Being Christian after Religion

“Religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there.”

Those in programs of recovery from drugs and alcohol have no doubt heard this expression. For a while I thought I was alone in thinking that it was dreck. Now I know I’m not.

Religion is more than seeking a spiritual experience – it is a way to structure life around the search for deeper connections to the world, to each other, and to a sacred reality. With the vast options for religious structure in the world, spirituality without a religious structure doesn’t own the market on coming out of hellish and torturous experience.

Archbishop Rowan Williams made a not-too-startling admission that Britain has become “post-Christian.” The facts seem to support his claim:

  • 56% consider Britain Christian where the remainder either consider it non-religious or are not sure.
  • 38% of those who consider themselves Christian do not practice regularly.
  • More Christians feel threatened to talk publicly about their beliefs.

None of this is all of that new. Steve Bruce (2002) argued this trend and its implications:

“Our critics might gloss our work as predicting the imminent disappearance of religion, but this is not our view. Our case can be summarized as saying that religion diminishes in social significance, becomes increasingly privatized, and losses personal social salience except where it finds work to do other than relating individuals to the supernatural” (p. 30).

Similarly Grace Davie (2002) argues that while Europe is seeing a decline not only in the practice of Christianity but in religion in general, this is an exceptional case when compared to the United States, Latin America, Africa, and the Far East.

“In short, many Europeans have ceased to connect with their religious institutions in any active sense, but they have not abandoned, so far, either their deep-seated religious aspirations or (in many cases) a latent sense of belonging” (p. 8).

While the condition of these “deep-seated religious aspirations” seems to be failing in health, the personal connection of religious belief to institutions also looks unhealthy not only in Britain and Europe, but also in the US. What remains is the desire for connection to a sense of belonging and meaning.

However, maybe Bruce is wrong. Maybe there is another salience to religion other than a connection to the supernatural. David Putnam (2000) argued that while our social connections have lost value, they are still vital to a happy and good-natured society. It’s more likely that the value of these connections is something we continue hold dearly, but we no longer know where to find it. If so, existing networks can, and should, be reconfigured to create space to recoup the value of social connections. Religion is one structure that can continue to provide a function to cultivate the value of deep connections to each other, the world, and deeper meaning.

As Christina Patterson from the Guardian writes:

“There is a place to go when we don’t have the words. There’s a calm, quiet peaceful place where someone else will supply the words when your heart is too full and your mind is too weary to come up with words of your own. There’s a place that will give us the solace of ritual. Human beings have always needed ritual. And the rituals we’ve developed in our still-quite-Christian country are on offer to everyone, and make almost no demands.”

There is a value to social connections, ways to structure our beliefs, and space to explore deeper questions about life without fear or threat. Much of religion today may over-value an intentional lack of structure. But what people seem to need most is a safe place to structure their experience of being together.

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Sources

Bruce, S. (2002). God is dead: Secularization in the west. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers.

Davie, G. (2002). Europe: The exceptional case : Parameters of faith in the modern world. London: Darton Longman & Todd.

Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of american community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Breaking the Cycle of Addiction

Mary Elizabeth Winstead drinking in the shower in Smashed.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead drinking in the shower in Smashed.

We know that celebrities like Philip Seymour Hoffman die of addiction. He is not the first and sadly will not be the last. Addiction taken to the point just before the addict dies is a hopeless condition. Right at that breaking point before death is the best time to admit that he or she needs help.

There are millions of people in the world right now who are at that breaking point. I would not be surprised if the majority of people in the world at least know someone who has been an addict at some point. It is that ubiquitous. I was at that breaking point a few years ago. I stood at the turning point between death and doing something else. I chose to do something else. I stopped drinking.

But I want to qualify this a little.

I stopped drinking not because I believed I was an alcoholic. I believed alcohol was actually solving my problems on a daily basis.  Nothing in my life had become totally unmanageable to me. So what if I was unemployed, depressed, scared of life, lonely, morally bankrupt, and in debt. Everyone had those problems once in a while. So what if I drank a few glasses of wine (at least a bottle’s worth) followed by a couple of gin and tonics and maybe a couple of white Russians to cap a night off. Going to bed a little drunk helped me sleep. I hated myself, but I could always rely on alcohol to make me feel better when I needed it to. Normal stuff, right? Alcohol was my solution not my problem.

Until I stopped.

Two days after I stopped I was like a lion in a cage hungry for a steak. I paced around the house with anxious sweat hungry for a hit of my favorite juice. As the anxiety increased, I knew something was wrong. This was Wednesday. By Friday I was sitting in my first meeting shaking and holding back tears. I could barely hold a cup of coffee, and my mind raced faster than it had before. I knew that my drinking habit was not normal.

Most people can have a drink after a meal and put it down. Most people can drink half of a glass of wine or not finish a beer and be ok with that. Most alcoholics will drink until they can’t physically drink any more. The last time I got really wasted I was in Louisville, KY to celebrate with a good friend. Before we even got to the bar I secretly pounded two beers. I drank a pitcher at the bar. Everyone else left to go home. I hooked up with another group of people and collected all of the half consumed pitchers from my previous group and finished all of them. I then got back to my friend’s place where I drank three more beers and had two glasses of wine to cap off the night. To me this was a normal pattern. I drank like this when no one could see it. I drank with friends and then got drunk alone.

Upon waking the alcoholic will either have a drink to stop the craving, or will crave all day until the clock strikes “drinking time.” This craving is like drinking water in the blazing summer heat. Yet you always feel parched no matter how much water you put in your system. Even as your stomach can’t hold any more, you are still thirsty. Imagine stopping with that feeling in your mouth. It would drive you insane. That is kind of how an alcoholic feels after he or she comes full stop. It is agonizing.

The problem starts in the mind that says, “I must drink to feel normal.” Then it becomes physical where the body says, “I need to keep drinking because I cannot stop whether you like it or not.” Getting out of that cycle requires long-term re-wiring of the brain and that means approaching life in a totally different way. This is a chronic illness of the mind and body that requires ongoing treatment. But you have to want that continued treatment for it to work. As soon as the addict stops that treatment they are at risk of dropping back into the vicious, self-devouring cycle of the body and mind.

There are millions who are trapped in that cycle right now. Some are well aware they are in it and are either not sure how to break free or are too damn scared at the prospect of not getting the next hit. Some are using alcohol and drugs to subdue symptoms of mental illness they are unaware that they have. These are the people who want to stop, but are so trapped and broken they don’t even have a clue where to start.

Those who really don’t want to stop their addictions or who want an easy way out won’t stop feeding. It’s unfortunate, but we can’t expect everyone to walk into a 12 Step group and stay sober. Once in a while – it could be 22 years from the first day of sobriety – that thirst will creep back in and without a group of sober people to help ward off that feeling of needing a drink, the addict places him or herself in great danger. Staying connected with sober people on a regular basis is the path to continued sobriety.

I am glad that one death has sparked a national conversation about addiction. My fear is that after the media bump dies down, addiction will be a news story that bores us unless God forbid someone like Robert Downey, Jr. gets drunk again.

Here are some places to get information and lifelines if you think you or someone else needs them. Remember, this works only if you want it. Sobriety can’t be forced, it must be chosen.

Guns and Mental Health

Numbers to chew on in the wake of another school shooting:

  • 70% of all homicides are firearm related.
  • There are about 26% of adults with a diagnosed mental illness.
  • 6% have a “serious mental illness.”
  • Only 3% have a serious mental illness and are not institutionalized.
  • Violence is not even a symptom of something like schizophrenia. Mentally ill people are most likely to harm themselves by an overwhelming margin. Suicide is the most lethal form of violence.

Yes we need better attention to mental health care. But no, this will not make a dent in gun violence. The numbers just don’t support witch hunts for the mentally ill as a solution to gun violence. The beast to slay is looking at how to cut down on homicide in general.

  • Young men between the ages of 25-36 are doing 95% of the killing.
  • 99% of killings occur away from school grounds.
  • American children die from gun inflicted wounds in the US up to 12 times more than in other industrialized nations.
  • The US has the highest child poverty rate among the most industrialized nations.
  • Drugs, poverty, unemployment, race, culture, gender inequality, and weak social systems and support are ALL correlated with different forms of homicide.

None of these data are new!

No folks, more guns won’t solve the problem. Following the example of other nations that seem to have found ways to solve the problem will. Finding ways to reduce economic inequality and poverty are two huge factors to mitigate gun violence. We can also focus on harsher penalties for breaking gun laws if we actually enforce them. But that is a band-aid for a massive social sickness in the US. As we become poorer and more afraid of people taking our liberties and stuff (real or imagined), this violence will continue.

Equality, health, and education can overcome violence.

Those who want more guns on the streets and who are also cutting funds to education are partially responsible for the disproportional rate of homicides by gun violence.

Hiding in Plain Sight: College and the Mentally Ill

Stigma and mental illness

There are students in deep pain and struggling with emotional problems and mental disorders all over college campuses.

Most of us have no clue who they are.

As Kay Redfield Jamison, co-Director of the Mood Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins University, recently said to a group of Northwestern University Students:

“No one noticed that I was in any way different,” Jamison said. “I had no idea how I managed to pass as normal in high school, except that other people are generally caught up in their own lives and seldom notice the despair in others if those despairing make an effort to disguise their pain.”

Jamison is not only a leading scholar of mood disorders, she is also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She wrote her story of suffering, recovering, and managing her own illness in the book An Unquiet Mind.

If we sense that something is “wrong” in someone’s behavior, the attitude of the “rugged individual” might take over.

If only that person would just be happier, calm down, keep their mouth shut, stop being so impulsive, stop being so rude, or stop being so quiet and awkward. Mental illness is just a phantom problem. It’s really an issue that the individual must resolve on their own. If people would take more responsibility and just act differently, all would be ok.

A few facts:

  • Public rejection of the mentally ill is far more common than not. Socall & Holtgraves (1992) argued that “a mental illness label, regardless of a person’s behavior, can result in public rejection” (p. 441).
  • Stigmas about mental illness seem to be widely endorsed by the general public in the Western world” (Corrigan & Watson, 2002).
  • A CDC report (2012) found that while most adults believe treatment of mental disorders is effective, less believe that people are caring and sympathetic to people with mental illness.
  • Coverage of mass shootings and the near immediate link to mental illness do not help public sentiment towards the mentally ill. Rather, in a study published by the American Journal of Psychiatry (McGinty, et. al., 2013), “The stigmatization of people with mental illness may lead to a reluctance to seek treatment or raise other barriers to care” (Barry, 2013).
  • Those with mental illness may internalize public stigma and as a result will be less likely to self-disclose their problems. This is in spite of the growing body of research showing that self-disclosure has positive effects for the mentally ill person and to reduce public stigma (Hyman, 2008).

Disclosing a mental illness is a big risk. If one encounters public stigma about a mental illness the results can damage reputation, employment, friendships, etc. Even if these are not facts, the risk of further alienation is a problem that most of the human race would rather avoid.

For those who aren’t even sure that they have a mental illness but just feel different about the world and their identity, reaching out for help might be compounded by all of these factors. They will go undiagnosed and untreated for illnesses that they have no personal power to manage without help.

When we bring these issues into an environment where often thousands of young adults live, work, and play together it can be a cauldron mixing together a dangerous brew. When we add substance abuse to mental illness the problems worsen. It is then that violence is more likely. More students may bring their drug habits on campuses that started in high school. Add to that fact, 80% of college students will drink and half of those will binge drink.

Students need to feel safe in order to self-disclose that they have either been diagnosed with a mental illness or feel that they might have something wrong. College is a petri dish of social experimentation and dysfunction and mental illness is just not a good fit.

The environment must do a better job of reducing social stigma and giving the mentally ill a safe space. Colleges have made a strong effort to give women and minorities a safe place on campuses, and it is time for them to do the same for those with mental illness if anything is to improve.

Jamison spotlighted Harvard’s improvement in mental health services as an example of the important role universities play in advocating for students.

“I think if (support) does not come from the president’s office, you may as well kiss it goodbye,” Jamison said. “The president’s office has to take this really seriously, and commit money to it, and time.”

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Sources:

Barry, C. (2013). Media coverage of mass shootings contributes to negative attitudes towards mental illness. In Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Retrieved 10/09/2013, from http://www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2013/webster_mass_shootings_mental_illness.html.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Association of County Behavioral Health & Developmental Disability Directors, National Institute of Mental Health, The Carter Center Mental Health Program. Attitudes Toward Mental Illness: Results from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Atlanta (GA); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2012.

Corrigan, P., and Watson, A. (2002) Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness. World Psychiatry. February; 1(1): 16–20.

Hyman, I. Self-Disclosure and Its Impact on Individuals Who Receive Mental Health Services. HHS Pub. No. (SMA)-08-4337 Rockville, MD. Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2008.

Socall, D., and Holtgraves, T. (1992). Attitudes toward the mentally ill: The effects of label and beliefs. The Sociological Quarterly , Vol. 33, No. 3 (Autumn, 1992), pp. 435-445.

Addiction is Logical

There is something logical about addiction. But it’s still insane.

Lohan before and after drugs

Lindsay Lohan before and after addiction.
Source: http://www.bestviral.com/image/hf/lindsay_lohan_before_and_after

The math is simple: I crave, I use, I stop craving. I withdraw, I use, I feel better. Simple and elegant logic.

But it is also insane. I crave, I use, I stop craving – but that is all that matters. I run over people, use people, fail at nearly everything, get in trouble with the law, abuse others, and harm everyone in my circle of influence while I am killing myself in the process. None of that matters in order to fulfill the simple, elegant logic of the obsession.

At some point the high is no longer a choice but a shackle. A prisoner has no more choice to get out of a prison than an addict has to get out of addiction. To get out of prison you need help from the outside. You need enough humility to plea for help and even satisfy the demands of the system just to taste free air.

Simple logic. Simple insanity. Simple humility.

Addiction is so simple and so logical that it is a near hopeless condition. It is almost too simple for the mind to comprehend.

Will College Sell Students?

After President Obama’s speech at the University of Buffalo yesterday, there was a firestorm of commentary. The Chronicle notes the mixed reviews of the proposals and public college endorsements. The President touted a new ratings system that would be tied to aid and therefore, the net cost of attending an institution. That ratings system was discussed in the New York Times and was also mentioned on the Roosevelt Institute Blog.

Reform in the cost/aid ratio is a long overdue. Higher education is nearly unattainable for most without some kind of loan package. Access and net cost for higher education is related and the discussion is how to make that more fair. Perhaps some of our elite institutions are hiding their value behind ultra selectivity. Moreover, internal grade inflation problems have not gone undetected in some of these elite universities. Princeton had to deal with those charges head-on.

I am a supporter of fair competition. Obviously an institution like the University of Chicago that charges its students in excess of $60,000 a year in total cost is unfair if it is to compete with Pennsylvania Highlands Community College. Rather, the measure of competition will be based on “value” tied to “performance” measured by a “rating system.” Put a different way: “Quantification goes hand-in-hand with competition: once we’ve assigned everyone a number, why not force them to fight over scarce resources? That’ll clearly improve everyone’s performance!”

The idea is to create more transparency for consumer choice and to tilt subsidies to higher performing schools. This sounds reasonable in theory. However, we won’t know what any of this will look like until a rating system is devised. That’s where things can get really sticky, really fast. For example, such a system may have unintended consequences for the community college system which is currently the most affordable source of higher education.

The plan is not unlike the Spellings Plan which was highly criticized by accreditation bodies and universities alike. Obama’s plan includes better transitions from secondary to post-secondary schools, consumer transparency, and value based on performance-based outcomes. But the Obama plan also includes incentives for institutions to enroll lower-income students which the Spellings Plan did not.

Skeptics of the Spellings Plan were concerned that the principles behind No Child Left Behind would be applied to higher education. The Obama plan re-introduces those principles of ratings, value-added, return on investment, and performance. There is cause to be concerned at how these metrics will look and how they will impact college choice. These are symptomatic issues.

The deeper philosophical issue is this: When we say “value” in education, what do we mean? North Carolina governor Pat McCrory infamously said that aid would be given to state institutions “not based upon how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.” The value of education in this language is clear – higher education is about jobs. Learning is in the service of the economy. If higher education is not creating an able workforce, then why would we have it?

The Association of Private Sector Colleges in their publication America’s Private Sector Colleges and Universities: Generating Real Value for Students and Society notes that, “By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require some postsecondary education.” Value here is measured by return on investment. Do we place students in jobs that offset the price of their education? Are we then able to use education to place them in jobs that help grow the economy? The President’s language seems to follow lock-step with this philosophy. Here are some of the metrics he mentioned:

How much debt does the average student leave with?  How easy it is to pay off?  How many students graduate on time?  How well do those graduates do in the workforce?  Because the answers will help parents and students figure out how much value a college truly offers.

Certainly employment is vital and is one reason many students seek a higher education. But there is a basic principle that we must not overlook. Is education for the end of creating a workforce? The political rhetoric seems to point in this direction. If the focus is on jobs, “The narrow educational focus on economic development is alarming because it places the market in control of the curriculum” (Ayers, 2005, p. 546). So who is truly controlling the end of education other than market forces and the government’s assumed responsibility to create skilled labor?

Education for this end has lost its understanding of value as the cultivation of the mind and the development of truth, beauty, and goodness as an ends in themselves. Such endeavor has no short-term return on investment in a society that values instant gratification. Value in this kind of society is measured by how much money one can make, and how much money one can deposit back into the economic system. Education by sleight-of-hand is in danger of serving this political agenda that could undermine the nature of education itself.

Humanities and music are in themselves without value based on return on investment alone. Art, philosophy, and even some of the more specialized and abstract scientific studies offer little immediate economic value. Why waste money on these ventures? With the creation of labor as the foundation of education we need to be prepared to answer these questions. Is this the political agenda higher education should serve? Is higher education here to create human capital that can be sold to the economy as viable labor? As Richard Shaull wrote in the foreword to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

References

Ayers, D. F. (2005). Neoliberal ideology in community college mission statements: A critical discourse analysis. The Review of Higher Education, 28(4), 527-549.

Freire, Paulo. (2000) Pedagogy of the oppressed /New York : Continuum. p. 34.

Elysium: Immigrants Go Home?

Science fiction is a genre of storytelling that has a lot of freedom. By creating totally different worlds than the one in which we live, anything can happen. This is true even of an Earth of the future. This summer has had a fetish with future disaster, dystopia, and end-of-world stories.

This is the End plays with the idea of biblical Armageddon it’s its most crude form. After Earth is a somewhat feeble attempt to play on nature’s adaptation to repel the human organism as if it is a virus. Oblivion is a future where an alien civilization creates human clones to do its own dirty work of sapping the planet’s resources. Pacific Rim works the alien angle where massive beings invade the earth from below and humanity relies on big robots to take care of business.

Then we have World War Z where a worldwide pandemic of “zombies” take over with an infection that takes only 10 seconds to work. They are fast and mean. Each nation has its own strategy for dealing with the situation with the resources it has. For the United States it is the fleet of Navy ships and for Israel it is a massive wall – you know, because the Temple Wall is still standing. Nice metaphor. They tried a wall in Pacific Rim. That failed too.

In Elysium the rich live in a massive spaceship called “Elysium.” The ship is like the one we might have seen in Wall-E where the rich live only to leave the poor Earth in a miserable trash-heap of overpopulated crime. More importantly, the sad and poor people of Earth are the laborers that feed the rich. They actually build the robots that form the very security force that makes all of them a compliant society designed to keep Elysium running. Insulting and cruel right? The people are ridden with disease and illness preventable with medical technology on Elysium as prevalent as home tanning beds. This technology “re-atomizes” cellular structures that can heal cancer and even rebuild a face blown up by a grenade.

In these films there are unfair and unjust social structures where rich are often pitted against poor. There are also themes of environmental catastrophe and the need to act as one human race to solve common problems like disease…or aliens. Both metaphorical and speculative, science fiction projects a humanity that is changed and often it fares the worst due to a series of really bad decisions. Short-term gains are proven to be long-term disasters. Current problems and fissures in the fabric of society are blown-up into hyperbolic grandeur to reveal the problems for the depth they truly are. Sci-fi explores how such big problems just might track in the distant and not-so-distant future. The themes seem obvious for most people.

Well…except for folks like Roger who exercises his freedom only in missing the point:

For World War Z: “The country that does the best is Israel, because it builds walls to keep out the invading zombies.”

For Elysium: “Some have suggested that Elysium is left-wing because of its theme to steal from the rich and give to the poor. Maybe so, but it is also a warning against unrestricted immigration.”

Did I read that correctly? We know Israel’s strategy failed. Did he not see that stack of zombies scale the wall, swarm Jerusalem, and lay waste to the country to in a matter of hours? The rich are viewed as brutal in Elysium. The defense secretary blows up ships of people flying to Elysium to seek medical care. After being exposed to lethal radiation our anti-hero is on a bed receiving pills and news of his fatal condition from a robot. His boss and the CEO (an Elysium resident) stand outside the room. The CEO is more concerned about our hero’s face melting and making a mess of the sheets that he doesn’t want to replace.

Roger and I saw different films. We can point to the tired set-up of the while, male protagonist saving the world…again. But I will leave that for others to dissect.

Which film did you see?