Tuesday, August 8, 2017


Atheists, as a community, have a problem with alcohol and drug addictions. The problem is twofold. The melodramatic portion of the problem is that prominent atheists keep getting drunk and doing stupid, sometimes morally repugnant and possibly illegal, things. The more significant issue is that an increasing number of studies are showing that spirituality, and even religiousness, are correlated to positive treatment outcomes for addiction recovery. In other words, by mixing anecdote and statistical correlations in just the right proportions, the atheist community appears too much like a bunch of drunken sods who cannot stay sober and remain Atheists.

The correlations found between spirituality and recovery outcomes are likely driven by the influence of 12-step programs on recovery paradigms. The influence is so pervasive that it may be impossible to adequately determine the efficacy of non-12-step-influenced recovery alternatives. In other words the correlations between spirituality and positive recovery outcomes is likely indicating a degree of investment in the recovery treatment and would not indicate that 12-step programs work better than secular alternatives. 12-step programs grew out of, and retain, distinctly theistic religious elements; six of the 12 steps mention a “God” or “Higher power”. It is very difficult for addicts or alcoholics to completely engage in a 12-step recovery treatment without a well-developed personal spirituality.

An interesting irony is that the “Spiritual Not Religious” identity promoted by many implementations of the 12 steps is viewed by a significant number of staunchly religious folks as synonymous with agnosticism, and only a few steps shy of full-on Atheism. “Spiritual But Not Religious” is a common identifier on dating sites, and an ever growing number of Americans identify their personal religious leanings to be this using the initialism SBNR.  Some atheists refer to SBNR as foggy woo. 

SBNR as a movement is sometimes attributed to Sven Erlandson’s (He is a TV personality) book “Spiritual But Not Religious: A Call to Religious Revolution in America” (2000). The defining core beliefs of SBNR are mostly negative; Scientism, Secularism, ecclesiastic ritual, and a huge chunk of theistic dogma are devalued in favor of personal experiential spiritualism. It is no wonder that Theists often deride SBNR as hedonistic salad bar spiritualism.

However, I think the formation of SBNR really began back in the mid-1930s when Bill Wilson was trying to create a recovery program that was much more accessible to all types of Christians than the Oxford program he was working from. Not one to be constrained by the task at hand Bill also wrote a hallucination-inspired chapter to the agnostics in his Big Book called “Alcoholics Anonymous”; here he suggested that even the non-religious might be able to stay sober under certain circumstances. Bill wrote to several religious figureheads to assure them that his AA was not taking over the job of religion or suggesting people stay away from churches; he proudly included letters in his Big Book that suggested AA would make people better Christians.

At least twenty years passed since Bill Wilson accidentally suggested proto-SBNR as a sufficient precondition for recovery before the core concepts of SBNR were written down as part of the canon for a new 12-step fellowship. Narcotics Anonymous (NA) specifically invited people with no religious affiliation to be full members, and is often referred to as a “Spiritual Not Religious” (no but) program; the idea that it doesn’t matter what type of Christian you are is replaced by not caring what type of God you might believe in. In the literature of NA the idea of “God the Creator” is largely replaced by tortured explanations of “God” that look as if they are designed to be inclusive to any kind of conceptual super identity.

“Our concept of God comes not from dogma, but from what we believe and what works for us. Many of us understand God to be simply whatever force keeps us clean. The right to a God of your understanding is total and without any catches.” – Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous

However, SBNR is not a rational belief system. It requires that some parts of the human condition remain magical and beyond scientific explanation. It is sometimes anti-intellectual in its varied assertions that certain types of knowledge can blind people to certain kinds of truth. SBNR may have a limited dogma, but it has a varied confusion of dogma. There is no scriptural list of approved SBNR dogma, but it is not uncommon for the person who identifies as SBNR to believe in a soul, or an afterlife, or the power of prayer, or ESP, or divine revelation, or …. and the list goes on.

I hope that by this point in this essay that you are wondering how this decomposition of religious views could be quantified in such a way as to provide data of the form that could be used for a statistical correlation. If you are picturing a spectrum of SBNR people that includes crystal-gazing yogis and the mildly disinterested folks who feel momentarily in touch with some universal chi when the barista at Starbucks gets their Latte order correct, then you are still with me. How does this spectral distribution of belief get turned into a data set?

The way it is done is with a questionnaire. The measures of spirituality are still developing. I’ve included the question list from the “Daily Spiritual Experience Scale” (DSES) developed by Lynn Underwood as an example of a widely used modern spirituality measure. It is similar to others, like the Fetzer Institutes MMRS (Multidimensional Measurement of Religiousness/Spirituality for Use in Health Research) that were used in developing it. I am sure that future measures will borrow heavily from the DSES in their genesis. If you want to use the DSES in a study you may need to obtain a license from Lynn Underwood.

“The list that follows includes items you may or may not experience. Please consider how often you directly have this experience, and try to disregard whether you feel you should or should not have these experiences. A number of items use the word ‘God.’ If this word is not a comfortable one for you, please substitute another word that calls to mind the divine or holy for you.”
Many times a day
Every day
Most days
Some days
Once in a while
Never or almost never
I feel God's presence.
I experience a connection to all of life.
During worship, or at other times when connecting with God, I feel joy which lifts me out of my daily concerns.
I find strength in my religion or spirituality.
I find comfort in my religion or spirituality.
I feel deep inner peace or harmony.
I ask for God's help in the midst of daily activities.
I feel guided by God in the midst of daily activities.
I feel God's love for me directly.
I feel God's love for me through others.
I am spiritually touched by the beauty of creation.
I feel thankful for my blessings.
I feel a selfless caring for others.
I accept others even when they do things I think are wrong.
I desire to be closer to God or in union with the divine
Not close
Somewhat close
Very close
As close as possible
In general, how close do you feel to God?


One of the things that strikes me about the DSES is that it is impossible for so-called “Spiritual Atheists” to answer. It requires definitions to be implicitly understood that to a rational atheist are simply absurd. The admittedly few studies I have looked at that use the DSES have data that congregates towards the high end of the 1-5 scale most of the questions are scored with. I think this could be due to the fact that someone who, for instance, implicitly understands what “feeling God’s love directly” means would probably feel that love quite often. It might be more useful to have questions that worked for a wider spectrum of potentially spiritual people?

Alcoholism and addiction are diseases of the brain. The addicted brain is unable to rationally develop ways of combating the disease. Some directing force that is outside of the addicted brain is required for recovery. There are many treatment options that are correlated with slightly higher or lower positive recovery outcome rates. Spirituality, as defined in ways that exclude the participation of individuals with truly atheistic world views, is one of the most common worthwhile-looking treatment options. If the $16 billion dollars in annual addiction treatment spending is going to begin providing treatment options to Atheists we will need to address the deep-seated paradigms that exclude atheists from proper notice in treatment programs.

Unfortunately, in my experience, it is more common for Atheists to be skeptical of basic concepts in addiction treatment, like the disease concept of addiction, than to have the desire to address the problems with developing effective treatment options.


GD said...

Well, this is interesting. As a scientist, I have always thought I engaged in a bit more "magical thinking" than my colleagues. However, I would score very low on the DSES.
During my periods of riding the wagon, I find yoga to be extremely helpful. No meditation or spirituality is required. The breathing and muscle engagement provide a good substitute for ethanol-induced endorphins.

adult onset atheist said...

There is a high correlation between people staying sober in the future and having stayed sober in the past. This is one of the least surprising correlations, but is might not be due simply to a selection. Of course we expect people who can stay sober in the future to be more widely represented in a group of people who have stayed sober in the past. In addition to this the very fact that treatment has some level of success suggests that there is something that goes on that helps people stay sober in the future. Since the effective parts of treatment largely consist of people talking, reading, and thinking then a strongly plausible cause of this positive outcome would be the formation of neural pathways that encourage things like problem solving without alcohol or drugs.

We know that the brain works by “re-wiring” itself, but it is impossible to “re-wire” the brain by simply imagining how you want it to now work. I know this comment is full of simplifications and limp analogies, but the basic idea is that one needs some kind of outside action or tool to work on the brain’s thought patterning. Magical thinking could be a heuristic for developing thought patterns that facilitate the development of a brain that works well and stays sober.

Your experiences with yoga are probably more illustrative of this than my fumbling response. One “breathes” into deeper positions or, in the more magical versions of yoga, one pulls energy centers into harmonic alignments. One does not need to believe any of this woo in order to use it. I am sure there are ways of picturing many things that fire up and stimulate the correct nerves.

A big problem with many types of spirituality and religion is that they are not benign tools. They are often introduced into treatment and recovery services to promote the spiritual movements or religions, and not to simply facilitate recovery. I think taking spirituality out of recovery would make for a more robust and effective set of treatment options.