Religious and Spiritual Addiction

I use the expression “drinking the Kool-aid” often to refer to those who have always carefully followed the dictates of the tribe and never left its “safe confines.” This is in reference to the hundreds of religious extremists in 1989 who followed the dictates of their leader, James Jones, and committed suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in the Guyana, South Africa compound.

I admit that using the expression of “drinking the Kool-Aid” to describe those who simply follow the tribal dictates is a bit over the top and even “ugly.” As indicated yesterday, we must have people who follow these “dictates” and allow malcontents like myself to have such a good life. But the problem occurs when the human need to “belong” goes beyond the pale and an inordinate energy begins to constellate to maintain this sense of “belonging” or “tribal identity.” At this point the normal human need for group affiliation becomes poisoned and the need to affiliate with the world at large begins to be diminished and eventually even discouraged. Unconscious fears are then unleashed and then, with a leader who is in tune with these unconscious forces, ugly things can happen. Witness the aforementioned Jim Jones and Guyana Massacre.

What has happened in this scenario is that the need for group affiliation has become addictive and the reason this is so is because the members of the group have a deep-seated fear of the existential loneliness that haunts us all. That terror so grips them that they are willing to make horrible decisions to protect what I will call the “group lie”….even the decision to die or in some cases to kill others…rather than deal with the gamut of fears associated with this loneliness which dwell in all of our hearts.

And many noble truths can be present in a “group lie.” I think, for example, many expressions of this disease are found in my Christian faith, the best example immediately available being Westboro Baptist Church. These people have merely taken a noble spiritual tradition and used it to perpetuate their own private fantasy, giving no concern for the world outside of themselves and even contempt and scorn for that world.

This is religious addiction and religious addiction is one of the most pernicious forms of this mental illness as they “know” they are believing and doing the “right” thing. And it is their “knowledge” and “certainty” that is the basic problem. Reasoning with them is a waste of time. And I might add that this Westboro Baptist Church phenomena is reflective of the poison that is always a temptation with any belief system, certainly any spiritual tradition. Yes, even mine!

For, we are all addicts as psychologist Gerald May noted decades ago. My “guru” Richard Rohr has noted his own penchant for “thought addiction”, a malady that I wrestle with myself. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” said T. S. Eliot. We must have a denial system and religion is one of our best efforts in this respect.

But religion does have the capacity to lead one beyond the “addictive” dimension of faith into a region of value, into a region of human experience in which one offers respect, value, and love to the whole of God’s creation. But this entails giving up the addiction to the “letter of the law” which then entails having the courage to realize just how much we are all slaves to this “letter of the law.” It requires understanding what Martin Buber called the “it world” and respecting and participating in this “it world” while realizing that one’s roots are “elsewhere.”

But religion also has the capacity to illustrate the same dishonesty of the “it-world” and offer only a smug, self-serving dog-and-pony show which has the simple purpose of perpetuating its own private fantasy, of being only a “work of the flesh” as the Apostle Paul would put it. This religion illustrates the “bad faith” so eloquently described by Sartre, the faith that Shakespeare had in mind when he noted, “With devotions visage and pious action they sugar o’er the devil himself.”

A root fear with all addiction is hopelessness which is associated with the fear of being out of control. This fear drives addicts to invest immense energy into their “substance” and thereby derive a sense of being in control even though from anyone looking on they are very much out of control. It is not pleasant for Christians to consider their faith as a “substance”…nor is it for adherents of any other belief system…but when they venture into the addictive dimension of faith they are totally missing the point of their faith and are using it merely as a means of escaping reality. And reality, if we live authentically or even attempt to, will always lead to vulnerability.


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