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Alcoholics Anonymous: the Science, Law, and Secular Alternatives by Patrick Hinsel

“12-Step recovery programs do more harm than good.”

This statement, though it can be passionately argued for or against, with emotional resolve and with anger, cannot even come close to being discredited by evidence. That is because good evidence regarding the efficacy of programs like Alcoholics Anonymous eludes us. Most estimates place it at approximately a 10% success rate, or equivalent to cold turkey.  In his recent book, The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry, Lance Dodes, MD, a retired psychiatry professor from Harvard Medical School, measured AA’s retention rates along with studies on sobriety and rates of active involvement (attending meetings regularly and working the program) among AA members. Based on this research, he put AA’s actual success rate closer to 5-8 percent. By definition, AA is anonymous, so honest and reliable statistics are difficult to come by. But insurance companies pay for the 12-Steps. The medical community endorses AA, NA, and the 12-Steps.  Governments sanction AA and NA. Therefore AA is ubiquitous, to the exclusion of more reasonable alternatives.

Untold numbers of people find AA off-putting because of the religious aspect. Yet, AA enjoys a monopoly in the recovery community. Secular alternatives are not available all day, everyday, at multiple locations in every city and town in America like 12-Step meetings are. Secular meetings, even in large cities, may only meet once a week, if at all. So the overtly religious 12-Steps, unacceptable to so many, preclude countless individuals from getting the help they seek and need. They suffer for it, and their families suffer too. When we hear about a celebrity relapsing or a rock star overdosing, why should the assumption be that they failed to work their 12-Step program? It is more likely the 12-Step program failed them.

To be clear, AA is religious.

The courts say so, at least.[1] And then there is the fact that most meetings are held at Christian churches. Meetings begin and end with a Christian prayer, usually the Serenity Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer. And seven of the 12-Steps deal with God, Higher Power, Prayer, and Spiritual Awakening. Only five do not:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take a personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  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.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

These Steps are read at the beginning of every meeting, along with statements like, “There is One who has All power, that One is God. May you find Him now!” and, “Probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism…God could and would if He were sought.”[2]

The courts have returned their verdict as well. Between 1996 and 2007, five high-level US courts (three federal circuit courts and two state supreme courts) each ruled on this issue. AA is religious and therefore the State cannot force people to go. Because the cases involved the Establishment Clause, they reached the highest level of judiciary scrutiny, only one level below the US Supreme Court.

While AA and its members may deny that it is grounded in religion, these high court rulings clearly explain that when newcomers are told that they should accept the existence of God as a requirement for continued sobriety, and tell them to seek their God through prayer, confess all wrongdoings to Him, and ask Him for removal of shortcomings, and then expect the newcomer to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the end of meetings, the fellowship is indeed practicing “religion.”

Separation of Church and State

Bill W. and Dr. Bob are the Patriarchs of AA, dating back to the program’s Judeo-Christian roots in the 1930s. With other AA members, they were able to influence medical decision makers well into the 1950s and 60s and made presentations to Congress and Medical Societies that had clout at the time. Physiologist E. M. Jellinek collaborated with early AA member Marty Mann, and published the results of a survey mailed to 1,600 AA members. Only 158 were returned. Jellinek and Mann culled 45 that had been improperly completed and another 15 filled out by women, whose responses were so unlike the men’s that they risked confounding the results. From this small sample (98 men) Jellinek drew sweeping conclusions, and his “medical literature” became AA gospel, leading to the medical community’s eventual acceptance of the 12-Steps as the Gold Standard method of treating addiction.[3] With Medicine’s blessing, government and insurance companies began paying for 12-Step based treatment, opening the door for religion and removing the wall between church and state.

“You’re in terrible shape, you need to get yourself to an AA meeting”.

AA manipulates people when they are at their most vulnerable, desperately seeking guidance. Even agnostics and atheists go to AA looking for help in early recovery, because they cannot find any alternatives to the 12-Steps in their area. Some manage to get sober in spite of God, not because of Him. Criminals, including pedophiles and sex offenders, anonymously mix into the groups. Fragile newcomers are easy prey. The manipulation even extends to a “13th Step”, in which male AA members with some clean-time in the program will befriend a female newcomer, ostensibly to offer guidance and support. But in reality the goal is to sexually exploit, or “13th Step”, the female newcomer.[4]

Secular Alternatives to AA and 12-Step Programs

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If this is true, why would repeated returns to the 12-Steps be the solution to repeated relapses? It stands to reason that people have better treatment outcomes when they’re offered choices and not coerced to accept one thing or another. In a 2012 report on addiction treatment in the U.S. by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia, researchers concluded: “Evidence clearly demonstrates that a one-size-fits-all approach to addiction treatment typically is a recipe for failure.” In her book Inside Rehab, Anne M. Fletcher illustrates a science based perspective on recovery and takes a thorough look at the state of affairs of addiction treatment in the US. To be fair, she acknowledges 12-Steps can be helpful for those who willingly pursue it. But other options do exist. Unfortunately, most in the recovery community are unaware or unfamiliar with secular options due to the glaring eclipse that is the 12-Steps.

Refuge Recovery is a mindfulness based recovery program designed by Noah Levine in California. This program is becoming more popular across the US. It emphasizes meditation and Buddhist philosophy, practicing compassion and empathy in the day to day lives of members. In-person group meetings create a social community and support network. Like the other secular groups listed here, Refuge Recovery welcomes people looking to address all spectrums of addiction, including alcohol, food, sex, opioids, meth, and process addictions. There is no mention of any God or Gods as a part of Refuge Recovery. It also has a robust online community.

LifeRing Secular Recovery is an abstinence-based, worldwide network of individuals seeking to live in recovery from addiction to alcohol or to other non-medically indicated drugs.

SMART recovery is science based, and it is probably the largest 12-Step alternative today, world wide. It teaches self-help and common sense with a goal of empowerment.  Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) techniques are used to achieve positive, lasting changes in the lives of its members.

SMART Recovery evolves as scientific knowledge of addiction evolves. It welcomes change when there is an improvement. By contrast, The Big Book of AA was written in the1930s and the AA community adamantly resists changing or adapting it. The Big Book’s chapter “To Wives” reflects an overtly sexist worldview that is increasingly considered unacceptable in modern times. Chapter 4, the “Chapter to the Agnostic” is not an argument of persuasion, it is an arrogant line in the sand, “There either is a God, or there isn’t”  (the implied answer is that there is, just one).  SMART Recovery has wider popularity in Europe than in America right now. Also, an interesting difference in Europe is AA meetings traditionally do not say the Lord’s prayer, and the religious aspects are toned down in AA meetings compared to the USA.

SMART meetings are for all addictions and are facilitated by a moderator experienced with cognitive behavioral techniques and who has significant clean time. In-person meetings can be hard to find in most American cities. For the techniques involved, on-line and chat based meetings are not usually ideal.

Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) is a nonprofit network of autonomous, non-professional local groups, dedicated solely to helping individuals achieve and maintain sobriety from alcohol and drug addiction, food addiction and more.

Women for Sobriety A non-profit organization of women, for women, dedicated to helping women discover a happy New Life in recovery from Substance Use Disorders. It encourages emotional and spiritual growth and is endorsed by the American Humanist Association as a secular or religious-neutral option for recovery. WFS has certified moderators and chat leaders leading mutual support groups online and in person, as well as phone volunteers available for one-on-one support. Any woman seeking an abstinent New Life is welcome to join WFS.

Agnostic AA is a website for agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers who are involved with AA but desire a non-religious, safe place to engage in fellowship. It is a great location to find recovery literature, materials, and books that are secular in nature.

Pharmacotherapy is an underutilized, evidence-based option to treat addiction. Experienced  physicians, trained in addiction medicine, help alcohol dependent patients with prescriptions like Topamax (topiramate) and Antabuse (disulfiram). Naltrexone (vivitrol) has shown efficacy in the treatment of opioid maintenance of sobriety, as well as alcohol long term sobriety. A wide spectrum of treatment options exist, depending on the individual and the substance(s) to which they are addicted. The difficulty is finding physicians who are able to handle this, and getting the treatment covered. The American Medical Association recently estimated that out of nearly 1 million doctors in the United States, only 582 identified themselves as addiction specialists.

Therapy.  Counsellors experienced in the treatment of addiction offer hope to those with the means to access this type of care. Unfortunately, in many instances, insurance does not cover mental health treatment like this, or patients find the cost beyond their means. The Secular Therapy Project arose to help secular individuals having a hard time matching with a counsellor in a faith based world. Many offer sessions via confidential Skype-type arrangements with special software. See SecularTherapy.org as an example.

All of these secular groups will help you if you are interested in starting a new group in your area. The costs of attending these groups are the same as the cost of AA:  free or donation only.

The Dalai Lama says, to paraphrase, “Listen to what I say, and keep what you want. If something I say is helpful, great. If something I say doesn’t fit with your experience, disregard it.” The secular recovery programs listed above are all in keeping with this line of reasoning. They don’t require faith. AA has a motto, “Take what you want, and leave the rest.” Many people in AA do modify their program to their personalities and it works for them. But AA and the Big Book’s statements about God are unequivocal. Some nonbelievers may be able to overlook this for a while and get sober. Countless others are not comfortable with this. They cannot square the fabrication of a “God” in which they don’t believe with a “program of rigorous honesty,” so they either never attend AA, or they cut their losses. They end up aborting the misadventure of AA, and go on suffering while they search for that elusive secular alternative.

Progress 

Just in the past couple of years, the American Board of Family Medicine began making changes to its board exam questions, phrasing them to better reflect secular options in recovery. Instead of the answer being simply “AA,” a broader option was given, to the effect of “a recovery meeting,” or “an AA or secular recovery meeting.”  The label “Person in long term recovery from alcohol” is emerging to replace “Alcoholic.”  It’s slow progress, beginning in academic medicine. Physicians practicing in the real world lag behind. Insurance and politicians will eventually begin to follow. It is a step in the right direction.

But still, religion permeates. Can you imagine a world in which a doctor says,“You have a primary brain disorder. It’s called Parkinson’s. You need to get on your knees and pray to God. That’ll be $200.” We wouldn’t accept this for Parkinson’s. Why on Earth do we accept this for the most common primary brain disorder, addiction?[5]

No doubt there is benefit to be found in group solidarity, working through a common struggle. It is hard to dispute the upside of support from like-minded individuals who have been through similar circumstances and can offer general advice and guidance. It is comforting to have a place to go where others believe the same as you do and want the best for you. It is helpful to have an old, well established book to refer to in times of doubt. It is reassuring to hear familiar sayings and chants at every gathering. What does this sound like? It sounds like a church. It reflects a religion because that’s what it is. And like religion, it is comforting and reassuring for its adherents. But that does not mean its faith claims are true, and it doesn’t make the claims of AA/12-Steps superior “efficacy” true either. In the words of the late Stephen Hawking, “It is not necessary to invoke God.” He was speaking on other things, but the words ring true in addiction treatment as well. Bringing God into it just complicates things and slows progress. Bill W. was right about one thing, though, when he said, “We are engaged upon a life-and-death errand.” The recovery community deserves better than faith healing.

 


 

[1] See Griffin v. Coughlin (1996); Kerr v. Farrey (1996); Arnold & Evans v. Tennessee Board of Paroles (1997); Warner v. Orange County Dept. of Probation (1999); and Inouye v. Kemna (2007).

[2] https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/p-10_howitworks.pdf

[3] http://www.a-1associates.com/aa/testimony.htm

[4] http://www.the13thstepfilm.com

[5] https://www.asam.org/resources/definition-of-addiction

Reason Revolution founder Justin Clark gives a lecture on the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis at the Society for German American Studies Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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This episode, Justin spoke with author and activist Hypatia Alexandria. They talked about her Catholic upbringing, her path to atheism and humanism, issues within the Latino community and their relationship to religion, and how political activism and secular humanism can resolve some of these issues. A special thanks to Karen Garst for making this conversation happen.

Contact Hypatia: hypatia@arauco.com

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Theme: “Jon’s on Fire” by Silent Partner

 

This episode, Justin had a conversation with atheist activist Damien Marie Athope. They talked about axiological atheism, skepticism, the value of reason, humanism, anarchism, and other topics.

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The Congressional Freethought Caucus

Something truly momentous  happened this week. On April 30, California representatives Jared Huffman and Jerry McNerney along with Maryland’s Jamie Raskin and Michigan’s Dan Kildee officially announced the creation of a Congressional Freethought Caucus. Spearheaded by the American Humanist Association and the Center for Freethought Equality, the Congressional Freethought Caucus will “promote public policy formed on the basis of reason, science, and moral values; protect the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state; oppose discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, and nonreligious persons; champion the value of freedom of thought and conscience worldwide; and provide a forum for members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values, and personal religious journeys.” This couldn’t have come at a better time. With around a quarter of Americans now identifying as religiously unaffiliated and 7% openly identifying as atheist, secular and humanistic perspectives will now get a larger voice in Congress.

Congressman Jared Huffman, who recently came out as a secular humanist, noted his excitement about the caucus and hopes it will “spark an open dialogue about science and reason-based policy solutions, and the importance of defending the secular character of our government.” Congressman Jamie Raskin, another open humanist, highlighted the “historic” nature of this event and its ties to the founders:

Two-and-a-half centuries after the Founders of our country separated church and state and guaranteed the individual freedoms of thought, conscience, speech and worship, it is a high honor to be a co-founder and member of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which is organizing to defend these principles and values against continuing attack. We face a constant undertow in Congress of dangerous efforts to stifle science and promote official religious dogma and orthodoxy. Our job is to remind Congress of the kind of Enlightenment Republic that Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Tom Paine, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were fighting for and to seek a democracy that protects both the rights of individual conscience and worship and the central role of reason, science and morality in the making of public policy.

Representative Jerry McNerney, who is also a scientist and mathematician, reiterated the Caucus’s philosophy and goals. “As co-founder of the Freethought Caucus, I believe strongly in the separation of church and state, and as a scientist, I understand clearly the need to bring rational decision-making to Congress for the good of our nation,” said Rep. McNerney. Huffman and Raskin will serve as the co-chairs for the caucus.

This step also pushes non-theist and humanistic perspectives more to the forefront of our politics. As Ron Millar of the Center for Freethought Equality put it, “this caucus will help end discrimination against nontheist candidates and elected officials, allow candidates and elected officials to be authentic about their religious beliefs, and encourage atheist, agnostic, and humanists to run for political office.” With the ever-growing creep of theocracy into our federal government after the election of Donald Trump, the Freethought Caucus is exactly the kind of move we should take as a nation. Huffman reiterated this in his statements on Monday: “There currently is no forum focused on these important issues, and with this Administration and certain members of Congress constantly working to erode the separation of church and state, this new caucus is both important and timely.”

Secular leaders all across the country also celebrated this formation. “We are delighted at the formation of a freethought caucus in Congress,” Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement, “Finally, the significant portion of Americans who are not religious will have representation in Congress.” Harvard cognitive psychologist and FFRF honorary President Steven Pinker also praised the move, calling it a “historic achievement” on Twitter. Roy Speckhardt, the executive director of the American Humanist Association, agrees. “The very existence of this Congressional caucus for freethinkers and humanists is a marker of how far the movement for secular and nontheist equality has come. This significant step is also a new beginning for our country as both religious and non-religious leaders work to better the nation,” he said in a press release.

As for myself, I’m so excited about this event. The Freethought Caucus can become such an effective advocacy forum for secular and humanistic perspectives. I also appreciate their willingness to represent others who may not be as secular as them. Their dedication to the separation of church and state, as well as freedom of conscience, speaks to how they want to build bridges with other demographic groups while fighting for reason and science-based public policy. I think most people, non-religious and religious, can get behind that. Nearly 130 years since the founding of the nation’s first freethought organizations, the National Liberal League and the American Secular Union, and less than a century removed from the creation of the American Humanist Association, we now have a Caucus who will represent us in Congress. That’s definitely an achievement for the history books.

Fahrenheit 451 Review

“I don’t talk things, sir,” said Faber. “I talk the meaning of things. I sit here and know I’m alive.”

With the gusto and tenderness of a prophet, Ray Bradbury writes about the all-too-human proclivity to passively waste time: the absence of self reflection and awareness in our human fixations with flashes of images on screens, when our ears and eyes obsess over the constant ramblings of social commentators, as we become bodies in motion, moving according to the laws of security, predictability, and monotony of routine. While the famous Fahrenheit 451 was solidified in ink half a century before our pixelated age , it is written for us. He has a message for our engagement-driven, entertainment-filled, networking habits: When anything will suffice to procure attention, it’s impossible to be meaningfully related to things . Bradbury does not offer, as is vogue nowadays, a dystopian future created by the clandestine acts of a few elite, but a future painfully entrenched in the human situation, the inefficient designs of bureaucracies, and, such as it is, the banality of evil. The future is forged not by forces we cannot control, but from the very beating hearts of crying, hugging, talking, average people.

Though recent discourses surrounding the polarizing effects of social media use and the merits of speech that offends have become commonplace and polarizing, the claims and questions of this 1953 masterpiece warrant serious reflection: “We need not be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important? About something real?” Does meaningful discourse require from us a sacrifice? And, if so, are we willing to bear its weight?

Fahrenheit 451 is a book about books, the human experience, and the tension between mere knowledge that absolves conflict and truth that confronts and serves life. As we read, we follow the story of Montag, a fireman whose job it is to burn books, spraying a fire hose full of kerosene rather than water, to create fires in fireproof homes. We observe an awakening—as routines established to ease the burden of consciousness by precluding moments of silence and pensivity, activities that create conflict without pre-made societal answers, and the simple disruption of bare novelty—when Montag undergoes an existential crisis. After a series of important developments, he responds to a call about a woman who has hidden books. Her home was in the ancient part of town, still standing only by the rigidity of the fire-proof plastic sheath applied years ago. After crashing through the door, Montag and the firemen find a stationary woman in some kind of somber state who speaks the words of heretics burned alive in Oxford on October 16, 1555: “We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” The chief fireman, Beatty, attempts to convince her to leave the hopeless books to burn, “Where’s your common sense? None of those books agree with each other. You’ve been locked up her for years with a regular damned Tower of Babel.” With saintly resolve, she remained unmoved, and in a deeply human act of martyrdom,struck the match whose flames swallowed her home, her books, and her body in a blaze of profound light.

There are at least two ways to understand the strange central problem (and how it came to be) of 451: the burning of books. One is from the existential, which we will turn to presently, and the other is the political, which we will analyze next. In a play Bradbury wrote sometime after Fahrenheit 451, Beatty, the main antagonist and chief firefighter of both, is given to a moment of serious biographical reflection. He brings Montag to his house where a massive library of books sit on sturdy, colossal shelves. He reminds Montag the crime is not to own books, but to read them. To collect these books, however, Beatty must have also once loved them in some way, and indeed he had. What made him want to burn them now? Why did he stop reading?

“Why, life happened to me.” The Fire Chief shuts his eyes to remember. “Life. The usual. The same. The love that wasn’t quite right, the dream that went sour, the sex that fell apart, the deaths that came swiftly to friends not deserving, the murder of someone or another, the insanity of someone close, the slow death of a mother, the abrupt suicide of a father—a stampede of elephants, an onslaught of disease. And nowhere, nowhere the right book for the right time to stuff in the crumbling wall of the breaking dam to hold back the deluge, give or take a metaphor, lose or find a simile. And by the far edge of thirty, and the near rim of thirty-one, I picked myself up, every bone broken, every centimeter of flesh abraded, bruised, or scarred. I looked in the mirror and found an old man lost behind the frightened face of a young man, saw a hatred there for everything and anything, you name it, I’d damn it, and opened the pages of my fine library books and found what, what, what!?”

In the midst of tragedies, failed dreams, and extinguished desires, books offered “no help, no solace, no peace, no harbor, no true love, no bed, no light.” Bradbury argues that both antipathy and apathy toward reading derive from an antipathy and apathy toward life. The “regular damned Tower of Babel” is an image of the conflicts inherent in thinking itself—as they’re piled on one another, they reach toward the heavens—and the recognition of the inevitability of these conflicts cause some to lose faith in existence. They begin to resent people who not only abide by the laws of nature and experience, but somehow, despite the inherent tragedies of existence, by the laws of freedom, and overcome suffering. The misology—which arises when cultivated reason applies itself with deliberate purpose to the enjoyment of life and happiness—that Beatty uses to rationalize his disposition towards books is, coincidentally, the very hatred of reason Kant rejects in his famous Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals. For Kant, reason has one aim: the creation of a goodwill. Yet, when cultivated reason, which is aimed at happiness and satisfaction, attempts to achieve its ends, those who live and die by it find it brings more troubles than its worth. Reason is, as a result, sworn off altogether and so is the laws of freedom that move us beyond treating ourselves, others, and time as means to ends. When we lose reason, the laws of freedom lose to the laws of nature.

Another way to understand this problem is the analogous monologue Beatty gives in Fahrenheit 451 about how books were banned as a matter of politics. It all boils down to a simple equation: Force = Mass x Velocity. As mass media steamrolled the production of everything for the average consumer, and the velocity at which this production of products increased, the force of mass culture both simplified language and amplified differences. It is a prosaic matter to discern the disparity between two simple propositions, it is another thing, perhaps a matter of the problems of life in general, to discern the fundamental differences between two complex phenomena. When the former acquires unstoppable force, the possibility of the latter is bludgeoned to oblivion, forgotten and ignored. Today to know one political position of a person, say whether they are pro-life, entails, for many, many other positions: pro-gun, anti-immigration, pro-war, pro-corporate welfare. The simplification of language amplifies our differences, for every difference appears to be a difference of essentials: antitheses. If you’re not pro-life, you’re pro-choice, for instance. The opposite of Republican is Democrat, or so we’re told. This mass production of ideologies, language, and products for mass audiences that creates and instantiates differences calls for, perhaps just by inertia, a further, yet ironic, simplification: of thought, of populations, of differences. Why are you pro-life? The Bible says so. That’s where the buck stops, for most. Our essential differences come to have no content but the affirmation of the differences, and the anathema of the other, of the really different, of that which cannot be contained within simple dichotomies, of life itself.

Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico….The Bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that!…There you have it, Montag, it didn’t come from the Government down to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God! Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time….With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. . . .We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So a book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?. . . You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred.

Who is easier to offend than the person who cannot hold two conflicting ideas without accepting them, who cannot understand the other side of the dichotomy, or that every either/or is too abstract to accurately represent the infinite potentiality and actuality of everything real? And, yet, as the old dictum goes, who is more blissful?

If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, topheavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag.

Indeed, this monologue provides a social view of the individual pathology outlined before, and what can happen when society is shaped and molded by people like Beatty. In 451, as people moved faster in their cars and between appointments, the time to reflect and relate intimately with others became equally fleeting, until it disappeared, along with the ability to discern between what makes one happy and what makes one fulfilled. Suffering is displaced by speed; meaning is displaced by distraction. The denizens of Bradbury’s world (and many in our own) are more interested in knowing what things are than why they are.

Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies to melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely.

The why-question, so often now seen as improper, primitive, and religious nonsense, is a question one can only pose to another human being and to oneself, not to things, but to the meaning of things. When the why-question is lost, so 451 argues, so is history, so is personhood. For history is a story of ourselves: we read history to know who we are, why we are.

 

451 opens with an encounter between Montag and a vibrant, youthful girl who is passionate about observing and listening to people. She considers outlandish things, like the differences between viewing grass and flowers while moving and while at rest. “I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly.” Clarisse McClellan even, fantastically, notes that billboards used to be twenty feet wide instead of two hundred. In this world, where the minimum speed is 55 mph without a maximum speed anywhere, Clarisse is attuned to what can only be considered disposable to the standards of efficiency and goal completion. Her uncle, the picture of a pure heretic and outcast, was once arrested for being a pedestrian.

It is on this chance encounter with Clarisse that Montag first becomes aware of a possible world he had never considered, a world in which he might recognize the thoughts of people, the differences between himself and others, the complete alterity of history before his own present. Upon seeing himself in Clarisse’s eyes, he no longer simply conflates the past with the present, others with himself, genuine human flourishing with the recurring completion of social and ritual demands. “He saw himself in her eyes, suspended in two shining drops of bright water, himself dark and tiny, in fine detail, the lines about his mouth, everything there, as if her eyes were two miraculous bits of violet amber that might capture and hold him intact.” When they part and continue to their separate homes, Montag is confronted by the emptiness and shallowness of his life, the silent familiarity of the blank walls of his home:

He glanced back at the wall. How like a mirror, too, her face. Impossible; for how many people did you know who refracted your own light to you? People were more often—he searched for a simile, found one in his work,—torches, blazing away until they whiffed out. How rarely did other people’s faces take of you and throw back to you your own expression, your own innermost trembling thought?

In fact, Montag had no thought of himself until the questioning attentiveness of Clarisse’s careful eyes had made him see himself, in all his detail, being cared for by another person. Attachment theory tells us we become selves by imitating the reactions of our mothers to our pain and distress and internalizing them. Bradbury seems to suggest if we are not attentive to our place in the world of other persons, we have yet to understand what it means to be a person in the first place.

Throughout the novel, Bradbury’s prose grows from general descriptions of “the whole world” to the particularity of “the alley,” paralleling the development of Montag’s awareness. Many scenes, fires, and conversations after Clarisse, Montag tries to remember an important detail and can only recall an entertainment slogan that blared on a public transit vehicle he used once before.  Through such juxtapositions of things that develop, things that endure, and things that emerge, 451 is not a naïve projection of a future that the reader cannot recognize herself in, but a mirror, summoning from the silence of the reader’s solitude the hidden elements of life that seduce, control, widen, narrow, deepen, shallow, and compel. He finds these elements disclosed in the encouraging hand of another person and the stillness that a moment of time cared for provides for the development of inwardness.

Fahrenheit 451 is not a novel to encourage a pretentious bibliophilia. Indeed, when Montag finally meets outcast professors and readers in the final scenes, books are not seen as objects of beauty in and of themselves, as specialized, commodified, functional products created by a division of labor, but as spaces for acts of remembering: reflecting a theme persistent throughout the novel. “The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are.”

The language we use to think and talk about life and its inherent tragedies comes to shape and make real the kind of reality we think life is: one to be resented, one to be avoided, or one to be overcome. As social media continues to shape our discourses by selecting for epigrams over nuanced discussion, Bradbury asks us if we will become like Mildred, whose words are like those “heard once in a nursery at a friend’s house, a two-year-old child building word patterns, talking jargon, making pretty sounds in the air,” or whether we will become like the talking, depthless faces of anchors operating distraction machines like Fox News or CNN: “the gibbering pack of tree apes that said nothing, nothing, nothing and said it loud, loud, loud.” May we find the words that wrestle and struggle with the challenges of life, without strangling or flattening them, and, consequently, diminishing the possibility for genuine human flourishing.

Themes of the book capture insight about humanity in general and can therefore speak to 2018, despite its 1953 publication. One message is that reading is an act of paying attention to persons and remembering the intricacies of life in the solitude and solicitude of the written word. All words are written by persons. And so literature can be defined as a generous act of hospitality of a person from the past, inviting us to make intelligible and bearable the human experience by contending with and overcoming the tragedies and suffering inherent in the life well-lived by learning from the wisdom of those who came before us. And such an idea makes Fahrenheit 451 a book that should not just be owned. But a book that should be read.

Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.”

 

Promise of Secular Humanism

Reason Revolution founder Justin Clark gives a lecture on secular humanism at the Heartland Unitarian Universalist Church in Carmel, Indiana.

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Music: “Constellations” by Sound Surfer

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American humanism has always benefited from its trailblazers, the radicals whose revolutionary ideas moved the progress of freedom, equality, and justice forward. One almost without peer was Emma Goldman, the anarchist philosopher and public intellectual; her unique perspective on atheism constantly challenged the status quo. Goldman, a Lithuanian immigrant to the United States, toiled in the sweatshops of upstate New York before coming to political consciousness after the Haymarket Riot, a massacre that left countless dead and implicated labor activists as scapegoats for the violence. This event pushed her out of her first marriage and into New York City, where she met fellow-anarchist Alexander Berkman and fell in love. She used her new-found freedom to study the ideas of anarchism, socialism, and atheism, which influenced all of her later activism and writing.

Portrait of Emma Goldman, circa 1911

Portrait of Emma Goldman, circa 1911, Library of Congress.

Authorities followed Goldman her entire life. They attempted to charge her with involvement in the near-murder of Carnegie Steel manager Henry Frick, which had been carried out by Berkman as a response to the bloodshed at Homestead. While she was involved in the plot, she was never charged due to lack of evidence. In 1901, she was wrongly arrested for alleged involvement in the assassination of President William McKinley; but, like the case involving Frick, she was later released. In 1919, after speaking out against World War I, the government convicted her of violating the Alien and Sedition Acts and deported her from the United States. She lived in multiple countries during her exile before her death in 1940.

During her many years of activism, Goldman wrote for a variety of publications, including Mother Earth, a magazine she founded in 1906. Her writing championed free speech and expression, free love and open relationships, anarchism, the rights of labor, education, birth control, and criticisms of religion. This essay will explore Goldman’s ideas about atheism and how they fit into her larger ideological framework. As her writings will show, three core themes permeate Goldman’s work: strong advocacy for individual freedom, rejection of Christianity, and the defense of atheism. In all, Emma Goldman’s radical atheism was rooted in her love of humanity, and while the term didn’t exist then, that made her a deeply committed humanist.

The front cover of Mother Earth magazine, February 1916. This volume contains Goldman's essay, "The Philosophy of Atheism."

The front cover of Mother Earth magazine, February 1916. This volume contains Goldman’s essay, “The Philosophy of Atheism.” Google Books.

Women as “Victims of Morality”

In 1913, Goldman published a lecture entitled, “Victims of Morality,” where she argued that religious puritanism had, like a disease, infected the moral compass of America, with significant consequences manifesting particularly in the lives of women. “Through the medium of religion they have paralyzed the mind of the people, just as morality has enslaved the spirit. In other words, religion and morality are a much better whip to keep people in submission than even the club and the gun,” Goldman wrote.[1] She was speaking in reference to Anthony Comstock, the overzealous social reformer who used his position as special agent at the U.S. Post Office Department to enforce strict laws against the purported transfer of “obscene” literature via the mail. In fact, the “Comstock Act,” which prohibited the passage of obscene literature of the mails, is named after him.

Pamphlet, "Victims of Morality and The Failure of Christianity," 1913.

Pamphlet, “Victims of Morality and The Failure of Christianity,” 1913. Google Books.

Goldman believed that Comstock’s style of Victorian puritanism violated the rights of women. “It is Morality,” said Goldman, “which condemns woman to the position of a celibate, a prostitute, or a reckless, incessant breeder of hapless children.”[2] Now, why would she capitalize “morality?” Was she speaking in reference to a specific kind of morality? In the context of this article, her capital-M morality referred to “Property Morality,” her view that the capitalistic United States was beholden to property. “Woe to anyone that dares to question the sanctity of property, or sins against it,” she declared.[3] In this passage, we see Goldman’s critique of morality as part of a greater critique of capitalism itself. To her, capitalism and its slavish devotion to property created the conditions under which those who were oppressed by its machinations barely understood their own servitude. In this milieu, religion (specifically Christianity) and Victorian moralism served as a major contributor to false consciousness. In turn, Goldman estimated that “until the workers lose respect for the instrument of their material enslavement, they need hope for no relief.”

As indicated above, this condition wreaked havoc on the rights of women. For Goldman, the celibate is created by the morality of marriage, the prostitute is created by the morality of property and money, and the mother is created by the morality of socially-sanctioned reproduction. All these moralities amount to the same consequence: the lives of women were preordained by social roles, at the expense of their liberty and freedom. Goldman’s solution to this problem is for women to throw off the social bonds of “Morality” and embrace a moral individualism that is consummate with a person’s own desires and needs. “Woman is awakening, she is throwing off the nightmare of Morality; she will no longer be bound,” Goldman wrote, “Her love is sanction enough for her.”[4] She believed if people lived their lives without any regard for gratifying oppressive structures of the church and the state, they would live full lives of meaning and purpose.

Christianity and the Denial of Life

To further her critique of society’s “Morality,” she published another pamphlet lambasting its fundamental support structure: Christianity. In “The Failure of Christianity,” also published in 1913, Goldman saw herself as the rightful heir of such notable German iconoclasts as Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Stirner. Goldman declared that they “hurled blow upon blow against the portals of Christianity, because they saw in it a pernicious slave morality, the denial of life, and the destroyer of all the elements that make for strength and character.”[5] The concept of “slave morality,” as articulated by Nietzsche, understood Christianity as a system that reinforced moralities that enslaved by making humility, obedience, and charity virtues as opposed to the master moralities that prize pride, power, and nobility. Goldman agreed. As she wrote in a further passage, “I believe, with them, that Christianity is most admirably adapted to the training of slaves, to the perpetuation of a slave society; in short, to the very conditions confronting us today.”[6] Christianity, in Goldman’s eyes, ripped away our human potential by stripping us of our strength, courage, and agency.

Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, circa 1910-1915. His notion of "Master and Slave Moralities" influenced Goldman's view of Christianity.

Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, circa 1910-1915. His notion of “Master and Slave Moralities” influenced Goldman’s view of Christianity. Library of Congress.

She’s also not forgiving to Christ as a teacher; she saw his religion as “the embodiment of submission, of inertia, of the denial of life; hence responsible for the things done in their name.” Now, she differentiated the concept of “Jesus Christ” into three distinct categories: the theological, the ethical, and the poetic. The theological Christ is the one presented by the Bible, a divine-human figure, with all the miracles and supernaturalism. The ethical Christ, like the one depicted in the Jefferson Bible, is stripped of supernaturalism and miracles to focus on his ethical teachings. Finally, the poetical Christ focuses on the story of Christ as a metaphor for life, a story that helps a person understand their place in the world. In her view, the theological Christ was refuted long ago, by such luminaries as Thomas Paine, Ernest Renan, Richard Strauss, and Ferdinand Christian Baur (she spells as Bauer). Her main contention, which she saw as more important to the culture of her time, was the influence of the ethical and poetic Christs: “the ethical and poetic Christ-myth” Goldman argued, “has so thoroughly saturated our lives, that even some of the most advanced minds make it difficult to emancipate themselves from its yoke.”[7]

Goldman’s frustration was less with the fundamentalists of Christianity (who would be refuted over time by scientific and theological inquiry) but the liberal wing, whose dedication to the myth led to widespread ethical contradictions. They couldn’t see how the metaphor of life the poetical Christ represented had made them slaves to social and political ideologies requiring subservience and intellectual sacrifice. For instance, Christians who decried slavery lacked self-awareness of their own religion, for while it taught them ethical responsibility, it also taught them “slavish acquiescence in the will of others” and encouraged “the complete disregard of character and self-reliance, and [was] therefore destructive of liberty and well-being.”[8] Thus, well-meaning Christians actually propelled and sustained the slave trade for centuries, despite the ethical call to “love thy neighbor.” In order for a society to truly achieve progress, it must reject Christianity, in any form. It is a religion which prizes the allure of heaven over the concerns of the here and now. It teaches that to be “poor in spirit” is to be virtuous, that those who toil on this earth need not bothered with their current status or the political state of the world in which they find themselves. The rich will suffer in hell while the poor live in heaven. And most of all, it reinforces subjugation as a virtue.

This is Goldman’s central problem with Christianity; like “Morality’s” assault on women’s rights, Christianity’s insistence on meekness becomes “the whip, which capitalism and governments have used to force man into dependency, into his slave position.”[9] Furthermore, Goldman observed, “Righteousness grows out of liberty, of social and economic opportunity, and equality. But how can the meek, the poor in spirit, ever establish such a state of affairs?” In order for society to truly promote and preserve individual rights, freedom, and equality, the institutions of social cohesion (the state, market capitalism, organized Christianity) must crumble before the working classes.

Goldman’s Audacious Atheism

Alongside her continued appraisals of religion, Emma Goldman also articulated an alternative in the February, 1916, issue of her magazine, Mother Earth. Called “The Philosophy of Atheism,” this short essay has become her best-known writing on the subject (and was recently included in Christopher Hitchens’s edited omnibus, The Portable Atheist). It’s fairly surprising how prescient she was in this essay, laying out ideas that have become common themes in our modern discourse on atheism. For example, she writes early in the piece that “the God idea is growing more impersonal and nebulous in proportion as the human mind is learning to understand natural phenomena and in the degree that science progressively correlates human and social events.”[10]

Emma Goldman, "The Philosophy of Atheism," Mother Earth Magazine, February, 1916.

Emma Goldman, “The Philosophy of Atheism,” Mother Earth Magazine, February, 1916. Google Books.

Today, this critique is heavily used against the “God of the Gaps” style arguments for theism, which use current gaps in knowledge to posit the existence of God. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson echoed Goldman when he said that “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time moves on – so just be ready for that to happen, if that’s how you want to come at the problem.”[11] While their views are separated by nearly a century, it’s remarkable how parallel they are; this reinforces my view that American freethought goes back much farther than we often think.

Another clear influence on her own atheism was the anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin, whose own work God and the State she quotes at length in “The Philosophy of Atheism.” Bakunin argued that gods were the product of “the prejudiced fancy of men who had not attained the full development and full possession of their faculties,” which led to the “abdication of human reason and justice” and “necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and in practice.”[12] If this sounds familiar to you, it should, because Goldman also viewed religion as slavery and wrote about it at length in the aforementioned “Failure of Christianity.” In accepting Bakunin’s thesis, Goldman declared that “In proportion as man learns to realize himself and mold his own destiny theism becomes superfluous. How far man will be able to find his relation to his fellows will depend entirely upon how much he can outgrow his dependence upon God.”[13]

Mikhail Bakunin, photographed by Felix Nadar. His book, "God and the State," heavily influenced Goldman's views on atheism.

Mikhail Bakunin, photographed by Felix Nadar. His book, “God and the State,” heavily influenced Goldman’s views on atheism. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

One more instance in which she presaged another well-known intellectual was with her critique of what she called “theistic tolerance.” Goldman noted that as religious belief wanes in the public square, denominations of all stripes will “combine variegated religious philosophies and conflicting theistic theories into one denominational trust” in a “frantic effort to establish a common ground to rescue the modern mass from the ‘pernicious’ influence of atheistic ideas.” Therefore, “It is characteristic of theistic ‘tolerance’ that no one really cares what the people believe in, just so they believe or pretend to believe.”[14] With this analysis, she anticipated the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s concept of “Belief in Belief,” from his 2006 work, Breaking the Spell. In the chapter of the same name, Dennett argues that many view the belief in a god or gods as essentially valuable to society, regardless of whether or not the god(s) exist or religious doctrines are empirically true. Like Goldman (and me), Dennett is firmly convinced that as societies forge evermore robust secular systems of justice and social harmony there will no longer be any need for this “belief in belief.”[15] Now, Dennett wouldn’t go along with Goldman’s anarchism, but would definitely sign on to her diagnosis. This make her a pretty damn good prognosticator of some of mainstream atheism’s most prevalent ideas.

After clearing away religions under the lash of her pen, Goldman spends the rest of this essay articulating her view of atheism. She begins with an excellent definition:

The philosophy of Atheism represents a concept of life without any metaphysical Beyond or Divine Regulator. It is the concept of an actual, real world with its liberating, expanding and beautifying possibilities, as against an unreal world, which, with its spirits, oracles, and mean contentment has kept humanity in helpless degradation.[16]

Her definition reaffirms her commitment to the real world, not the promise of heaven or the fear of hell. In fact, she even says as much in a further passage:

The philosophy of Atheism has its roots in the earth in this life . . . . Man must break his fetters which have chained him to the gates of heaven and hell, so that he can begin to fashion out of his reawakened and illumined consciousness a new world upon earth.

Atheism allows a person to fully embrace their humanity for the betterment of themselves and the world they live in. When one is dedicated to processes of self and scientific discovery, religious notions can be easily pushed aside.

Atheism’s Moral Affirmation of Humanity

Finally, Goldman turns to moral questions. One of the oldest and most-common questions unbelievers get is, “How can you be good without God?” First, she dismisses the idea of Christian morality outright, as it “has always been a vile product, imbued partly with self righteousness, partly with hypocrisy.”[17] Goldman never thought much of the traditionally Christian notions of fixed moral states set by a god; they don’t reflect what morality is really all about, which is creating a framework of human interaction based on shared norms of freedom, flourishing, and facts. In all times, she declared, the freethinkers were the ones who fought for these principles:

They knew that justice, truth, and fidelity are not conditioned in heaven, but that they are related to and interwoven with the tremendous changes going on in the social and material life of the human race; not fixed and eternal, but fluctuating, even as life itself.[18]

This could be interpreted as moral relativism, but that wasn’t Goldman’s intent. She actually believed in some moral universals such as freedom, choice, and empathy. She just couldn’t stomach a morality disconnected from real-world human needs that precidated its universals on unknowable gods and their indecipherable whims.

Atheism gives humanity agency in a way that theism doesn’t; it compels us to show up for the tasks of life, to make the hard choices, to benefit from our successes, and to learn from our failures. In a sense, it allows us to be fully human. As she writes at the end of her essay, “Atheism in its negation of gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.”[19]

Nevertheless, it is a radical position: atheism is the eternal “Yes” to humankind.[20] Paradoxically, we try to make our view more palatable by obscuring it, as when we tell an acquaintance that we’re “not religious” instead of explicitly atheist. While this position is rightly applied to those who don’t fully grasp our intentions, it is far better to foist our wares on the counter in the slim hope that some passerby might delight in our goods. This is exactly what Emma Goldman did with her writings on atheism. Raw, rancorous, and always controversial, Goldman’s iconoclasm reads nearly as modern as anything by O’Hair or Hitchens. It’s this boldness—a desire to own one’s radicalism—that electrifies her writing. This disregard for pleasant spectacle in the service of radical truth reaffirms Goldman’s rightful place in the pantheon of American humanism.

Emma Goldman, likely before her deportation from the United States, 1919.

Emma Goldman, likely before her deportation from the United States, 1919. Library of Congress.


[1] Emma Goldman, Victims of Morality and the Failure of Christianity (New York: Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1913), 2, Google Books.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., 8.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 9.

[9] Ibid., 11.

[10] Emma Goldman, “The Philosophy of Atheism,” Mother Nature Vol. 10, No. 12 (February, 1916): 410, accessed June 27, 2017, Google Books.

[11] The Science Network, The Moon, the Tides and why Neil DeGrasse Tyson is Colbert’s God, Interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, directed by Roger Bingham (2011, The Science Network), Online Video.

[12] Mikhail Bakunin, in Goldman, “The Philosophy of Atheism,” 410.

[13] Goldman, “The Philosophy of Atheism,” 410.

[14] Ibid., 412.

[15] Daniel Dennett, “The Folly of Pretense,” The Guardian, July 16, 2009, accessed March 15, 2018, Guardian Online.

[16] Ibid., 414.

[17] Ibid., 415.

[18] Ibid., 415.

[19] Ibid., 416.

[20] By contrast, Karl Barth, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, declared in 1918 that God speaks an eternal “No!” to man. https://postbarthian.com/2017/11/21/wrath-god-karl-barth-said-name-god-know-not-say/

 

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