Is an emotional experience in church really like a drug?

Several sociologists of religion make an interesting claim about worship experiences: they are like drugs.

Wellman and co-authors Katie E. Corcoran and Kate Stockly-Meyerdirk analyzed 470 interviews and about 16,000 surveys on megachurch members’ emotional experiences with their churches. Four themes emerged: salvation/spirituality, acceptance/belonging, admiration for and guidance from the leader, and morality and purpose through service.

Many participants used the word “contagious” to describe the feeling of a megachurch service where members arrive hungry for emotional experiences and leave energized, the study says.

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 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.”

I haven’t seen this full study but I wonder about this comparison. here is what it could mean:

1. It is just a metaphor. Drugs can give people euphoric experiences and religious experiences can also generate euphoria.

1a. Some sociologists might argue that this kind of euphoria is generated more by a collective effervescence (Durkheim) or collective emotional energy (Collins) than religion itself. Put enough people together, give them a common focus, and you might be able to generate similar feelings in a sports stadium, at a rock concert, in a mob, etc.

Indeed, the researchers seem to be building on this. From another report on this study:

Megachurch services feature a come-as-you-are atmosphere, rock music, and what Wellman calls a “multisensory mélange” of visuals and other elements to stimulate the senses, as well as small-group participation and a shared focus on the message from a charismatic pastor.
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.

2. There could be a suggestion that churches have a sort of power over people. In other words, the conditions are set up so that people are pushed into these upbeat experiences. Outside of this megachurch setting where people’s senses are bombarded, people may not have such experiences.

3. This seems like a great time to include neuroimaging in a sociology study. One could compare the physical response in the brain to drugs versus the physical response to certain worship settings. Do they both engage the same areas of the brain and to the same level? If they do, it doesn’t mean there still isn’t a sociological phenomenon to study but it does link physiological responses with social interactions and outcomes. I suspect we’ll see more and more of this sort of matching of social and physical data in the coming years.

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