Toxic Faith : Foundations for Religious Addiction

In their book Toxic Faith Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton make the case that authoritarian parents and church leaders are often addicts of religion. 

A person with toxic faith can worship a false god just as easily as an alcoholic can worship a bottle of booze.  The person with toxic faith is just as likely to be willing to die out of devotion to that false god as the drug addict is willing to die out of devotion to drugs.  The toxic faithful adhere to a toxic religion in order to dodge the emotional turmoil that comes with facing the reality of their circumstances.  Their lives focus on the religion  and not on God.  The religion engulfs them and they lose themselves to its practice. (pg 92)

What aspects of the religious life offer the same compelling experience as drugs or alcohol.  The admiration, attention and power are an alluring cocktail to those who aspire to be church leaders.  Combine this with guilt, performance anxiety and a narcissistic  desire to be a recognized spiritual leader and you have a potent mixture that is just as compelling than alcohol to the alcoholic.

On page 106 Arterburn and Felton compiled a list of Foundations for Religions Addiction

  • Abusive parent, often the father.  Abuse is physical, emotional or sexual.
  • Child deprived of nurturing.  Neither parent meets the basic emotional needs of the child
  • Feelings of alienation.  Child feels detached from the family and what is perceived as a perfect world for others.
  • Attitudes of perfectionism from imperfect parents.  Demanding parents inflict the child with an irrational desire to be perfect and make no mistakes.
  • High expectations.  The parents are relentless in demanding the child be what they were not and attain what they did not.
  • Low affirmation.  Although the child exerts tremendous effort, the parents are never satisfied and rare provide positive feedback.
  • Parents’ addiction problems.  Frequently, one or both parents will be alcoholics or sex addicts, or they will exhibit some other obvious compulsive behavior.
  • Absent father.  A child of divorce may have little male influence.
  • Feelings of being dirty.  Abuse and negative attention leave a child feeling guilty and dirty.
  • Poor peer relationships.  Afraid to share personal reality with others, the child feels cut off emotionally from friends and often seeks destructive relationships.
  • Vivid fantasy world.  Reality becomes so difficult that the child creates a fantasy world and retreats to it frequently.
  • Feelings not shared.  The home has provided little freedom to express emotions, and the child never learns how this is done or why it is helpful.

The more I researched authoritarianism in the church the more I understood that even the most abusive leader still a flawed human like the rest of us.  There are factors that lead people to adopt authoritarian religious systems both as leaders and followers.  These issues go much deeper than just flawed teaching or flawed theology.  I’m going to be blogging more from Toxic Faith and other helpful books.