Can Religion Help Addiction ?

Can Religion Help Addiction ?
"Addiction Isn't What You Think It Is," says a headline in the Huffington Post above a book review, the gist of which I interpret as another case where the science is agreeing with age-old religious teachings. (A link to the article is in the forum post for this article.)

I was a teen in the 1960s in California, home of flower children and the philosophy of love and idealism that turned into drugs and dropping out. Allergies, squeamishness and dislike of anything bitter may have kept me from the most common recreational substances of the day, but I watched a number of people I love deal with additions of various kinds: cigarettes, marijuana, alcohol, gambling, promiscuity, religious extremism and other responses to depression.

In college, I was in a pre-vet/pre-med program about the time that cellular physiology and biochemistry were developing. Medicine and the treatment of diseases of the body--and the mind--were becoming more and more mechanical: take this drug to deal with this problem. "It's a disease," was replacing, "It's a sin." Whether disease, genes, or the Devil made you do it, personal responsibility is very unpopular, except maybe for the purpose of shaming the hapless victims.

There was an equivalent rise in alarm about people becoming addicted to painkillers, legal and not. That fear has many doctors, even today, under-medicating cancer patients for pain, even though repeated studies have shown that when used while there is pain, even heroin derivatives are not addicting. Street-users of often much less concentrated heroin become addicts; medical patients do not.

If the author's premise--and the science backs him up--is correct that social isolation is a trigger for addiction, we will have to change a lot more than medical treatments and the war on drugs. We will have to change ourselves. The process goes even deeper than the need to understand what drives a person to addiction. Human beings by nature have a deep need to bond and form connections. It's all about relationships. If we can't connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find. He says we should stop talking about addiction, and instead call it bonding. A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn't bond as fully with anything else.

Even smoking is much less about nicotine addiction than it is a social bonding experience. Observe the rituals of smoking in a group; they are in essence reaching out, accepting, sharing, and belonging! To a certain extent, alcoholic beverages are marketed in the same way, for the social benefits that are less about the substance than the chance to belong to a happy group having fun together.

So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection. And this is what religion has always provided: a caring and supportive community. The faithful behave in certain ways initially out of obedience that later becomes natural. Smiling, for instance, can fool the brain into feeling better, which can then result in more smiling, etc.

But religious belief provides something else powerful: attitude adjustment. Attitude drives behavior, but the whole is a feedback loop. Psychology has discovered that it is actually easier to intervene on the behavior side. William James, one of the fathers of psychology, said in Principles of Psychology, 1890: “Sit all day in a moping posture, sigh, and reply to everything with a dismal voice, and your melancholy lingers. …If we wish to conquer undesirable emotional tendencies in ourselves, we must …go through the outward movements of those contrary dispositions which we prefer to cultivate.” It predates psychotropic drugs and has been pretty much abandoned in the economics of prescribing and selling drugs.

Johann Hari, author of the book being reviewed, makes a point about how current technologies and culture are increasing individuals' isolation, which enhances susceptibilities to addictions and sickness. Bahá'ís see this isolation as caused by humanity turning away from its true selves, the Spirit and its spiritual nature. Hari points out that reversing isolation isn't just a political challenge. It doesn't only force a change of mindset, but a change of hearts--which is what religion has always been about.

Followers of the Bahá'í Faith are people who are not only working at personal transformation--which sometimes includes reversing addictions--but are also equally involved with social change, building a planet wide culture of mutual support, acceptance of diversity, open communication and rational exploration of science and religion. "The body of the human world is sick. Its remedy and healing will be the oneness of the kingdom of humanity. Its life is the Most Great Peace. Its illumination and quickening is love. Its happiness is the attainment of spiritual perfections." - 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 19

So far as I can tell, I don't suffer from anything that could be labeled an addiction, but there are things I can do to improve, to grow, to be happy. I can decide to be a happy and grateful person each day, and then act upon this attitude. It will be necessary to find a community that encourages this direction, because it's very hard work to do alone. This is where faith in the process and the destination are critical.

"Be calm, be strong, be grateful, and become a lamp full of light, that the darkness of sorrows be annihilated, and the sun of everlasting joy arise from the dawning place of heart and soul, shining brightly." - Tablets of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, vol. II, p. 405

You Should Also Read:
Human Nature Doesn't Match Reality TV
How Faith Will Change the World
If Things Look Bad Change Your Perspective

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