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Ideas and Addiction
How Religion and Philosophy Hurt and Help

Letters to Reason and Orange County Register by Roger Bissell

To Reason magazine, August 9, 1990
[Bracked material deleted by editor]

Dear People:

Bruce Alexander's review of Stanton Peele's Diseasing of America ("Beware the Cure," Aug/Sep 1990) continues your welcome recent focus on the issue of whether addiction or excessive behavioir is sick, bad, crazy, or whatever. In examining Peele's candidates for the cause of such widespread behavior, however, he overlooks a couple of vital points.

Alexander correctly observes that the ideas that addiction is a disease (which Peele rejects) and that addiction is a failure of will (which Peele entertains) are both "dangerous." However, this danger is not based on the incorrectness of either idea -- indeed, I see each of them as expressing an aspect of the full picture -- but on the likelihood that powers-that-be (or that-would-like-to-be) will try to use them to rationalize their desires to intervene into other people's lives with coercive treatment methods and programs.

And he fails to note that, in its own way, the third view (which Alexander and Peele seem to entertain) suggests its own coercive governmental solutions. If "excessive people are coping as well as they can with impossibly difficult circumstances, given the limitation of their personalities and abilities," then perhaps we need higher taxes and spending to reduce poverty and joblessness among the underclasses and to rebuild our shattered communities.

To be fair, Alexander may have noted this possibility, too, but regarded it as less coercive and dangerous, seeming to involve only people's property and not their personal freedom. This is a false dichotomy, of course.

Also to his credit, Alexander allows that the seemingly more humane solutions he favors "may be out of reach without some further analysis of the forces that made American society so harsh in the first place." As I see it, those forces stem from bad ideas.

As Leonard Peikoff argued in his controversial book The Ominous Parallels [-- that ideas (in the form of various mutations and applications of Kant's philosophy) were the root cause of the horrors of Nazi Germany -- I would follow John Bradshaw (in Healing the Shame that Binds You) in arguing that the cause of widespread excessive or addictive behavior is the "poisonous pedagogy": a set of ideas in the form of dysfunctional family rules based on centuries-old beliefs about absolute parental power.

Even in diluted, partially accepted form -- as the vast majority of parents practice them -- these rules justify various highly abusive parenting methods, such as "physical beatings, lying, duplicity, manipulation, scare tactics, withdrawal of love, isolation and coercion to the point of torture." (p. 41) Even in families not troubled by drug or alcohol abuse, incest, workaholism, etc., these methods almost universally cause children to freeze their emotions and thus to bias and impair their perception, judgment, and reasoning, "which are crucial to the will in its choicemaking duties." (p. 107) The poisonous pedagogy is a setup for addiction!

I hope it is clear that this analysis points to the fundamental -- and only workable -- remedy to the problem ot addiction. Just as] we need a "paradigm" change" from Kant's philosophy to save our culture from further descent into barbarism and totalitarianism, we also need to eradicate the poisonous pedagogy and replace it with functional family rules, if we ever hope to heal our sick society.

Wars on drugs, alcohol, cigarette smoking, overeating, oversexing, overworking, etc.; coercive treatment programs; domestic welfare spending -- none of these will work. A battle of ideas can, if enough of us are willing to arm ourselves properly and fight it. The continuing spread of various Twelve-Step recovery programs is one very encouraging sign that the tide of battle may actually be turning.

To Orange County Register, April 9, 1991

Dear People:

You seem to have touched a raw nerve with your article on "Religious addiction" (March 17), which dealt with a very real fact and problem in America. In his letter, "Someone 'hooked' on God needs no cure" (March 31), Harry Dumskey, clearly a very religious person himself, tries every way he can to deny that religious addiction is "a sickness comparable to drug and alcohol abuse."

Dumskey tries to characterize deprogrammer Stephen Arterburn as an enemy of the worldwide revival movement. He claims that Arterburn refers to those who believe in "faith healing" and "regularly speaking to God in an audible voice" as "addicts." In truth, Arterburn said merely that these were two of a number of possible signs that a person is using religion as a form of addiction.

To me, it is an obvious truth that some of the people "who have taken refuge in their religion because circumstances in their personal lives have become more than they can handle alone" are indeed religiously ill. And by this, I mean not that their religion is making them ill, but that they are misusing their religion in a way that disguises and perpetuates, rather than heals, the emotional illness they had before turning to religion.

I have my own list of telltale signs that newly super-devout worshippers are engaging in religious addiction. Here are just a few of them:

Although they have been "healed by God" of their abuse of alcohol or drugs or sex or whatever, they are still locked in the grip of other addictions, such as nicotene or compulsive spending.

Under the guise of religious righteousness and missionary zeal, they still engage in the same hateful and abusive actions toward friends and loved ones that they did before "finding God."

They speak of being forgiven of their sins by God, yet make no effort to acknowledge the exact nature of those wrongs to the people they have hurt and make no effort to make amends for their wrongdoing.

For these people -- and believe me, they do exist, in the Calvary Chapel and elsewhere -- religion is a "refuge." It is a hideaway, not unlike the bottle, where they can continue to deny responsibility for their mistakes and to avoid facing up to their problems in dealing with life and with other people.

For these people, it is a very small step from "How Dry I Am" to "How Great Thou Art."

In recognizing and helping to treat this form of addiction, Arterburn is performing an extremely valuable service to our society. The emotionally healthy members of the "bright young churches" Dumskey refers to would do well to encourage the religious addicts in their midst to patronize this man's center -- or to set up a center of their own.