Addicted to God

The Phoenix Gazette/February 6, 1988
By Michelle Beardon

Chris believes that God has a mission for him.

The Phoenix man, who did not want his real name revealed, hasn't quite put his finger on what that mission is, but he says he'll know it "when God decides to tell me."

Chris used to think God wanted him to save the world, a lofty goal by anyone's standards. Like a nagging voice, the self-generated command became and obsession, spiraling Chris into deep depression when he realized he simply did not have the resources to follow that destiny.

And then there were the dreams, where visions of Christ and the Holy Spirit appeared before Chris. With every dream, he asked himself: "Is there a message?" He found himself becoming dependent on the Bible, reading it feverishly in search of inspiration and guidance.

On the advice of his ex-wife, the 44-year-old restaurant worker finally sought counseling last year in an attempt to put some focus back in his life. Although he won't say he was addicted to God, he does admit he had some "imbalance of priorities."

"Although my goal is to live entirely by my faith, that requires giving up control of my life. And that is a frightening thing," Chris says. "I still believe God has a mission for me, but I need to dissect it and put it into perspective."

Like drugs, alcohol and food, religion can be addictive. The Rev. Leo Booth, an Episcopalian priest who has become an unofficial spokesman on religious addiction, calls it a "misunderstood malady."

"My intention is to create debate for this topic," says Booth, who divides his time between serving as spiritual director of Westcenter Programs at Tucson General Hospital and an addiction consultant to the Chemical Dependency Center, Presbyterian Inter-community Hospital in Whittier, Calif.

"There's an unfortunate lack of knowledge about this form of addiction. The people who need the treatment are getting misdiagnosed because we simply don't know enough about it."

Booth is a recovering alcoholic who successfully underwent treatment nearly 10 years ago, and he knows firsthand the symptoms of obsessive behavior. He once relied on the bottle much like some depend on the Bible.

"I think you'll find certain people have a tendency toward compulsive behavior. If they don't learn how to master control, they may substitute one addiction for another," he says.

With religious addiction, Booth says the attraction is to escape from reality into a fantasyland where God takes absolute control of people's lives, directing their every thought and action."

"If you can imagine a puppet on a string," he says, "then you get the picture."

Although the public generally associates religious addicts with cults, Booth says members of mainstream denominations are just as susceptible to putting their faith out of focus.

"They can develop their own subculture, with its own language and thought patterns. They get high on God, ritual and ecstatic prayers. They view the world differently from normal people," he says.

The most damaging results of such addiction comes when they begin making excessive sacrifices for their religion, often leading to destruction of their families, other relationships, financial investments and recreation. No aspect of their lives is untouched, Booth says.

Victims of this type of addiction share many of the same traits of children of alcoholics, Dubin says. They tend to be people of low self-esteem, abused and products of dysfunctional families where there is poor communication. Not surprisingly, many are children of religious fanatics.

The key to treatment is "loving intervention," Booth says.

"You've got to break the denial with reality," he says. "You need to make them see clearly what is happening in their lives. They are usually blind to everything else around them."

Barry Dubin, clinical social worker for Phoenix Interfaith Counseling, says America is getting more into religion and for the most part, it can be "very positive, very helpful."

But it becomes dangerous when the person loses his perspective and is no longer tolerant of those who don't prescribe to the same beliefs, Dublin says.

"Whenever you lose your flexibility, you're in trouble," he says. "Another sign is when religion starts interfering with your job and ability to relate to your friends and family. That inability to cope and function in a normal setting can be frightening."

Another interfaith counselor, Sister Kris Harpenau, says many people today are seeking their own personal relationship with God, citing the charismatic movement with the traditional Roman Catholic Church as an example.

But it's carried to the extreme when God becomes everything and "there's no room for anything else," Harpenau says.

"Some people are just looking for ways to fill the empty spaces in their lives," she says. "Then they start replacing the already filled spaces with religion, and before long, it becomes the whole ball game."

When religion-addicted clients come to Interfaith for help, the intent is not to remove faith from their lives, Dubin and Harpenau agree. As Booth put it: "Alcoholics can still drink. They just don't drink alcohol anymore."

Rick Ross, formerly director of the Jewish Prisoner Program for Jewish Family and Children's Services, now has a private "deprogramming" practice working in conjunction with psychologists. Of the 88 cases he's taken, 65 of the people were heavily involved in fundamentalist Christian groups.

As in the prison system, where Ross repeatedly came across compulsive obsessive personalities with "atrophied reasoning," he says he's witnessed the same types in his present work.

Ross concentrates on the "Bible-intoxicated" fundamentalists who get "drunk on the scriptures and high on the Lord" to an extreme degree.

"The same way booze and drugs offer an escape, so can religion. And these people have a way of finding each other and reinforcing the behavior," Ross says. "It can be particularly harmful when they have a narrow expression of Christianity. It can shut down critical thinking and their ability to rational thought."

The deprogrammer says he's run into several case where people simply put off career and personal decisions by keeping company with like-minded people.

"They may go on missions to teach their beliefs, do God's work and praise the Lord, which means they really don't have to come to grips with other aspects of life," he says.

"After all that greediness last year with the PTL and Oral Roberts, I hope more people will finally be able to face up to what's going on out there," Ross says.

Symptoms of addiction

The Rev. Leo Booth has compiled a list of symptoms that can be associated with a religious addiction. They include:

Religious convictions are stated as black and white.

Isolation from people who do not share the same beliefs.

Think of the world and flesh as inherently evil.

Obsessive about praying, going to church, reading the Bible, attending crusades, watching television evangelists, sending money to missions.

Excessive fasting.

Hearing messages from God.

Judging others, often angry and violent toward "heathens."

Brainwashing - attempt to persuade family and significant friends to their way of thinking.

Compulsively talking about God, religion or quoting from Scripture.

Conflict of ideology with hospitals and schools.

Discourage thinking for oneself, doubting or questioning.

Sexuality seen as dirty or bad.

Cannot accept criticism.

Suffer tension, stress, often develop physical illnesses, such as eating disorders, depression and anxiety.

Often stare, go into trances.

Erratic personality changes.

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