The Ironies of Science: Religion is the Addiction

It’s not uncommon for TBM Mormons to claim that people who leave the religion do so because they want to sin.  Tied to this are all sorts of claims about addiction: addiction to drugs, to pornography, to alcohol, to coffee, and to sex.  A simplified caricature of the TBM perspective might be something like: Mormons are righteous, good, healthy, people with no addictions and non-Mormons – but particularly ex-Mormons – are less-righteous, not very healthy people with lots of addictions.

Then along comes that thing called “science” and flips all of these baseless claims on their head.  I don’t mean to wax toward scientism, but it’s awesome when you have data, rigorous methodology, and closer approximations of reality on your side.

I’m not sure if you caught it, but an article recently came out in Social Neuroscience that used fMRI on 19 devout, returned-missionary Mormons and found some really, really cool stuff.

First, the big finding: when Mormons claim they are “feeling the spirit,” the “reward” center in their brain is being activated.  This same center of the brain is activated when people feel romantic love, parental love, and drug-induced euphoric states.

So, what does that mean?

It means that Mormons are addicted to Mormonism!

Mormons are kind of like junkies.  They get a “hit” (aka “feel the spirit”), it activates the reward centers in their brains, and then they want more.  So, they seek out other opportunities (e.g., fast and testimony meeting, watching Mormon-produced videos, youth conferences, etc.) to get another “hit” and are constantly in pursuit of more “hits” where they can “feel the spirit” in order to feel that same reward.

Mormons are junkies.

Oh, the irony!

But the study isn’t done dropping delightful little, technically-worded bombs.  Here are a couple more that I thought were amazing.

“Activation of the medial prefrontal cortex in all three tasks may suggest a role in representation of affective meaning for the religious stimuli and suggests that cognitive attribution and judgment of the meaning or value of religious stimuli contributes to their experience.”

Translation: You have to be taught to associate emotions with religious stimuli.  In other words, Mormons don’t “feel the spirit” because the “spirit” is actually there.  Mormons are taught that there are times when you associate X (e.g., people crying at youth conference) with Y (e.g., a powerful emotion).  Feeling the spirit is taught, not innate.  Ipso facto, there is no “spirit.” There is just a learned association between stimulus and response.

“Broadly, our findings are consistent with the view that religious experience may be described through known neural circuits mediating cognitive processes such as reward, social cognition, attention, and emotive processing rather than through a novel category of experience.”

Translation: There is nothing novel or unique about religious experiences – they are just an aggregate of other experiences.  In other words, religious experiences aggregate other types of neural experiences – rewards, cognitive attribution, attention, and emotion – into an experience such that the result is feeling something, but there is nothing special or unique about “religious experiences” per se.  They are cognitive/neural experiences.  Nothing mystical or supernatural is happening at all.  It’s all visible in the brain and fits neatly within the neuroscience paradigm.  Religion isn’t supernatural; it’s neurochemical.

Okay, what’s the big takeaway from this study then?

The biggest one is that Mormons are addicts (note: I doubt this is true for all Mormons but it is likely true for many).  That explains a lot.

Have you ever tried talking an alcoholic out of drinking?  How about telling a heroine addict that they are ruining their lives?  Reason and logic don’t work.  Until they see the damage from their behavior and make a decision on their own to change, they will continue down the path they are on (and even that is an over-simplification of how addiction and recovery work).

What about using logic and reason with Mormons?  You’re likely to get the same result.  It doesn’t work.  Those of us who have left often use simple explanations to address this, like, “They always turn to faith in the end.”  Yes, logic, reason, and even evidence may be on the side of the nonbelievers.  But until we recognize that Mormonism (and, likely, religion generally) is functionally like meth, we will continue to fail in our interactions with Mormons.



Ferguson, M. A., Nielsen, J. A., King, J. B., Dai, L., Giangrasso, D. M., Holman, R., … Anderson, J. S. (2016). Reward, salience, and attentional networks are activated by religious experience in devout Mormons. Social Neuroscience, 0(0), 1–13.


I'm a college professor and, well, a professional X-Mormon. Thus, ProfXM. I love my Mormon family, but have issues with LDS Inc. And I'm not afraid to tell LDS Inc. what I really think... anonymously, of course!

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3 Responses

  1. chanson says:

    Did you listen to this podcast with Natasha Helfer Parker and others?

    They talked about the problems with treating sex and pornography as an addiction, and I think something similar may be at play here. My guess is that it probably makes at least as much sense to treat religion as an addiction as is does to treat pornography as an addiction, but maybe the addiction model isn’t the best representation of what’s going on here.

  2. profxm says:

    I haven’t listened to that podcast, but will when I get a chance.

    Yeah, I don’t think that religion is necessarily (or, by definition), an addiction. I just really like that study because it turns the table on the religious and suggests that they may be engaging in addictive behavior, too. The study removes their ability to claim a moral high ground (religion is good and healthy and nonreligion is all about pursuing addictive and unhealthy behaviors). Whether or not religion is an addiction like heroin or more like pornography, at a minimum, that study raises the possibility that religion may not be as rosy as the religious like to think. And that’s delightful. 😉

    Thanks for the suggestion on the podcast.

  3. chanson says:

    I agree. It’s especially important to point this out when Utah has declared porn to be a public health crisis — specifically because it’s supposedly addictive. Well, if porn is addictive, “The Spirit” is too, by the same type of logic and evidence.

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