Archive for June, 2011

Self photographed figure of the Alcoholics Anonymous, via Wikimedia CommonsOn the heels of my previous post on the subject of substance-abuse treatment not getting the skeptical attention it deserves, I thought I’d address one of the more basic problems with Alcoholics Anonymous as an organization … and that is, its overtly religious nature. That’s right, folks, it’s a religious organization!

Let me say at the outset this about AA: Its members (including a number I’ve spoken to) claim it’s not to a religious organization, and some swear they’ve never been forced to pray or do anything religious. My guess is that some chapters truly do not conduct themselves along religious lines. It’s a decentralized organization, and it’s the nature of such groups to have a lot of variation. So it’s entirely possible that some AA members sincerely find that AA is not, in their experience, religious. If you’re one of them, bully for you. The truth of the matter, however, is that AA’s origins are religious, and its central literature — which is used by all of its chapters everywhere — contains clear religious content and instruction.

One of AA’s co-founders, Bill Wilson (better known in AA circles as “Bill W.”) had been a member of a non-denominational Prohibition-era Christian movement known as the Oxford Group. Though he later left it, many of its principles ended up in AA. Moreover, AA’s other co-founder, Dr Bob Smith (aka “Dr. Bob”), admitted that the early AA had grown out of Bible studies.

So AA’s origins are demonstrably religious.

But much more important for modern members of AA, it’s more than just the group’s genesis which is religious. Its content is, too. Most notably, Chapter 4 of AA’s core instruction book, known simply as “the Big Book” (WebCite cached version), states clearly and unambiguously that God’s existence is a “fact,” that each and every person is basically religious, and that therefore all are obligated to believe in God:

Actually we were fooling ourselves, for deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God. It may be obscured by calamity, by pomp, by worship of other things, but in some form or other it is there. For faith in a Power greater than ourselves, and miraculous demonstrations of that power in human lives, are facts as old as man himself.

We finally saw that faith in some kind of God was a part of our make-up, just as much as the feeling we have for a friend. Sometimes we had to search fearlessly, by He was there. He was as much a fact as we were. We found the Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found.

Moreover, several of the “Twelve Steps” (cached) — which are the heart of the organization’s meaning and very existence — openly mention a deity, particularly the following:

  • Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

  • Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

  • Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

  • Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

  • Step 7: Humbly asked Him [i.e. God] to remove our shortcomings.

  • Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Now, a lot of AAers will point to the words “as we understood Him,” attached to some of these references to God, and claim this means members can pick anything and name it “God.” But really, all these words do is make AA non-sectarian (i.e. it doesn’t matter what religion or sect one belongs to), not non-religious. AA’s non-sectarian nature makes sense, since it emerged from a non-sectarian Christian movement (i.e. the Oxford Group). What doesn’t make sense is to suggest that the Big Book or the 12 Steps don’t mandate some sort of religious belief. Of course they do! They can hardly do otherwise, worded as they are!

Again, I realize a lot of AA members will say they’re not religious. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. But really, that makes no difference. AA’s core literature … i.e. the Big Book and the 12 Steps … mandate belief in a God (some God, any God) for the member. That makes it a religious organization. Until those mentions of God are excised from the Big Book and the 12 Steps, it will remain a religious organization. Period.

Update: Courtesy of friendthegirl, here are a couple of related links on Stinkin’ Thinkin’:

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments 4 Comments »

James Arthur Ray, left, and his attorney, Thomas Kelly, right, stand in the courtroom of Judge Warren R. Darrow, in the Yavapai County Courthouse in Camp Verde, Arizona on June 22, 2011. (Tom Tingle / Associated Press)I blogged a number of times on thesweat-lodge deaths” that occurred near Sedona, AZ back in October 2009. It took authorities a while to get around to it, but authorities finally arrested New Age guru James Arthur Ray — at whose “Spiritual Warriors” event the deaths took place — and the results of the lengthy trial are now in, as the Los Angeles Times reports (WebCite cached article):

A jury in Arizona convicted a bestselling author and self-help guru Wednesday in the deaths of three clients during a sweat lodge ceremony in 2009 that was intended to help participants overcome adversity to reach their full potential.

After hearing four months of testimony, the eight-man, four-woman jury deliberated for fewer than 12 hours before finding James Arthur Ray guilty of three counts of negligent homicide.

The panel acquitted Ray of the more serious charges of manslaughter.

As the Times explains, Ray exhibited both an awareness that some folks in the sweat lodge were in distress, and that the potential for disaster was present:

Prosecutors argued that Ray was criminally negligent in subjecting Kirby Brown, Liz Neuman and James Shore to life-threatening conditions, and that he deserved prison for their deaths. They played a recording of him urging participants to ignore their bodies’ signs of distress during what he called a “hellacious” event.

It turns out that at least someone has learned a lesson from this catastrophe:

The family of Kirby Brown announced Wednesday that they would start a nonprofit group to try to police the self-help industry. “As the horrific details of the three deaths emerged in this trial, we realized that the potential danger posed by ‘self-help’ gurus extends well beyond James Ray,” the family said in a statement.

It’s long past time to look at these gurus and hold them accountable for what they say and do. When they host “hellacious” events, and “hell” ensues, they need to be punished for having done so.

Hat tip: Apathetic Agnostic Church.

Photo credit: Tom Tingle / Associated Press via LA Times.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments 1 Comment »

AA in SL5BI’m going to bring up a topic which I haven’t yet addressed here, which desperately needs to be examined critically and brought to heel. And that’s substance abuse treatment, aka SAT.

I bring it up because (via the Skeptic’s Dictionary) I came across a site/blog called Stinkin’ Thinkin’. It critiques most forms of SAT, but focuses on Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and its associated “12-step philosophy” which is followed by many other groups. In the process of reviewing the site, I noticed, on this page:

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog throwing tantrums about the fact that addiction gets no play among the skeptic and new atheist writers out there – people who actively combat quackery and religious influence in public policy. How does it escape these people that a whole branch of public health has already been handed over to the faith healers?

The author is absolutely correct that this topic has been neglected by skeptics … and I agree that has to change, because the field of SAT is — overall — a vast, festering cesspool of woo, nonsense, and even fraud, and most of it is predicated on religious notions about human nature.

It’s not as though no skeptics have tried to go after this field. The Skeptic’s Dictionary has had an entry on the subject for a long time. And it was the target of a season-two episode of the show Penn & Teller: Bullshit!. But it’s true that nowhere near enough critical attention has been paid to SAT.

As for why prominent skeptics haven’t addressed its many faults, I can only speculate … and that would be a waste of time. I can say that I haven’t covered it, because quite honestly, it just wasn’t something I focused on. I should have brought it up before, but didn’t. That neglect ends now.

The problems with SAT are myriad. I can’t even begin to address them all. But most of them are all based on two basic premises, which lie at the heart of most forms of SAT: First, that all “addictions” are “diseases” that require treatment; and second, that “addiction” is a “condition-for-life” which can never be eliminated, only transcended — usually with the help of God (which in the language of AA and most related “12-step groups” is euphemistically called “a Higher Power”).

It may seem strange for me to say that not all “addictions” are problems requiring treatment, but it’s true. There are lots of people who indulge in substances like alcohol or recreational drugs, sometimes compulsively, but they have jobs and families and friendships, and otherwise function just fine (aside maybe from the occasional hangover or bout of “the munchies”). Of course, there are some folks who can’t control themselves, and who screw up their lives. They may need some help to get back on track … but not everyone who uses substances will reach this point.

As for the idea that addiction is something that can’t be cured, obviously the intention behind this assertion is to set up a dependency. The “addict” can never be free; s/he will forever after rely on “the Higher Power” and the 12-step group in order to function. This premise serves the same purpose in 12-step programs as the notion of “original sin” does in Christianity.

The real problem with all of this is that the notion that “addiction” is an incurable condition has seeped into psychiatry generally, and a reliance on 12-step programs has become entrenched in it. It’s common for “addicts” to be told by their doctors, therapists, social workers, etc. to attend 12-step meetings. The problem is that such programs haven’t been demonstrated effective (WebCite cached article), and most professionals are either aware of this, or ought to be but aren’t. My guess is that a lot of these professionals are well-meaning, and just looking for ways for their “addict” patients to occupy their time, in a setting in which their problems are taken seriously by others they can relate to. In other words, they don’t really view it as “treatment,” therefore, and don’t care that outcomes are poor.

But the poor outcomes are precisely why professionals should stop recommending 12-step programs to their patients. These groups are more than just a venue to socialize; they keep repeating to their members that they cannot ever be truly “well,” and that message, once absorbed, will forever keep them from getting over their “addiction.”

Of particular interest to me is the tendency of courts to order addicted offenders into 12-step programs. Most of them are religious in nature, and this means that judges are essentially forcing people to adhere to religious notions against their will. But even the small number of such groups which aren’t explicitly religious still keep telling addicts that they’re forever defective and can never be fixed. It would be much better if courts put people into programs that are not only not religious, but which have demonstrable records of success. AA and its relatives in the 12-step world have not managed this.

At any rate, I intend to discuss this topic in the future; it’s long past time the floodlight of critical thinking has been cast on SAT.

Photo credit: john-norris.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments 21 Comments »

Across the US, more and more prosecutions are being brought against women who lose their babies. Photograph: Alamy / The GuardianAmong the Right’s many mantras is a steady drone of whining about what they call “judicial activism” and the related “legal activism.” This is their term for when a judge issues a ruling, or a lawsuit is filed, with which they subjectively disagree. They’re essentially accusing the judges and/or lawyers of basing their decisions and actions not on the facts of the cases or on the law, but on their own personal beliefs. They just can’t abide the idea that, sometimes, their own beliefs aren’t borne out by circumstance or the law.

Even so, the Right — particularly the Religious Right — is nonetheless guilty of its own forms of legal activism. The (UK) Guardian reports on one of these, the practice of prosecuting women who’ve lost their babies (WebCite cached article):

[Rennie] Gibbs [of Mississippi] became pregnant aged 15, but lost the baby in December 2006 in a stillbirth when she was 36 weeks into the pregnancy. When prosecutors discovered that she had a cocaine habit – though there is no evidence that drug abuse had anything to do with the baby’s death — they charged her with the “depraved-heart murder” of her child, which carries a mandatory life sentence.

Before you assume this is just an an isolated case, read on and find out about more of them:

Bei Bei Shuai, 34, has spent the past three months in a prison cell in Indianapolis charged with murdering her baby. On 23 December she tried to commit suicide by taking rat poison after her boyfriend abandoned her.

Shuai was rushed to hospital and survived, but she was 33 weeks pregnant and her baby, to whom she gave birth a week after the suicide attempt and whom she called Angel, died after four days. In March Shuai was charged with murder and attempted foeticide and she has been in custody since without the offer of bail.

In Alabama at least 40 cases have been brought under the state’s “chemical endangerment” law. Introduced in 2006, the statute was designed to protect children whose parents were cooking methamphetamine in the home and thus putting their children at risk from inhaling the fumes.

The militant Rightist prosecutors have used laws against women, which ostensibly had been intended to help them:

At least 38 of the 50 states across America have introduced foetal homicide laws that were intended to protect pregnant women and their unborn children from violent attacks by third parties — usually abusive male partners — but are increasingly being turned by renegade prosecutors against the women themselves.

South Carolina was one of the first states to introduce such a foetal homicide law. National Advocates for Pregnant Women has found only one case of a South Carolina man who assaulted a pregnant woman having been charged under its terms, and his conviction was eventually overturned. Yet the group estimates there have been up to 300 women arrested for their actions during pregnancy.

Using laws for a purpose other than their stated intention, in order to bring retribution against people for doing things that prosecutors personally disapprove of, is the very same kind of legal activism the Right sees in the Left and kvetches about. Those Rightists who engage in this practice, therefore, are hypocrites of the highest order. Those among them who are Christian — and I assume all of them are — are directly disobeying the clear and unambiguous instructions of the founder of their religion.

Photo credit: Alamy / The Guardian.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments Comments Off on Legal Activism By The Right Targets Pregnant Women

Rainbow FlagThe crybaby Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, is sure to flip out, if he hasn’t already. The New York Times reports that key votes in the state Senate have changed to which would permit gay marriage in the Empire State (WebCite cached article):

Thirty-three state senators have publicly declared they will support legalizing same-sex marriage, all but assuring passage of the measure which will make New York the largest state where gay and lesbian couples can wed.

The Senate took up the measure just before 10 p.m., and the Senate galleries were packed with gay couples in support of the bill and religious opponents of it.

To date the chief objection to the legislation has been that it would force clergy to marry gays, even if their sect/cult/denomination/whatever objects to it on doctrinal grounds. But the governor proposed language which would alleviate that:

On Friday, the legislative leadership reached an agreement on a measure that they said would protect those religious institutions; that measure was approved Friday evening in the Assembly.

Note that such language is unnecessary; religious freedom already precludes forcing clergy to marry anyone they don’t want to marry. In its decision that allowed gay marriage here in my home state, the Connecticut Supreme Court stated so. My guess, though, is that the Religious Right will, nevertheless, keep throwing fits, continuing to promote the fiction that clergy being “forced” to marry gays is imminent — in spite of the fact that it’s not, and in spite of the unnecessary, explicit language that was added to the New York bill. They can’t help but do so … after all, lying is second-nature to them. They don’t know any better. Plus, they’re doing it for Jesus!

Photo credit: Castorp Republic.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments Comments Off on New York Likely To Allow Gay Marriage

New York StatehouseAs most of my readers are probably aware, gay marriage is tantalizingly close to being legalized in the state of New York (WebCite cached article). The Religious Right in that state, naturally, is throwing fits over this possibility. Among them is New York’s Roman Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan. He’s known for his screaming irrationality, which I’ve noted previously, for example, in a diatribe he penned on his own blog, accusing the New York Times of being “anti-Catholic” because it was insolent enough to dare run stories on the reports of abuse within the Catholic Church in Ireland. It was worldwide news for months, as first the Ryan report and then the Murphy report were released there — but the Archibishop thinks that newspapers who reported on them must — by definition — be “anti-Catholic.”

It almost goes without saying, then, that Dolan’s knickers are again in a knot, as Albany edges closer to allowing gay marriage. In his irrational, sanctimonious rage, he made a comparison that is, quite frankly, completely unreasonable (cached):

Last time I consulted an atlas, it is clear we are living in New York, in the United States of America – not in China or North Korea. In those countries, government presumes daily to “redefine” rights, relationships, values, and natural law. There, communiqués from the government can dictate the size of families, who lives and who dies, and what the very definition of “family” and “marriage” means.

Dolan dislikes the idea of gay marriage, therefore if the state of New York allows it, then New York will have become a vicious totalitarian regime that will kill people at will.

I have to ask: Your Excellency, are you serious? Or are you daft?

Dolan is — as usual — just being childish. The legalization of gay marriage has no relation to totalitarianism, no matter where it’s practiced. Permitting gay marriage will not — repeat not — affect anyone other than gays who wish to marry. Heterosexual people will not be forced to marry others of their own gender. It will never happen. If gay marriage is permitted in New York, it will not change the lives of heterosexual couples in any way. Period.

Note also that His Excellency’s complaint is, more or less, the fallacious debate tactic known as reductio ad Hitlerum. The only difference is that he’s naming different bogeymen than the Nazis or Adolf Hitler. Otherwise it’s the same thing.

Hat tip: Religion Dispatches.

Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments 2 Comments »

Watergate Complex from TR BridgePlease pardon another slightly off-topic post.

Over the years I’ve had correspondents accuse me of being a committed Leftist. It’s true I’m no fan of the Religious Right, but that hardly makes me part of the ideological Left, or a cog in the machine of the Democratic Party. For the record, I despise ideology in all its forms. Every single last one of them, wherever they are, and whoever belongs to them. All ideologies are arbitrary collections of notions, cherry-picked to work to the personal advantage of those who advance them, and detrimental to everyone else and to society as a whole.

If any of you really feel the need to label my political affiliation, I suppose the best one I could come up with, is “Cynicalist.” Basically I don’t trust any politician as far as I can throw him or her. It doesn’t matter what party he or she belongs to — I do not believe any of them! None are trustworthy, because — as Lord Acton once stated so truthfully — power corrupts. Even if an official isn’t corrupt before s/he is elected, s/he will become corrupted once in office. It’s inevitable, and as unavoidable as death and taxes.

How do I know this? If simple economics doesn’t make it clear, then examples from history should. And I can think of no better example of it — one that happened, as chance would have it, during my formative years — than the Watergate scandal. This was not really just a single scandal; it was a complex, multi-pronged affair, orchestrated by a lengthy cast of characters, all of whom were up to various forms of wrongdoing … some of them independent of each other. The entire convoluted debacle included burglary, espionage, extortion, perjury, obstruction of justice, campaign-finance hijinks, and more. It dragged on for years, and was extensive and significant enough to force Richard Nixon to resign as President … even though only about 4½ months into the scandal, he managed to be re-elected to his second term, and hung in until August of ’74.

The list of slippery characters whose names were trotted out each night on the evening news, almost every night as the scandal slowly unfolded, reached laughable proportions by the time Congressional hearings were held. The 18½ minute gap in the Oval Office tapes became legendary, and the words “not to the best of my recollection” — oft-spoken by White House staffers — a catch-phrase of the era. The whole thing, in fact, was almost surreal.

As the Watergate scandal was swirling around them, the Nixon White House — and while it still existed in 1972, his re-election committee — contrived other scandals in the lives and careers of other politicians. Nixon operative Donald Segretti famously referred to these dirty tricks as “ratfucking,” and he engaged in this practice with relish. For instance, he forged the so-called “Canuck letter” which ended the presidential candidacy of Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine. Since then, “ratfucking” has become a cottage industry in American politics, and has even gone beyond political campaigns; it’s now being done by bloggers and pundits (WebCite cached article).

So, how does one know a politician or pundit is lying? Whenever his/her lips are moving. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m neither a Rightist nor a Leftist, but rather, a Cynicalist.

Update: As luck would have it, no sooner did I post this story, than the National Archives released the Pentagon Papers (WebCite cached article). The leak of this document to the New York Times in 1971 ended up being a precursor to the Watergate debacle. The Nixon White House — which had had nothing directly to do with creating this document, it had been finished just prior to Nixon taking office in 1969 — nevertheless (in its paranoia) launched a concerted effort to find the leaker (RAND Corporation analyst Daniel Ellsberg). Once they’d found out who he was, they further worked to harass and discredit him, by any means they could find. Quite unbelievably, this campaign included a break-in at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, as they sought desperately to find whatever they could to use against him. This particular operation, which had been approved by White House staffer John Ehrlichman, had been orchestrated by E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy — the two men who would soon after also burglarize the DNC offices in the Watergate complex, and touch off the much-larger scandal.

Photo credit: dbking.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments 5 Comments »