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Spirituality vs. Religious Extremism

Spirituality vs. Religious Extremism

Many of you might remember that in early 1998 I wrote a book called When God Becomes a Drug. In some ways it was written before its time; many people had difficulty seeing the word God in connection with any drug. “How can God possibly be seen as a drug?” they asked. The book was seeded in the expressions of many people I heard saying that they were “recovering” Catholics or “recovering” Baptists; occasionally, a “recovering” Jew. It was written soon after the tragedy of Reverend Jim Jones, Jim and Tammy Bakker, and the reign of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. 


John Bradshaw wrote the following in the foreword of that book:


This book is groundbreaking. It is a must for all because of religious education that has been a major force in most people’s development. This book is especially important for professionals who are uncomfortable with religious belief. Often therapists fear confronting clients’ religious statements. I hope this book gives the clinician permission to intervene in the life-destroying shallowness of religious addiction. I further hope many people can break through their denial and see just how damaged they’ve been by religious abuse. As Freud pointed out in The Future of an Illusion, one of the assumptions of dysfunctional faith is that one loses faith by questioning faith. It takes courage to go against the terrors of hell and judgment that our wounded child fears. Only by questioning our faith can we emerge with a mature faith.


That was then, this is now. Have things changed since the publication of that book? Yes; things have gotten much worse. Some commentators have said that religious extremism is the biggest challenge facing the world!


Let’s step back for a moment and examine how something as pious as a belief in God can become so twisted that it allows for the persecution, rape, and killing of hundreds of thousands, potentially millions.


Here is an excerpt from When God Becomes a Drug:


In his book To Have or To Be, Erich Fromm describes religion as “not necessarily having to do with a concept of God, but as any group-shared system of thought and action that offers the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion.” As Fromm suggests, religions and beliefs systems seem to be divided into two camps: those that believe that human nature is essentially good and focus on our innate dignity, and those that maintain that humans are inherently evil and base.

This corresponds with my own definition of religion as being essentially a set of man-made principles about God, focusing on a teacher or prophet, in contrast to spirituality, which is the process of becoming a positive and creative person. Moreover, this definition allows us to look not only at organized religion, but also any group or belief system that either generates dysfunction or is used dysfunctionally.

When those beliefs inspire us to develop our creative potential, whether spiritually as individuals or culturally as a society, those beliefs move us forward and may be seen as healthy. When they limit or paralyze us, or are used by ourselves or others to oppress and victimize us, they can be regarded as unhealthy (Booth, 1998, p. 19–20).

William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, quotes something similar:
A child who is early taught that he is God’s child, that he may live and  move and have his being in God, and that he has, therefore, infinite strength at hand for the conquering of any difficulty, will take life more easily, and probably will make more of it, than one who is told that he is born the child of wrath and wholly incapable of good (Booth, 1998, p. 21).

Clearly, the idea of original sin, being born inherently weak and inadequate, has had a negative effect on us as individuals and as a society. I am often asked why God would tell us that if it weren’t true. I suggest that perhaps God never said this. I recognize that I am treading on the core beliefs of those who depend on a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of scriptures. I would never deny anyone the choice of interpretation of the scriptures of any religion or belief system. However, certain changes occurred in Christianity and in the way the Bible evolved that leave room for many interpretations. My objection has never been to fundamentalism; rather, it is to the insistence that I or anyone else is eternally damned for believing in a different interpretation. 

Religious addiction is built on absolute, unquestioning, uncritical acceptance of a set of teachings. On this foundation abuses are committed in the name of God. The key ingredients are fear, shame, power, and control. No matter what the religion of belief system, fear and shame are manipulated by those wanting power and control (Booth, 1998, p. 24). 


Here we are confronted with another dangerous word in the context of religious extremism: “control.”


When I wrote the book I focused mainly on religious extremism that was manifested in Christianity. But how are we to understand the thinking of religious clerics who teach that society and the world needs to return to the belief system of the 7th century, where flogging, stoning, and beheading is not only religiously legal, but the wishes of the Prophet? This is ISIS or ISIL. 


For this article I shall use ISIS as an example. ISIS is a terrorist group that openly calls, in the name of Islam, for violence and seeks to justify its claims in sacred texts. This is theologically sanctioned violence for the following offenses that include apostasy (renunciation of Islam), adultery, blasphemy, homosexuality or something as vague as threats to the honor of family or Islam.


However, the largest population of sinners is the infidels, the nonbelievers (meaning those who do not believe what ISIS is teaching). This can also include other Muslims!


It is the most rigid form of black and white thinking that is at odds with the spirituality described in recovery and healing. “I’m right and you’re wrong” is bad enough, but “I’m right and behead him” is beyond comprehension for most of us.


What are the highs of religious extremism? They are power, control, and the belief that you are going to paradise. Let’s not speak of how many virgins will surround you!


Is ISIS like the earlier Christian crusaders? Yes. But the crusades took place around the 13th century. We have had a Reformation since then, and an age of Enlightenment. Nowadays most churches no longer seek out religious texts or quotes that would encourage persecution, violence, and death. 


Yet, a minority of Muslims from all over the world are seeking to join up with ISIS, like a drug addict seeks out heroin or the codependent returns to the one who will control and organize their lives. 


The terms we use for the behaviors discussed in Counselor magazine are “addiction,” “compulsion,” “obsession,” and yes, “fanaticism.” A scary movement that is not based upon the rhetoric of an Austrian corporal who took the German people into an evil trance and war; oh no, this movement is based on certain texts discovered in the Quran and Hadith and many Muslims are seemingly transfixed as they march to war. 


The answer is reformation of theological thinking within the Muslim religion that will eventually lead to a moment of spiritual enlightenment. It will not be easy and it will take time, but it’s surely the only solution. 


My next column will discuss the essential steps to healing religious extremism.





Booth, L. (1998). When God becomes a drug: Understanding religious addiction and religious abuse. London: SCP Ltd.