Are people with unrecognized ADHD potentially at higher risk for joining so-called “high-control” groups, such as fundamentalist religions? If so, what might be the trade-offs for having “external structure”? That’s the topic of this post.
A friend wrote to me recently. News of a study hit close to home for her—literally and figuratively: The Biological and Cognitive Underpinnings of Religious Fundamentalism. It was published in Neuropsychologia, a peer-reviewed scientific journal that focuses on cognitive neuroscience.
The research findings made the connection for her between having undiagnosed ADHD and spending many years in a fundamentalist church. I asked her to share her thoughts with you.
That friend is Taylor J., author of most essays in the “You Me ADHD Book Club” series. (It’s a virtual club, and it’s always open. Each post shares her reactions to a chapter in my first book, Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.? )
Intelligent, curious, and fiercely loving, Taylor was diagnosed with ADHD in her late 30s. So was her husband. A few years later, diagnoses came for several of her four children—and her sister. She has been estranged for many years from her parents. Their mental-health challenges include likely ADHD and narcissism, she says. Her home life as a child and teenager was largely chaotic and hurtful.
Perhaps that’s why, when she joined a Fundamentalist Christian church, she’d found her first social “safety net”—and held onto it despite her particular church’s teachings that pushed her to the brink. Until she finally discovered ADHD.
Please know: Our intent is not to diminish religious belief. Rather, it’s to show how unrecognized ADHD might create vulnerability to high-control groups (work or personal or political) that offer structure and stability in life—but sometimes at too high a cost.
As the saying goes, “Control yourself or risk being controlled by others.”
By Taylor J.
The title alone was enough to stop me in my tracks: Biological and cognitive underpinnings of religious fundamentalism. Then I read the abstract, including this part:
The findings suggest that damage to particular areas of the prefrontal cortex indirectly promotes religious fundamentalism by diminishing cognitive flexibility and openness—a psychology term that describes a personality trait which involves dimensions like curiosity, creativity, and open-mindedness.
I couldn’t agree more with their findings. You see, I was once a fundamentalist Christian.
This part of the report in particular spoke to me:
These findings are important because they suggest that impaired functioning in the prefrontal cortex—whether from brain trauma, a psychological disorder, a drug or alcohol addiction, or simply a particular genetic profile—can make an individual susceptible to religious fundamentalism.
And perhaps in other cases, extreme religious indoctrination harms the development or proper functioning of the prefrontal regions in a way that hinders cognitive flexibility and openness.
The study focuses on two areas of the brain in the brain region called the prefrontal cortex—an area also associated with ADHD-related impairments. Let me offer some background.
The Church Made Decisions For Me
Okay, some fellow fundamentalists considered me “liberal” for:
- Reading a Bible translation other than the King James Version
- Wearing jeans on occasion
- Attending a church that used drums in the service
Yet, I still believed wholeheartedly that God wanted me, based on a strict, literal interpretation of the Bible, to:
- Submit to my husband
- Stay out of the workforce to raise my children
- Vote Republican
It took a long, painful journey for me to see that the outcome of those positions did not actually line up with a literate reading of the Bible. I had yet to learn that there were other honest ways that a Christian could look at key scripture passages. But that’s another story.
Only when I was diagnosed with ADHD—and started medication treatment—could I actually see how fundamentalism was affecting me, my marriage, and my children.
My goal here is not to judge other people’s beliefs. I hope only to explain what I see as the potential connection between unrecognized ADHD and being drawn to any “high-control” group. Fundamentalism happens to be the one I know personally.
After leaving fundamentalism and becoming more clear in my thinking thanks to ADHD treatment, I came to identify at least three key reasons why I consider people with ADHD at much higher risk for over-reliance on “high-control” groups:
- A social group accepts and welcomes us
- The rules of “normal” are clear
- Everything is scheduled for you
Here are more details on each.
1. A Social Group Accepts, Welcomes Us
We know from years of research—and much collective experience: Many adults with ADHD often have a much harder time making friendships than the average person. Many participants in one study I read (and don’t remember, sorry!) couldn’t name a single close friend.
When you join a fundamentalist religious group, however, you’re often described as “a part of the family.” You’re instantly an “insider. You may enjoy social connections that were never available to you before. Often, I’ve heard people give a testimony at baptisms or services, saying that they’d never had friends like they had in the group.
High-control groups (cough, cults, cough) tend to practice “love bombing.” That is the practice of overwhelming new recruits with so much love that they would literally do anything to keep that source of emotional supply intact.
2. The Rules of “Normal” Are Clear
People with ADHD who aren’t easily accepted by their peers often struggle with deep loneliness. We want to “fit in” but don’t know how. So, we tend to carefully observe the people around us, trying to “decode” the world of “normal” people.
I discovered this completely by accident, while I was speaking with my doctor. “When I was a kid,” I told him, “I couldn’t understand why I didn’t fit in with other girls. I used to watch how they dressed, how they spoke, how they moved their hands during conversation, to figure out how they managed to fit in so well with each other.”
He laughed and said, “That was actually a diagnostic category that I added to my own personal notes. If someone mentioned a ‘people watching’ habit, I would look over the rest of their charts, and see if they met the criteria for ADHD. Nine times out of ten, they did.”
My doctor has more than 20 years of experience treating ADHD in adults. He attends an Episcopal church.
Fundamentalism gave me all the answers to the questions I’d asked myself during people-watching! They taught us exactly how to:
- Act around the opposite gender
- Act towards authority
- Spend our spare time
- Be of service to the world.
We have the rules, and they are quite clear. It can feel like a revelation! “Oh, so this is how it’s done!”
It’s so satisfying at first, to follow those strict rules for dating, working, socializing, and wearing skirts. It feels like someone handed us the guidebook for how life is supposed to work.
3. Everything Is Scheduled for Us
I’ve often said, “The ADHD brain is like water. It can be a powerful force, but it can also conform to whatever container it’s in.
Those of us with ADHD need to be stimulated to do anything—such as call a friend, do our laundry, make meals, and so forth. Clear deadlines often help—when and if we remember to set them.
Once we join a fundamentalist group, however, we have ready-made deadlines to stimulate us. For everything.
- Laundry must be done by Saturday night.
- The house has to be clean for people coming over for Sunday dinner.
- Even social events are planned for you (hallelujah!).
- Someone will definitely remind you if it’s your turn to run the nursery or set up the sound equipment.
Life had never before run so smoothly for me as it did when I was a part of a fundamentalist group. Given my unrecognized ADHD, the “external controls” of this “high-control” group helped me organize myself and my family.
Biggest Motivator: the Second Coming
Speaking of motivation, second-coming of Christ was forefront in our minds. We “don’t know the day or hour” of His return, so we were motivated to live as though He was coming today. Love, evangelize, serve, grow, because He may return today and ask for you to give an account of your days here. Talk about clear and present consequences!A
Structure, Support Can Be Tempting
Psychologist and clinician Kathleen Nadeau, author of ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life and many other books, says that the two things a person with ADHD needs the most are structure, and support.
Some people may ask, “If fundamentalism provides that structure and support, then what’s the problem? Why is this a bad thing? Can’t we just let everyone have their own beliefs, and not criticize them?”
Again, I don’t want to criticize anyone. I do want to warn, however, that there are consequences to belonging to high-demand, high-control religious groups. These consequences, however, can take hold slowly, over time, and thus escape our notice.
If you’re like me, you find out about them only after they’ve drained you completely.
But Weigh Potential Negative Consequences
Potential negative consequences include:
- Being trapped in rigid, restrictive, uncompromising, ways of thinking
- Further impairment in seeing cause-effect connections
- Spiritualizing our poor decisions
I’ll explain what I mean by each potential negative consequences
1. Being trapped in rigid, restrictive, uncompromising, ways of thinking.
Refusing to compromise can reflect high standards. It can also reflect dangerously rigid thinking.
I’m not talking about theological or moral compromise. I’m talking about dishes.
For example, my cousin came for a visit. After dinner one night, I went to rinse out a casserole dish, stopped, and said aloud to myself: “Oh, I need to soak it.” Having heard me, she said, “You can’t soak it, because your sink is just not big enough. It’s not big enough to get anything washed.”
When I simply filled the casserole dish with water and set it on the counter, she flinched a little, then gasped, and said, “Oh!” It was as if she’d witnessed a miracle.
The food was only inside the dish; soaking outside wasn’t necessary. A bigger sink might be nice but having a smaller sink did not prevent me from soaking the dish.
Imagine making every decision in your life—what to eat, what to drink, what to wear—with that kind of mental rigidity. Imagine there being only one acceptable type of shirt , one brand of milk, one way to cook oatmeal —for your entire life.
The point of the research I mentioned earlier was to measure “cognitive rigidity.” I saw uncompromising rigidity play out over and over again throughout the years in ways small and large. Not just with dishes, but with:
- Women working outside the home
- Bathing suits
- Cleavage and yoga pants
- Music styles
- Money management
- Art and entertainment
- ”What submission (to one’s husband) looks like”
At some point, for many, it’s no longer a religious belief: it’s a mental illness.
As for my cousin? After a little chat, she keeps saying she’s going to get an evaluation for OCD and ADHD. She keeps putting it off.
2. ADHD Impairs Cause/Effect Connections
Fundamentalism answers life’s questions. What if the answers don’t work?
- A family is poor, and the wife has to work? The answer was “Trust God to provide.” Anything else was a lack of faith.
- The congregant has to work during religious meetings? “Well, God bless ya!” There was plenty of social pressure to quit that job. After all, “God would provide.”
- A family member was mentally ill? “It could be demons. We should pray for them.”
- A wife was abused? “Well, God says to submit, so trust Him to protect you, and pray for your husband.”
- The children were abused? “God says to honor your father and mother. The parent has the final authority in the home.”
- The same person who “loved you into the fundamentalist family”, taught you how to be included, and gave you a framework for living your life is the same person who told you these things, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll think anything is wrong with their advice now, when it hurts, when it matters.
For people who make inconsistent cause-and-effect connections—a real risk with memory impairments and difficulty paying attention—the results can be heartbreaking.
Followers might blame themselves for not:
- Praying enough
- Having enough faith
- Serving or submitting enough
Then, they endure agony when they still don’t have enough money, health, or emotional strength to endure abuse, poverty, or untreated illness.
Some continue to suffer in their circumstances. Being unable to think outside rigid constraints, they resign themselves to living in “God’s will.”
Others begin to lead a double life—or leave the group altogether.
Whatever choice they make, it’s painful, and might be wholly unnecessary if the people involved sought professional help for their long-ignored ADHD.
3. We Tend to Spiritualize Our Poor Decisions
Those of us with ADHD in my church communities—in my long experience—have an incredible ability to spiritualize ridiculous poor decisions and poor planning ability.
I’ve lived through at least 10 highly publicized “apocalypse” predictions. People I know believed they knew exactly when Jesus would arrive—because a high-control authority told them so. I’m glad not to have been a part of those groups.
I can, however, tell stories of individuals who have:
- Run businesses into the ground, telling themselves God would magically provide financing. They went bankrupt.
- Traveled with no money or provisions, thinking God would feed them. They didn’t eat for two days.
- Broken the law, insisting that God told them to do it. They’re in jail.
- Beat their children. Someone called the cops.
- Thought they were supposed to marry a certain person, but that other person hadn’t gotten the memo. They became stalkers, and were a terrorizing menace.
Despite the clear indications around them that what they were doing was wrong, even damaging, the person’s cognitive rigidity would not let them see any other options.
But it’s also more than that: They lack the ability to make and think through long-term plans and implement them. This is not religion, in my opinion; this is neurocognitive challenges fueled by “magical thinking”. They just chose “fundamentalism” as their “magic”.
ADHD Treatment Changed Everything
I started ADHD medication first in my family. My husband followed. At that point, amazing things began to happen in our family. We finally:
- Made positive career changes.
- Have open and honest discussions.
- Made more effective parenting decisions.
- Devised solutions to our long-running challenges that lay outside the rigid mental boxes we’d created or lived in.
- Could revel in the love of God, instead of fearing the judgment of God for deviating from certain standards.
- Make choices.
It didn’t change overnight. It’s been eight years since I told my husband, “This isn’t working.” It’s still a struggle at times.
But as the book of Galatians says,
“Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.”
Thanks to good treatment, the Love of God, and the support of people like Gina, we won’t live with a “harness of slavery” ever again.
How about you? Can you relate to Taylor’s story? Please feel free to share your experience.