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Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 385-386 ( 17 September )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/ringwald.html
Soul of Recovery: Uncovering the Spiritual Dimension in the Treatment of Addictions
by Christopher D. Ringwald
New York: Oxford University Press 2002
Reviewed by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Haifa, Haifa 31905, ISRAEL.
Christopher D. Ringwald is a man on a mission, and actually on a double mission. In this book he is determined to persuade us of the correctness of two premises. First, that there is such a thing as “spirituality”, distinct from “religion”, and that this “spirituality” can play a central role in curing addicts and turning them into well-functioning human beings.
Exhibit A in the presentation of evidence is AA, Alcoholics Anonymous, a movement known and appreciated all over the world.
The book contains a collage of testimonials, vignettes, and a survey of the relevant academic and professional literature, presented in a rather rambling, repetitive, and sometimes disorganized fashion. Ringwald is a journalist, and the book may be judged at three separate levels: the journalistic, the academic, and the human. As a journalistic effort, this a fascinating survey of what might be called, with some cynicism, the United States recovery industry. The author did his homework and read a large quantity of academic studies. The book has a bibliography, notes, and an index, but while the reader may find this wealth of information useful, it fails on the academic side.
I must confess that encountering the term “spirituality” causes me to have a serious allergic reaction. It all started in the 1960s, when the term “organized religion” (cf. “organized crime”) took off in the US, expressing the idea that there was a religious establishment which was, you know, the evil establishment, but there was also un- or dis-“organized religion”, which, minus the organization, somehow represented the presumed positive essence of religion. Later on, spirituality has become a popular euphemism, together with “faith”, for religion (see the “Faith-based and community initiatives” under the current Bush administration, designed to bring back Victorian “compassion”, to replace any notions of a welfare state).
What makes me suspicious about this euphemism and its use by religious apologists is not just the ideological baggage but the behavioral evidence, amply provided by Ringwald himself. “Spirituality seeks something beyond the material-truth, community, meaning-and is both open-ended and personal” (p. 254).
But that “something beyond the material” turns out to be phrased most often in the language we know from “organized religion”, the language of the spirit world. Indeed, the word spirituality contains a hard kernel of truth; religion is always about contact with spirits. Ringwald himself reports, to his credit, that “Higher courts have, generally, dismissed the distinction between religion and spirituality” (p. 254). We don’t have to read any court decisions to realize that the distinction is specious. In all the vignettes reported in this book, “spirituality” is always tied to a recognized brand-name religion. We find here cases of Jewish spirituality, Nation of Islam spirituality, Native American spirituality, and plenty of Christian spiritualities. It is evident that the religious beliefs of those attached to spirituality do not often lead them to conventional rituals and organizations, but the essence of religion resides in those beliefs about unseen forces and entities. Over the past three centuries, in the process of secularization, religion in the West has been privatized, and that privatized religion, molded and fashioned to individual needs, is what we see here in action.
On the human level, the book leaves the reader quite depressed, and not because of the limited success of addiction cures. Despite all the testimonials with happy endings, and all the evidence about (relatively) successful technologies, one is left with the question of why these individuals had turned so self-destructive in the first place. This is a book about the United States, and American society emerges from it as a cold, lonely place, where many millions of individuals wander through a human desert searching for attachment and meaning. ”Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?” wrote Thomas Wolfe in Look Homeward, Angel. This phrase best summarizes the impression one gets of the human reality surrounding addiction.
Ringwald argues that knowing the physiological and genetic substrata of addictive behavior never gives us a complete understanding of its real causation. This is undoubtedly true. The millions of individual tragedies referred to here are not just the products of brain chemistry, a necessary condition, but of a facilitating environment in the form of alienation, emptiness and meaninglessness.
The problem of addiction is so serious and its consequences so destructive that we will continue to experiment with any treatment technologies, regardless of their limited success. The right strategy seems to be trying many different technologies, each with a low success rate, in the hope that something will eventually work with any particular addict. If a religious or “spiritual” recovery program can save one human soul, or one human body, from self-destruction, we should by all means give it a try.
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© Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi.
Dr. Beit-Hallahmi’s research interests include the psychology of religion, the history of psychology, social identity, and personality development. Among his recent publications are The Psychology of Religious Behaviour., Belief, and Experience (1997, with Michael Argyle), The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Active New Religions (1998), and Psychoanalysis, Identity, and Ideology: Critical Essays on the Israel/Palestine Case (2002, with John Bunzl).
Beit-Hallahmi, B. (2002). Review of Soul of Recovery: Uncovering the Spiritual Dimension in the Treatment of Addictions by Christopher D. Ringwald. Human Nature Review. 2: 385-386.