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Signs of a Dysfunctional Religion: Toward a Healthy Spirituality

We know the common addictions of modern life: alcoholism, drugs, and gambling have destroyed many lives. But beyond obvious addictions lurk more subtle ones. As a child, I was addicted to television to distract myself from unhappiness.

The addiction to power, sex, or material things may substitute for a longing to love and be loved. We cling to things that offer diversions from the anxiety of a lonely, disconnected existence.

Dare we consider that religion might qualify as an addiction that distracts us from life? Perhaps this is an area where the wise fear to tread. People are passionate about their religious convictions, so I hope that I don’t offend anyone.

I honor everyone’s right to believe what they want. My own view is that when people’s beliefs impinge on others’ rights or harm our world, then why not invite them to consider that?

I have an aversion toward labels that seem to pathologize anyone. Unless we’re totally awake and self-actualized, there are things we cling to in order to cope with life. Religion appears to be one of those things. Beliefs are powerful. Beliefs can kill. Suicide bombers are so identified with their religious beliefs that it overrides their survival instinct.

Dr. Edwin McMahon and Dr. Peter Campbell, who are Catholic priests and psychologists of religion, offer this view in their book, Bio-Spirituality: Focusing As a Way to Grow:   

Today, more people want to understand the difference between religious practices that promote unity, peace, and community and those that easily become fanatical, deeply divisive, manipulative, and violent. In so many instances, the followers of religion seem pathologically addicted to the practices and outlooks that they so passionately espouse.

I appreciate people who are guided by spiritual ideals to practice love and compassion. One of the guiding principles in 12-step recovery programs is that there is a higher power greater than ourselves. Our lives can go better as we open ourselves to guidance that comes from something beyond ourselves, whether we call it God, Life, or our Higher Self.

Following What Others Tell You Rather Than Listening to Your Own Experience

As a child, I listened attentively to the priests and nuns in Catholic school. Similar to other faiths, they claimed to have simple answers to life’s complex questions, and pointed to the Holy Book to assure us that they’re speaking God’s truth, not promoting their own ideas.

Traditional religions hold their scriptures to be sacred and beyond question. But the unsettling truth is that we’re asked to rely upon the vagaries of human memory in the transmission of ancient teachings. Even the most sacred texts are written by humans, who are not perfect people with perfect memories. A group of biblical scholars who attempted to verify the authentic words of Jesus concluded that there was little that could be authenticated.

Do we want to base our lives on the literal meaning of texts? Or is it wiser to use holy books for inspiration and contemplate how we might apply them to our lives today?

One reason I’m fond of Buddhism is its suggestion that we cross-reference any spiritual teaching with our own experience. If it doesn’t resonate for us, then we’re not compelled to believe it. And if science tells us something that contradicts our self-comforting beliefs, such as about creationism or that global warming is not a problem caused by humans, then maybe our religious beliefs need re-examining. As the Dalai Lama has commented, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.”

Edwin McMahon and Peter Campbell invite us to attend gently to our inner experience and hear where it might be trying to guide us: “There is felt truth, a felt meaning, a felt direction within our bodies that can guide us into this life of growing unity which we call–Spirit.”

Using Religion to Be in Control

Being alive is fraught with dangers. We love simple answers that reduce anxiety and offer the illusion that we’re in control of everything. For millennia, our minds have grasped for answers to make sense out of the awesome forces of nature that frighten and humble us.

We no longer believe that the earth is flat or the center of the universe. But according to a Pew research analysis, 33 percent of Americans reject the idea of evolution, insisting that “Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” This shocking distaste for science goes along with not viewing global warming as a serious threat. Clinging tightly to such beliefs poses a danger to all of us.

If there was a God in the way many Christians envision God, he might be shaking his head, saying, “Hey, don’t look at me! I gave you a beautiful planet and now you’re destroying it. It’s up to you guys to come together to save it.” As Pope Francis implored us during a his Inauguration Mass:

Let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.

We tend to reduce things to what we can understand. But a healthy spirituality opens us to what we can never fully comprehend. It’s about opening to the unknown reality beyond what our limited minds can grasp. Rather than use religion to control reality, a healthy spirituality helps us engage with life as it is and live in harmony with it.

I empathize with the rampant mistrust of scientists who reduce everything to reason and rationality. But true scientists appreciate the awe and mystery of life. Consider the words of Sir Isaac Newton, “To myself I am only a child playing on the beach, while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me.”

My intention here is to open a dialogue to distinguish more clearly what is dysfunctional about religion versus what opens us to some greater mystery. True spirituality is not about believing that we must be humble. It’s about actually being humble. It’s about being grateful for the life we’ve been given and wanting to protect our environment and take care of each other.

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Joseph Sohm /

Signs of a Dysfunctional Religion: Toward a Healthy Spirituality

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John Amodeo, PhD

Dancing with FireJohn Amodeo, PhD, MFT, is the author of the award-winning book, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal. He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for forty years in the San Francisco Bay area and has lectured and led workshops internationally, including at universities in Hong Kong, Chile, and Ukraine. He was a writer and contributing editor for Yoga Journal for ten years and has appeared as a guest on CNN, Donahue, and New Dimensions Radio. For more information, articles, and free videos, visit his website at:

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APA Reference
Amodeo, J. (2018). Signs of a Dysfunctional Religion: Toward a Healthy Spirituality. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 13 Jan 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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