragility of existence and the status of the departed’s soul. The individual is left deeply depressed, intensifying their fear of death, and causing them to yearn for the transcendental promises of religion. Indeed, research shows that religiosity increases for individuals who’s fear of death has been artificially stimulated. Furthermore, cross cultural data shows that religiosity increases for people living in poor and impoverished conditions, or those living in countries with limited public services or welfare.

Much like a drug, religion comforts us in times of need. It induces euphoria by satiating our need to counter negative moods. Though religion has a more complex relationship with our pleasure centers; satisfying numerous drives that are inherent to our evolved psychology; the basic mood-repair function is the same.

Christian worshipers displaying euphoria.
Christian worshipers displaying euphoria.

A Man Who Experienced Both

Both drug use and religion can lead us to ignore that which would otherwise stimulate us.
Both drug use and religion can lead us to ignore that which would otherwise stimulate us. | Source

Religious Addiction Symptoms

3. Some of the clearest effects of addiction are the exclamations of euphoria once thirst for the drug is satisfied. Religious believers can reach similar heights of euphoria during worship. This can be seen most profoundly in some American churches where being infused with the Lord can produce bizarre expressions of uncontrollable joy.

4. As with a drug, repeated doses are required to keep the mind in a pleasured state. This periodic infusion is maintained by regular attendance at places of worship. Whether through prayer, meditation, or worship, all religions compel the believer to receive regular "hits" of the religious experience, mirroring the dependency indicative of an addiction.

5. Acquaintances of drug users often report considerable character changes in addicted individuals. Acquaintances of newly converted Christians will report similar changes. Typically, the Christian will appear unnaturally content or happy in their belief. They will attribute everything to God, and will feel a rapturous rush when talking about their religion. To many people they are a new person; to Christians they are “born again”.

6. Drug use reduces the brain's response to external stimuli. Similarly, a religious individual may see something that is normally quite provocative or arousing and fail to become aroused. Whether this is a pornographic image, or a fascinating story of scientific investigation, curiosity for the natural world is quashed through the belief that the Bible provides all the required answers. Indeed, religions typically promote an ascetic and abstinent lifestyle, prohibiting or discouraging sexual, hedonistic, or intellectual pursuits.

The believer's dismissive nature can be understood with the premise of a God that has become an equidistant thought, pervading all processes of the mind, and leading to an extreme lack of interest in all that threatens or fails to appeal to its entrenched state. Such a parasitic thought becomes a pre-occupation for the mind, emphasized by the development of an internal personal relationship with God, and mirroring the detachment from reality seen in drug addicts.

7. A common trait among drug addicts is a loss of decision making ability. Addicts will only make decisions that are tuned towards satisfying the addiction. Similarly, religion asks us to substitute reason with faith; requiring that every thought or decision is justified by an explanation that is dependent on God being a causal influence. Commitment to the religion is reinforced because if God is always the answer then one must keep learning about, and praying to, God; one must stay addicted. The entire mind is corrupted towards satisfying the religious addiction, just like in a drug addict.

The aftermath of 9/11. A religious overdose can have devastating consequences.
The aftermath of 9/11. A religious overdose can have devastating consequences. | Source

Inherited Dependency

Costs of the Religious Addiction

8. Once an individual has endured addiction for some time, any attempt at withdrawal may be difficult. With relatively few renunciations, the comparison in religion is clear. The difficulty in ending one’s association with religion is evident in the consequences that one must endure; most notably an acceptance of our impermanent existence, and the loneliness of a life without God.

While most fail to withstand withdrawal, others will replace one addiction with another. Alcoholics anonymous (AA) was set up to wean people off alcohol and onto religion. This transference of dependency is made easy by the addict's vulnerability for accepting quick solutions for pain.

9. Drug users may ultimately overdose and die, demonstrating the detrimental effects on the health of the addict. The religious comparison is borne out by missionaries and martyrs. Throughout history, believers have refused to renounce their faith under threat of execution, and many have committed acts of murderous martyrdom. Christians will travel the world, risking injury and death to bring the gospel to those who are susceptible to its message. The underlying cause of these actions is a decreased fear of death. Belief in an afterlife makes this life less valuable.

10. More than one new-born baby per week is being treated for heroin addiction in the English city of Sunderland. Similarly, a child growing up in a religious home has almost no chance of escaping the God addiction. The child will become dependent on religion from before it can rationalize for itself. Whilst not a physical addiction, the prevalence and continuation of different religions in particular regions of the world supports the claim that religious parents produce religious children.

How Dopamine Works

There is some evidence that religiosity has a small genetic component.
There is some evidence that religiosity has a small genetic component. | Source

The Physiology of Religion

11. During drug use there is a bodily emission of dopamine into the brain, which provides a pleasurable reinforcement of the act. Recent studies have shown that religious worship prompts a similar release of dopamine into the blood-stream. This demonstrates that the religious addiction involves a chemical component.

12. Everyone has a different tolerance for drugs. Those who are psychologically or genetically predisposed to addiction are more likely to suffer. Research is finding that the same is true for religion. We have a congenital capacity for theistic belief based on the presence of specific genetic markers. This makes some people more susceptible to religious claims than others.

13. Drugs have a multitude of different effects that depend on the psychology and physiology of the individual. Ingesting quantities of alcohol may cause tiredness, or aggression and violence. The brain responds in the same way to religious belief. Some will aggressively spread their religion while others take a more pacifistic stance. We see some Christians killing abortion doctors and being abusive to homosexuals, while others are harmless. The religious drug affects different brains in different ways.

14. The potency of a drug plays a role in drug addiction. In the same way, the potency of a religion partly determines the prevalence and spread of the God addiction within a society. Islam and Christianity are particularly potent religions, and they are spreading throughout Africa. As monotheistic religions provide a more personal experience with God, this could explain their widespread success.

The religions that have survived our evolutionary journey will be perfectly engineered for our minds.
The religions that have survived our evolutionary journey will be perfectly engineered for our minds. | Source

Summary

Religious belief is analogous with an addictive chemical drug, with both being an alacritous remedy for vulnerability, desperation, and depression. Rather than physical addiction, religious conversion generates a psychological dependence that exhibits as a desire to perpetually experience the pleasure derived from comforting religious beliefs.

Religious addiction symptoms include sacrificing rationality through the ardent acceptance of agreeable yet questionable theory, and the dismissal of all theory that could disrupt the entrenched position of comforting beliefs. The physiology of religion confirms this addiction-reinforcement process through the release of dopamine, and genetic consistency among believers.

Our evolutionary course, navigated on the precepts of survival and reproduction, has determined our acceptance of religion. The faiths that have survived cultural selection will be perfectly engineered for our minds. These parasitic thoughts ensure their perpetuity by utilizing the same psychological mechanisms that maintain addictions to chemical substances. Essentially, religion is the habit of alleviating psychological pain with self-reinforcing delusion, and this makes it a highly addictive and insidiously pernicious condition.

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    • Angie Jardine profile image

      Angie Jardine 4 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Wow, Thomas, a compelling comparison.

      Thank you for writing this - it is something to think about, even as an atheist.

    • Thomas Swan profile image
      Author

      Thomas Swan 4 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks Angie. I think that ever since Marx called religion the opium of the people, there has been an interest in making the comparison. Most comparisons include one or two of these arguments, so I figured I could improve on that just a bit! I have been thinking about this for years, and adding to it periodically, so hopefully this will be the definitive work on the topic.

    • getitrite profile image

      getitrite 4 years ago

      Yep. I've been saying this same thing for years. I was raised by religious parents, so I was born addicted to religion. Unlike babies addicted to Heroin, there were no doctors there to wean me. I had to do it myself. The treatment for Heroin addiction is methadone. The cure for religious addiction is reason and courage.

    • Thomas Swan profile image
      Author

      Thomas Swan 4 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks getitrite. I think we share a degree of anger at our upbringing. I was lucky to not have religious parents, but my school consistently pushed religion on me from an early age. There's a sense of "what if I'd succumbed... I'd be a drone like the rest of them". I'm glad you picked up on the difference between physical and psychological addictions too. I expect the first criticism from a believer would be that they're completely different for that reason. However addiction is determined by our chemical and behavioral response to stimuli, whether physical or psychological. Thanks again for the comment.

    • Petra Vlah profile image

      Petra Vlah 4 years ago from Los Angeles

      Great point - Anything that alters the capacity of making rational decisions is a drug and religion is not different - I never thought of it in those terms before, but you are absolutely right and I think it is a powerful comparison.

    • Thomas Swan profile image
      Author

      Thomas Swan 4 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks Petra. When I was 16, the best word I could come up with to describe religion was "dependency". It's like a crutch for broken people. Later, when i discovered Marx's quote "religion is the opium of the people", I realized I was on to something and started putting this together. Unfortunately, there's a trend for comparisons like this (delusion, virus, parasite, weapon, etc), which just makes people take it less seriously. I think it's a powerful analogy though because addiction therapy could be a good way of deconstructing people's faith; replacing it genuine reasons to feel strong and happy.

    • profile image

      Lawrence 2 years ago

      Wow! I have had this same idea for a while now, but way to structure it out so eloquently!

      I feel like religion is a gimmick to control people. It's essentially impossible to perfectly follow the Bible/Qur'an/etc. and when people fall to their temptations, they "get back up" and try again, attributing the power to do so to their prophet instead of seeing it as an addictive decision to go back to something that can be made free to them. It's a never-ending loop from there, unless they realize quitting is an option, but because doubting their prophet seems so unreasonable (at least in their own environment), they never do.

      The bottom line is, if any religion really were the universal answer to true happiness, why wouldn't the whole world would be united in following it?

    • Thomas Swan profile image
      Author

      Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks Lawrence, I wrote this a couple of years ago, so I'm glad it still sounds good!

      Agreed that religion, via its addictive properties, is used to control. Like addicts though, some become tools for others, some not.

      Yea, religionists seem to externalize their problems and achievements too, much like addicts.

      Lots of good points Lawrence. I wish I had time to write a longer reply, but I very much appreciate your thoughts.

    • jgshorebird profile image

      jgshorebird 13 months ago from Southeastern U.S.

      Great Hub. I think a refutation would be that non-religion is also an addiction. Natually, that rebuttal lacks what one might consider a realsitic premise. But I'm of the atheistic bent. Whether one supports the edicts of faith or force, in the final analysis, both such beasts are certainly viral. I think this hub does a great job to dispel the myth and delusion of either camp, and yet, the drugs addicts will not listen to reason.

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