08/9/16

The Wrong Doorway

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© captainvector | 123rf.com

Laughing gas or nitrous oxide (N20) has a surprising variety of uses or effects. The World Health Organization lists it as an essential medicine because of its anesthetic and analgesic effects. It’s used as an oxidizer in rockets and motor racing to increase the power output of engines. N20 is also a major greenhouse gas, with a per unit mass impact that is between 265 and 310 times that of carbon dioxide. And it is in the top ten most popular recreational drugs globally.

The English chemist Joseph Priestley discovered nitrous oxide gas in 1772. Priestley is also known for his discovery of oxygen. Humphrey Davy experimented with N20 on himself and others in 1799. He coined the term ‘laughing gas’ after observing its effects on people who inhaled it. Although he reported its analgesic effects in 1800, this property was not tested or used for another 45 years. During that time, it was primarily a ‘party’ or entertainment drug.

A British dentist in 1845 was the first person to demonstrate the anesthetic properties of nitrous oxide. However, it was not widely used in dentistry until 1863. Gardner Quincy Colton and his partners opened a series of dental institutes using laughing gas. Within five years, they had performed a reported 75,000 extractions. A history of reported nitrous oxide users includes: Allen Ginsberg, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ken Kesey, Winston Churchill and William James.

In 1882 James published an article titled: “The Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide,” in the journal Mind.  He said his use of N20 helped him develop a greater understanding of Hegel’s philosophy and he strongly urged his readers to repeat the experiment. “With me, as with every other person of whom I have heard, the keynote of the experience is the tremendously exciting sense of an intense metaphysical illumination.” Truth was almost blindingly obvious. “The mind sees all logical relations of being with an apparant subtlety and instantaniety to which its normal consciousness offers no parallel.”

But as he “sobered up,” the feeling faded. James was left with a few disjointed words and phrases—like staring at a black cinder left after the fire has gone out. James said he had sheet after sheet of phrases written during intoxication with N20 that to his sober mind seemed to be “meaningless drivel.” The most coherent and articulate sentence that came to him was the following: “There are no differences but differences of degree between different degrees of difference and no difference.”

In his later, seminal work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, James again reflected on the significance of intoxication by alcohol and anesthetics. He said the influence of alcohol over humanity was due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature. Sobriety diminishes; drunkenness expands. “The drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystic consciousness and our total opinion of it must find its place in our opinion of that larger whole.”

Nitrous oxide, according to James, stimulated the mystical consciousness to an extraordinary degree. “Depth beyond depth of truth seems revealed to the inhaler.” But that truth fades as the individual sobered up. Nevertheless, a profound sense of meaning persisted. “I know more than one person who is persuaded that in the nitrous oxide trance we have a genuine metaphysical revelation.” He then went on to describe his own previous experiments with N20 described in his 1882 article.

In an article for The Atlantic, “The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher,” Dmitri Tymoczko noted how the experience James had with nitrous oxide remained with him throughout his life. He wrote a second article about it in 1898, “Consciousness Under Nitrous Oxide.” Then in his last essay, completed in 1910, he implied N20 had had an abiding influence on his thinking. Tymoczko thought N20 was a ‘passport’ for James to see religion from the believer’s perspective. “Drugs helped James to understand what religious belief was like from the inside.”

 James’s experiences with nitrous oxide helped to crystallize some of the major tenets of his philosophy. His writings emphasize, for instance, the notion of pluralism, according to which “to the very last, there are various ‘points of view’ which the philosopher must distinguish in discussing the world.” Nitrous oxide had revealed in the most dramatic way possible the existence of alternate points of view.

Tymoczko used William James’s experience with nitrous oxide to argue how drugs can contribute to human well being; sometimes fulfilling an authentic religious need. He reasoned that drugs could allow even the most skeptical people to experience temporary periods of “pleasing falsehood,” dividing their life into periods of sober rationality and “ecstatic religious intoxication”, like William James. “Indeed, this is the real religious significance of drug use, from the Jamesian point of view–that it lets us choose, if only vaguely and temporarily, what to believe.”

He even referenced R. Gordon Wassson, who proposed that religion itself originated with drugs. According to Wasson, religion was a confused reaction to intense experiences provoked by the accidental ingestion of psychoactive plants. There have been examples where religious ritual has been entwined with the use of drugs. Some Native American cultures used psychedelic mushrooms in their rituals; and the Greek cult of Dionysus used wine to provoke visions. But Tymoczko went too far onto the magical mystery tour when he suggested that the use of wine by Christians could be a remnant of similar practices.

The Bible clearly puts the use of bread and wine within the context of a meal; not a mystical psychedelic religious rite. Tymoczko also failed to make a distinction made by James in The Varieties of Religious Experience that separated what James called institutional religion, like Christianity, from personal religion. James defined personal religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of [the] individual . . . in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” James was looking at examples of personal religion, not institutional religion in The Varieties of Religious Experience. See “Spiritual, Not Religious Experience” for more on this distinction by James.

So now back to nitrous oxide. The significance of nitrous oxide to William James personally or to his philosophical and other writings has little to tell us about religious experience today. It may resonate with the increased interest in psychedelic drug rituals for therapeutic healing (See “Back to the Future with Psychedelics”). But before walking the path of Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley, let’s take a look at what modern science tells us about N20—information that wasn’t available to James when he was doing his inhaling.

The Global Drug Survey, annually conducted by Adam Winstock and others, found that nitrous oxide was the seventh most popular drug in the world. More than 7% of the global survey respondents said they had used nitrous oxide in the past year. In the UK, it was used by 23.7% of respondents sometime over the past year. A recent article in the Journal of Psychopharmacology by Kaar et al., Winstock was a coauthor, indicated that the reported lifetime use of nitrous oxide for the UK and US was 38.6% and 29.4% respectively.

Most people using nitrous oxide recreationally do so infrequently without any serious side effects. But there is a subpopulation of heavy users. Quoted in an article for The Fix, Winstock said: “The majority of people who use it don’t use it very often, and only around 3% of heavy users say they have experienced negative health effects.” The Global Drug Survey found nitrous oxide use was associated with hallucinations (27.8%), confusion (23.9%), persistent numbness (4.3%) and accidental injury (1.2%). Accidental injury seems to be dose-dependent—injury is associated with higher numbers of ‘hits’ per session.

The pro-drug website, Erowid, has a ‘vault’ of information on nitrous oxide. Chronic exposure can effect reproduction in women. Immunological problems such as recurrent infections, decreased white blood cell counts and weakness have also been reported. There were also neurological issues with chronic N20 use.

A 1978 article in the British journal Lancet reported that a neurological disorder called myleneuropathy developed in 15 individuals with prolonged exposure to nitrous oxide. R.B. Layzer reported that: “The neurological picture is similar to that of subacute combined degeneration of the spinal cord, and it is possible that nitrous oxide interferes with the action of vitamin B12 in the nervous system.” A 1993 article by Flippo et al. in JAMA Surgery also described the dangers of neurologic degeneration from nitrous oxide. The abstract said:

Five cases (four from the literature and one new case) are presented in which patients unsuspected of having vitamin B12 deficiency developed subacute combined degeneration of the spinal cord following nitrous oxide anesthesia. Patients with vitamin B12 deficiency are exceedingly sensitive to neurologic deterioration following nitrous oxide anesthesia. If unrecognized, the neurologic deterioration becomes irreversible and may result in death.

Happily, some of these issues can be reversed. A 2003 article in the Wisconsin Medical Journal by Waclawik et al. described a case study of an individual who was a chronic nitrous oxide user whose neurological deficit was reversed after administering vitamin B12.

Sporadic use of N20 does not appear to be associated with serious health risks. But chronic exposure is another story. William James may have been influenced by experiences he had with nitrous oxide, just as Sigmund Freud’s use of cocaine shaped his psychoanalytic theories. N20 also fits with the current trend of looking for therapeutic healing or personal insight with psychedelics like LSD, ecstasy and even ayahuasca or ibogaine. But it is better suited as an anesthetic or analgesic in medical procedures; or an oxidizer in rocket engines than it is a doorway to religious experience.

02/18/16

American Polytheism

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© vectomart | 123rf.com

The Baylor Religion Survey looked “under the hood,” so to speak, of the commonly acknowledged fact of American religiosity. Consistent with other findings, it found that 85-90% of Americans said they believed in God, and 71.5% said they prayed at least once per week. Almost half (49.2%) said they attended church at least once per month. “In fact, under the surface American religion is startlingly complex and diverse. Americans may agree that God exists. They do not agree about what God is like, what God wants for the world, or how God feels about politics.” Let’s see what the Baylor researchers found out.

One of the intriguing aspects of the Baylor Religion Survey was how it assessed religious affiliation. Most surveys simply ask the person to select their affiliation or denomination from a list. But this has become increasingly problematic as more and more Americans lose a strong denominational identity through the rise of nondenominational congregations as well as congregations that minimize their denominational ties. I watched with interest as a large local church completed its building program and shed the “Assembly of God” part of its name to simply become “Church.” Rick Warren’s Saddleback megachurch is similar. How many people realize it is part of the Southern Baptist denomination? I didn’t.

What the Baylor researchers did was look beyond mere denominational affiliation. In addition to the typical checklist of denominations, they asked respondents to give the name and address of their places of worship. This enabled them to more accurately sort persons into broader religious traditions. By their calculations, Evangelical Protestants comprised 33.6% of their survey; Mainline Protestants were 22.1%; Catholics were 21.2%; the Unaffiliated were 10.8%; Other was 4.9%; Black Protestant were 5.0%; and Jewish were 4.9%. See the Survey for further information on these religious traditions.

The so-called “nones,” individuals not affiliated with any religious tradition, have been getting a lot of attention in the reporting on religious surveys lately. The Baylor Religion Survey found that 62.9% of American nones believed in God or some higher power. Most of these individuals (44.5% of the 62.9%) reported a belief in a higher power. There were 37.1% of nones who said they didn’t believe in a God or higher power, while 11.6% believed without any doubts and 6.9% sometimes believed in God or believed with doubts. Almost one third of the unaffiliated (31.6%) reported praying at least occasionally; 10.1% of those prayed daily. What comes to mind is the spiritual, not religious language and distinction made within Twelve Step groups.

Another intriguing aspect of the Baylor Religion Survey was how it used 29 questions about God’s character and behavior to get a sense of what people meant when they said they believed in God. They discovered there were two distinct dimensions of belief in God. The first dimension was God’s level of engagement or activity. This captured the extent to which the individual believed God is directly involved in worldly and personal affairs. The second dimension was God’s level of anger. This described the extent to which the person believed God is angered by human sins and tended towards punishing, severe, and wrathful characteristics.

From these two dimensions, the researchers separated their sample into four types of believers: Type A was the Authoritarian God; Type B was the Benevolent God; Type C was the Distant God; Type C was the Critical God. Type A believers scored above the mean on both the activity and anger dimensions. Type B believers scored above the mean on activity, but below the mean on anger. Type C believers scored above the mean on anger, but below the mean on engagement. Type D believers scored below the mean on both the dimensions. See the following figure taken from the Baylor study:

Baylor

What struck me about this way of assessing belief in God was that it captured more of a sense of how the respondents viewed God, closer to the sense of “God as you understand Him” in Twelve Step recovery. These types don’t neatly fit within a denominational category. You could potentially find all four types within one denomination.

Those who believe in an Authoritarian God represent 32% of the population. They think God is very involved in their lives and world affairs. He is responsible for global events like tsunamis and economic upturns. They also tend to feel God is angry and capable of meting out punishment to those who are unfaithful or ungodly.

Those who believe in a Benevolent God make up 23% of the population. They also see God as very active in their daily lives. But they are less likely to believe God is angry and that He acts in wrathful ways. Instead, they see God as a force of positive influence in the world who is less willing to condemn or punish individuals.

Believers in a Critical God comprise 16% of the population. They feel God does not really interact with the world. However, God still observes the world and views the current stat of affairs unfavorably. His displeasure will be felt in another life and divine justice may not occur in this world

Believers in a Distant God include 24% of the population. They think God is not active in the world; neither is He especially angry. These individuals tend towards thinking about God as a cosmic force, which set the laws of nature in motion, similar to deism. As such, God does not “do” things in the world; nor doe He hold clear opinions about human activities or world events.

When these views of God are used to sort through selected aspects of religiosity, there were some interesting results. Believers who saw God as active in personal and world affairs, (Type A and Type B), were significantly more likely to attend church services weekly, pray several times a day, believe that Jesus was the Son of God, and be biblical literalists.  See the following table derived from Table 8 in the Baylor Religion Survey.

Type A Authoritarian

Type B Benevolent

Type C Critical

Type D Distant

Attends church weekly

50.9%

31.5%

9.8%

7.8%

Never Attends

13.5%

8.2%

16.7%

41.5%

Prays several times daily

54.8%

31.7%

6.5%

7.0%

Never Prays

1.8%

2.5%

18.4%

38.7%

Biblical Literalist

60.8%

26.5%

10.2%

2.5%

Jesus is the Son of God

41.3%

27.8%

14.4%

16.0%

Denominational affiliation is not the whole story on American spiritual and religious practices and beliefs. While the Baylor Religion Survey and other research, such as that by the Pew Research Center, suggest that “nones” are becoming increasingly secular, there clear evidence that many still believe in some kind of a transcendent or higher power and pray at least monthly. The Baylor survey found that around 10% prayed daily. The Types of God used to categorize views of God in the Baylor Religion Survey illuminated an understanding of God that cuts across denominations and has some correspondence with the sense of “God as you understand Him” within the Twelve Steps.

This reflects a growing movement in American religiosity towards what William James described as personal religion in his seminal work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Institutionally-grounded religious belief and practice is waning, while personal expression of a belief in God and spiritual practices such as prayer continues, even among those who see themselves as not religious. The distinction between institutional and personal religion first articulated by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience seems to resonate with the modern spiritual, not religious distinction within many Twelve Step groups.

06/1/15

The God of the Preachers

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© Soul by Lom | stockfresh.com

On December 11, 1934, a thirty-nine- year-old man named Bill was admitted to the hospital for the fourth time in fifteen months because of his alcoholism. As the withdrawal effects of alcohol wore away, a former drinking buddy, Ebby, came to visit. At the time, Ebby was in the midst of an extended period of abstinence. He had looked up Bill a month previously to renew their friendship and to tell him about his abstinence. Bill noticed the difference in Ebby immediately because he refused the offer of a drink. When Bill asked him what had happened, Ebby said, “I’ve got religion.”

Ebby then told Bill how he’d almost landed in prison, but had his own encounter with a few men from the Oxford Group who became sober by practicing its principles. Ebby said he gave the program a try and it worked for him. He stopped drinking. Bill wanted the sobriety Ebby had, but he couldn’t believe in the God Ebby talked about. After Ebby left his hospital room, Bill fell back into a deep depression. Ahead of him, he saw only madness and death. Science, the only god he had at the time, had declared him hopeless. Without faith or hope, he cried, “If there be a God, let Him show Himself!”

Suddenly his room was filled with a white light. He was seized with an ecstasy beyond description. Every joy he had known was pale by comparison. Then, seen in the mind’s eye, there was a mountain. I stood upon its summit, where a great wind blew. A wind, not of air, but of spirit. In great, clean strength, it blew right through me. Then came the blazing thought, “You are a free man.” . . . . “This,” I thought, “must be the great reality, the God of the preachers.” (From the A.A. conference approved book, Pass It On, pp. 111-125)

This man was Bill Wilson, one of the cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous. As he retold this spiritual experience in the years to come, he’d add that never again did he doubt the existence of God. He also never took another drink.

When Ebby returned for another visit, he wasn’t sure what to say about Bill’s experience. Ebby himself had neither stood on a mountaintop nor had he seen a bright light when he stopped drinking. But he did give Bill a book that others suggested might help him begin making sense of his encounter with the “God of the preachers.” That book was The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Bill started reading it the moment Ebby left his hospital room.

Bill said he gleaned three principles from reading William James. First, spiritual experiences like his were the product of utter desperation when all human resources have failed to solve the problem. Second, this experience involved the open admission of that defeat. The person admitted his own defeat as utter and absolute. Third, there was an appeal to a “Higher Power” that could take many forms, “and it might or might not be in religious terms.” From his initial reading of James, Bill was exposed to the idea that a spiritual experience was not necessarily a religious one, that spirituality was not necessarily religion, and that a Higher Power did not have to be the God of the preachers. This distinction became a cornerstone expression of what was to become the spiritual (but pointedly not religious) program called Alcoholics Anonymous.

When Alcoholics Anonymous (the “Big Book” from which the movement took its name) was first published in 1939, chapter one told “Bill’s Story” of how he first became sober. Interestingly, he did not retell his so-called “hot flash” encounter with the God of the preachers. Bill related Ebby’s assertion that he was sober through religion, and that he’d come to pass his experience on to Bill—if Bill cared to have it. As Bill recounted his personal struggles with religion in the Big Book he wrote, “I had always believed in a Power greater than myself.” Despite the “living example” of Ebby before him, Bill said, “The word God still aroused a certain antipathy.”

Ebby suggested that Bill choose his own conception of God. The suggestion hit him hard, melting his “icy intellectual mountain” of doubts. “It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a Power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning.” This ability to imagine God to be whatever an individual has imagined Him to be has remained a hallmark of the spiritual worldview of A.A. In a 1949 address before the American Psychiatric Association, Bill Wilson explicitly stated that A.A. was not a religious organization because it had no dogma. He also stated that the only theological proposition—of a Power greater than one’s self—would not be forced on anyone.

In 1961, Wilson wrote in the AA Grapevine, “Our concepts of a Higher Power and God—as we understand Him—afford everyone a nearly unlimited choice of spiritual belief and action.” He suggested that this was perhaps the most important expression to be found in the entire vocabulary of A.A. Every kind and degree of faith, together with the assurance that each person could choose his or her own version of it, opened a door “over whose threshold the unbeliever can take his first easy step into the realm of faith.” (“The Dilemma of No Faith,” AA Grapevine, April 1961. The AA Grapevine is the international journal of Alcoholics Anonymous)

This remains true today in AA. The December 2006 edition of the AA Grapevine has an article by a Muslim member of A.A. who was fearful that while sobering up, he would be “transformed into a Christian through osmosis.” He reported that nothing could have been further from the truth. “As a Muslim AA member who received a miraculous spiritual awakening in an Anglican Church basement, I am eternally grateful to the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.” (“Along Spiritual Lines,” AA Grapevine, December 2006).

When I first read of Wilson’s encounter with the “God of the preachers,” I wondered what difference it would have made if Ebby had brought Bill a copy of the Bible instead of The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE). But now it seems to me that it would have made little difference in the eventual formulation of spiritual experience in the Twelve Steps. Although the distinction between ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ found in VRE seems to have been popularized within the Twelve Steps of A.A., non-alcoholics also read VRE, and the ideas they found there resonated with an emerging spiritual, but not religious sense of God and how we relate to Him.

This is the third of three related articles (What Does Religious Mean?, Spiritual not Religious Experience, The God of the Preachers) that more fully describes some of the influences I believe helped to shape the spiritual, but not religious distinction of 12 Step recovery.

05/25/15

Spiritual, Not Religious Experience

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© Bruce Rolff | 123RF.com

The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE) by William James had an important influence on Bill W. and Alcoholics Anonymous.  There is a free edition of VRE available here. Within VRE are several notions common to the A.A. sense of spiritual, not religious, experience. The first is the distinction between spiritual and religious. William James distinguished between institutional and personal within the broader field of religion. Worship, sacrifice, ritual, theology, ceremony, and ecclesiastical organization were the essentials of what he referred to as institutional religion. Limited to such a view, he said religion could be viewed as an external art of winning the favor of the gods.

James said that within the personal dimension of religion, the inner dispositions of human conscience, helplessness and incompleteness were of central importance. Here the external structures for winning divine favor took a secondary place to a heart-to-heart encounter between the individual and his maker. He proposed to confine himself, as much as possible within VRE, to discuss pure and simple personal religion.

If someone felt that the term religion should be reserved for the fully organized system of feeling, thought, and institution typically called the church, then James was willing to accept almost any name for what he called personal religion. He suggested two: conscience or morality. Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Step recovery have called it spirituality.

Personal religion/spirituality for his purposes was defined as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of [the] individual . . . in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” In the broadest sense possible, this spirituality consisted of the belief that there was an unseen order to existence, and supreme good lay in harmoniously adjusting to that order.

A second notion from VRE important to A.A. was that a higher power could be anything that was other than and larger than the person’s conscious self. Towards that end, James said that spiritual experience could only testify unequivocally to two things: the possible union with something larger than oneself and the great peace that was found within that union. Spiritual encounters could not unconditionally confirm a traditional belief in the one and only infinite God. James suggested that the practical needs and occasions of religion were sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each person, a larger power existed that was friendly to him and his ideals. All that was required was that the power should be both other than and larger than a personal conscious self.

“Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step. It need not be infinite; it need not be solitary. It might conceivably be only a larger and more godlike self.” There was something—a sense of reality or perhaps a feeling of objective presence—that was a deeper and more general perception of actuality than science supposed was possible with any of the particular human senses. This supreme reality was what Christianity called God.

According to James, humanity had an instinctive belief regarding this supreme reality of the universe that could be stated simply as: “God is real since he produces real effects.” Yet most religious/spiritual people spontaneously embraced a wider sphere than this immediate subjective religious episode. Based upon the perception of godly order in existence and the supreme good found in adjusting to that order, they took a further step of faith concerning God. James said religious people formulated a hypothesis that the existence of God was a guarantee that an ideal order would be permanently preserved, even beyond the probable destruction of this world. Only with this further step of faith, in which remote objective consequences were predicted, did religion become free of its immediate subjective experience.

The third place where James influenced AA’s understanding of spiritual experience was in his view of conversion. In VRE, James stated that in general terms, conversion signified the gradual or sudden process by which a person became unified and consciously right, superior, and happy as a result of a firmer hold upon religious/spiritual realities. To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain assurance, all referred to the same process.

Taken at face value, James equated religious or spiritual experience with conversion. Before this “conversion” process, the person was initially divided, consciously wrong, inferior, and unhappy. This was true whether or not the person believed that a direct divine operation was needed to bring about such a moral transformation. After an extensive discussion of the psychology of conversion, James noted that as long as the religious life was spiritual, and not a consequence of outer works, ritual, or sacraments, the self-surrender element of conversion was always the vital turning point of the religious life. The Jamesean conversion and surrender process became formalized in the first three Steps of AA.

In 1949, Bill Wilson said that conversion, as broadly described by James, was the basic process of AA. Everything else was but the foundation to this process. He declared that by 1949, AA spoke little of its recovery process as a conversion because so many people were afraid of being God-bitten. Nonetheless, it was the basic process of AA. One alcoholic working with another could only consolidate that process of conversion, built upon a foundational faith in God as we understand Him. (William Wilson, “The Society of Alcoholics Anonymous,” American Journal of Psychiatry, 106 [Nov. 1949], 370-375)

This is the second of three related articles (What Does Religious Mean?, Spiritual not Religious Experience, The God of the Preachers) that will more fully describe some of the influences I believe helped to shape the spiritual, but not religious distinction of 12 Step recovery.