I never felt I was bad enough to be a minister.

I’m not saying I was a saint, nor am I claiming to have been a choirboy, but I never did drugs, never joined a gang, never killed anybody, didn’t smoke, drink, or abuse sex, and never lived like a hippie in a cave.

When I was younger, these types of experiences seemed to be prerequisites for joining the clergy, at least as a youth pastor or an evangelist. Having been redeemed from such habits and lifestyles provided opportunities for emotional testimonials that apparently enhanced evangelical effectiveness. They gave hope to the hopeless. They also seemed to help build careers in church administration.

There was something else about these folks. Many of the most enthusiastic Christians had the most colorful histories. The most passionate sinners became the most zealous saints. Perhaps pendulums retain their basic nature at both ends of their arcs.

My spiritual life was boring. I didn’t have an exciting redemption story, or even an interesting conversion. My experience was more like the one Christ described to Nicodemus. The Spirit came into my life periodically, like a quiet wind. I didn’t hear it coming, wasn’t sure from where it came, and couldn’t always see where it was leading. It’s hard to give a moving testimonial or preach a powerful sermon about an event for which one can’t “tell the exact time or place” it occurred and can’t “trace all the circumstances in the process.” 1  

So instead, I went into medicine. 

The medical specialty I chose contains addiction medicine as a subspecialty. My coursework included training and preparation for the provision of prevention, evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment services for those with unhealthy substance use or substance-related health conditions.

But no one really understands addiction. To comprehend addiction accurately and intelligently, one would have to have a complete understanding of the human brain and all of its genetic and social influences. While progress is being made in understanding the brain, we’re far closer to the beginning of the search than we are to the end.

Speaking of addiction, Dylan Thomas said that “an alcoholic is someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you do.” 

Here, though, is a better working definition of addiction:

“Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences. Prevention efforts and treatment approaches for addiction are generally as successful as those for other chronic diseases.” 2

This suggests that human behaviors fall on a spectrum of habits and life activities that at some point can “become compulsive and continue despite harmful consequences.” Exactly where on that spectrum an individual passes from “normal” into addiction can’t be predicted and seems to differ for each person. The definition also proposes that addiction is influenced by both genetics and environment and involves complex neural circuits in the brain. 

The human brain is, arguably, the most complicated, intricate, and marvelous object on earth. It weighs about three pounds, feels a bit like tofu, and is about 80 percent water. It only experiences the world as a stream of electrical pulses and chemical interactions. And yet your brain, with its billions of nerve cells and trillions of cellular connections, is the site of your personality, your mind, your sexuality, your spirituality, your emotions, your memories, your thoughts, your sensations, your decisions, your impulses, your will, and much more. As Bill Bryson has said in describing the human body, “Your brain is you. All the rest is plumbing and scaffolding.” 3 

There are a limited number of neurotransmitters, though, which means each one stimulates many of our brain’s diverse functions. Dopamine is one neurotransmitter that has been extensively studied. It influences desire, creativity, meaning, planning, learning, memory, aggression, motivation, and judgment. It also interacts with circuits related to control, spirituality, sexual activity, impulsivity, and general pleasure. Dopamine has, in fact, been called the pleasure molecule, but perhaps a more appropriate term for it is “the molecule of more.” 4 It always pushes for more and never accepts the current situation as being adequate. It is a major actor in addiction. 

Without knowing anything about neurotransmitters, many authors have recognized addictive personality traits and the interplay of ostensibly conflicting systems and circuits in the brain. “Sex and religion are bordering states. They use the same vocabulary, share like ecstasies, and serve as substitutes for one another.” 5  “Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another) … .” 6 “In religious fervor, there is a touch of animal heat.” 7 “Whatsoever odd action they (religious zealots) find in themselves a strong inclination to do, that impulse is concluded to be a call or direction from heaven, and must be obeyed; it is a commission from above, and they cannot err in executing it.” 8 Our professor of bioethics at medical school used to tell of a young man who preyed upon young women at religious revivals. He had found that their emotionally charged spiritual enthusiasm also decreased their moral inhibitions.

We usually talk about addiction to substances, and this process has commonly identified steps. First, one is exposed to a substance that brings great pleasure or relief. Then one begins to crave, use, and finally, abuse it. They become physically or psychologically dependent on it. Gradually, the dosage of the substance must increase for them to get the same effect. And, finally, the substance becomes the controlling object in their life. They continue to abuse it despite adverse consequences in their health, their family, their job, their finances, and their social interactions.

We also, however, now talk about addictive behaviors. We speak of addictions to things like sex, gambling, shopping, video games, plastic surgery, and even religion. Behaviors and addiction intersect at the point in our definition which states, “People with addiction … engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”

Foundational to the whole process of addiction, however, are important players that we sometimes overlook—those who provide, and usually push, the addictive substances and behaviors on vulnerable and often unsuspecting populations. These have been called addiction supply industries. They include such entities as drug cartels, cigarette companies, alcohol producers, pornography and video game creators, casinos, sports betting companies, and many others.

The concept of addiction supply industries raises some potentially disturbing questions about addictive behavior and religion. We may agree that addiction to religion happens, but we like to think that such characteristics are limited to cults, such as the People’s Temple at Jonestown in Guyana, Heaven’s Gate in Rancho Santa Fe, California, or the Branch Davidians at the Waco massacre in Texas. A closer look at all religious behavior, however, reveals some common features with other addictions. 

The promise, hope, and communion of religion provides pleasure to many, as well as relief from guilt and pain. Some adherents learn to crave it, use it, abuse it, and eventually become dependent on it. It may take control of someone’s life, and many religious communities require a complete surrender of the will. 

There are also many examples of pious preoccupations with religion producing severely adverse social and personal consequences. The religious leaders in Christ’s day hurried home to keep the Sabbath after having crucified the Creator of the Sabbath. In 1989, a 14-year-old son in a Seventh-day Adventist family died of starvation when his father refused to buy food with the thousands of dollars he had on hand because they were reserved for tithe.9 

Most of us would say such fanatical, addictive behavior is a sign of mental illness, but does the Church bear any responsibility? I would argue that it does. In my experience, some authorities in the Church have implied that an almost worshipful adherence to tithing, diet, baptism, temperance, and the hours of the Sabbath is required, even at the risk of the health and wellbeing of their members. Sometimes addiction supply industries do awful things out of sincere and apparently benevolent beliefs. But the Bible stresses freedom, which does not call for addictive behavior, even toward God, and Christ made it clear that pious behavior should never take precedence over the basic needs of humanity.

Mark Johnson, MD, is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Vision Board. Email him at: [email protected] 

1 White, Ellen G., The Desire of Ages, p. 172.

2 Definition adopted by the American Society of Addiction Medicine Board of Directors, Sept. 15, 2019. (Used with permission.)

3 Bryson, Bill. The Body: A Guide for Occupants. New York: Anchor Books, 2019.

4 Lieberman, Daniel Z. and Long, Michael E. The Molecule of More. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2018.

5 West, Jessamyn. Hide and Seek. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

6 Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1960.

7 Whitman, Walt. The New Religion.

8 Locke, Jonathan. Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689.

9 https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1989-02-19-mn-170-story.html