This essay explores whether a religious belief system could be considered an addiction in the same way alcohol and drugs are understood as addictions. Various aspects of substance addiction are reviewed in terms of their implications for addiction as religious belief systems. Neuroscience studies are reviewed regarding religious experience and religious ideation. Generally, neuroscience supports the view that religious experiences have health benefits and are related to positive changes in the brain. Like other naturally occurring experiences reward network, religious experiences activate the reward center of the brain in the same way that substances, such as alcohol and cocaine, activate the brain’s reward system.
The author concludes that unlike alcohol and drug addiction (where the more one consumes, the more one has a problem), religious experience results in more positive outcomes the more one meditates and prays. This article also makes the case that religious ideation in the form of cognitive beliefs that tend to be present with a personality disorder or psychotic process are more closely related to how religion might become addictive. Therefore, a distinction is made between religious ideation as manifested in mental and emotional problems and naturally-occurring religious experience. Excessive or extreme religious ideation is related to mental and emotional problems and tend to be associated with dysfunction.
Addiction is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a brain disease that is portrayed through compulsive acts to use substances, such as drugs and alcohol, regardless of the negative effects they have on the person and his/her social network. Brain imaging procedures demonstrate that alcohol and drug dependency rewire the brain, resulting in cognitive deficits, poor decision making, and dysfunctional behavioral. Generally, an addictive person is aware of the detrimental effects of continuing the consumption of substances but is unable to control it. All addictions involve the activation of the brain’s reward network, which increases dopamine, the pleasure chemical.
Addiction has generally been defined as alcohol and substance abuse. Recently, that definition has expanded unofficially to include a host of what is described as process or behavioral addictions. While the DSM-V only includes a few behavior addictions (including gambling, kleptomania, pyromania, and intermittent explosive disorder), some researchers and authors have described a variety of other behaviors as addictions because of their activation of the brain’s reward network.
This expansion of the definition of addiction includes naturally occurring highs that result from the reward network including such behaviors as romantic love, religion, sexual relations, and exercise. There is an ongoing debate as to whether these naturally-occurring highs should be considered addictions. The following discussion will explore the characteristics of drug and alcohol addiction and if process behaviors, specifically religion, should be considered an addiction.
Is Religion an Addiction?
Drug and alcohol use occur from decisions that one makes and the effects on the brain are not from naturally-occurring highs. In this case, the activation of the reward network represents a hijacking rather than a response to what one experiences in their environment.
The only initial overlap between drug and alcohol ingestion and process behaviors, such as religion, is the activation of the reward network. The observed trajectory for drug and alcohol addiction is gradual increase in consumption, development of tolerance, increased consumption, withdrawal when consumption stops, physical and mental health deterioration, and increased depression and anxiety.
An overlap of drug and alcohol addiction, and religious addiction has been postulated to follow a similar trajectory including increased use, tolerance, withdrawal, and dependence. This process is mood-altering due to participating or not participating in religious experiences, associating only with likeminded persons and withdrawing from others, and attending church with likeminded persons.
How religion can be an addiction similar to drug and alcohol addiction has been described in the following way. First, substance addiction has been linked to an escape from reason and painful experiences. This view of addiction portrays the addict as weak and needing substances or a belief system to sustain a sense of identity. Overall, this view can be closely tied to psychological and emotional issues. Second, and related to the first point, addiction is related to dependency on external resources.
Third, addiction is related to not taking responsibility for oneself. Fourth, addictions are exchangeable; addicts are prone to change one addiction for another. For example, the “Jesus movement ” in the 1960s when drug addicts suddenly were converted is viewed as exchanging one addiction for another. Fifth, addiction has been characterized by denial where the reality of the addict’s situation is hidden Sixth, addiction involves the destruction of social and family relationships.
Apart from the initial activation of the reward network for drug and alcohol addiction and religion, on close scrutiny there appears to be little or nothing in common. For example, researchers have found numerous benefits of having a religious faith that none of the proponents of religion as an addiction mention, which are discussed in the following section of the essay.
The Adaptive Role and Function of Religion
The adaptive role and function of religion for individuals has been well documented in the extant literature from various disciplines over the past seven decades. The adaptive functions of religion include helping individuals adjust to both normal and unexpected change. Religious practices help create a sense of meaning in life and contributes to the discovery of the self in relationship to God. In addition to finding meaning in life, religion connects persons to a social community with the added benefit of belonging to a large social and supportive network. Religious experiences through rituals provide the integration of personal meaning and social connectedness.
For the past five decades, the study of religious practices has found numerous benefits. For example, studies related to specific medical procedures, such as heart surgeries, found that persons with a strong religious faith recovered quicker and had less complications. Regular church attendance is related to decreased mortality risk when compared to non-church attenders.
Other studies focusing on prayer and meditation have demonstrated the health benefits of strong religious practices. The connection between health and functioning religious or spiritual practices has been suggested as a new integrative definition of health. Numerous studies have found religion and spirituality to be a consistent buffer against illness and premature death. The health benefits of religion and spirituality have also been found for major debilitating diseases, such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Persons who have a strong religious or spiritual practice are less likely to contract major diseases, including cancer and diseases of the immune system. These studies generally show that the stronger and more consistent the religious practice, the greater the benefit.
Numerous studies document the relationship between religion and spirituality and good mental health. Religious persons are less likely to develop depression and tend to have better coping skills for anxiety. How this takes place is not clearly defined by research, but some have speculated that the practice of religion could affect lifestyle choices by limiting or reducing exposure to experiences that are related to increased health risks. For example, persons who have a strong religious faith and participate in a faith community consume alcohol and smoke cigarettes less than persons with no religious faith. Overall, religious persons tend to have healthier lifestyles and have greater social support.
Brain imaging research over the past several decades has added to knowledge of how religion affects the brain and, consequently, the functioning of the individual. Andrew Newberg’s research sheds much light on how the brain functions during a religious experience. For example, using brain imaging procedure, Newberg found that the frontal lobes of the brain (which are the center of decision making and are related to thought processing) are activated and the parietal lobes (which are related to spatial orientation) are deactivated when Buddhist monks meditate and Catholic nuns pray. What results from this brain activity allows for the person to feel unified with God and at peace with others. This unique feeling appears to be related to to religious and spiritual experiences and provides a buffer from feeling anxious and depressed.
It is interesting to note that none of these benefits found in religious experiences can be found in drug and alcohol addiction, which tends to be highly correlated to negative effects and dysfunction. Contrary to being considered a disease, except by professed atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins, religious experiences are not only seen as positive, but as a necessary component of the human condition. Neuroscience has demonstrated that the brain is wired for religious experiences even if the reward network was not activated. On the other hand, the brain is not wired for drug or alcohol consumption and little positive benefits result from using them.
As stated earlier, religion is a naturally-occurring behavior while drug and alcohol use are not naturally-occurring behaviors. One chooses to use these substances and what results is a hijacking of the reward network. The fact that many treatment programs for drug and alcohol addiction employ religious and spiritual components suggests that drug and alcohol addiction and religion have little in common.
Furthermore, the desire to seek out religious and spiritual experiences has nothing in common with the obsessive drive to use substances which create a physical dependence with continued use. Contrary to drug and alcohol use (in which the more one uses, the greater the dysfunction), the more the religious practice, the greater the benefit.
Religion tends to open a person up to other rewarding experiences and does not become an end in itself. With drug and alcohol addiction, the ability to experience other rewarding behaviors are reduced and the continuation of the addiction is to avoid the negative effects. In other words, as the addiction to drug and alcohol continues, the activation of the reward network is no longer the goal. Rather, the goal from prolonged use of drugs and alcohol is to reduce the depression, anxiety and other negative effects.
Another lack of parallel between drug and alcohol addiction and religious experiences is the difference in oxytocin levels. Recent research has found that oxytocin levels are increased when a person engages in spiritual meditation. Oxytocin is the chemical in the body that is related to bonding and has been studied extensively in mother/child bonding. In drug and alcohol addiction, there is a decline in oxytocin levels. A recent treatment procedure for substance addiction is to increase the level of oxytocin, which reduces loneliness and improves social relationships.
Religious delusions and ideations occur in a small minority of persons who typically have some emotional or mental problems. Research has consistently shown that about a third of persons diagnosed with a mental illness have religious delusions. Generally, these people will have cognitive impairment and difficulty with interpersonal relationships.
Religious Extremism and Ideology
On the basis of the above discussion, the term “religious addiction ” lacks support as a description for religious experience. But the question arises: What about excessive, oppressive, and rigid religious beliefs in which there is no diagnosable mental disorder? To answer this question, recent research on the nature and structure of belief systems that lead to polarization is helpful in providing a conduit for understanding how religious belief systems become dysfunction.
A recent article of political ideology helps form a more nuanced understanding of extreme religious beliefs.
While extreme ideologies have been studied for some time, little has been postulated as to their underlying dynamics and structure until recently. The question that needs answering is why some people form extreme and often dysfunctional beliefs that puts them at odds with the majority of people and society in general. Four general principles have been noted that undergird the formation of extreme political ideologies that the author of this essay believes also explains the formation of religious extremism.
First, psychological distress develops, which results from persons feeling powerless to control certain aspects of their life. They tend to take extreme cognitive stances on certain beliefs, such as beliefs about God and the meaning of life, which gives them a false sense of control. In a world where many things are uncertain and fearful, religious beliefs can hijack the internal symbolic representation of reality into something that can be more certain and less fearful. They identify with other likeminded persons, either formally or informally, which can result in the formation of religious extremism and cults.
Second, the development of extreme religious beliefs, like extreme political ideologies, occurs out of a need to simplify and find black-and-white answers. A firm religious belief system simplifies complex social and economic realities and provides straightforward answers where ambiguity generally exists. It can be concluded that a major characteristic of religious extremism is a simple cognitive structure.
Cognitive simplicity is related to a third characteristic of extreme religious beliefs, namely a conviction that one’s view is correct. The simpler black-and-white view of reality gives a person confidence in their beliefs and that other positions are wrong. The belief that one is right allows a person to think in a reductionist manner and undermines one’s ability to critically assess different points of view.
Fourth, extreme ideological belief systems are based on the view that one’s belief are universal and right while opposing views are wrong. The side effect of believing in the universality of one’s beliefs can be intolerance and bigotry, which is frequently witnessed in cult-like political and religious systems. Rather than cooperatively working with others of different beliefs and seeking solutions that are more nuanced, political and religious zealots blindly persist in their cherished views unaware of the consequences.
The simple explanation that because naturally occurring behaviors activate the brain’s reward network, those behaviors should then be liked to addictions, such as non-naturally occurring behaviors like drug and alcohol addiction, lacks credible support. Rather than being characterized as addictions, a naturally occurring behavior such as religion that becomes obsessive and cult-like, fits into the pattern of a dysfunctional belief systems similar to extreme political ideologies.
In sum, this essay reviewed the literature on addiction and religious experiences and argues that extreme religious beliefs systems have been mistakenly classified as addictions when they are much more similar to extreme ideological systems, such as political ideologies. This view of the positive effects of religious experiences, experienced during prayer and meditation, is supported by recent neuroscience research findings. The article concludes that the term “religious addiction ” is a misnomer and that extreme religious beliefs are more similar to extreme cognitive ideologies than substance addiction.