The Narcotic Functions of Faith: Inside the Defensive Theology Scale

In my blogbook Freud's Ghost, I spend a great deal of time reflecting on Freud's notion that religon is a narcotic, a defense mechanism protecting us from the existential realities of life. I refer you to Freud's Ghost for a fuller discussion.

One of the issues I left on the table in Freud's Ghost was this: If your faith did have narcotic functions (metaphorically speaking), how could you tell? What would a defensive faith configuration look like?

In recent research of mine, I poured over the existential literature on defense mechanisms and looked closely at William James' descriptions comparing the healthy minded believer and the sick soul believer. From these literatures I was able to propose some hypothetical distinctions between narcotic and non-narcotic faith. Those intial ideas were published in 2004. But later, published in 2006, I took those ideas and created the Defensive Theology Scale as a tool to capture some of these defensive themes for research purposes.

Following my theoretical work in 2004, the Defensive Theology Scale was designed to assess five theological tendencies:

1. Special protection
Theme: The belief that the believer will experience less misfortune than non-believers due to God's protection.
Narcotic Function: Creates an aura of "safety," allowing for equanimity and a reduction of basic anxiety.

2. Special Insight
Theme: The belief that the believer can clearly discern the actions of God in life and the will of God in personal choices.
Narcotic Function: Reduces the existential burden of freedom and choice. Further, allows seemingly chaotic circumstances to be "explained" by God's Providence.

3. Divine Solicitousness
Theme: The belief that all the believer's concerns, even the most trivial, are of import to God.
Narcotic Function: Makes the mundane issues of life cosmically significance. Creates a sense of "specialness" to have the Deity acting as, to put it crudely, a butler.

4. Special Destiny
Theme: The belief that God has a very specific plan for one's life.
Narcotic Function: Allows life to be seen as intrinsically meaningful and heroic. Reduces the existential burden of meaning: A pre-existing "destiny" is handed to the person rather than constructed by the person by hard work and risk.

5. Denial of Randomness
Theme: The belief that God's hand is involved in all the events around us, that nothing is inherently "due to chance."
Narcotic Function: Unpredictability is inherently scary. Further, chaos makes us feel that God is not in control. Thus, by banishing randomness/chance/accidents/chaos from the world the believer maintains his/her equanimity.

Let me be quick to say, as I said to concerned reviewers of both the 2004 and 2006 papers, that I'm not denying that God cannot cannot be interested in the minutiae of life or have a plan for someone's life. My interests here are not theological. My interests are, and this is difficult for people to keep clear, psychological. How is the faith system functioning, psychologically, in the mind of the believer? If you look at themes 1-5 above and imagine a person really believing each of these, without nuance, what strikes you about that person? This is my assessment: This person has constructed a happy theological bubble for themselves. All disruptive or distressing material is banished from his/her world. Consider:

There are no accidents, all is a Plan.
I am protected from misfortune.
My choices and life are already laid down for me, I just follow the Path.
All my choices are significant, important, and meaningful.
The universe is well-ordered and under control.

That, by all objective standards, is a VERY comforting world to live in. But is it accurate? Is that the world we really live in? I don't think so. There are accidents and one might befall me today. Choices are hard and God's will isn't very clear at times. There is risk to life and I can make mistakes about the direction of my future. And God might not care if I need a parking space today.

But these realizations are scary and unsettling. Thus, the defensive configuration, it seems to me, is actively engaged in repressing those realizations with their associated anxieties. This is why I conclude that the content assessed by the Defensive Theology Scale gets at the narcotic dynamics of faith.

The actual items from the Defensive Theology Scale are below, group by theme:

Special Protection
I believe God protects me from illness and misfortune.
Despite being a child of God, I will have just as many traumatic things happen to me during my life as anyone else.
I believe that fewer bad things will happen to me in this life because God is protecting me from harm.
My life will be happier because God will keep evil things from happening to me.

Special Insight
When making a choice or tough decision, God gives me clear answers and directions.
God gives me clear and obvious signs to communicate His will to me.
God clearly guides me along the path He wants me to take.
God doesn’t give me clear directions as to what I should do with the big decisions in my life. (reverse-scored)
God gives me special insights about the events taking place around me or involving other people.

Divine Solicitousness
God answers even my smallest requests in prayer (e.g., like helping me get to a meeting when I am late).
I don’t think God intervenes much in the small details of my life, even if I do care about them. (reverse-scored)
If you have deep faith and pure motives God will grant even your smallest requests.
Nothing is too small, liking finding my lost keys, to pray to God about.

Special Destiny
God has a very specific plan for my life that I must search for and find.
God’s Hand is directing all the daily events of my life.
God has a destiny for me to find and fulfill.
Before I was even born God had a detailed plan for the course of my life.

Denial of Randomness
God controls every event around us, down to the smallest details.
A lot of evil in the world is just due to random events with no Divine goal or purpose.
Most of the events around us are random and don’t reveal much about God’s intentions.
Every event around us is a sign of God’s larger plans and purposes.

Again, don't read these items as propositions in systematic theology. Many, even most, of these items may be true, theologically speaking. The goal rather is to observe if a person is uniformly and consistently scoring very high across all these items. Such a person would be displaying a systematic refusal to admit any disruptive material into their spiritual life. This denial is a form a repression, a defense mechanism. The sign of a narcotic faith configuration.

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17 thoughts on “The Narcotic Functions of Faith: Inside the Defensive Theology Scale

  1. Such a person would be displaying a systematic refusal to admit any disruptive material into their spiritual life. This denial is a form a repression, a defense mechanism. The sign of a narcotic faith configuration.

    It seems obvious that under these definitions of narcotic effect, faith or other noetic processes that reinterpret a person's circumstances in a positive light would be considered narcotic.

    But while you say this is not to be interpreted theologically, you use several words/phrases in that summary paragraph - denial, repression, defense mechanism - that clearly imply such a noetic structure is inaccurate WRT reality, right?

    To sum up, just because I'm paranoid, doesn't mean they're not after me!

    In fact, while it again seems obvious that thus stated, such faith is de facto narcotic, you seem to conclude (at least by your choice of adjectives) that it cannot be both narcotic and accurate.

    By the way, I don't think such a view is accurate, but that's a theological point.

  2. Hi CJR,
    My wording is sloppy, and I apologize for that, but I really do want into express disinterest in theology in this post.

    However, I do think a theologian would be interested in this analysis of defensiveness. Although psychology does not determine ontology as you note, psychological processes will affect theological inquiry. That is, if certain theological speculations hit the defensive system in a soft spot, the person will get emotional, defensive, and even irrational, pushing away legitimate data and argument.

    As such, I think this psychological approach is less concerned with the characteristics of the Known (e.g., God and his attributes) than with the characteristics of the Knower (e.g., the epistemic virtues or hang-ups of the person inquiring after God).

    But I do recognize and struggle with (on a personal level) that to point to Person X's faith and say "That is a narcotic belief" is terribly cynical and presumptuous. I really do hate that facet of this enterprise. That is not my intent, to undermine good, faithful people.

    But I think this is an issue well worth investigation. I think there are potentially pernicious effects involving defensiveness. I think defensiveness breeds brittle faith, a faith that has difficulty incorporating the good and the bad of life. And this brittleness, if it comes to dominate in a church or person, sets those individuals up for faith problems (when tragedy does strike) or a Pollyannaish witness to a world intolerant of sugar-coated theology.

    So, although I strive not to be cynical and never psychoanalyze those I converse with, I think the general thrust of this inquiry is valuable to both the church and the global Christian witness.

  3. narcotic: any of a class of substances that blunt the senses ... and induce sleep.

    Maybe the problem is with the word "narcotic". To me, it implies that the beliefs in question not only make people feel better, they make people feel better AND run contrary to what most of us perceive as the actual state of the world and the actual nature of God.

    In other words, perhaps using the word "narcotic" is in itself a theological claim.

  4. Richard, CJR,

    A few years ago I intentionally began to avoid the use of the term "defense mechanism" to describe human responses. Instead, I use "habit(s) of self-protection" and speak of those that are ethically workable or unworkable.

    Richard, you concern with sentimentality and sugar-coating religious thinking is, to me, on the mark. Wise as serpents, gentle as doves.

    As to God's people, I am very much taken with Jesus' lack of bull. In a church setting we are not called--with a deference to social clubs--to a Rotary Club with Jesus as mascot.


  5. Matthew,
    Perhaps "narcotic" is not the best term. It was Freud's term. Yet, it is a better term than "hallucinogen" which would imply a distortion of reality that a narcotic would not involve. The theological difference, I guess, between morphine and LSD.

    I really like the phrase “habits of self-protection.” It communicates the idea without being pejorative.

  6. Hi Richard,
    I think theese are very useful observations. I'm sorry, that I can't quite ignore theology. Maybe I'm not used to pschychological thinking but I think it's not quite possible to talk about theese things without some latent theological and philosophical framework.
    What would you say are the differences between faith that is narcotic and faith that gives legitimate shelter and comfort? After all don't we all need some kind of comfort even some kind of narcotic? And here I think it comes down to philosophical (read: existentialist) issues about absurdity and responsibility. This change of perception which is central to a narcotic faith can also be healthy thing. Things like gratitude, trust, hope and the creative energy to actually change things can come from it. In other words: maybe it's not so much about the beliefs but about the way people hold and communicate them.


    (sorry for my mediocre English; I'm not a native speaker)

  7. Random thought:

    Most of the people I encounter in church (and all to often myself) have a faith which you describe as "narcotic". What I find interesting as a C of Cer is how special protection, special insight, divine solicitousness and special destiny run counter to the corner stone of the denominations faith, Free Will.

    I have made the mistake of talking about this problem in Bible Class before and the cross looks and blind, sweeping appeals were enough to make my head spin.


  8. Arne,
    I think you are correct that it is not the belief per se that is "narcotic" (to keep using that sloppy word), but rather how the beliefs are acquired, used, and maintained. That is, the relevant issue is the function of the believe system, a dynamic quality changing minute by minute, than the propositional content of a particular faith-statement.

    So, in short, the DTS is of limited utility. It's too crude a tool to get at these subtle issues. I think it helps identify persons who we suspect might be engaged in defensiveness or habits of self-protection. But, upon further inspection, not all believers so suspected will be classified as "defensive/self-protective." That is, the DTS might be best used as a crude screening tool which makes a lot of false positives.

    I agree with your assessment of the church. I’ve gotten the same reactions. Even some from some pretty intelligent people.

    It’s not that I think every person should believe in just the way I do. But I think if faith lacks existential courage—which is what I think this issue boils down to—the Christian witness is compromised. It would look as if faith were a weakness; Marx’s opiate and Freud’s narcotic. A least a few Christians need to believe in this peculiar way (eschewing the themes of the DTS) to display to cynical outsiders (and some insiders) that that faith can coexist with brutal existential realizations.

  9. Hi Dr. Beck,

    I've been lurking for a few weeks now and I've really enjoyed your blog - especially "Freud's Ghost" and your entries related to doubt. I think the reason I've decided to respond to this entry is that it relates to something that has been weighing on my mind lately... and it appears I'm not the only one.

    Just to give a bit of context, I am a graduate student of theology at Fuller NW in Seattle, and attend what I would call a "somewhat progressive evangelical" church. I have long struggled with my own faith, doubt and the attempt to honestly hold both in tension - as well as how to live that out practically. My pastor recently posed this question on his blog, "Why do Christians often seem to be such bad friends?"

    As I pondered my own response to that question, I also came across your most recent post here. I really resonate with your desire to encourage "existential courage" and it seems to me that such courage is a key point in the development of faith for (post-)enlightenment evangelical Christians.

    A while back, in your entry "Skepticism and Conviction", you quoted an author as stating that Oliver Holmes believed "certitude leads to violence." But it seems to me that, rather, it is the "attempt to create certitude" that leads to violence. I question whether anyone is absolutely certain of their beliefs. Is it not more accurate to say that we are all desperately trying to find certitude, and once we have "found" it (whether through logic, experience, indoctrination, or whatever) we will do anything we can to protect it? Needing to constantly "prove" what we believe seems to be a clear indicator that our beliefs aren't as solid as we would like them to be.

    It's pretty clear to me that "defensive theology," like all forms of violence, is grounded in fear - and this fear directly affects the ways Christians relate to everything. In the case of friendship, we are afraid that somehow we'll be "corrupted" or "led astray" by befriending those who don't agree with our "perfectly developed belief system." The underlying assumption appears to be that God isn't enough; we must "be on our guard" against those who would destroy our faith. Indeed, there are Scriptures that say as much.

    I guess what I'm pondering is, how do we address this problem theologically and practically? I am considering further developing my own ideas on this question and I would enjoy your input. Thanks for the continued challenge to re-examine what we believe and why.


    Geoff Dargan

  10. Hi Geoff,
    Thanks for the comments. I'm continually amazed that people find my blog helpful. Many of my friends think I'm nutty. I keep telling them that my faith journey is not that unusual. That there are people in the world who are "soul mates" with me. In short, if I've made you feel less alone you've done the same for me. I feel this way about all my regular commentors. You all make be feel less alone, spiritually and intellectually. So Thank you all.

    Getting to the point of your comment, I think your diagnosis of fear is right on. Fear of death, fear of God, fear of hell, fear of looking like a sinner. So much of Christian life is motivated by fear. And it's a shame.

    I once heard this: What is the most frequent command that Jesus gives in the gospels? Answer: Do not fear.

    As far as my own theological answers to your question my answer is found in Freud's Ghost: Faith must be non-thanatocentric and existentially courageous. How might that look practically? It's hard to say. As of this moment, I'd look for two things in the living out of the faith:

    1. Hope over "belief." I put belief in quotes because generally Christians equate belief with knowing. I think open Christians say "hope" a lot. When students ask me about the afterlife, as in, Do you believe in heaven? I generally respond, "I don't know. I hope there is a heaven." I think the language of hope attenuates dogmatism.

    2. Circumspection. In the Holmes quote you cite, my favorite part is that we must be skeptical about our convictions. I live by this. I'll argue strongly for my ideas but, in the end, who knows? I think circumspection and self-doubt are critical. Why? Because if you doubt you don't know it all. You are still seeking. And, thus, every person you meet is a potential teacher. The great virtue of doubt is how it translates into openness.

  11. I guess I'm thinking there are several formulations of the end-product you put forward - and the characterization of the end product kind of depends upon which formulation is used.

    IF such beliefs are attached to purely out of a psychological need or fear or concern, then clearly these could be considered at least "narcotic" if not entirely self-delusionary. Still, such a person may be right (by sheer luck) that such beliefs cohere with metaphysical reality.

    Or such beliefs may be based upon thoughtful reflection, study of sacred texts, experiences in the person's life, etc. Here, I think it would be difficult to characterize the beliefs as "narcotic" or self-delusionary since they would seem to be arrived by a careful, thoughtful deliberation - perhaps even against the person's initial beliefs or inclinations. Still, the beliefs may or may not cohere to reality.

    In either case, it seems, there still remain two theological questions of import: (1) if there is a God, has he/she built creation to point toward such belief - i.e., is there a "religion inclination" built into the human animal that drives us to belief in higher causes, ultimate good, etc. If so, such beliefs, it would seem, would also fall from the "narcotic" category, since it may be difficult not to see the world in that manner. (2) if such beliefs are correct WRT reality, doesn't that imply something about whether or not they are "narcotic"?

  12. CJR,
    I agree with the thrust of your argument. It seems similar to what Arne and I discussed.

    I would say your first person (a person who quickly adopted his faith, never scrutinized it, and refuses to contemplate issues of theodicy or experience lament) would be "self-protective" (George, I love that phrase!).

    But your second person (a person who revisits the faith of his youth, who is self-reflective, doubts at times, is critically minded, wrestles with theodicy, and has "dark nights of the soul") is less concerned with self-protection and more interested in engaging the totality of experience (the existential courage I speak of).

    Thus, you are correct. It is not the belief exactly. Each person may believe the same thing. The issue is how do they adopt, hold, and deploy that belief? And those dynamics might not be able to captured on a self-report belief scale.

  13. I read through this quickly and obviously I'm months late to the conversation...but it seems to me that the key difference theologically speaking is eschatological. The defensive, self-protective believer must stave off reality, because their belief is staked on what IS; whereas the "open" believer accepts the negativities of reality because faith is staked on what WILL BE (eschatologically) in spite of what is. This "in spite of" is to me the essence of Christian hope--and the importance of hope v. belief has already been discussed above.

  14. Richard, I think you will enjoy reading David Bartholomew's "God, Chance, and Purpose: Can God have it both ways?". Do not let the title distract you. A more appropriate title would be, "Is God a Statistician?". How does a past president of the Royal Statistical Society and who is at the same time a Methodist minister resolve the two solitudes? David answers. His previous book can be accessed at no charge on I think at sometime in the future David's book will be viewed as having great historical significance in what has been referred to as "The Probabilistic Revolution" and "The Taming of Chance". Love to hear from you if this catches your interest.

  15. I am curious where a person who believed that God does in deed have a purpose for each individual life but also beloved that the individual is wholly expendable in the face of the greater good would fall on this scale.

  16. I think you could escape the (mis?)understanding that you're making a value judgment by using the word "comforting" instead of "narcotic." "Narcotic" is a loaded term. But most people will readily agree with the following:

    Some, but not all, comforting beliefs are true.
    Some, but not all, true beliefs are comforting.

  17. David, I cannot believe that 4 years have passed. Unfortunately I did not see your response. I agree whole heartily with your comment. If your name was not on it I would have thought that I wrote it for reasons that I can explain if we correspond. by the way is my site.

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