Like an Addict

There is an interesting connection between religion and addiction. Aside from what we think about religious hypocrisy, the correlation between spiritual belief and addiction is one of the most consistently replicated findings in the study of drug use. More notably, 12 Step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous more or less force their members to accept the existence of a higher power. Why is that?

Scientists think it’s because religion has what are called “prudential values.” In other words, they hold some authority over their believers, stepping in between them and their whims. The specific religious rules vary drastically across different faiths, yet there exists a common thread in the concept of belief that makes people less likely to abuse drugs. I think this connection is important and under-explored.

For example, when I sent out the first email in my Reading List, I had only one instruction: Don’t email me back to think aloud. What I got was just that. Rambling emails, people showing off how smart they are, almost no genuine questions. In fact, one person actually wrote THINKING ALOUD -just like that, unironically and in complete seriousness. What makes people do this?

I think these people are addicts. Or at least, wired similarly. They lack the ability to understand anything outside their own reality, that there is some ‘way’ to behave other than whatever they feel like. This is different than a malignant narcissist who manipulates others to to be like them, this almost a wide-eyed innocence, disbelief that other people don’t act like they do.

I think the reason religious people become addicts less often, or that recovering addicts liken their sobriety to a born-again spiritual awakening is because the two are rooted in humbleness. There is an implicit self-awareness that comes with accepting your place as somewhere other than at the center of the universe. You see with Penelope Trunk or awful bloggers an incredibly resilient refusal of this idea. They desperately lack prudential values – like self-restraint, or that maybe you just don’t say every single thought that pops into your head because it may be wrong, stupid or not in your best interest.

I don’t think you need to find this in religion. You can get it from many sources but you must have it. It’s critical to understand that you don’t always know what you’re doing, that learning requires deference and curiosity. There is certainly no way, as a young person, to coexist or succeed among older maturer adults, without it. Draw from a sense of shame or pragmatism or ancient wisdom or the fucking Bible – anything – so long as you can walk away with a sense of perspective that things matter other than you and that there are consequences when you behave otherwise.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.