Friday, June 27, 2014

Any Growing Interest in Classical Music is a Sign of Our Nation's Moral Decay

As I read Ann Coulter’s recent commentary on why soccer is un-American, I felt a paradigm shift in my understanding of the world. With a growing pit in my stomach, I saw that her reasoning doesn’t just apply to soccer. And I knew, once I finished the essay, that I would be compelled to resign from the Stillwater Community Orchestra. To do otherwise would be un-American.

I love classical music. I love playing my violin. And I’ve long classed myself among those trying to expand interest in classical music in this country. But enough is enough. It’s clear to me now that any growing interest in classical music can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.

▪ Individual achievement is not a big factor in classical music ensembles. Sure, there’s the concert master and the conductor, and the occasional soloist. But in the best orchestras, instruments blend seamlessly together and voices complement one another so as to produce a collaborative work of art. It’s practically communistic. In real music there ought to be stars who stand or fall based on their personal charisma—a Mick Jagger gyrating at the microphone while crowds scream and swoon and tear at their clothes.

▪ In a high school orchestra, lousy players can hide in the back of the second violin section and fake it quietly to cover up their lack of talent, so that no child’s fragile self-esteem is bruised. This encourages kids to hide from personal responsibility. They grow up to be moochers.

▪ Liberal moms like classical music because it’s something both girls and boys can participate in equally. But no serious human endeavor is co-ed, even at the grade-school level. I'm not sure why. Ask Ann for details.

▪ In an orchestra performance, nobody scores. You can sit (or snore) through an entire concert, and the score is still 0-0. No fist pumping as one player dominates another. No victory dance by the principal cellist while the poor clarinetist hangs her head in defeat. It’s all “collaborative” rather than competitive. How does that teach our kids the traits they need to make it in the competitive capitalist economy?

▪ No human endeavor is worth pursuing if it doesn’t come with the risk of personal humiliation or physical injury. While someone sitting in an orchestra might face some slight risk of a bow in the eye, the risk is low. And a personal slip will probably be covered up by the other musicians—unless you're in the winds or percussion section, but then you're safely hidden behind the strings, so no one can see you to pin the mistake on you.

▪ People are always trying to force-feed you classical music as if it were good for the soul. The same people trying to push classical music on Americans are the ones demanding that we drag our noses away from our TV’s and smart phones and spend more time reading books. It’s that “eat your vegetables” thing, except with sound. It’s patronizing.

▪ It’s foreign. Classical music was invented by Europeans. That’s probably why people try to push it. They think European stuff is better than American stuff.

▪ Classical music is like the metric system. It is. Take my word for it.

The only people listening to classical music in America are academics and immigrants from France. I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is listening to classical music. Or if they are, they’re forced to do it against their will, or trying to impress someone. Either that, or they are actively betraying American values.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

How Does God Reveal? Five Christian Reasons to Doubt Biblical Inerrancy

The Patheos website is currently hosting a multi-blog conversation about progressive Christianity and Scripture which has generated numerous engaging and thoughtful contributions--such as this one by James McGrath. Because the relationship between progressive Christian faith and the Bible is one of my enduring interests, the sudden flood of interesting essays on the topic has inspired me to take a few minutes to reflect on the issue myself. 

As a philosopher of religion, the way I approach this topic is in terms of a philosophical question: What theory of revelation fits best with the Christian view of God? Put another way, if there is a God that fits the broadly Christian description, how would we expect such a God to reveal the divine nature and will to the world?

Many conservative Christians take it for granted that God has revealed the divine nature and will in and through a specific book. More precisely (although they aren't usually this precise), they believe that God inspired certain human authors at various times in history to write texts that inerrantly express divine truths--and then inspired other human beings to correctly recognize these texts and include all and only them in the comprehensive collection of Scriptures we call the Bible.

Let's call this the theory of biblical inerrancy.

Does this theory fit well with broader Christian beliefs? Is this a good Christian theory about divine revelation, culminating in a good Christian theory about what the Bible is and what sort of authority we should attach to it? I think there are a number of reasons to be skeptical.

Put more narrowly, I think there are a number of reasons why Christians should be skeptical, given their Christian starting points. Let's consider at least some of these reasons.

1. Christianity holds that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God

Traditional Christian teaching holds that Jesus is the Word made Flesh, the incarnation of God in history. And this means that for Christians, the primary and monumental revelation of God is in the person of Jesus, not in any book (however inspired). It is this fact which motivated George MacDonald to say of the Bible,
It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth. The Bible leads us to Jesus, the inexhaustible, the ever unfolding Revelation of God. It is Christ "in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge," not the Bible, save as leading to him.
Biblical inerrantists might argue that nothing precludes God from both revealing the divine nature primarily in Jesus and authoring an inerrant book as a secondary revelation. This is true as far as it goes. But there are reasons for concern.

First, there's a difference between the kind of revelation that Jesus represents, and the kind that a book represents. A person and a book are different things, and we learn from them in different ways. Consider the difference between having a mentor in the project of becoming a better person, and reading self-help books.

Doesn't Christianity teach that God's preferred way of disclosing the divine nature and will is through personal, living relationship rather than fixed words? The problem with throwing in an inerrant book as a "supplemental" revelation is that it can lead to Bible-worship. Given human psychology, there is something alluring about having a book with all the answers. But if God primarily wants us to find the answers through personal engagement with the living God, as discovered in Jesus, isn't there a real danger that fixation on the Bible will distract the faithful from God's primary mode of self-disclosure?

None of this is to say that human stories--witness accounts of divine revelation in history--aren't important. They can motivate a desire to seek out the one whom the stories are about, and they can offer tools for discerning whether you've found the one you seek or an imposter. But once they are seen as secondary, as valuable as a means to an end, the need for inerrancy dissipates. If what really matters is my friendship with Joe, and if I sought out and formed a friendship with him because lots of people told me stories about him that revealed him as an awesome guy I wanted to meet, do I really need to insist that those storytellers were inerrant? Why?

2. The Jesus of Scripture was not an inerrantist

In John 8:1-11, we have the story of the teachers of the law coming to Jesus with an adulteress, and asking Him whether they ought to stone her to death as the Scriptures prescribe. The passage itself declares that this was a trap: If Jesus came out and directly told them not to stone her, He would be defying a direct scriptural injunction.

He avoided the trap: He didn't directly telling them to act contrary to Scripture. Instead, He told them that the one without sin should cast the first stone.

It is a stunning and powerful story (no wonder someone decided to write it into the Gospel of John, even though it didn't appear in the earliest versions). But notice that Jesus didn't tell them to do what Scripture prescribed. Instead, He found a powerful way to drive home exactly what was wrong with following that scriptural injunction--in a way that avoided their trap.

In short, Jesus disagreed with some of the teachings in the Scriptures of His day. In the Sermon on the Mount, he offered gentle correctives to earlier teachings--teachings which started in a direction but didn't go far enough. The lex talionis command to punish evildoers eye for eye and tooth for tooth may, at the time, have served as a restraint on retributive impulses: don't punish beyond the severity of the crime. But for Jesus, that level of restrain was insufficient. It was a start on a path, perhaps, but only that. Jesus followed the trajectory of that path to its conclusion, and enjoined His listeners to turn the other cheek.

In short, it's clear Jesus didn't have the inerrantist view towards the Scriptures of His day that conservative Christians have towards the Christian Scriptures of today. Conservatives might argue that Jesus would view the modern Bible--or maybe just the New Testament?--in the way they favor, even if the approach to Scripture that He actually modeled is at odds with their approach.

Allow me to treat such a speculative claim with suspicion. If Jesus is the primary revelation of God in history, then it strikes me as appropriate to follow His model for approaching Scripture, and respectfully look beyond the letters on the page to the deeper intentions that finite human authors might have missed, noticing trajectories and exploring where they might lead.

3. In the New Testament, Paul distinguished between his views and the Lord's

 In 1 Corinthians 7:10-12, Paul says the following:
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her...
I've talked about this passage before, so I won't go into details. What interests me is the distinction Paul makes between his own views and those of the Lord. In this passage, it's clear that Paul did not see Himself as taking dictation from God. He made a clear distinction between his own opinions and those of the Lord, and by making the distinction explicit was signaling to his readers that they should treat the injunctions differently--as if he didn't want to claim for himself the kind of authority that he took to accompany Jesus' explicit teachings.

But if inerrantism is true, then Paul's teachings are the inerrant word of God, and so have the same kind of authority as Jesus' words. In other words, if inerrantism is true, then Paul was wrong to make the distinction he made. But that distinction is made by Paul in a letter that's in the Bible. And if inerrantism is true, a distinction made in a letter that's in the Bible has to be accurate. But if it's accurate, inerrantism isn't true. Zounds!

An exercise in creative interpretation might offer the inerrantist the wiggle room to escape this logical trap, but inerrantists are routinely skeptical of such creative interpretation of Scripture. At best, then, this amounts to a difficulty for inerrantism, the sort of difficulty one often sees when trying to force a theory onto subject matter that doesn't quite suit it. Theories can perhaps weather some such difficulties, but if they become too common it is hard to reasonably persist in endorsing the theory.

4. Efforts to overcome apparent contradictions in Scripture lead to a false view of Scripture

Speaking of difficulties of this sort, the Bible isn't a neat, orderly, systematically consistent treatise. The Gospel narratives, for example, aren't identical. They tell the stories of Jesus' life in different ways. Details differ--for example, in accounts of the resurrection. Bart Ehrman does a fine job of cataloguing  many of these in Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible.

Mostly, these tensions aren't explicit contradictions but rather what might be called apparent ones: they don't seem as if they can go together, because you'd need to tell a rather convoluted story to make them fit.

Inerrantists have not been remiss in offering such convoluted stories. But if you need to tell enough of them in order to make your theory map onto what it's supposed to explain, the theory becomes increasingly implausible.

And there's another problem, one that should be of concern to Christians who care about the Bible. The convoluted tales that you have to tell in order to make disparate biblical narratives fit together end up leading you away from an honest appreciation of the message of the biblical authors. As Ehrman puts it, "To approach the stories in this way is to rob each author of his own integrity as an author and to deprive him of the meaning that he conveys in his story."

When you do this, you care more about preserving your theory about the Bible than you do about understanding and taking in its message. For me, this is one of the greatest tragedies of an inerrantist approach to Scripture: It makes it difficult for readers to engage with the Bible on its own terms. It's like someone who is so devoted to a false image of their spouse that they can't see their spouse for the person they really are. Likewise, the steps that need to be taken in order to preserve the doctrine of inerrancy in the face of the Bible's actual content means that it becomes impossible to have an intimate relationship with the Bible as it really is. This is not taking the Bible seriously. It is taking the doctrine of inerrancy seriously at the expense of the Bible.  

5. God is love

Christianity teaches that God is love. In fact, it is the closest thing Christians have to a scriptural definition of God:  "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." (1 John 4:7-8).

If God is love, then we experience God when we love. If God is love, then the primary way we can encounter God is through loving and being loved--that is, through cultivating loving relationships with persons. This may help to explain the Christian view that a person--Jesus--served in history as God's fundamental revelation, rather than a book. Books can't love you. And you can't love a book in the sense of "love" that Christians (and the author of 1 John) have in mind when we say God is love.

When we feel the profound presence of the divine showering love upon us--or when we feel the joy of being loved by others--we are encountering the divine nature as something coming to us from the outside. But when we love our neighbors as ourselves, we are channeling divine love, and experiencing it "from within" (so to speak). The divine nature is moving within us, more intimately connected to us than any mere object of experience. I think this is what the author of 1 John means when he says that whoever does not love does not know God. To love others is to be filled with the spirit of God. It is to let God in.

If any of that is true, then it is by encouraging us to love one another that God makes possible the most profound revelation of the divine nature and will. And while the Bible does encourage us to love one another, the theory about the Bible which takes it to be the inerrant revelation of God may actually be an impediment to love.

We end up focusing more attention on the Bible than on our neighbors. We are more committed to "doing what the Bible says" than we are to loving those around us. Out of a desire to be connected with God, we insist that homosexuality is always and everywhere sinful--and when the gay and lesbian neighbors we are supposed to love cry out in despair, their lives crushed by these teachings, we stifle our compassion, shutting out love in fear that loving them as ourselves might lead us to question the inerrancy of the Bible.

If God is love, then any theory of revelation that tells us to find God by burying our noses in a book is a problematic theory. If God is love, we must look for God in the love we see in the world. The Bible, understood as a flawed and finite human testament to the God of love working in history, can be a deeply meaningful partner in our quest to encounter God and live in the light of divine goodness. But as soon as it is treated as inerrant, it is in danger of becoming a bludgeon used to silence those neighbors who want to share experiences that don't quite fit with this or that verse.

The Bible points away from itself. Respect for it demands that we look up from the page and engage with our neighbors and the creation. God is alive in the world. The Bible tells us that God is alive in the world. In so doing, the book is telling us that if we want to find God, we need to look into our neighbor's face with love, and at the natural world and all its creatures with love.

Because God is there. God is there, revealing Himself in the vibrancy of life and the child's laugh and the mother's tender kiss. God is there, in the gay man who sits by his longtime partner's hospital bedside, gently stroking his brow. God is there, in the joyous wedding vows of the lesbian couple that can finally get a legal marriage after years together.

And any time a too-literal allegiance to the letter of the biblical text causes someone not to see the face of God in that tenderness and joy, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has blocked divine revelation, impeding God's effort to self-disclose to the world.

Monday, June 16, 2014

AA's Critics, Pseudoscience, and Anti-Religious Bias: Considering a Recent Challenge to AA. (Part 3)

This is the third part of a consideration of Lance and Zachary Dodes' critique of AA. In the first part, I called into question their claim that AA helps only about 10% of those who pursue it, and is damaging to the other 90%. In the second part, I consider how they mischaracterize AA's twelve steps--in a way that parallels the distortion of Christian theologies of grace.

For the final installment in this series, I want to (briefly, for me) consider how the Dodes' suspicion of AA may be linked to the deeper science/religion wars. The Dodes' make claims about the ineffectiveness of AA that are far more confident than is warranted, and they impose an uncharitable interpretation of the twelve steps when a more charitable one is available. But why? What lies behind these kinds of errors?

My answer is admittedly speculative--a bit of an exercise in "psychologizing." But I think there are clues in what the Dodes' say that point towards a diagnosis

Let's begin with the title of the Dodes' essay: "The pseudoscience of Alcoholics Anonymous." This title is ambiguous. It might refer to pseudoscience in the study of AA, or it might be accusing AA itself of being a pseudoscience.

While concern about the former seems appropriate, calling AA pseudoscience is a category mistake. AA isn't an empirical study of the world, but a way of life and an underlying way of thinking about life that aims to help those who participate in it overcome addiction and live clean and sober lives.

Unfortunately, the Dodes appear to have more than just the former in mind. This comes out especially when they walk through the twelve steps. As they begin to examine the steps one by one, they set up their discussion by asserting, "Twelve steps sounds like science." That is, they begin their walk-through of the twelve steps by setting up a kind of straw man: AA should be considered a science and evaluated in those terms. But then it's found to be more like religion in its language and aims. And this becomes the basis for a kind of condescending dismissal.

Let's think about what's going on here in a broader context. A common feature of the modern culture wars is the tendency to pit science against religion as if the two were essentially opposed. I think this tendency is a disservice both to science and to religion--and it is, unfortunately, fueled by agendas on both sides.

It's a disservice to both because treating them as competitors leads to distortion: On the one side, it leads to a "scientism" that unjustifiably treats scientific descriptions of the physical world as if they were offering a metaphysical worldview--that is, a view about the fundamental nature of reality and the meaning of life. This happens when it is assumed without warrant that the limits of what science is suited to investigate are identical to the limits of what is real.

On the other side, the conflation of science and religion leads to a superstitious fundamentalism wherein something meant to provide a way of seeing and responding to the world of physical facts is instead reduced to a set of dubious factual claims. When religion sets itself up as offering the best path to answering empirical questions, it has lost touch with what religion is for. It is attempting to do the sort of thing that science does, except badly. In other words, it has devolved into pseudoscience.

For example, instead of offering a religious worldview that invites us to see and respond to the world (the one described by science) as a reality that springs from a vast and creative intelligence, we get the Young Earth Creationist claim that the best way to decide the age of the earth is to deduce it from clues left in the Bible. The creationist then has to scramble for some semblance of scientific credibility in the hopeless attempt to compete with the results of sober and objective research.

Some Young Earth Creationists even find themselves driven to say that their God has systematically deceived us by planting an overwhelming body of evidence for an ancient a test of our faith in what the Bible "teaches" (as if we should trust God after accepting their assertion that God is the perpetrator of the greatest hoax in history).

This is what happens when religion pretends to be science. And there's plenty of it going on out there. But some overreaching critics of religion have taken this distortion of religion for religion's essence, as if there could be no religion without pseudoscience. And this mistake leads to the prejudicial dismissal of ideas and approaches to life that smack of religion. Even those who pay lip service to the social value of religion will often fall prey to this unconscious prejudice.

Such prejudicial dismissal, when it happens, is rarely spelled out explicitly. But if you read through the Dodes' treatment of the twelve steps, what you find is a critique that relies extensively on invoking the labels of "unscientific" and "religious" as if they were equivalent--as if, in establishing that AA is pseudoscience, it is sufficient to show that the twelve steps retain much of their religious origins.

It's not sufficient. And one reason it's not sufficient is precisely this: In an effort to be ecumenical and welcoming to the diverse array of alcoholics within its fold, AA has needed to treat as inessential the very things that are at risk of turning religion into pseudoscience when treated as essential.

Consider: AA has seen the need to set aside specific doctrinal claims, including in the interpretation of its own twelve steps. In the same stroke, it has lost the need to be "right." It is that need that leads so often to assertions that a specific text or institution or prophetic leader is an inerrant authority. And it is the need to stick by this supposedly inerrant authority, to preserve its inerrancy even when that authority makes claims that are about empirical facts rather than transcendent meaning, that so often paves the way to pseudoscience.

Put another way, AA offers a good model of what religion can look like when it is freed from the propensity towards pseudoscience. Focusing on a general way of approaching life and responding to its challenges, but without the demand for doctrinal conformity that prevails in fundamentalistic religion, AA offers a broadly religious way of life that is resistant to the pseudoscience that springs from the insistence on inerrant authority (and the concomitant cries of heresy).

This is not to say that no such fundamentalistic leanings ever infect isolated AA meetings. It is not to say that individual AA members never bring their pseudoscientific ideas into their home groups. Rather, it is to say that AA overall is not a source of pseudoscience in the way that fundamentalistic religion has proven itself to be.

Of course, the same can be said for many progressive expressions of traditional religious faith, which are friendly to good science and its conclusions (even if they are not friendly to a scientism in which invalid inferences from science underwrite metaphysical claims). But too often, those who have been burned in one way or another by fundamentalistic religion see all religion through the lens of this species, and are prone to dismiss progressive faith as some kind of bad-faith attempt to cling to comforting ideas while throwing off religion's irrationality. "Real" religion is the stuff that stands in opposition to science.

My speculative hypothesis, then, is this: The Dodes' critique of AA, riddled as it is with the errors discussed in previous posts, is colored by an underlying prejudice (perhaps a quite unconscious one). That prejudice is born out of two things: first, the fact that AA is not only historically rooted in religion but retains religious and spiritual language and aims; and second, a derisive attitude towards religion springing from (a) the scientist's wholly appropriate disdain for pseudoscience, and (b) the unfortunate prevalence of pseudoscience in fundamentalist religion.

The problem, of course, is that not all religion is the same. And to the extent that AA is religious, it is (largely) a form of religion that can live happily alongside science done with integrity.

Of course, if that is true, then AA members should be willing to engage seriously with careful scientific study of the efficacy of AA's methods relative to alternatives. While I don't think the Dodes' have offered anything critical of AA that would qualify as such a study, should there be serious academic research that demonstrates ways of improving the outcomes of AA's efforts, the AA community ought to be willing to engage with that research.

But, of course, most AA members are not researchers qualified to assess the merits of such research. And they aren't in AA to do research, but to stay sober. To say that the AA community should be open to seriously engaging with such research is not to say that AA members should be skeptical of a way of life that has worked well for them personally.

If you've become a brilliant pianist through a distinct method, a study suggesting an alternative method works better for most people who learn to play piano shouldn't inspire you to jeopardize your achievement by switching to an approach that may not be suited to you. It might, however, mean that if other methods are available and comparably accessible to your students, and some of those students aren't flourishing with you, you might suggest that they try one of the alternatives.

But AA members routinely say, "If you find something that works better for you, go for it." AA is a way of engaging with and thinking about the world, not a scientific study of the relative efficacy of such ways. Furthermore, because of the interpretive flexibility built into AA, there is not a single monolithic approach that falls under AA's rubric. Even within AA, there is room for asking which approach works better, and for whom.

More often than not, the answer to that question comes from personal discovery rather than scientific study. This is not to say that the latter should not be attempted despite the range of practical difficulties discussed in my first post. But it is to say that AA isn't a science. And it is to say that personal decisions about the path to sobriety typically need to be made based on something other than the outcomes of scientific research. Sometimes that path with adopt the forms and language of religion, extracting from religious traditions the fruits of centuries of collective practical experience, fruits which have yet to be scientifically assessed.

And none of these facts imply that AA is pseudoscience.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

AA's Critics and the Mangling of Theologies of Grace: Considering a Recent Challenge to AA. (Part 2)

In a post last week, I began to consider a recent Salon piece by Lance and Zachary Dodes, in which the Dodes argue that Alcoholics Anonymous's 12-step programs are a poor method for treating addiction. In the earlier post, I considered their contention that AA works for only a very small percentage of people (5-10%) and is "harmful to the 90% who don't do well." I explained why I find these claims less than compelling.

In this post and the next one, I want to consider something I think may be going on beneath the surface of the Dodes' essay, something that may help explain why they make such dubious assertions with disproportionate confidence. Although anti-religious bias might not be the best term for it, it's related to the kind of prejudice one finds among many well-meaning humanists--a prejudice that fixates on a distinctive (mis)construal of religion that's widespread among believers and nonbelievers alike, but which is opposed to a more reasonable and beneficial construal.

Mangling the Twelve Steps

My suspicion that some kind of prejudice is in play is elevated by several tensions and confusions in the Dodes' critique of AA. These come out especially as they walk through the twelve steps.

For example, one recurring feature of the Dodes' critique is their charge that AA creates the illusion of control by giving the addict a series of steps to follow: "AA offers a comforting veneer of actionable change: it is something you can do." They raise this concern in their lead-in to examining the twelve steps, and in the very next paragraph consider the first of those steps: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” They dismiss the value of this step on the grounds that "it lacks any clinical merit or scientific backing."

The tension here lies in the fact that the first step is about admitting that recovery requires letting go of the idea that you can do it on your own. So which is it? Should the twelve steps be accused of inculcating a false sense of control in the addict? Or should they be accused of encouraging addicts to give up the illusion of control even though such an act of release has no "clinical merit or scientific backing"? Maybe the charge here is that the twelve steps contradict themselves.

If so, the problem may be that the Dodes haven't really understood what the twelve steps are about. They haven't found the interpretation that makes sense. What they are targeting is an interpretation that doesn't make sense at all. Doing that is worthwhile, of course: If AA is going to work, it's the version that makes sense which will work, not the version that doesn't. And so it's beneficial to expose incoherent interpretations and warn addicts against working them.

But if there is a version of the steps that isn't contradictory, assuming that the steps are essentially confused  does a disservice to addicts who would benefit from AA if they only got past their mangled understanding. It's exactly similar to the kind of attack on religion that we find in the New Atheists: They treat the mangled fundamentalist understanding of religion as the very essence of religion, never considering the possibility that there exists a more promising and life-enriching understanding.

And there can be little doubt that the Dodes are attacking a mangled understanding of the twelve steps.

The Dodes excoriate the twelve steps for inspiring "self-flagellation," as if the twelve steps were about beating yourself up about your failings: "The degradation woven through these steps also seems unwittingly designed to exacerbate, rather than relieve, the humiliating feelings so common in addiction." And they make this charge despite recognizing that the first step "is intended to evoke a sense of surrender that might give way to spiritual rebirth."

It doesn't occur to them that this first step sets the tone for understanding the rest: addiction is an illness, not a fault, and from the perspective that concedes something greater than ourselves, the guilt and shame that comes from clinging to a vaunted sense of control can be released. The idea is that, from the right perspective, we can honestly recognize our inescapable imperfections without beating ourselves up over them, and so can seek the kind of help and support required to become better than we could be on our own (something we can't do so long as we are hiding from our imperfections in order to avoid the guilt that we attach to them).

The Dodes deride the fourth step's call to make "a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves" and the tenth step's call to continue taking "personal inventory," while extolling the capacity of competent therapy to promote the kind of honest self-awareness that can lead to positive change. That the twelve steps are about cultivating the kind of inner honesty essential to therapeutic breakthroughs doesn't even enter the Dodes' radar screen, because they link AA's call to acknowledge our "shortcomings" and hand them over to our higher power with "the fundamentalist religious principle...that the path to recovery is to cleanse oneself of sin."

It doesn't occur to them that this funamentalist religious principle, which drives people to fixate on their sins in an effort to purge themselves, is the very opposite of what is intended when AA calls on its members to hand their shortcomings over to their higher power. It's not accidental that steps six and seven don't say "we are entirely ready to make ourselves responsible for overcoming our defects of character" and "arrogantly take charge of the effort to overcome our own shortcomings." The steps don't call for this because "cleansing oneself of sin" is the very opposite of what the twelve steps are about.

Here's the idea: One crucial barrier to genuine self-understanding is that people are afraid of what they will find when they honestly introspect. They are afraid because (a) they know they will find serious imperfections, and (b) they have a habit of beating themselves up ruthlessly about their imperfections. You could avoid this fear of introspection, of course, by convincing yourself in advance that there aren't any imperfections to be found. But that, of course, is going to be a lie. Every human being has imperfections. You can't begin a project of honest introspection by telling yourself a lie. The alternative solution is to stop beating yourself up about your inevitable human limitations.

That is what the twelve steps are about: leaving behind the perspective from which you deserve to be beaten up for your shortcomings, so that you can look inward without fear of those shortcomings. The promise of a perspective greater than our own from which our shortcomings are already set aside, a perspective from which we can hand our failings over to something greater than ourselves as opposed to beating ourselves up over them--these are the defining features of the twelve steps.

With such a perspective in place, a crucial impediment to instrospective self-understanding--namely, one's propensity for self-flagellation--can be set aside. The addict is able to engage in the kind of internal inventory and honest self-discovery that the Dodes think the best therapy can help facilitate--and which, thankfully (since not everyone can afford therapy), can also be facilitated with the help of talented AA sponsors and peer counselors.

In short, the Dodes have an understanding of the twelve steps that is almost exactly backwards. Sadly, their confusion is entirely predictable.

Works vs Grace

The Dodes display a classic confusion about the nature of the twelve steps. I say the confusion is classic because the twelve steps have their origins in the Christian theology of grace. But in the history of Christianity, the theology of grace has been repeatedly misconstrued and misappropriated by people who can't let go of "works theology." The result is that good news is twisted into bad news, a message of hope is turned into a threat, and a liberating idea is reframed as a call to self-flagellation.

That the Dodes misconstrue the twelve steps as they do is no surprise, because even those who explicitly endorse the theology of grace have had a long tradition of finding ways to subvert its meaning.

According to the Christian theology of grace, we are saved, not by what we do, but by what God does for us when we get out of the way. And the first thing that God does for us is forgive us--a forgiveness that liberates us from the weight of our offenses, from guilt and shame, precisely because it springs from the author of our very being. If the infinite creator of all does not hold our offenses against us, who are we to do so? This is what traditional Christian theology has called "justification."

The second thing God does is provide spiritual resources for becoming better than we can be on our own. By releasing ourselves to something greater than ourselves, giving our wills over to a good that transcends us, we transcend ourselves. That is, we become better than we could be on our own. This is what traditional Christian theology has called "sanctification."

AA has extracted this theology from its Christian context, offering its practical dimensions purged of specific doctrines and creeds. The way in which releasing yourself to a higher power opens doors to self-improvement can be viewed, within AA, as the result of a metaphysical infusion of divine grace. But it needn't be. There's no cry of heresy if you think of it as a shift in perspective that erases self-imposed limits. Contrary to what the Dodes say, there is nothing preventing you, in AA, from conceiving of your higher power as your best self, the self you could become were you to let go of the narratives and habits that are constraining you.

A friend told me of one person who decided, cynically, to make a doorknob his higher power. What he discovered is that when he went through the twelve steps earnestly, the doorknob became a functional focus for the steps. He released his shortcomings to the doorknob, and they didn't weight him down anymore. The doorknob was transformed into a symbol of something else.

Others less cynical but equally skeptical of supernatural powers have envisioned that their higher power is the support network of love and community, within AA and elsewhere, that encourages them to be more than they thought they could be and offers resources greater than a single person can hope to possess alone.

What AA seeks to preserve is the practical dimension of this theology of grace: the release and openness to transformation, the reaching out for support and strength, the giving up on stubborn reliance on one's own willpower, the attitude of self-forgiveness that makes honesty possible and turns the act of making amends into an exercise of responsible relationship-building instead of an exercise in self-recrimination. AA thereby also affirms the distinction between using moral principles as a map and and using them as a bludgeon--that is, using them as a guide to a better life instead of using them as a tool of judgment and condemnation.

By contrast, we have the theology of works: The idea that it all rests on our own shoulders, that we are to blame for every imperfection, that we can achieve perfection on our own, save ourselves...and that our failure to do so is our own fault. In a theology of works, everything depends on our own willpower--and so, if we fail to live up to moral principles, we are blameworthy. Morality is thus twisted so that it becomes about guilt and blame instead of guidance.

I should point out that a theology of grace does not hold that humans aren't called to good works, or that they don't have responsibilities, etc. What a theology of grace says is that our salvation does not depend on our own works. Instead, our good works depend on our salvation: We live up to our responsibilities because we have opened ourselves up to that which makes it possible to do so--what Christianity calls the grace of God. We don't overcome our flaws by "will power" and personal effort, but by a connection to something that gives us more strength than we can ever muster alone. If we want to transcend our limits we don't do so by relying on our limited self but by reaching out to something that is not limited in the ways that we are. Our "salvation" is found in making the connection to that something--and we make that connection not by an effort of personal will but by an act of release.

Again, AA is open to wholly secular conceptualizations of this process: You might conceive of your higher power as a community that is greater than the sum of its parts, which can offer to you the resources for being better than you could be alone. Whether this works as well as conceiving of your higher power as the infinite creator of the universe is a different matter, and one I think it would be very hard to assess (for reasons mentioned in the earlier post). But even in its secularized understandings, it remains a kind of theology of grace.

In the history of Christianity, the theology of grace has prevailed in theory...but in practice, the theology of works has continued to operate behind the scenes, twisting and distorting the message of grace.

This happens in all sorts of ways. The idea that our salvation comes from divine grace through the channel of faith is converted into the idea that we are saved by the work of our own faith. And so we focus in on our faith, struggling to make sure it is pure enough, fixating on it and beating ourselves up if we fail to show sufficient faith. People say "let go and let God"...and then beat themselves up for failing to do this work for which they see themselves as wholly responsible. The "good news" of Christianity--that humanity has been saved by God's saving work in Christ--is transformed into the terrible news that if you fail to get your beliefs about Christ just right and then perform the act of making Him your Lord and Savior, you will writhe in eternal anguish in the fiery pits of everlasting hell.

At every turn, Christians have found ways to twist and distort the core message of divine grace, making it all about what we do. Paradoxically, what really requires work is resisting the urge to make it all about our own works. We're saved by our own faith, or by getting our beliefs right, or by believing the Bible, or by saying a prayer in which we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, or by saying such a prayer with the right degree of earnestness--anything but our salvation depending on something greater than ourselves.

The Dodes' utter inversion of the twelve steps--getting AA's core message completely backwards--falls cleanly into this pattern. It's as if they've seen the connection between AA and Christian theology, but have experienced Christianity largely in terms of these historic distortions. They transfer the distortions to AA, and condemn the program based on a distorted understanding of it.

But as understandable as this may be, it remains a mistake. The theology of grace should not be judged by the flaws in theologies that wear grace as a cloak. Instead, we should assess the theology of grace and the theology of works on their own terms--and if we decide that there is something problematic about the latter that the former avoids (as the Dodes seem to think, albeit in wholly secular terms), we should look for ways to encourage the former despite the seductiveness of the latter.

Instead, the Dodes treat the mangled variant of AA as the proper way--perhaps the only way--to understand it. In so doing, they are not just unfair to AA. More seriously, they help to perpetuate the misconstrual and the harms that it can do.

If they really want to help addicts recover, it would seem far better to give AA an honest and careful assessment that recognizes both the harmful misconstruals of its methodologies and the more promising understandings--and then encourage those who pursue AA to approach the steps as they were meant to be approached, in a spirit of grace.

I suspect that one reason the Dodes don't approach things this way lies in a common tendency among those who display an anti-religious bias: the tendency to see all of religion through the lens of its most pernicious expressions. The religion of fear and hellfire, the religion of hate-yourself-because-you're-a-sinner, is their model of religion. When they see the religious roots of AA and the persistence of religious language and forms, their stereotype of religion rises up and offers a template for interpreting the twelve steps that admits of no more humanistic rivals.

Such stereotyping of religion can be resisted. And if we want to be honest in our engagement with the diversity of religious communities and those influenced by them, we need to resist such stereotyping.

In my next and final post in this series, I will consider another way in which I see anti-religious bias at work in the Dodes' essay--in a way that reflects the false opposition between science and religion.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Free E-Book Today Only: What on Earth Do We Know about Heaven?

Today only, Randal Rauser's book on the afterlife, What on Earth Do We Know about Heaven?, is available for free as a Kindle e-book. From June 6-12, it will be available at the discounted price of $3.99.

Randal Rauser is a thoughtful theologian who has written a number of excellent books aimed at making theological arguments and perspectives accessible to a lay readership. He also runs an active and lively blog here. If you haven't read any of his books, a free e-book is as good a place to start as any.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Is "the Sober Truth" about AA sober and true? Considering a recent challenge to AA. (Part 1)

Is Alcoholics Anonymous being subjected to unfair criticism--perhaps partly rooted in unconscious anti-religious bias against AA's Christian roots?

This was the question I found myself asking after reading a recent Salon piece by Lance Dodes and Zachary Dodes, authors of the recent book, The Sober Truth. The primary author, Lance Dodes, is a clinical psychiatrist who's been treating addiction for decades--and he seems to be on something of a crusade. In a recent NPR interview, he asserted that "AA has probably the worst success rate in all of medicine" and is "harmful to the 90 percent who don't do well."

This is quite a scathing indictment of one of the most respected and venerable organizations for fighting alcoholism and addiction. And as I read the Salon piece (an excerpt from the recent book), I started out skeptical, became irritated, and ended up a bit angry. Dodes does make a number of good points about the way our culture has appropriated AA's 12-step model--making it the heart of for-profit rehab centers, and endorsing it to the exclusion of other approaches to promoting sobriety. But when it comes to Dodes' direct challenge to the value of AA, the argument in the Salon piece amounts to little but sophistry.

In fact, it reminded me a bit of Richard Dawkins' rhetorically excessive and intellectually sloppy "take-down"of religion in The God Delusion. Which might, I suppose, mean that Dodes and Dodes have a bestseller on their hands. But it doesn't mean that the millions who benefit from AA should pay much attention to them.

In the next couple of posts on this blog, I want to consider some of the problems I found with the Dodes' supposed take-down of AA, at least as laid out in the Salon piece. While it's possible that some of these problems are resolved in their book, my decisions about what books to spend time on need to made in the light of the information available prior to investing those resources. And the Salon piece leads me to be very skeptical that the investment would be worth it.

Here's why.

1. Inconsistent Approach to Anecdotes

Part of my initial skepticism when I started reading the piece was based on my experience: the people I know who've made a sincere effort to work the program have had great success with it, which is not what I'd expect if Dodes' 5-10% success rate were accurate. This is "anecdotal" evidence, of course--specific personal experiences used to assess a general claim.

But anecdotal evidence is not always bad. If a general claim is at odds with one's personal experience, this doesn't mean the general claim is false. But it does give one reason to be skeptical--especially if one's body of personal experiences would be very surprising or unlikely were the general claim true.

But while Dodes is happy to sweepingly dismiss the anecdotal evidence in support of AA with a few gestures (pointing out that the general public only hears from the AA success stories), when it comes to his own astonishing claim that AA is "harmful to the 90% who don't do well," Dodes resorts to...anecdotal evidence.

He tells the story of "Dominic," a patient of his who got out of AA the same mangled understanding that Dodes puts forward as if it were the only one (more on this in the next post). Dominic wasn't able to achieve sobriety when he tried to follow his mangled understanding of AA's principles, but he did manage to uncover what was really triggering his drinking after eight months of (potentially expensive) therapy. Apparently, since pursuing the AA path kept Dominic from getting the therapy he needed (as if pursuing therapy and AA were mutually exclusive, as if there aren't tons of people who do both), AA delayed his enlightenment--and may even have triggered him (when, for example, he misinterpeted AA's tradition of giving out tokens to celebrate milestones in sobriety as a tally system that played into his fears of failure).

I'm sorry. When you make a claim to the effect that AA is bad for 90% of people who pursue it, you need more than a dubious anecdote or two. An anecdotal experience might lead you to be suspicious of a program--but to decide whether that suspicion is justified, you need more than anecdotes. In the Salon piece, that's all we get.

2. Dubious Statistics

But what about Dodes' assertion that AA has a low success rate, of only 5-10%? In the Salon piece, Dodes assures us that this figure comes from peer-reviewed studies. I'm sure there are such studies. But what exactly are these studies measuring? What is their definition of "success"? According to a Scientific American article, a 16-year study of problem drinkers published in 2006 found the following:
Of those who attended at least 27 weeks of AA meetings during the first year, 67 percent were abstinent at the 16-year follow-up, compared with 34 percent of those who did not participate in AA. Of the subjects who got therapy for the same time period, 56 percent were abstinent versus 39 percent of those who did not see a therapist—an indication that seeing a professional is also beneficial.
At least on one reading of "success rates," this could be taken to mean that AA has a 67% success rate. But, of course, to simply assert that AA has been shown to have an almost 70% success rate based on this study would be seriously misleading--especially since not participating in AA has, by this study, a 34% success rate.

Dodes' figure, without the proper context and qualifications, is likely to be similarly misleading. (From what I gather here, one common source of the 5% success figure is that it's a measure of retention in the program after a year, and has its roots in a misconstrual of an internal AA study--with at least two studies indicating a substantially higher retention rate. But are retention rates really the best way to measure success? How many show up at a meeting or two well before they're ready to commit to the challenge of getting sober?)

Even if we can settle on a useful definition of success, another problem is this: In measuring the success of a twelve-step program, you need to distinguish between the success of those who actually work the steps from the success of those who just show up. It's like the difference between measuring how many of those using an antibiotic properly are cured of their infection, and measuring how many of those sent home with a prescription for the antibiotic are cured. If many of those prescribed the antibiotic don't actually use it or use it properly, it's hard to assess the antibiotic's efficacy under proper use--unless we have some way to determine who is using it properly and only count their cure-rate.

Dodes actually invokes the antibiotic analogy at one point in the Salon piece, in response to AA's claims that those who really work the steps are very successful at remaining sober. Dodes takes this to imply that if AA doesn't work for you, the fault is yours. He finds this an irresponsible assertion that would be dismissed out of hand were it made with respect to an antibiotic or new chemotherapy treatment. "In professional medicine, if a treatment doesn’t work, it’s the treatment that must be scrutinized, not the patient."

Here, Dodes has failed to pay any attention to the crucial distinction made above. In professional medicine, if prescribing a course of treatment isn't working, good doctors would first ask why. Are the patients actually following through on the treatment plan as prescribed? If not, then that may be the problem. In other words, in professional medicine you do need to "scrutinize" the patient: Is the patient skipping doses or stopping treatment before the course of antibiotics has been completed? If you don't, you are in danger of dismissing a valuable treatment based on patient error.

Likewise, when it comes to AA, we need to focus on the success-rate of those who actually follow the 12 steps properly if we want to know how successful they are in helping alcoholics stay sober.

But doing that is going to be difficult in the case of AA for a couple of reasons. And this leads to my third concern about Dodes' Salon piece.

3. Treating Absence of Evidence as Evidence of Absence.

In the case of AA, the nature of the beast makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to come up with definitive conclusions concerning the success rate of those who actually work the program. One reason for this is that AA's "treatment plan" is very different from a course of antibiotics. When it comes to antibiotics, all you need to do is swallow the pills on schedule until they're gone. While your attitude might have some placebo effect, it's going to be relatively minor.

But working the steps in AA is more like following the practice guidelines of your music teacher: commitment and focus matter at least as much as plodding through all the assigned etudes and scales and practice pieces. Put simply, difficult-to-measure subjective phenomena play a much bigger role when it comes to making proper use of what AA offers than they do when it comes to making proper use of antibiotics. In AA, there's a difference between working the program and going through the motions, and it's a difference that matters a lot for one's chances of success. It's also a difference that's difficult to take into account in a study.

That difficulty is compounded by the "anonymous" feature of AA. Here's how one overview of studies into AA puts the problem:
Accurate reports about the success rates of 12-step programs like AA and NA are notoriously difficult to obtain. The few studies that have attempted to measure the effectiveness of the program have often been contradictory. Fiercely protective of their anonymity, AA forbids researchers from conducting clinical studies of its millions of members.
In the face of that commitment to anonymity, it is hard to do any kind of study that takes into account the distinction between the committed twelve-stepper and the guy who's going through the motions. Because if you want to take that distinction into account you're going to need inside information about each person in your study--the kind of qualitative information that humans use to determine who is really committed and who is just floating along. And I can't see how you could get that kind of information without violating the confidentiality of the AA model.

Finally, there's the problem of accounting for variation in understanding and approach among AA groups. Just as with religious communities, there are different ways of understanding the 12 steps, different attitudes towards the Big Book, and different attitudes towards alternative, non-AA approaches to sobriety. Some AA groups are similar to fundamentalist exclusivists, and some are more like religious progressives. With that kind of variability, does it even make sense to ask about the success of AA as a single, monolithic entity?

What does all of this mean? It means that it would be very difficult, given the limitations of the real world, to come up with a reliable scientific way to measure the success rate of committed participation in AA. That doesn't mean no measures can be taken. But it does mean that they will typically fail to account for all the important variables, may not measure the right things all the time, etc.

But Dodes seems to treat this limitation of science as if it were the failure of AA. In this respect, he reminds me of those among the New Atheists who, under the influence of logical positivism, dismiss as unbelievable any assertion that resists scientific testing.

In the Salon piece, Dodes notes the following:
In 2006, one of the most prestigious scientific research organizations in the world, the Cochrane Collaboration, conducted a review of the many studies conducted between 1966 and 2005 and reached a stunning conclusion: “No experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA” in treating alcoholism.
This, of course, is the very conclusion one would expect given what I've said above--but Dodes presents the conclusion of the Cochrane Collaboration as if the failure to unequivocally demonstrate AA's effectiveness were reason to suppose that it's ineffective.

This is logical positivism on steroids: if it resists unequivocal proof in an experimental study, don't believe it--even if eighty years of human experience give reason to think it has considerable merit.

Let's be clear: there are lots of truths that we have yet to demonstrate are true. There are lots of truths that we will never be able to demonstrate are true. And there are some things that we have reason to think are true based on collective wisdom and a rich body of anecdotal evidence, but which we haven't been able to unequivocally demonstrate as true using experimental studies.

The rigor of science is wonderful when it can be applied--but there are some questions that fall in principle outside the scope of scientific inquiry and others where a scientific approach faces formidable practical hurdles. The question of AA's success rate falls into the latter category. And so, even if AA is the most successful addiction-recovery program around, we shouldn't be surprised if, to this point, "no experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA."

We should, however, be very surprised when someone who quotes this conclusion then asserts--in the same paragraph--that AA has a 5-10% success rate, as if some experimental studies have been able to unequivocally demonstrate the ineffectiveness of AA.

Rather than quoting dubious numbers out of context, what we should do is wrestle with what to do when we have to make a decision but don't have precise "scientific" answers. Looking into better ways to find those answers makes sense--but in the meantime, should you check out AA if you or a loved one is struggling with addiction?

The Dodes, at least in their Salon piece, don't offer much reason not to. The best they offer are some anecdotes, dubious statistics out of context, and the fallacious insinuation that absence of clear scientific evidence of success is evidence of failure. While they are surely right that therapy can often provide useful insights in the pursuit of sobriety, there is nothing preventing those who attend AA from pursuing therapy as well--unless they are prevented by financial constraints, in which case it's a good thing that they at least have AA, which is free.

In the next post in this series (which I may not get to for a few days), I will look at how the Dodes walk through the 12-steps, focusing on how their understanding of those steps seems to be distorted by (perhaps unconscious) anti-religious bias and a tendency to read the steps through the lens of fundamentalist theology.