Psychology of Religion

Last Updated: 11 Feb 2021
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Religion has been around since the earliest days.  Its presence in the lives of ancient people has provided some of the greatest defining moments for them.  Not only were their lives have been dramatically changed by their worship of God but the history of the whole religious community in the world as well. Over time, man has evolved and transformed his form of worship into a higher, or in his terms, grander, level of adoration.

The earliest and most transparent symbols of man's god are the nature around him, fire, sun, water, animals, trees, etc. They were a constant reminder of an eternal presence of a higher being that never fails to love and protect his people. This being, who has been given countless names, has served as mankind's greatest indescribable source of strength and inspiration.

However, man, due to his insatiable quest and desire to worship more and to know God more, has in turn faced one of his most painful fates in terms of his religion.  He has pushed himself harder to be the one among a thousand many who intimately knows God best.  This struggle to rise above the so-called flocks of God provided a feeling that aims perfection at all costs.

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Perfection, in a strictest sense, does not tolerate mistakes, provides the harshest critiques, and requires the utmost attention and dedication.  There is no place for failure, or if there would be one, a genuine penance is needed, sometimes to the point of being physically painful.

When man aims perfection in his religion and worship, he opens to attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, and rituals that would make him appear higher and grander than anyone else.  This perception of a perfect act of worship becomes the central goal in life, diminishing all that stands in the way, including the most basic and essential aspects of human life – relationships.

To what extent of faith, worship, and religion is considered extreme and unhealthy? What makes a certain behavior or belief unusual or sometimes, hurtful at all?  To give a clearer and more definite answers to the questions basically require an explanation of how an individual expresses his faith.

Psychologists, psychotherapists, and those who cater professionally and medically to the treatment and study of the mental and emotional well-being have been witnesses to the importance of one's faith in his daily life.  Religion, as mentioned earlier, can provide inspiration and strength to move forward and to recover tremendously from life's greatest challenges and battles.

It is not against psychology or any other branch of medical science to deprive an individual of an encouragement to grow on his faith.  But neither is it tolerant and kind towards harmful and unhealthy behaviors that resulted from that exact same faith.  Faith, religion, worship or any forma of service that gives inner peace for the heart and mind should be nothing but beneficial for a person.

However, man has the inclination to go beyond what he is capable of. Religion has been turned into something that easily masks the harsh challenges of life. While it has been once a gentle source of inspiration, it has become a dark shadow that constantly haunts a person to be extremely loyal, devoted, and focused in his act of faith.  Psychology would tell us to face life equipped with mental and emotional knowledge and strength, not with dangerous behaviors and conduct.

Therapists and researchers have provided us evidences and facts over the years that proved a person's addiction to perfect his form and style of worship.  Like any other forms of abuse – drugs, alcohol, sex, and food – religion harms the physical health, poisons the mind, and affects interpersonal relationships.

When there is too much time and attention dedicated to something, a tendency to be bias in thinking and judgment would eventually occur. While a prayer is only supposed to be uttered in silence and solace, addiction to religion triggers intense arguments and becomes a rationalization to hide or cover inner personal issues, like anger, rage, lust, or guilt

In the article written by  Ryan & VanVonderen (2000), religious addiction was defined by looking at the whole addiction process in general. Addiction, like substance use, for instance, can change our moods.  Alcohol and drugs can give us sensations during the onset of use. The sensations that we feel may be pleasant at all, but in order for our bodies to consistently feel that way, we need to be addicted to it, which requires or pushes us to use more.But that isn't always the case for some. For them, substance use, or the addiction, could stop them from feeling anything at all.

Numbness is what they desire, probably to free themselves from experiencing emotional pain. Whatever the reasons for continuous use, this process of dependence to achieve a certain feeling is called tolerance. The hardest part in the whole addiction is the withdrawal. This happens when the substance is not always available or present; making its absence and the effects it brings to our body unbearably painful and hard.

Like substance use, religious addiction can also be experienced through these three processes, the change of moods, tolerance and withdrawal.  Slobodzien, in his compilation of literature studies by various researchers, cited that there are two types of addiction.  Alcohol, drugs, and food fall under substance addiction, while relationship, sex, and religion fall under process addiction.

Perhaps a more definite way to define religious addiction is the extreme or fanatical way one person dedicates himself to his religion.  There are certain specific rituals that he religiously practices, to the point of being compulsive. The practice then or the devotion becomes a pathological and physiological habit that makes him too dependent on the rituals or the religion, as a whole.

Normally, a devout person balances things out in terms of his faith and his responsibilities.  He knows how to stand back and let his faith work out for the best, but at the same time he also knows how and when to take charge.  An individual may have intense faith and devotion to a god, but he doesn't make it a habit to be compulsively perfect and present in every practice and ritual.

Religious addiction becomes bad or unhealthy when a person starts to develop this idea or imagination that religion, per se, can solve the problems in life. Addicts develop this false image of a stress-and-problem-free life that only happens when one is habitually practicing a certain ritual. Their strict mental attachment to their practices draws them away from the real picture of life, which is normally full of challenges and strife that we actually have to face and overcome.

This imagination can turn into a hallucination, something they falsely and extremely believed in. And like substance addiction, a mood pattern gradually develops, and makes them experience both the processes and effects of tolerance and withdrawal.

Shifting our focus away from extreme results of addiction to religion, that is, suicide, murder, and self-injury, we find ordinary behaviors and rituals that nonetheless bother and threaten our usual performance.  Prayers, church service, evangelization, meditation, and all other forms of rituals, can be detrimental to our inner being if the habits become the central focus of our lives.

Ritualistic prayers, scripture reading, meditation, and even yoga, if done according to our objectives that they can indeed fix the mess in our lives,  could disturb the normal events and circumstances of our daily lives.  These habits could become a scripture, one that rigidly forces a person to be completely obedient to follow rules, standards, and even commandments from the Holy Books.

This kind of behavior needs psychological treatment when the person is no longer attach to the surrounding around him, when he has completely forgotten and neglected the necessary things needed for his physical and emotional health.

An extreme devotion to attain spiritual satisfaction provokes a person to defend his god, his religion, and his beliefs.  This is not kind or healthy at all for the social aspects of a person because he would feel extreme rage, anger, fear, and hatred towards somebody or something that does not agree with his beliefs.

If he sees the world as somewhat different and far from his own point of view, he withdraws from social and physical contacts, to the point of depriving himself of the intimacy of love, friendship, and romance. This attitude requires psychological treatment when an individual possesses uncontrollable angry behaviors that are not logical at all. If untreated, this feeling of defensiveness could provoke him to engage not only in verbal attacks, but in physical ones as well.

There is also the struggle for superiority, which is not at all unrelated to perfection. When one struggles to be superior and is obsessed with achieving it,  he develops this false image of himself as the chosen one, the messenger of God, or that someone who has been in close contact with God. Having this image is a selfish and self-righteous way to declare superiority because it sprang from an illusion, and not from reality.

This attitude has reportedly been the cause of many religious scandals in the past, especially when a person has reaches the point where he denies and hates himself for being human. Psychologists consider it as a serious psychological disorder when this led a person to change something in himself, to the point of hurting his body physically or changing or removing his sexuality.

When all these self-expressions of faith become a nasty habit that destroys the physical, emotional, and mental aspects, a call for immediate psychological treatment is necessary.  Addiction, after all, is a very hard habit to break and to forget, one that requires a lengthy process and full cooperation (Slobodzien, n. d.).

There are existing religious groups, which some have been labeled as cults, that demand and oblige the followers to give up something or everything of themselves just to please the god of their worship (Emick, 2007). Some have been too controversial enough to be ignored by the press and the people.  Their once discreet way of handling the people have been exposed and have shown their twisted concept that human emotion, feelings, and sensations are not godly, divine, and sacred.

Thus, punishing themselves physically for being human.  These groups, led by a leader who primarily pushes the followers to be strictly perfect in every sense of their faith, have received harsh critics and judgments both from the medical and non-medical world.

Psychology knows best the treatment of one addicted to religion. It is not easy to remove the religious and negative habits of worship without looking at an individual's personal background. A person's roots are always the best way and place to start in treating his unusual habits. What are the person's family upbringing, his social environment, and even his spiritual and religious beliefs?

These questions would surely point the painful truth and causes behind his addiction and bizarre forms of worship. A psychological treatment is necessary when a religious person has finally lost his ability to think and to reason rationally and objectively and when he has developed a certain obsession towards a ritual or a habit that he finds hard to control and stop.

In some cases, religious addiction has reached the worst scenario when the health and normal behavioral habits, like eating and sleeping, have been badly affected.  Some experiences severe body pains or headaches that are the results of pushing themselves hard to perform certain rituals.

Treating religious addiction, like any psychological disorder, must be completely understood in order to determine its origins or the factors that caused its development.  Counseling is primarily the first step. It is through talk therapy that the person starts or slowly opens up his own behaviors and the reasons he does them.

Psychotherapy, or any other psychological therapy, would enable an individual to share his own views, feelings, and ideas without being contradicted or discriminated. Through regular therapy, many individuals achieve success in treating and understanding their unusual behaviors.  Hearing advice and counsel from psychologists or therapies is also a very effective way in overcoming the addiction.

In cases when a patient has been declared mentally disturbed, physically unable to care for himself, or has the tendency to harm himself or other people due to his addiction, rehabilitation is the better treatment. Other alternative treatments that are considered helpful and effective are therapeutic activities that involve the use of mind and body to perform well. Self-help groups or group counseling are also beneficial.


  1. Emick, J. (2007). New Religions in the twentieth century.  Alternative Religions. Retrieved Jan 17, 2006 from
  2. Ryan, D. S. and VanVonderen, J. (2000). When Religion Goes Bad,  Part 2 Religious Addiction. Spiritual Abuse Recovery Resources. Retrieved Jan 17, 2006 from
  3. Slobodzien, J. (no date). Religious Fanaticism and Poly-behavioral Addiction. The      Cauldron: A Pagan Forum. Retrieved Jan 17, 2006 from

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Psychology of Religion. (2017, Jan 25). Retrieved from

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