The Denver Post

By Virginia Culver
Denver Post Religion Writer

Religion can be harmful to your health, say three new books
about the latest addiction identified by psychologists.

“No addiction is more toxically shaming and soul-murdering than
the religious abuse that flows from the actions of religious addicts,”
says John Bradshaw, a popular author and lecturer on recovering from a
troubled childhood.

Many people are addicted to religion or have suffered religious
abuse by their families or churches, writes the Rev. Leo Booth in “When
God Becomes a Drug.”

Booth, an English-born Episcopal priest from southern California, is a
self-described alcoholic, co-dependent, religious addict and “recovering

Addiction can be developed in any church, he said, but most notably in
those promoting fundamentalist beliefs.

The addiction “entails using God, a religion or a belief system
as a means both to escape or avoid painful feelings and to seek
self-esteem. It involves adopting a rigid belief system that specifies
only one right way, which you feel you must force onto others by means
of guilt, shame, fear, brainwashing and elitism,” he writes.

Addicts, in turn, become abusive toward those who don’t meet
their rigid standards. Even Jesus was abused, Booth said, “because
religious people put him on the cross.”

Rod Cooper, counseling co-chairman at the conservative Denver
Seminary, said more than 30 percent of his patients suffer religious
addiction. “Grace and the love of God are not something they can fathom.
They believe they have to perform to please God.” Such addicts stay in
“toxic” churches, with rigid belief systems that reinforce their fear
and shame but provide a familiar “comfort zone.”

People can become addicted to anything, said Larry Graham,
professor of pastoral theology and care at Iliff School of Theology.
“Religion can reinforce the idea of the idyllic life, a fix-it God, a
final reward and acceptance by other people.”

Addicts “use religion to acquire power and control, often
becoming religious abusers,” Booth said. “Their only means of gaining
self-respect or self-control is to lock themselves into rigid,
intolerant perfectionism. Perfectionism and purity are the double
whammies. They are killers because no one can be perfect or perfectly

An outgrowth of the addiction is an unhealthy view of sex as being dirty
and sinful. Through the centuries, Christianity has promoted this view,
Booth said. That can lead to a Jimmy Swaggart-type of behavior, in which
long-sublimated desires finally surface in inappropriate conduct.

“Dysfunctional religious messages about sin, sexuality and God
as an angry judge or Cosmic Fixer have created toxic beliefs,” Booth
said. At the core is the message that people are inherently bad,
powerless and weak.

Addicts then try to reconcile concepts of sin, pain and suffering with the
idea of a loving and forgiving God. They struggle to stay on the right path,
living in terror of sin. The vicious cycle spins the addict; constantly
aiming for perfection, becoming increasingly addicted, and feeling unloved,
unworthy, full of fear and shame.

Addicts never attain their goals but believe their reward will be heaven.
Booth said people “get high on being saved” and won’t tolerate disagreement.

Television evangelists have “shamelessly manipulated” that behavior, he
said. The more people pursue “religiosity” the more isolated they are
from reality, friends and family.

Symptoms of addiction include the inability to question
authority, “black-and-white” thinking, and a belief that God will fix
him or her. Addicts adhere rigidly to rules, are judgmental, make
unrealistic financial donations, compulsively overeat or fast, suffer
psychosomatic illnesses, fall into trance-like states and eventually
experience mental, emotional or physical breakdown.

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