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God is like a drug, according to researchers at University of Washington

God is like a drug, according to researchers at University of Washington

Many maga-churches in the United States use a tremendous amount of neuro-sensory stimulation in their services, something researchers at University of Washington label stagecraft, sensory pageantry, charismatic leadership and an upbeat, unchallenging vision of Christianity, to give participants a powerfully emotional religious experience.

"Membership in megachurches is one of the leading ways American Christians worship these days, so, therefore, these churches should be understood," said James Wellman, associate professor of American religion at the University of Washington. "Our study shows that — contrary to public opinion that tends to pass off the megachurch movement as consumerist religion — megachurches are doing a pretty effective job for their members. In fact, megachurch members speak eloquently of their spiritual growth."

In 2008, a grant from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion funded a study by Wellman and co-authors Katie E. Corcoran and Kate Stockly-Meyerdirk, University of Washington graduate students in sociology and comparative religion.  The researchers studied data provided by the leadership of twelve mega-churches around the country.  They then presented their findings in a paper called "'God is Like a Drug': Explaining Interaction Ritual Chains in American Mega-churches," at the 107th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Researches mega-churches defined as churches with more than 2,000 members.  They found that these churches grew tremendously in size and popularity in recent years and dominated around the country.  More than half of American attend 10% of some the largest churches around country.

Many of these churches present themselves as “come as you are” churches and include Christian rock music and other nuero-sensory items, which Wellman calls a "multi-sensory mélange" of visuals and other elements to stimulate the senses.  In addition, many of these churches include a charismatic preacher, which also stimulates the senses.

The researchers hypothesized that such rituals are successful in imparting emotional energy in the megachurch setting — "creating membership feelings and symbols charged with emotional significance, and a heightened sense of spirituality," they wrote.

Included in their study, Wellman et al analyzed 470 interviews and 16000 surveys, asking members about their emotional experiences in mega-churches and found that four themes emerged out these interviews and surveys.  The four themes they found were “salvation/spirituality, acceptance/belonging, admiration for and guidance from the leader, and morality and purpose through service.”

The researches also found that feelings of joy emerged from such services far exceeded conversion experiences.  Many participants in mega-churches used the word “contagious” in relationship to the services and stated that many people came to services hungry for an emotional experience.  After they service, they stated the left feeling “energized”.

One church member said, "(T)he Holy Spirit goes through the crowd like a football team doing the wave. … Never seen it in any other church."

Wellman related these feelings to that which people experience when on a drug high.

Wellman said, "That's what you see when you go into megachurches — you see smiling people; people who are dancing in the aisles, and, in one San Diego megachurch, an interracial mix I've never seen anywhere in my time doing research on American churches. We see this experience of unalloyed joy over and over again in megachurches. That's why we say it's like a drug."

He also stated that the comforting messages that mega-church preachers give is also the key to mega-churches’ success.

“How are you going to dominate the market? You give them a generic form of Christianity that's upbeat, exciting, and uplifting."

Researchers also found the massive number of attendants helps with the success of mega-churches, instead of hindering it.  The resources used to acquire state-of-the-art technology also magnify the emotional experiences for people who attend these churches, as well as the ability to hire leaders that are more qualified.

Wellman said, "This isn't just same-old, same-old. This is not like evangelical revivalism. It's a new, hybrid form of Christianity that's mutating and separate from all the traditional institutions with which we usually affiliate Christianity."

Wellman also stated that mega-churches refer to heaven or hell and called them worlds away from the sober, judgmental puritan meetinghouses of long ago.

Wellman and others continue studying this topic with a book written by the Michigan-based mega-church preacher and author Rob Bell called "High on God: How the Megachurch Conquered America."  The book is due for purchasing in 2013.

About Mriana

Mriana is a humanist and the author of "A Source of Misery", who grew up in the Church of God, Anderson Indiana. After she became an adult, she joined the Episcopal Church, but later left the Church and became a humanist. She has two grown sons and raises cats. Mriana raised her sons in the Episcopal Church, but in their teen years, they left the Church and she soon followed. One of her sons became a "Tao Buddhist" and the other a None, creating his own world view. She enjoys writing, reading, science, philosophy, psychology, and other subjects. Mriana is also an animal lover, who cares for their welfare as living beings, who are part of the earth. She is a huge Star Trek fan in a little body.
  • COinMS

    Mega-churches are a part of a mass movement within the xtian right that are almost always composed of republicans, the exception being the few black mega-churches. They may get a lot of emotional relief, but they get very little serious biblical teaching. Pageant takes the place of learning.

    Mass movements are generally not a good thing, especially when they fueled by bad theology, homophobism, worship of wealth and war, and Fox News.

    • Thus, presumably, why researchers compared mega-churches to a drug. Highly addictive drugs can cause a lot of problems, including death, and they most certainly wreck havoc with one's neurology, esp when abused. One potentially gets the same neurological effects from the neuro-sensory stimulating special effects of mega-churches as they would cocaine, heroine, and other highly potent drugs. Humm… maybe we ought to list mega-churches as Schedule I drugs.

  • colourmegone

    Is this supposed to be new information? Imagine the experience of a Medieval peasant coming into a cathedral. First there's the overpowering smell of the incense, alien to all his common experiences. Then everywhere he looks he sees vibrant colours and strange and wonderful things. The music of the organ and the choir enraptures him and the whole performance of the mass as the priest, attired in a strange costume of the the finest workmanship, intones magical spells in an incomprehensible tongue, awes him. Religion has always been about spectacle and performance and those are very powerful drugs indeed.

    Of course it could be that since some modern research council has made a pronouncement it's become "official".

    • There are some people who do not or will not recognize that "God is like a drug" and that neurology in the brain is the same as if they were on a drug. The more information we post on the subject the more people may realize that religion is very much like a drug and they want more and more of it, as though they are drug addicts, because, in a sense, they are. The neurological effects of the neuro-sensory stimulation is very much the same. The problem is, getting the religious addicts to read the research and acknowledge they have a problem.

  • Mark Mywerds

    God is like a drug? LOL! What's actually meant is the WORSHIP of God is like a drug. Cheez guys, you gotta do better than that if ya'll want to get a decent grade in Philosophy 101.

  • Mark Mywerds

    God is not like a drug, it is religion that's like a drug. God is great, but religion – not so much. Religion's mostly entertainment, but it beats Star Trek or Solitaire. There is Absolute Truth in religion but you have to dig with a sensible mind in a world short on shovels. ….2……3…..4……5…..6

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