Monday, January 8, 2007

Sunday Secularism Blogging, Monday Edition

(So, I missed it yesterday. That's what working at 6:30 AM on no sleep will do to you.)

Today I wanted to bring up and briefly discuss something I've been thinking about a lot recently: the positive psychological and social benefits of religious belief. Everyone, even devout atheists like the current author, has to admit that these exist, or can exist in certain situations. But what should be our attitude toward them?

I have been thinking about this a lot at my work at a drug treatment center. People in treatment for serious addiction almost always fall back on religion as a coping mechanism, and are encouraged to do so by, among other things, the structure of the omnipresent 12-step programs, with their "surrender to a higher power" thing. I have no doubt that this is in most respects a good thing. Certainly the 12-step programs are effective, and surely religious conviction can be comforting for some people, and can help impose structure on people's lives when they need it.

The ubiquity of the 12-step programs in this line of my work (I have two lines of work, at the moment at least) makes me somewhat uncomfortable, both as an atheist and a secularist--i.e., as a person committed to keeping religion and lack thereof a private matter. Although the 12-step program isn't ever literally imposed on anyone, it's definitely expected. To refuse to take part in it because you don't believe in any "higher power" to surrender yourself to would be pretty much beyond the pale. I can't even imagine any of the clients I work with refusing. My qualm here is with the semi-coercive aspect, which would bother me in any event--but it's made worse by the fact that the facility gets a fair amount of government money, since many of the clients are wards of the state.

The 12-step program isn't officially religious, because the "higher power" is left so vague, and certainly isn't identified with any particular deity or deities, and one is left to interpret the "higher power" as one likes. The meetings do end with the Serenity Prayer, however, which, while nice enough for a prayer, is expressly addressed to God. It's good that the program is so tolerant of religious diversity, but I don't think the vagueness is enough to make it tolerant of atheism. I don't believe in any higher power, no matter how vaguely defined, that I can surrender myself to in any productive way. I suppose the force of gravity is a higher power, but I can't see how surrendering to it would accomplish anything, let alone help me overcome any hypothetical addiction. I don't think there's any truly secular "higher power", in the 12-step sense. The whole point is that our humanity isn't enough; belief in the power of the "human spirit" or somesuch won't cut it.

Given that 12-step is effective, though, the real question is whether any of these qualms really ought to matter. Surely it's less bad for someone to embrace some kind of fuzzy spiritualism than for them to die of a heroin overdose. Certainly none of these qualms make me reconsider my decision to work in this field, because I think it's important enough that something be done to help addicts that it doesn't matter if I have some problems with one relatively minor aspect of the program.

The whole thing does raise one very difficult semi-philosophical question, though: if religious belief can help people in certain difficult situations, what ought we to do if we find ourselves in those situations? Applying the question to the current case: If we find ourselves in the position of needing to recover from an addiction, ought we as atheists/agnostics actually try to accept the idea of a higher power? Should we try to force ourselves to believe, since it might be in our best interests?

There's a lot of debate amongst philosophers about whether it is possible to force oneself to believe something for "extrinsic" reasons--reasons other than those that would give you reason to believe that something is true. Can you make yourself believe that you are super-sexy, for instance, to increase your confidence, even if you don't believe yourself to be so? I believe it is possible, though it isn't possible to achieve the belief simply through recognizing the extrinsic reasons. You have to train yourself over some period of time. We are what we do; when we act a part, we eventually come to believe that it is us. The really tricky question, to my mind, is whether this is ever a rational, or even an advisable, thing to do. Ought atheistic addicts train themselves to accept the idea of a higher power?

I don't really have an answer to this question, though I definitely want to think it's "no", but any full answer would have to take into account the following:

One of the most basic tenets of 12-step is that an addict must admit that she, by herself, doesn't have the ability to overcome her addiction. This is a very powerful and probably a very useful idea. But is it useful because it is literally true--i.e., that one literally cannot overcome one's own addiction oneself and needs to surrender oneself to something--or for some other reason? Maybe it's important to admit one's powerlessness because it reinforces the social aspect of treatment: we need to rely on each other to get well, we can't just rely on ourselves. Or, more simply, maybe it's important because we have to admit that we can't just decide internally, on the spur of the moment, to quit--not effectively, at least. It takes lots of work, and "surrendering" might just be a recognition that one can't overcome one's addiction right away.


Robin said...

Relying on "each other" IS relying on a higher power than yourself, and that is a good enough higher power for recovery. Seriously.

ellis said...

Hey, I know you! Continuing your quest to memorize the internet, I see.

I think you're right in both respects, but I wonder if that way of looking at it goes a bit against the grain of the 12-step programs. Why use semi-religious terms when all that's needed is friendship and community?

Michael said...

Maybe someone did a little demographic research in developing the 12-step program. According to the most recent poll (2005) I could find, as reported in the execrable Washington Times, 82% of Americans believe in god, another 73% believe in miracles and 68% profess a belief in angels.

Presumably the proportion of drug users who are receptive to a religious pitch is much small than 82%, but it might appeal to a certain number who grew up in religious or quasi-religious households.

But the "higher power" seems to work well as a metaphor for all kinds of other things, like:

o A force beyond onself that can be used to stimulate a kind of transcendence;

o A symbol of what one has lost and may yet recover through the 12-step, including the ability to have close and productive relationships (as you both suggest);

o A value that everyone in the program can share, despite differences in socioeconomic levels and education.

o Something vaguely inspirational, the details of which will emerge as one continues to steps 11 and 12.

The list could go on, of course, but, for the reasons he mentions, I share Ellis' qualms about the need to appeal to god or any other higher power. Maybe reliance on others isn't enough, but I suspect that at some point the god delusion is also likely to disappoint.

I wonder if there are successful programs that drop the "higher power" from the equation. Still, you have to credit the 12-steps as consituted for their remarkable success.