Saturday, March 29, 2014

What Has Atheism Done for You Lately?

As atheism has been gaining adherents and prestige pious believers have been dismissed, disparaged and discounted. Among the cognoscenti the long knives have been out for religion.

Of course, it isn’t all that clear what it means to adhere to atheism. Perhaps you can believe fervently in nothing, but, dare I say, it isn’t self-evident.

You can, for example, believe in Reason, but that feels like recycled idolatry. Isn’t Reason the Greek god Apollo?

Today’s atheists would not shy away from this form of paganism. To their minds, anything is better than God, especially the Judeo-Christian deity.

The late Christopher Hitchens famously declared that religion poisons everything, but for someone of surpassing intelligence, the statement is an embarrassment. It conflates all religions and it’s an overly broad generalization. To refute it you need but show that religion is good for something. You might even demonstrate that the irreligious among us are handing out their own mental poison.

If we ask what religion has done for anyone lately, Byron Johnson and Maria Pagano respond that, in the world of drug and alcohol abuse, it offers distinct and measurable benefits.

Their forthcoming article in the Alcohol Treatment Quarterly will  show that young people who believe in God and religion are less likely to become alcoholics or drug addicts. If they are already addicted, religion will facilitate recovery.

They explain:

Young people who regularly attend religious services and describe themselves as religious are less likely to experiment with alcohol and drugs, a growing body of research shows. Why? It could be religious instruction, support from congregations, or conviction that using alcohol and drugs violates one's religious beliefs.

Moreover, frequent involvement in spiritual activities seems to help in the treatment of those who do abuse alcohol and drugs. That's the conclusion of many reports, including our longitudinal study of 195 juvenile offenders that will be released in May in Alcohol Treatment Quarterly.

What psychological trait draws a young person to alcohol and drugs? It is anomie:

The problem is more fundamental than missing church on Sunday. Young people in our study of juvenile offenders seem to lack purpose and are overwhelmed by feelings of not fitting in.

The psychosocial distress of not belonging to a group and having no purpose in life, no direction, no hope for the future… leads children to self-medicate.

Belonging to a religion seems to be an effective solution to anomie.

Led by psychiatry our culture sees the human brain as a biochemical soup that needs psychopharmacological spicing up. It sees biochemistry as the best way to solve all psychological problems.

The debate is as old as Alcoholics Anonymous. Many psychiatrists have happily directed their patients to AA, but others have been offended by the fact that it relies on God or a higher power. Some psychiatrists have been especially upset because AA meetings are free.

Given their druthers, most psychiatrists believe in a biochemical solution to the problem of addiction.

Obviously, AA does not work for everyone. It works best for those who keep with the program. But, the same is true of any treatment. If you do not take you antibiotics and do not get better, no one will say that treatment is ineffective.

Worse yet, from the standpoint of those who believe in science, AA was not discovered by scientists working long hours in laboratories. It was cobbled together by two drunks in Akron.

The basis for AA also contradicts one of the articles of therapy faith. It tells patients not to engage in a mental struggle against their impulse to drink.

It tells them that they will never be strong enough to control the impulse, and should rely on a higher power, one that is strong enough.

In practice, this means, among other things, learning to help others. It’s a simple idea: instead of getting lost in your mind, you should reach out to other people. Telling someone to get over himself is better than telling him to get into himself.

It’s impossible to beat alcoholism on your own, with your own resources.

Johnson and Pagano explain:

Those who help people during treatment—taking time to talk to another addict who is struggling, volunteering, cleaning up, setting up for meetings, or other service projects—are, according to our research, statistically more likely to stay sober and out of jail in the six months after discharge, a high-risk period in which 70% relapse.

Worse yet, those who had abandoned their irreligion in favor of religion also did much better:

Our study showed daily spiritual experiences predicted abstinence, increased social behavior and reduced narcissistic behavior. Even those who enter addiction treatment without a religious background can benefit from an environment where they are encouraged to seek a higher power and serve others.

Nearly half of youth who self-identified as agnostic, atheist or nonreligious at treatment admission claimed a spiritual affiliation two months later. This change correlated with a decreased likelihood of testing positive for alcohol and drugs during treatment.

Religion, through AA programs provides:

 a deep sense of purpose, opportunities to provide help to other people, connections with others, and the chance to make a difference in the world. This reduces self-absorbed thinking, something AA cites as a root cause of addiction.

Admittedly, none of this proves that God exists. It does not prove that God doesn’t exist, either. But it does demonstrate that religion and spirituality contain something of value, something that, if you have an addiction problem, might be of great value.


Stan said...

A pair of researchers here in the centroid of meth labs interviewed a number of recovering meth users. All of them, as I recall, claimed that it could only be an appeal to God which works against meth.

Ralph Thayer said...

"Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand." -- Augustine of Hippo
Or, another way of looking at it:
"Some things have to be believed to be seen." -- Ralph Hodgson