Religious Addiction

Religious beliefs serve an important function in the daily lives and attitudes of most of us. Especially in today?s often chaotic and unpredictable world, a sincere faith in the power of God and adherence to religious rituals can give us better moral guidance, more emotional stability, and valuable serenity. Religion helps people to be centered and grounded.

However, a person?s fervent religious practices can signify other, darker aspects of his or her mental health. For example, if someone?s faith is used to mask or avoid psychological problems, or if their religious inclinations are taken to extremes, there is an excellent possibility that the person is suffering from a psychiatric disorder. Often it is a way to cover their own pathology, hiding it from others or accusing others for being it's cause. This can be compared with Dual Diagnosis in Alcoholism, ie: sometimes when a person deals with their alcoholism and quits drinking, only then does their underlying psychiatric pathology become apparent. Alcohol in this situation was used to self-medicate.

One term used to describe such a case is ?hyper-religiosity.? A ?hyper? condition of any sort?e.g. hyperactivity, hyperglycemia, etc.?simply means too much of something. In the case of religious beliefs, the question of having too much becomes a factor when the religion starts adversely affecting people?s social behavior, their ability to function rationally, and even their own physical health.

Being very religious is not by any means an absolute indication of bipolar or manic or depressive behavior; on the contrary, a healthy approach to religious rituals is vital for the comfort and well-being of countless people. So it?s a highly sensitive issue to question someone?s beliefs or practices. Nevertheless, anything taken too far can do more harm than good.

Evaluating And Assessing Hyper-Religiosity

If you know someone who is extremely religious, consider their history:
Have they always been that way?
Does their zeal represent a sudden personality change?
Do the religious beliefs provide peace and personal contentment?
Has the person become belligerent and defensive?
Are they gentle in their speech or harsh, argumentative and self-righteous?
Have they become intolerant of other points of view?
Have people started avoiding them?
Has their quality of life improved or deteriorated?

How their religious attitudes affect people can represent an infinite variety of causes and motivations, and the reasons behind those causes can explain a great deal about the individual?s psychological profile and mental stability. It?s not enough to simply say, ?His religion makes him feel good,? because there are many troubled people who find similar peace and strength through negative stimuli as well, such as alcohol.

Religion, like alcoholism, can be a crutch, and it can be an addiction. Just as with alcohol, religion may be used to hide other problems. Addiction is defined as the abuse of a substance to cover up the underlying disease or discomfort. Religion can be viewed as an addiction if it is used as a cover up for unresolved issues of shame, anger and authority. When you take away the superficial layers of the drinking or the religion, the underlying pathology is revealed.

Knowing what lies underneath that veneer of religion is critical to understanding the hyper-religious person?s behavior. Therefore, it helps to know what brought about the change in attitude when someone?s conspicuous preoccupation with religious belief and ritual takes on an extreme, consuming new importance in their lives.

A suddenly increased interest in God and religion is often triggered by a trauma or severe anxiety, and those may come in many forms:

Death of a loved one
A break in a relationship
Serious illness or accident
Personal or financial loss
When people?s security in themselves is threatened, for whatever reason, they often turn to God. Such a reaction is understandable: a confused, frightened individual who feels helpless will naturally reach out for a source of comfort and solace. Also, a frequent catalyst for triggering hyper-religious behavior may be a latent psychiatric disorder, such as depression.

Regardless of the reason why a person chooses to pursue religion, at what level does healthy, normal religious belief become abnormal?

Often the personality change is subtle. Eventually, though, hyper-religious behavior will manifest itself in obvious and disconcerting ways, such as:

Loss of Objectivity
Their ability to reason logically can become impaired. An inability to think, doubt, or question religious information and/or authority; and unwillingness to understand the opinions and interpretations of others. A concrete and rigid thinking style develops that does not allow for consideration of extenuating circumstances in a person's life. Black/white, good/bad, either/or simplistic thinking: one way or the other with very little room for grey areas. A tendency toward magical thinking that God will fix you/ do it all, without serious work on your part. Confusion and doubts lead to mental, physical or emotional breakdown. They develop a fear-based belief system.. believing/following a religion out of fear, not understanding and love. They also tend to have a shame-based belief system that they are not good enough or are not doing it right. They believe in a punishing and angry God.

Reactivity: Anger and Defensiveness
If sincere faith in God is supposed to bring peace and contentment, a religious person who is paranoid and confrontational about it may have a larger mental problem. They tend to have increased conflict and argumentation with science, medicine, and education. They tend to become argumentative and defensive in dialog. They have a limited ability to explain their beliefs. Since their belief system about themselves and the world is fear-based, they seldom understand religion, but follow it out of a dependent need for strength and power. Force is their farce.

Judgmental and Critical
Hyper-religiosity may be revealed in someone as unusual self-importance, as if that person were much closer to God, making others around him seem inferior. They develop an uncompromising judgmental attitudes, with a readiness to find fault or evil out there. An attitude of self-righteousness or superiority: "we versus the world," including the denial of one's human-ness. They tend to be blind to their own behaviors, denying their projections on to the idol 'god' they have created.

Obsessive and Compulsive Behavior
Ritual is part of religion, and as such is neither good nor bad. However, when it disrupts normal activities it is unhealthy?as in being unable to function without repeated readings of the same passages, or unusually frequent rituals. Scrupulously rigid and obsessive adherence to rules, codes of ethics, or guidelines. Compulsive rituals or obsessive praying, quoting scriptures and excessive fasting often accompany the change in thinking patterns. Giving up sleeping or eating to pray or meditate. Again, prayer and meditation are important aspects of faith, but not to the point of jeopardizing a person?s health or relationships.

Isolation and breakdown of relationships often follows. Progressive detachment from work and relationships is noticeable as they spend more time proselytizing their message. Manipulating scripture or texts, feeling specially chosen, claiming to receive special messages from God, they move further and further away from the mainstream of social contacts.

In severe cases they may also develop some of the following patterns:
Psychosomatic illness: back pains, sleeplessness, headaches, hypertension, etc.
Maintaining a religious "high", trance-like state, keeping a happy face (or the belief that one should...)
Denial of any personal problems
When behavior borders on manic or pathological, the hyper-religious person may even start hallucinating, ie: hearing voices or seeing images, or possibly ?talking to God.?

By then, it?s clearly evident something is wrong.

If you know someone whose interest in religion has suddenly (or even gradually) reached a point of fixation?when their regular lives are negatively affected?you need to understand what?s motivating their behavior. The problem could go away, but it could also get worse.

The ultimate temptation of the believer is to assume that his or her way to God is the best or only way for others. The particular Way to God becomes what is adored, not the ineffable and incomprehensible Mystery to which we give the name of God.

In essence they become addicted to their faith. It becomes a means of escape. It is no longer a living BY faith; with understanding, hope and growing in unconditional love. Instead of love of God softening their lives, it makes them harsh, rigid and limited.

Uzma Mazhar ? 2000