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May 2017
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Many people are addicted to religion or have suffered from religious abuse through their family or churches, as Reverend Leo Booth says in his book When God Becomes A Drug. Booth, who is an Episcopal priest from south California, but who was born in England, calls himself a religion addict and recovering priest. Addiction can develop in any church, he says, however, it is more obvious in those who promote fundamentalist beliefs.

Religious addiction means using God, religion or a belief system as a way of running away or avoiding painful feelings and seeking self-esteem. Religion addicts take on a rigid belief system which specifies only one right path and which they believe must be forced on others by means of guilt, shame, fear, brain washing and elitism. These types of addicts abuse anyone who does not live up to their rigid standards, and Booth says that even Jesus was abused since religious people put him on the cross. 

Rod Cooper, an adviser at the Conservative Seminary in Denver, confirms that more than 30% of his patients suffer from religious addiction. It is said that thanks and love for God are things that the addicts cannot comprehend and, instead, they think that they must do things to please God. Such addicts remain in toxic churches with rigid belief systems which reinforce their shame and fear, but also offer a familiar comfort zone. People can become addicted in any way, says Larry Graham, a Professor of pastoral theology at the Illiff School of Theology. Religion can reinforce the idea of an idyllic life, of a God who controls everything, of a ‘final reward’ and of acceptance by other people.

Addicts use religion to acquire power and control, often by becoming religious abusers, says Booth, and their only way of obtaining self-respect and self-control is to become rigid and intolerant perfectionists, but perfectionism and pureness are utopias.

One consequence of addiction to religion can be the idea that sexual relations are dirty and sinful and Booth says that, over centuries, Christianity has promoted this idea and it can lead onto inappropriate behaviour which eventually resurfaces in forbidden ways. Dysfunctional, religious messages about sin, sexuality and God, as an angry judge and cosmic controller, have created many toxic beliefs, says Booth. At the heart of them is the message that people are, in essence, bad, weak and powerless, therefore addicts try to reconcile the concepts of sin, mercy and suffering with the idea of a God of love and forgiveness. Addicts fight to stay on the ‘right path’ by living in fear of sin and this is how an addict enters into a vicious circle: by constantly aiming for perfection, they become more addicted and they feel unloved, without sense and full of fear and shame.

Religion addicts never reach their goals but they do believe that their reward will be going to paradise. Booth says that many people get drunk on the idea of being saved and do not tolerate those who disagree. 

Symptoms of religious addiction include the inability to doubt religious authority, a black-or-white way of thinking and the belief that there is a God who controls their existence. Addicts rigorously abide by the rules, express judgements, make unrealistic financial donations, eat compulsively, suffer from psychosomatic illnesses, fall into trance like states and, possibly, suffer mental, emotional and physical exhaustion.

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