The concept of addiction, including the process by which addiction occurs and the methods which lead to recovery, has been a well-known one for a number of years. More recently investigations have been aimed at the addictive personality to identify the at-risk population in order to prevent addiction from developing. In addition, both scholars and theologians in the traditional American Judeo-Christian community have begun to investigate the potential for “religious addiction” as a dysfunctional and detrimental process within the practices of mainstream religion groups. It is suggested that this work has applications which can be useful to Pagans both in identifying those in Pagan groups who might be at risk of developing a religious addiction, and in treating those who might be victims of religious addiction. This paper will explore the current theories of religious addiction and to show how those theories might be applied within the Pagan community.
What then is addiction? Over the years that the concept of addiction has been recognized it has been said to be many things, such as an illness, personal weakness, a vice. In actuality it is not truly one single thing, but a process involving the entire being and those who are close to that person. However, at its simplest level addiction could be described as the attempt to find happiness through attempts to obtain perceived control of the natural and uncontrollable cycles of joy and sadness that we all undergo in our lives. (Nakken, pg 1-18, 5; Linn, Linn & Linn, pg 11, 4) Or as another author put it, “Anything that is used consistently to move us away from reality is potentially addictive.” (Collins, pg 7, 3) Religious addiction has been described as an “attempt to control a painful inner reality through a rigid religious belief system.” (Linn, Linn & Linn, pg 12, 4)
The Development of a Religious Addiction
The addiction process is often rooted in the addict’s childhood and the way that he or she learned to think of him- or herself as a person. Shame, guilt, and a feeling of being“dirty” or “useless” are often the underlying sources of the unhappiness that leads the potential addicts to seek something or someone who will relieve that pain they are feeling. Addicts are often the victim of homes where addiction of some sort was also present in the parents. Abuse, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual; lack of appropriate intimacy; and false ideas as to the appropriate sources of happiness can set a child up for addiction in later life. Children of such homes are often unable to form intimate attachments toother people as adults, and may replace the happiness such intimacy can bring by substituting other things for such attachments. (Linn, Linn & Linn, pg 43-48, 4; Booth,
pg 86-87, 2)
In addition to the impact of dysfunctional families on the addictive personality, some religious teachings can contribute to the feelings of being “dirty” or “useless” as described by Linn, et al, and Booth. .Many modern Pagans began their religious journeys in other faith systems which aided in their perception of themselves as “sinful” or “unworthy”. They were taught that there was one set of “true beliefs” that were not to be questioned, and those beliefs were based upon the premise that mankind was inherently sinful. Matthew Fox, a noted Catholic theologian, wrote, “I also object to original sin as the starting point of religion because of the tremendous psychic damage it has done. People are already terrible vulnerable in self-doubt and guilt, especially members of minority groups – women, blacks, Native Americans, homosexuals. The whole ideology of original sin increases one’s alienation and feeds the sado-masochistic energies in the culture – the sense that one is not worthy.” (as cited in Booth, pg 24, 2)
The process can begin quite innocently. The addict feels unhappy and emotionally in pain. He or she finds something, be it food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, or religion, that temporarily relieves those feelings of unhappiness. When such feelings arise again, the addict remembers the feeling of relief that they obtained from that specific object, so they turn to it again and again, seeking the same relief. As they invest more and more time and energy into the object of their addiction, they begin to experience guilt and shame regarding their weakness and inability for gain control of their life. Now the guilt they feel about their addiction becomes a spur that leads them to increase the addictive behavior in an attempt to relieve the new discomfort and the downward spiral intensifies. (Nakken, pg 1-18, 5)
As with any other form of substance abuse, over indulgence in religion can become an addict’s way of temporarily relieving their emotional pain and suffering. While it is true that religion can also provide genuine comfort and healing, it can also provide an emotional “high” that is very attractive to the addictive personality. Instead of providing a means of developing healthy relationships with others and with the Divine, religion becomes a “thing” to be used even as drugs or alcohol are used in a vain attempt to achieve a manner of control over their life. In effect, religious addiction replaces a genuine relationship with Deity with empty ritualistic behaviors. (Arterburn & Felton, pg 103-104, 1; Booth, pg 38, 2)
In the same fashion as other addictions, religious addiction undergoes a predictable progression. While the focus of the stages may vary depending upon the faith system involved, the progression nonetheless remains consistent across all religions.
It should be noted here that all human beings pass through a predictable series of stages in their development of faith as described by Fowler. These stages, which parallel cognitive growth, describe transitions from immature, concrete, and simple views of faith to stages which involve abstract, symbolic, and complex understandings. (Spilka, Hood, Hunsberger & Gorsuch, pg 82-83, 6) What may be a sign of religious addiction in one person may simply be an early stage of faith development in another. However, if the person uses their religion as a means of avoiding reality and does not move on to a more accepting and integrated religious outlook it is likely that he/she is entering the realm of religious addiction. (Linn, Linn & Linn, pg 18, 4)
In their book “Toxic Faith”, Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton offer the following list of characteristics of the early stages of religious addiction. (Arterbrun & Felton, pg 115-116, 1)
While these indicators of religious addiction are obviously built upon consideration of a Judeo-Christian worldview, I believe that they are equally applicable within the framework of Pagan religions.
Religious Addiction and Paganism
As mentioned previously, those who are significantly at risk of religious addiction include those who have been “shamed, put down, alienated, or discriminated against because of age, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnic background.” Also, “minority groups and the young are especially attracted to the fantasy, the magical thinking, and feelings of control offered by religious addiction.” (Booth, pg 88, 2) These people, often portrayed as powerless, unworthy, or sinful by their religion of birth, and who are at risk for developing a religious addiction, find acceptance in Paganism.
Many of those who come to Paganism do so because their former belief system failed in some way to meet their spiritual needs. Women, homosexuals, and other minorities are often drawn to Paganism because they find there an acceptance that was not present in their original belief system. In Paganism they find others like themselves who are accepting of them without reservation, and who affirm their worth as human beings. For those who have been told all of their lives that they are unworthy, such acceptance can be an extremely intoxicating experience.
Paganism is also highly attractive to teenagers, as evidenced by the huge interest shown by teens across the internet and in the bookstores. The teenage years are ones of turmoil when young people are seeking personal identity and striving to move away from parental control towards self-control. Teens often feel powerless in the face of parental disapproval, school strictures, and peer pressures. Paganism not only provides them with easy acceptance for whom they are, but also appears to promise a magical solution to all of their problems.
There are numerous points at which the newcomer to Paganism may slip into the process of religious addiction. If the individual joins a group such as a Wiccan coven it can be a simple step to forming an inappropriate attachment to a group leader especially if that leader is attractive and non-judgmental, exactly the characteristics that we encourage our Pagan clergy to demonstrate. This can lead to the addict placing that person on a pedestal of unrealistic expectations. The addict may also abrogate any sense of personal responsibility for their own actions and turn to the group leader for answers to any and all problems they face. When the group leader falls from that pedestal – which will happen – the addict is left with a further perception that nothing works out right.
Even as the religious addict turns to Paganism because it provides them with a validation of self-worth that they did not experience in their religion of birth, their conversion also brings up feelings of doubt and guilt about their choice of spiritual path. For most Pagans their original faith structure taught them that there was only “one true way” to believe, and that those who believed otherwise were tools of evil and subject to eternal damnation. Their denial of these beliefs still contains the seeds of doubt and the concern that perhaps they are wrong in their new religion. In an attempt to reconcile these feelings of self-doubt and guilt the addict may over- compensate by throwing themselves even more completely into the practices of Paganism.
As they begin to come “out of the broom closet” many Pagans encounter the disapproval of friends and family for their choice of religion. At first they may attempt to explain their religion and to obtain the understanding and approval of their significant others. However, if they are met with continuing disapproval, the addict may begin to turn away from the ones that they perceive as uncaring and unwilling to accept them as valuable people and limit themselves to social interactions only with those who share their same beliefs.
Gradually the religious addict turns more and more inward towards their spiritual path and the community that follows that path to the exclusion of all else. They begin to take on other aspects of what they consider important symbols of their religion. Consider for instance the tendency to dress in black, wear “ten pounds of bad pewter jewelry”, and to develop an insider vocabulary of terms and phrases that mark them out as Pagan. With each step that marks them as “different” the religious addict cuts themselves off from those relationships and experiences that help to ground them in reality.
And with each rejection the addict seeks to justify their own actions by blaming others for their attempts to show the addict where they are going wrong. Here we are often faced with the addict’s claims of “persecution” not only from those not of a Pagan persuasion, but also from those who are Pagan and see where the addict is mistaking their addiction for a genuine spiritual path. The commonly termed “Fluff Bunny”, one who is unwilling or unable to think critically about their religion and who often blindly follows the teachings of one particular author or popular Pagan leader, and who claims that others are picking on them when they try to correct them is a perfect example of a religious addict in the making.
Father Leo Booth, in his book “When God Becomes a Drug”, offers a somewhat different listing of the signs of religious addiction. These characteristics of religious addiction are also worth considering. (Booth, pg 59, 2)
Fundamentalist thinking is not something found only in Judeo-Christian belief systems. It can be found amongst Pagans as well. And it is often a symptom of religious addiction. Addicts are often described as living in for the present moment and using emotional logic, of being “adolescent in behavior and attitude.” (Nakken, pg 17, 5) This can contribute to an inability to think critically about their choice of spiritual path and a willingness to accept the authority of group leaders and authors for guidance, even if the information they are receiving is faulty. In effect this is an example of being “stuck” in Piaget’s “concrete operational stage” of spiritual development. (Spilka, Hood, Hunsberger & Gorsuch, pg 77, 6)
One of the consequences of such rigid thinking is the inability to discern false information from fact (Booth, pg 59, 2), often leading to the perpetuation of popular myths regarding Pagan beliefs and history. The addict seeks out information that reinforces their own worldview and ignores or attacks any information which negates any portion of their belief system. One has only to look at the continued insistence on the myth of the “Burning Times” in the face of the lack of historical evidence to support it to see where this lack of critical thinking helps to maintain the sense of both persecution and superiority that is central to the religious addict’s belief structure.
The Pagan religious addict can become rigid in their practice and in their views of the practice of others. A phrase often heard at Pagan gatherings or on the internet is “You can’t be a real Pagan if you….” In other words, there is no room in Paganism for practices other than those to which the addict ascribes. And any practice which threatens the addict’s limited view of Paganism must be invalidated in order to maintain their own sense of worthiness.
While Pagans do not as a rule replace scientific beliefs with religiosity, religious addiction can lead some to turn away from modern medicine because of their religion. Most Pagans understand that spiritual approaches to healthcare concerns are best approached by using a combination of both religious beliefs and modern medicine. However, there are those who chose to avoid the practices of Western medicine in favor of magical or herbal remedies because they believe Western medicine to be antithetical to their religious belief system.
As with any form of addiction, religious addiction becomes increasingly damaging to the individual, not only in only in terms of a loss of genuine spiritual relationship to the Divine, but also in terms of relationships to friends and family. It can lead to emotional breakdown and even to suicide. As religion ceases to provide the relief from pain that drew the addict to it in the first place, religion may be replaced with other forms of addiction such as alcohol, over-eating, or drugs. (Arterbrun & Felton, pg 124-130, 1)
Addiction, Practice, and Growth
In reviewing Fr. Booth’s listing of signs of religious addiction one must, I believe, use some care in applying a number of these to those following Pagan spiritual paths. Some of the signs that he addressed would also be considered normal behavior for Pagans. Trance states, ritual highs, and magic are all part of Pagan belief systems. What would need to be considered here is whether or not these signs are seen in conjunction with other characteristics of addictive behavior. Are these signs seen in conjunction with a lack of connection with reality? Is the individual chasing the ritual high for the sake of the emotional boost it gives them, or are they experiencing the high because of a genuine spiritual connection to the Divine? Is the concept of magic being used as an excuse to avoid responsibility for one’s own actions?
Furthermore, one must evaluate behaviors in terms of the normative stages of faith development put forward by several researchers. Often early stages of faith development may be indistinguishable from religious addiction. For instance, Kohlberg describes the 3rd and 4th stage of religious addiction as being characterized by the desire to please others, and by the importance of authority and strict rules. (Spilka, Hood, Hunsberger & Gorsuch, pg 80, 6) I believe it is important here to note the similarities here with some of the early indicators of addiction proposed by Fr. Booth.
In addition, in examining the Stages of Faith proposed by Fowler, one also encounters some of the same manifestations of thought and behavior as those seen in some religious addicts. In the early stages of faith development, Fowler also proposes that one matures spiritually in an orderly progression. In his 3rd step, Fowler also notes the tendency of the individual to accept their religious beliefs literally and without question. (Spilka, Hood, Hunsberger & Gorsuch, pg 83, 6)
Therefore, in evaluating whether the individual in question is in danger of religious addiction, one must also assess whether the behaviors demonstrated are danger signs on the road to addiction, or whether they are simply indicators as to where the individual is currently in the development of their faith. The important marker to evaluate in this case would be whether the individual moves beyond the early stages of faith development to a more mature understanding of their spiritual path, or whether they become stuck with the ritualistic and simplistic early stages.
The Recovery Process
As some point the religious addict may finally recognize that their lives are out of control and seek to find a way out of the downward spiral of addictive behaviors. The first step in the process is to admit to and claim their addictive personalities. Only when the addict admits to their addiction is it possible for recovery to begin. (Nakken, pg 92, 5)
Various methods have been used to assist the recovering addict. Talk therapy has been used in an attempt to permit the addict to work through the issues that formed the catalyst for his or her addiction. However, in actual clinical practice talk therapy has been found to be ineffective in dealing with addiction The difficulty in using talk therapy is that it deals with addiction on an intellectual level, but addiction is experienced on an emotional level. The addict is often so involved in how he or she “feels” that he or she are unable to approach their addiction by thinking about the roots of their problem in a cognitive manner. (Nakken, pg 30, 5)
The most effective method for treatment of addictions that has been found to date appears to be one which includes a supportive group of friends, family, and some form of 12-step program. (Nakken, pg 66, 5) The original 12-step program was used by Alcoholics Anonymous and was built upon a Judeo-Christian worldview. However, it can be applied equally to Pagans with some changes to the wording.
Fr. Leo Booth provides a 12-step program for religious addicts in his book “When God Becomes a Drug,” (Booth, pg 157-158, 2) This program includes the following steps:
It is noteworthy that these steps in recover from religious addiction as proposed by Fr. Booth are essentially neutral in terms of the specific Spiritual Power that is called upon, and could as easily be used by a Pagan as part of their recovery process. However, some Pagans in recovery have sought a somewhat different 12-step model more closely aligned with their view of the recovery process. In the book “The Recovery Spiral – A Pagan Path to Healing”, Cynthia Jane Collins proposes a different 12-step model based upon the concept of “Harm None” and the Wiccan worldview of life being a spiral as opposed to a linear journey. (Collins, pg 3-4, 3)
While there is a strong similarity to the two different approaches to the 12-step recovery process, I believe it is important to note that the process advanced by Collins (Collins, pg 157- 158, 3 ) seems to presuppose an inner power that the addict can call upon to assist in recovery. This would appear to be congruent with Pagan teachings regarding taking personal responsibility for one’s actions. However, studies of the addictive personality have shown that the concepts of being in “control” and being responsible are an illusion. In fact, the addict is out of control and unable to take responsibility. Only when they are able to “surrender” that control to a Higher Power is the addict able to find the strength to start forming connections with others. (Nakken, pg 30-31, 5)
I think it is also of value to note that the 12-step program suggested by Collins (Collins, pg 157-158, 3) is also based upon a Wiccan worldview and ethical system. Not all Pagan spiritual paths are based upon the ethics put forward in the last couplet of the Wiccan Rede. (Ventimiglia, pg 186, 7)
In many programs designed to help reverse the addiction process the recovery is dependent on complete abstinence from the object or event that is at the heart of addiction. (Nakken, pg 98, 5) However, the 12-step models that are mentioned previously (Booth, pg 157-158, 2; Collins, pg 3-4, 3) are both predicated upon a continuing connection with a Higher Power or Divine Presence. This is a similar situation as that experienced by the food addict. Obviously one cannot completely stop eating to treat an addiction to food. Likewise it is not necessary to forego one’s religion to treat religious addiction. Instead it is the dysfunctional beliefs about religion and the Divine that must be abandoned. (Booth, pg 159, 2)
The key to successful recovery from religious addiction appears to be recognizing that the use of religion is not bettering one’s life nor bringing oneself closer to the Divine. Rather one’s behaviors are instead creating a distancing from the Divine, from friends, and from family. (Booth, pg 162, 2) And at this point it would be appropriate to ask for help from the Higher Power to move beyond the dysfunctional patterns of behavior into healthier patterns. (Booth, pg 165-170)
Once it is recognized that there is a problem with religious addiction and that it is not making one’s life a better and more spiritual one, the addict next takes stock of how their religious addiction as harmed themselves and others; and to begin to make amends for their actions. And the final step in the recovery process is to reestablish a genuine connection with the Divine or the Higher Power. (Booth, pg 177-183, 2)
Religious addiction is a process by which a normal and healthy religiosity becomes transformed into a dysfunctional pattern of empty behaviors by which the addict attempts to relieve his/her inner discomfort and his/her inability to control their life. Certain people, particularly those with a dysfunctional family upbringing and those who have been “shamed, put down, alienated, or discriminated against because of age, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnic background” (Booth, pg 88, 2) may be more susceptible to religious addiction. Many who come to Paganism bring with them just this burden of emotional baggage, and they are therefore susceptible to becoming religious addicts. The process may be heightened by some of the core beliefs and practices of Pagan religions, including greater acceptance of those who are “different”, magical solutions to problems, energy manipulation, and the presence of “authority figures” to whom the addict defers their own sense of responsibility.
The addiction process, no matter the religion involved, often follows a predictable course during which the addict moves further and further from friends, family and a genuine spirituality. This may lead eventually to loss of faith, breakdown, or moving on to a different form of addiction such as drugs, food, sex, or alcohol.
Alternatively, if the addict is able to be honest with themselves about the fact that their life is out of control, recovery is possible. A variety of 12-step programs have been found useful over the years in treating addiction. Many such programs now recognize the need to be more open to those who are not of the Judeo-Christian traditions and have replaced references to “God” with references to a “Higher Power” or “Divine Presence.”
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Black, Claudia (1981), It Will Never Happen To Me, Denver, Colorado, MAC Printing and Publications Division.
Booth, Father Leo (1991), When God Becomes a Drug, New York, New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Collins, Cynthia Jane (2004), The Recovery Spiral, A Pagan Path to Healing, New York, New York, Citadel Press
Kurtz, Ernest & Ketcham, Katherine (1992), The Spirituality of Imperfection, New York, New York, Bantam Books
Linn, Matthew, Linn Sheila Fabricant, and Linn Dennis (1994), Healing Spiritual Abuse and Ritual Addiction, New York, New York, Pawlist Press
Nakken, Craig (1988; 1996), The Addictive Personality, Center City, Minnesota, Hazelden Foundation
Spilka, Bernard, Hood, Ralph W.,Jr., Hunsberger, Bruce, and Gorsuch, Richard, (2003), The Psychology of Religion, New York, New York, Guilford Press
Ventimiglia, Mark (2003). The Wiccan Rede. New York, New York, Kensington Publishing Corporation:
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