Why are addicts and outcasts so often strongly religious?

A former drug addict, with tattoos depicting Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, holding a rosary at a rehabilitation centre in Beirut (Getty)

What role does religion play in the lives of the outcast and the desperate among us? Sadly, it can be difficult for such people to find their way into the Church, because there are so many obstacles to their socialisation. But they are often strongly religious, as Chris Arnade has observed in the Guardian. Arnade writes, of one of the many people he met on the streets of New York:

The first addict I met was Takeesha. She was standing near the high wall of the Corpus Christi Monastery. We talked for close to an hour before I took her picture. When we finished, I asked her how she wanted to be described. She said without any pause, ‘As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.’

The words of Takeesha express the paradox that we all live: we are in this world, which can often leads us into terrible places; but we are the children of God. Indeed, one of the conclusions that Arnade draws is that we are all sinners, though the rich and comfortable can sometimes manage to smother this realisation. That means, of course, those living on the streets are perhaps wiser than those of us living sheltered lives.

Arnade uses his article to criticise his earlier teenage self, and also to criticise the position of Professor Richard Dawkins. That is the way his experience has led him, and he has clearly been moved by his encounters with people who believe, and for whom religion is part of their survival strategy. I suppose any atheist worth their salt would reply that religion is in fact a comfort for the desperate, but once we take away the poverty and the social issues that have reduced them to such desperation, people will soon slough off their religious allegiances too.

That may be the case: the more we live our lives in the bubble, insulated by wealth, the less we will need God. I think I can go along with that. But the flipside of that that argument is of course this: a society fixated on wealth and success is not often a happy society, particularly when it loses sight of God. The desperation on the streets did not arise by accident; it was created by the phenomenon of sin, individual sins, but also the structures of sin that are endemic in a highly worldly successful society like modern America. Religion is not a sticking plaster for those left behind; religion, or the lack of it, is at the heart of the crisis in social care. There are desperate people on the streets, holding fast to faith, because every other social tie has failed them.

It would be a mistake to see the decline of social ties as unrelated to the decline of religious observance. One of the reasons we need religion is because it reminds us of our duty to the stranger; indeed Christianity tells us that we are our brother’s keeper, and that each of us is called to be a Good Samaritan. Because we are so lazy, selfish and deaf to the needs of others, we need the constant divine reminder that we are in fact all called to be responsible for others.

I have met a few drug addicts myself – if you sit in Church, they will often come in, and if you talk to them, they will engage in conversation. Most seem to suffer from multiple addictions, including addiction to alcohol. Most are people with strong faith, either because they have come to faith in prison thanks to the Alpha Course, or because they retain a strong love of their childhood Catholicism, a reminder of happier and carefree days.

It is interesting to note that the people Arnade describes are deeply attached to the externals of Catholicism, the sacramentals such as rosaries, crosses and pictures of the Last Supper. These things speak louder than words. I always give a set of rosary beads to the people I talk to, of the inexpensive plastic variety. I gave one set of blue beads to a young lady the other day. “Don’t you have the type that glow in the dark?” she asked. As it happened, I did. Perhaps she was remembering the days of her childhood when a plastic Madonna glowed in the dark of her bedroom to comfort her at night. The Refuge of Sinners and the Comforter of the Afflicted is there for us all, and she never gives up on us!