Spiritual Addiction

addictionFor some of my readers the idea that an individual might become addicted to certain religious practices would seem a strange one. But, from my past experiences of high octane worship and Christian music, the word addiction does not seem to be too strong a description of what appears to be going on in some settings. Chris has often indicated how the music band has become the dominant feature of many churches and their worship. Let us consider what certain kinds of music might be doing to an individual in church. In the first place, the kind of music I am thinking of will have a strong rhythmic beat. This is capable of (perhaps intentionally) sending someone into a light state of trance. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a trance state but there is something wrong with a situation that it is only when such music is playing that God can be experienced. The experience of touching the holy has become bound up with the particular alteration of consciousness that is induced by this kind of music. If this is the only setting when a person can feel what he or she believes to be God, it raises a number of disturbing questions. Are we sure that it is God that is being encountered or is the worshipper being artificially being drawn into an artificial emotional high which provides this intense experience? Is this emotional high leading the participant anywhere or are they just revelling in an intense experience which is similar to a drug-induced ‘hit’? Is their searching for God something spiritual or are they clamouring for the experience of altered consciousness for its own sake? Is their continuing attendance at that church an attempt to repeat again and again the same experiences, like an addict returning to his or her drug of choice?

These questions above may not be very comfortable for readers who believe that they have found God in the context of ‘Christian’ music. But we have to note further things about the popularity of rhythmic music in the context of a Church service. It is right to point out that however much rhythmic music is enjoyed by its fans, it is seldom possible to do much in the way of thinking or engaging in rational thought while it is going on. When young people attend raves, which provide a level of noise which most of us would find impossible to put up with, we mostly tolerate this because we accept that they may need to engage in forms of mental escape once in a while. Less acceptable is the way that for some of those at these events the taking of drugs of various kinds has become common. Pills such as Ecstasy are supposed to make the whole rave experience far more intense and thus rewarding. What all those who attend such events appear to be looking for is the opportunity to be so caught up in noise and movement that they do not have to think about anything at all.

When loud Christian music is introduced into normal worship, there are bound to be some practical as well as cultural issues. For members of the congregation at a traditional church serve, the rational processing of information would seem to be fairly important. Not only do we listen to what is being preached from the pulpit but we are also required to think about and pray for the needs of others, engaging with, for example, the issues of poverty and starvation. Any exposure to loud rhythmic music at any point in the service will make these acts of intelligent listening and altruistic concern fairly difficult. What the music does in fact achieve fairly predictably is, as we have said, an opportunity to escape – escape from problems, stress and even self-awareness. This kind of mental escape is uncomfortably close to the effect of other common mind-numbing addictive activities, the taking of drugs, alcohol or other forms of compulsive behaviour. In short we are claiming that the particular culture of much Christian music seems to resemble other addictive substances and activities that are well known in our society.

Getting into addictive forms of behaviour is one thing but the successful escape from any of its manifestations is, as we all know, extremely difficult. There is not just the physical or emotional component of the addictive substance to be dealt with. We also have to come to terms with the areas of emptiness or stress that the addict is facing in his or her life. This has given rise to the addiction in the first place. A middle aged housewife has a drink problem which is a response to a failing marriage or a sense of bereavement through the fact that her children have left home. She will need to find solutions to the pressing problems that exist in her life quite separately from giving up the physical dependency on alcohol. A young man addicted to pornography and thus unable to relate to women in a healthy way will have to seek help for his social inadequacy or lack of self-esteem which may be driving this dependency.

Addictive behaviour is found affecting a large number of people in our society, perhaps even a majority. Any behaviour or experience that is compulsively engaged in is in some sense an addiction. The only way to find out whether we or others have an addictive issue is to remove the offending habit or object to see whether we crave it in its absence. A good test to establish whether a church is using music improperly by encouraging artificial spiritual ‘highs’ in the congregation is to conduct worship without it for a week or two. If the church is able to retain the same numbers without its usual recourse to loud rhythmic Christian bands, then they can claim that they are not leading their members into an addictive dependence to noise and sensation. But we all know that this scenario would not in fact happen. The style of music, the predictable high that it produces for the members, is a key component of its attractiveness to its congregation. We can observe that when a church has wedded itself so completely one style of worship, one that excludes stillness and rational thinking, that this church has begun to create for its people a dangerous form of spiritual addiction.

I am aware that there are many different cultural settings where people claim to find the presence of God most easily. I have discussed before on this blog the question of traditional church music and its capacity to evoke a sense of spiritual presence among those who appreciate. I believe that such music and the music of Taizé do not have the same effect on the listener as the primal and loud strains of many Christian bands. But the close relationships between the sound of a worship band and that at a rave are just too striking to go without comment. In both settings individuals are encouraged to go out of normal consciousness and enjoy a state of mindless trance. For me this process of leaving behind ordinary thinking does not allow it to be close to anything that Jesus encouraged in us. If a church is subtly encouraging its members to enter primal irrational states of awareness, then I question whether it is in any way bringing us closer to God. A particular church may achieve great popularity in bringing together large numbers of people. It does not thus become automatically a model for the rest of us. If I am right and loud Christian music is creating a dependency, even an addiction, in those who listen to it, then it is hardly surprising that it will be popular. As we said earlier, addiction will always attract because it allows a person temporarily to escape from their problems and the areas of barrenness in their lives. The ability of a church to attract followers does not make that church something that all must follow. The task of bringing people closer to God is just too important to be left to those with the loud and most addictive styles of music.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

23 thoughts on “Spiritual Addiction

  1. I don’t want people to think that I admire Stephen so much that every time he says something that I agree with I start licking him! Its well known that I have a different view on Gay marriage, however, there are times when he is so right that the term, ‘Prophet’ is more than fitting.
    This last blog post is like a ray of light in a hostile jungle (And yes, I do mean the organised Church!).
    Church authorities and leaders have systematically evaded this subject for so long that it meets itself coming back the other way.
    Straight talking and truth is a very rare quality today. Even before I start I am assured that no ‘Christian’ radio station would touch this discussion with a barge pole, why? Upsetting listeners and money comes to mind, not a very ‘Christian’ response is it?
    A vast chasm has opened up since some well-intentioned person in the 1960’s said, “Its time we let the young people express themselves in church more.”
    A tidal wave of syrupy Enid Blyton middleclass effluent came in with all the credibility of Max Bygraves saying, “I want to tell you a story”.
    Some of these ‘Choruses’ were so banal that hernia of the eardrum is an understatement of their awfulness. They became stale and worn out until one day an American singer – songwriter (Larry Norman) said, “Why should the Devil have all the good music?” A Christian music industry, Christian stardom, book industry, Christian celebrity followed, with all the pop music hype, nothing to do with the historical Jesus (At all) in my opinion.
    Stephen is absolutely right to link this with a young man having problems with pornography. That secret addiction is so common with this new age interpretation of the Christian faith.

    Personal testimony:

    Coming from the Lower, Lower, regions of the working class (L. L W. C. I don’t think that term has ever been understood on this blog), my friends and I were sitting targets for the aim of these various discipline groups in the 60’s and 70’s, soon we were holding hands in the air and jumping up and down in our seats, the music and so-called worship being led by the ‘Leader’ at the front. These days a giant screen with words to this vaporous stuff is commonplace. I lost over 35 years of my life to this stuff, developed a personality disorder that has left me with self-hate.

    The outsider’s response:

    Quite frankly there are no words to relate the way that the average Joe in the street reacts to this stuff, rejecting it utterly and with contempt comes near I think.
    What a dirty rotten shame that those who need help the most from mature Christians, just walk away pointing to their temples.

    Thanks Stephen Great blog, one of the most important ever on this I assure you but, don’t hold your breath!

    1. Chris, the experiences you describe sound very like brain washing as it used to be called. The Moonies do it, and the JWs. And you’re meant to find it difficult to break away, it’s designed that way, by experts. They make sure the outside world feels like a terrifying place to go. And they get you doing things for them, so you feel complicit, and therefore it’s really, really hard to “admit” that you were wrong.
      You’ve said before that you didn’t have much of an education. Believe me, people with a really good education get caught, too. It’s not because you are inadequate, nor because your education wasn’t up to much. It’s because they design the techniques to entrap. No-one likes to feel like an idiot. No-one likes to say they’ve been “had”. Remember, you have faced all this. You have had the courage to “come out” and say, I was wrong. You have every right to be proud. That takes guts. Hugs for you and Mary. O. O.!

  2. You’re absolutely right Stephen. But I part company with you slightly on the issue of traditional church music. If the people who worship in a Cathedral only go when the choir is singing, it seems to me, you have a problem. Plainly, they are not going to encounter God. Really good Cathedral choirs do have an addictive quality. No strong beat there! (Although I take your point about the effect of a beat, you’re right) I know two Cathedrals with first rate choirs. In one, the numbers drop spectacularly when the choir is on holiday. In the other, numbers sometimes go up for some weeks, because of visitors and holiday makers. Guess which one I think has the problem! But, and it’s a big but, I still think really good sacred music can cause problems close to addiction. It’s linked to the way music lifts you and speaks to the soul, I suppose. You may have a perfectly valid spiritual experience, but the problems come when you try desperately to repeat it. By the way, Taize music is too often sung with only the melody line. It was designed to be sung in harmony by a congregation. I wish clergy would do it that way! Just the tune turns it into a dirge.

    1. I would like to think that those who appreciate traditional church music can also appreciate silence in worship. The mesmeric beat of a band is, I would claim, almost inevitably addictive and while this is fairly harmless in other contexts, the equation of the beat with a sense of God’s presence is, I believe, fairly damaging to the cause of sound evangelism.

      1. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you. There’s a great deal to think about. And I think the fact that the songs are often rubbish theology matters a great deal, too.

  3. Thanks E/A
    Traditional church music never hooked me. I was brought up in the C of E, my father a church warden for 40 years. This praise band stuff however, with the christian music industry is turning thousands off. I see no one daring to challenge it, and that is to me terminally depressing.

    1. Yeah. But we all fall for different things. Some people do challenge it, on the grounds of quality and depth if nothing else!

    1. Well, it’s the people in the pews, often. And the clergy who comment privately. Like you, I wish people would say things more openly.

  4. Thank you EnglishAthena for commenting on this. I am devastated that only two posts (Mine and yours) have been posted on this vital issue. I shall crawl back into my shell for the foreseeable future and think about serious things like, “Why are Cucumbers shaped like Bananas ?”
    Peace, Chris

    1. hi Chris, I’m thinking of you and the suffering you’ve had through your church experience. I can’t say much about the Christian rock thing as I’ve never experienced it – deliberately. We have many traditional hymns at my church, mixed with some new ones, and I have to say that over the years I’ve learnt a lot from them and been greatly encouraged by them, even if I’m aware that some dodgy bits of theology do sometimes creep in. We also used to sing psalms weekly until last year when they were abolished, much to my regret.

  5. Thanks haikusinenomine,
    It’s the Praise band industry together with ‘christian stardom’ and celebrity that I feel, (Actually Know) is so sickening and off putting to the outsider, and seeker after God. I have made numerous attempts to get the “Christian media” to discuss this, and have been left with a wall of silence and indifference for 10 years. What do you this is going on here? Thanks for the comment, it means a lot.
    I remain utterly bewildered.
    Peace, Chris

    1. Bluntly, Chris, it’s the middle-aged clerics trying to be with it! Don’t try, is my advice. It’s the equivalent of Dad Dancing. They don’t know what is actually good, and are afraid of criticising and appearing what we used to call “square”. So they let it happen.

  6. I agree with much of this, but I am wary of criticising creative expression in church since I know from experience that many creatives have a hard time being accepted in their local churches, and perhaps in the wider Church also. It’s often been said, for instance, that the Church as an organisation is top-heavy with management types and those from the professions (lawyers, medics, accountants etc – no criticism intended, just noting a trend) rather than those from the creative arts. As with schoolchildren though, adults have different ‘learning styles’, and an overly cerebral approach doesn’t translate for some people. That isn’t to say creative types aren’t thinkers or responsible members of society (quite the opposite), more that there are innumerable ways of encountering God, and there’s as much a place for the creative arts in church as there is for pulpit teaching and the liturgy (which is very performance art, if you like). Apart from that I worry that as I get older I get more out of touch with youngsters – I tend towards Bach and Handel so this is an issue – and I wouldn’t want to force feed anyone a diet of C19th hymns. Also, artistic expression changes from age to age and moves in tandem with new technologies, meaning that getting the mix right in church can be a real challenge today. Back to the beginning, the idea of celebrity is counter-Gospel and though there’s some amazing contemporary religious music out there, there’s also dull stuff and pretentious stuff. My feeling is that the church needs to encourage the creation of quality music, and talk deeply with its musicians. I’m not a fan of curtailing artistic expression – too Cromwellian for comfort.

    1. No. Agreed. But if it’s rubbish, the older people shouldn’t be too afraid of looking out of touch to say so. And the very loud stuff, and the persistent beat? That certainly has an effect that may be far from God.

  7. I think the risk exists for all types of music. Yes, creating a rock-concert atmosphere in your church may have an addictive effect for some in the congregation (particularly the young) but others will be put off by it. A lot of contemporary worship music is so bad that listening to it is an ordeal that you don’t want to repeat!!

    You said that music with a “strong rhythmic beat” can induce a “light state of trance” and an “alteration of consciousness” that produces spiritual experiences. Absolutely, but pretty much all music can do the same, including styles that others have mentioned. Cathedral choirs, classical music, taize chants, hymns on organs, the list is endless. Even dropping the instruments and singing unaccompanied won’t change the mind-altering property of music. The only solution is to remove music from church, but both old and new testaments record music in worship.

    As far as styles of music are concerned, the Bible seems to teach that worship should be characterised by joy, so I don’t see any place for dull and lifeless worship. On the other hand, I’ve also seen how emotional music is used to manipulate people in some churches, and I think that is totally wrong. It’s difficult to know where to find the balance.

  8. I would claim from my reading that a strong beat in music is a distinctive aspect which changes the experience from just being ordinary music. Drumming is part of many religious traditions and its purpose, as far I can see, is to introduce trance states. As I said, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with light trance but when it becomes recognisably addictive, as I think it sometimes does, that it becomes a problem. You cannot think while you are under the effect of drumming (or drugs) and that creates the potential for anti-intellectual kinds of faith. By the way welcome Peter to our small community!

    1. Hi Stephen,

      Thanks for the welcome.

      I’m not sure that there is such a thing as “ordinary music” – it all depends on what your definition of ordinary is ! And many classical pieces (not just marches) have a strong beat.

      The role of drumming and trance in religion is well documented, as is the link between trances and spiritual experiences. I have a huge problem with anyone who claims such experiences are an encounter with God. But a rejection of drums is far too simplistic a response. Virtually all types of music can induce trances and become addictive – you don’t need drums. Other people have stated that cathedral choirs can have this effect. Same for taize. Same for gentle acoustic contemporary worship music. Same for the latin mass (!). There’s also a huge difference between music with loud and dominant drumming, and the sensitive use of drums to enhance music.

      I am also totally against any sort of anti-intellectualism. But I think it’s equally dangerous to removal all emotion from the life of faith. If the knowledge of who God is and what He has done in Jesus doesn’t fill us with joy which comes out when we worship, then something is very wrong. And music and singing (and even dancing!) have been expressions of joy since man first walked the earth, They definitely belong in our faith – but I don’t think the church has fully worked out how.

      I’m old enough to remember when evangelical worship was a hymn-prayer sandwich and men wore grey suits to church. Being a Christian back then was a pretty miserable exercise and it’s only by God’s grace that I’m here today. Many of my peers have lost their faith. So, whilst I’d be the first to speak out against extremes such as rock-concert services, for example, I also feel that the evangelical culture is much healthier now than it was did a few decades ago.

    1. Thanks. This is a complex subject and it needs careful consideration. I’m just trying to make sense of it as best as I can. I’m glad you appreciated my comment.

      I think there are some people who are strongly against more modern styles of music and have a particular issue with drums – perhaps Steven is one of them. It can be a generational thing – I think he’s somewhat older than me. There’s plenty of validity in what he says, but it’s by no means the full story.

      I’ve seen Christians trance out to worship music played on an accordion in a classical Pentecostal church, and on an acoustic guitar in a catholic charismatic prayer group. Neither had drums or percussion – just the instruments mentioned – and many people found them addictive. One of the latest charismatic fads (coming from the infamous Toronto church) is “soaking” – basically lying down and trancing to gentle music. I just checked out a few examples on YouTube and the music was drum-free and didn’t have strong beats. But again, it can still be addictive.

      There’s hasn’t been a lot of serious academic study into this field, and the few people who have researched it are generally from outside the evangelical world. I’d like to see this change, but it will require some serious self-examination. It will be a real shock for charismatic Christians to realise that the spiritual experiences they get during worship are just their brains playing tricks on them.

      1. Thank you Peter for your well informed comments. I just wanted to add that I am not against drumming per se. I have investigated shamanic practices and can see that for this spirituality at any rate, drumming is an essential part of reaching another reality. Any full evaluation of that experience is outside this blog, but I would say that there is much to impress one in the way that this pre-modern spirituality touches on modern themes like oneness with creation and respect for the earth. No, my problem, as the title of the blog post suggests, is the way that there is an addictive quality to certain kinds of music and, even if all music is to some extent addictive (as you point out), there seems to be a particular issue with ‘modern’ music with a strong rhythm. In other words some people seem to need their 40 minutes of the Christian band before they can engage with anything spiritual. They thus have become desentised to silence and other cultures of worship. I personally try to vary my experience of music or lack of it as much as possible. Yes I am older than you are in all probability and I see vast numbers of older people being put off by what they describe as happy clappy music. You are right – there are no serious studies of this issue o/w I hope I would have found them. To repeat, it is not the beat that is the problem – the problem is whether certain styles of music are (deliberately) addictive to make people have to come back for more. If that is true that means that certain institutions are putting the attractiveness of their entertainment before encouraging any encounter with God. That would be a serious issue. Chris. who writes on this blog and who helped me set it up, is very personally exercised by this question. That is one reason that I return to it from time to time. I hope you recognise that there are numerous other themes that we try to tackle through this blog!

  9. Ah, now. The issue of avoiding silence! Oh dear yes. I do know what you mean, and what Chris means, about using a punishingly loud beat to almost close down the thinking processes. It’s true, and it’s not just the church that does this. I suppose it’s just that there are other ways of making people almost slaves to music.

  10. Thank you all,
    I am so very sad that I have not been able to communicate. The issue of big business in and around the Christian music industry (Christian radio, celebrity, stardom, well the lot really!) I do not fit in to this type of discussion, sorry will have to stay off for the foreseeable future.
    My email is : pitts234@btinternet.com Contact if you feel you want to.
    I remain Yours sincerely, Chris

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