The neo-prohibitionist organization Join Together is reporting on a doozy of a research study today from the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs entitled “Measures of Spirituality Increase with Sobriety.”
The gist of it is that people who drink are less religious or spiritual than teetotalers. According to Join Together, the study looked at a whopping grand total of 154 (actually it was only 123) people from an “outpatient treatment program for alcohol dependence and abuse” and then extrapolated that data to the general population. The study examined “10 measures of spirituality,” whatever that means. These included “views of God, religious practices such as prayer or church attendance, forgiveness, spiritual experiences, using religion or spirituality to cope, and existential meaning.”
More speculation from the Join Together summary:
The study found that half of the measures of spirituality changed over the six-month study period, including daily spiritual experiences, the use of religious practices, forgiveness, positive use of religion for coping, and feeling of purpose in life.
“While people’s actual beliefs don’t seem to change during recovery, the extent they have spiritual experiences, and are open to spirituality in their lives, does change,” said lead researcher Elizabeth A.R. Robinson, Ph.D. “This effect was also independent of their participation in Alcoholics Anonymous which has a strong spiritual aspect.”
Use of alcohol also declined, with 72 percent of participants successfully avoiding heavy drinking for the six-month study period. Participants whose spirituality increased were less likely to drink heavily, researchers found.
Where to begin? Join Together titles the study summary “Measures of Spirituality Increase with Sobriety,” clearly implying that the less you drink, the more religious you are. But the study itself is titled “Six-Month Changes in Spirituality, Religiousness, and Heavy Drinking in a Treatment-Seeking Sample,” indicating something quite different. The study itself states that the people studied were already in a treatment facility and/or attending AA meetings (where a spiritual aspect is emphasized). That means more accurately that people pre-disposed to abuse alcohol are the ones more likely to trade one addiction (alcohol or drugs, for example) for a more socially acceptable one, like religion. In my experience, such people use this personality trait to replace their substance abuse for obsessive spirituality. I won’t argue whether or not that’s a good thing, though clearly for many it’s preferable to alcoholism and often better for the families effected by alcoholism (for the record, I grew up with an alcoholic and abusive stepfather).
Then there’s the size of the study, a mere 123 people (despite Join Together mis-quoting the size slightly higher) extrapolated to speak for the entire population. For statistics to be meaningful, of course, the sample size must be sufficiently representative of the demographics of whatever population you’re studying. It must be random and there must be demographic diversity of at least several types, be it ethnic, geographic or what have you. The study’s abstract gives no information about the range of who was studied, where they were located, etc., apart from the following: “66% male; mean age 39; 83% white.” But if they were all from the same place, had the same core beliefs, and on and on then it’s meaningless to try extrapolating it out to say something about the entire country. The study was conducted by the Addiction Research Center, itself a part of the Substance Abuse Section of the University of Michigan’s Department of Psychiatry. So it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to think the study may have been conducted at a few or even one rehab facility near the university, further reducing the truthiness of the study’s conclusions. Even if we accept the findings, as a preliminary study with a small sample, no universal truths or really useful conclusions can be drawn until confirmed by additional similar studies using a different sample in terms of size, make-up, etc. But neo-prohibitionist groups like Join Together have no time to wait for details like reality or truth and thus report any study that appears to support their agenda, and even spin them to their own purposes, presumably hoping no one will notice.
Join Together also suggests that the study proves that the more religious you are, the less likely to drink you are. But that conclusion is utter nonsense based on the fact that the study’s subjects were all already in an “outpatient treatment program for alcohol dependence and abuse,” meaning they were already trying to stop drinking. It wasn’t increasing religiosity that made them stop, it was their own efforts at reducing destructive behavior in their lives. There will likely always be certain people who cannot restrain themselves or partake of something responsibly. Some are benign, such as an obsessive hobbyist, a sports fanatic or a collector. Others may be harmful to ones’ self, such as obsessive over-eating. Still others may also be harmful to the persons around them directly, such as smoking; or indirectly, such as an addiction to drinking or using drugs. You probably know people who fit each category. I used to be a wildly obsessive collector, for example, but my wife has largely kept that personality trait in check so that I now collect far less than I used to. And I feel much better for it, but I don’t personally have any difficulties whatsoever knowing when to stop drinking. I am a very responsible drinker, and not just because it’s part of my profession. It’s simply part of the way I am. You may be different. The guy or gal next to you, different too, in their own unique way.
My point is that each of us have a different response to these things, and to make a blanket statement such as you’ll drink less if you pray more is propaganda at its worst. It may feed an agenda, but it’s in no way truthful or honest. And frankly, if you want to advance a position by using faulty statistics then I believe you lose your credibility and whatever sincerity you brought to your position. I know people use statistics however it best serves them, that’s nothing new. But the way Join Together has taken this already questionable preliminary study (at least in my opinion) and selectively used it to support their neo-prohibitionist agenda is irresponsible.
Setting the study portion aside for a moment, I don’t really understand why the neo-prohibitionists — who are usually closely aligned with fundamentalist christian groups — are so against drinking when the Bible is replete with instances of drinking alcohol. There’s the famous story where Jesus turned the water into wine (though it was probably beer, not wine) at a wedding he was attending. And the most important event in many Christian’s minds is the last supper, which is commemorated by one of the most sacred rituals, communion. Jesus poured wine for all of the guests at the supper, telling them it was symbolic of his blood so they would remember him and his teachings. People all over the world repeat that act today, making alcohol an integral part of what it means to be religious in that faith. So why then is alcohol so demonized?
But back to the study. Another problem I have with it is trying to quantify spiritual experience and assuming it’s always positive. The researchers titles of the ten supposed “measures of spirituality” are revealing. They include a “Daily Spiritual Experiences scale, the Purpose in Life scale, S/R practices scale, Forgiveness scale, and the Positive Religious Coping scale.” I’m sure you could get people to assign an arbitrary number to these vague ideas on a daily basis and track the numbers, but how on earth can you ever be sure one person’s “purpose in life” is the same as another persons? The meaning of life has at best a deeply personal definition, that would probably not be the same for any two people. And religious practices? I can only assume that means going to church or praying, etc. But it could also mean lighting incense or taking peyote, depending on the religion. To assume taking any of those actions by themselves will keep you from engaging in addictive behavior ignores that those rituals are also addictive. Have you ever watched people in church going through the motions of worship? When to kneel, when to chant and when to respond with an “amen” are done without thought, out of habit. Apart from social acceptability, how is that different from reaching for a bottle or a cigarette in a habitual response to some stimuli.
The last sentence of the abstract reads. “The results of this descriptive study support the perspective of many clinicians and recovering individuals that changes in alcoholics’ S/R occur in recovery and that such changes are important to sobriety.” That means that it’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy since the study is said to confirm what anecdotally was already assumed or believed to be true, that religiosity is linked to sobriety. But at least one other study done by the Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addictions at the University of New Mexico concluded that the opposite was true. That study, “Atheists, agnostics and Alcoholics Anonymous,” looked at 1,526 alcoholics (or more than 12 times the Michigan study) attending AA meetings and found that “God belief appears to be relatively unimportant in deriving AA-related benefit, but atheist and agnostic clients are less likely to initiate and sustain AA attendance relative to spiritual and religious clients.” That means people don’t like to have beliefs forced on them and thus stay away from such organizations. It also seems to indicate that religiousness does not equate to levels of drinking among alcoholics.
I’m not against these studies per se, but their capacity for misuse is increasingly rife in these divisive times. As a result, I think they must be examined very carefully, especially when they so often are said to say one thing but on closer examination either do not or are flawed in some other way so as make the argument made based on their findings meaningless. To accept everything we read without questioning it is to invite manipulation, blind acceptance and coercion.
I’m in the middle of reading a fascinating book right now entitled “What Is Your Dangerous Idea?” It’s edited by John Brockman, who created the Edge, an online think tank of sorts, whose mission is the following. “The mandate of Edge Foundation is to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society.” Each year, a question is posed to the loose membership and last year’s was the book’s eponymous title. There are over a hundred short (about two pages on average) essays by some of the world’s best minds relating their dangerous idea, which is defined as ones which threaten or challenge the collective wisdom of the age. A historical example might be the Copernican revolution that replaced the earth with the sun as the center of the solar system. I think my own dangerous idea might be that there is no one right way to live or view the world. This is dangerous because so many people seem committed to the idea that everyone must believe as they do, and failing that should be pushed aside at best or, at worst, killed simply for disagreeing. To not notice how polarized the world has become of late it to not have been paying attention. This is true even of so seemingly inconsequential an issue as drinking alcohol, where there are entire societies and religions that forbid it. And it appears that they won’t rest until we either capitulate or die. I think this idea transcends religion, nation identity, race or ethnicity. Choosing how to live should be a matter of personal choice, from the big things like what to believe down to the smaller ones, like whether or not to enjoy a beer.
But Neo-Prohibitionist groups have chosen to dedicate themselves to taking away that choice from people like me and you. Such groups are growing in power and influence and will not rest until they achieve their goal of another Prohibition. They appear willing to say or do almost anything to achieve that goal, as their twisting and use of this flimsy study illustrates. They care only about their agenda, and not one wit about how you want to live your life if it’s in any way different from their own views. And that, in the end, is as scary a future as I can imagine, where all my decisions on morality, what to think, what to believe and how to live are made for me. Let’s not let that happen. I need a drink.
Henry Halff says
You managed to peg many of the problems with this study. I can name one of your problems that is not, and a few that you missed. First, I don’t think that sample size is a problem. The results were statistically significant, so evidently the experiment had the required statistical power except …
1. Effect sizes were not mentioned. (They might have been mentioned in the article, but the journal’s subscription system is not functional and you can’t get a copy on-line.) We don’t know how much of an increase in their measures that we are looking at. The effects, although statistically significant, might have been negligible.
2. All of the subjects were in the same program, which means that they very well could have interacted with each other. One requirement of statistics is independence of cases. Who knows, maybe one really charismatic patient got to a lot of the others in group sessions.
3. Regression to the mean. Subjects enter the rehab program when their drinking is at its most extreme point. Measure their consumption at any later point and it’s probably going to be less, even if the program has no effect whatsoever.
Other possible problems: flaky instruments (e.g., the Daily Spiritual Experiences scale) of unknown reliability and validity, all of the problems associated with self report, no controls, experimenter bias and influence.
This study is a gold mine of bad methodology. Too bad I’m not teaching statistics any more; I could have gotten several exam questions out of it.
Henry Halff says
oh … and one more problem: internal analyses. These guys were fishing through the data looking for effects. There’s a good chance that they found some that arose simply by chance.
Bob Skilnik says
And then, Jay, there’ this; “This isn’t just a brew pub, it’s a church,”
E-mail the author this link.
Or even this one.
Well the attack on alcohol (and by extentsion beer) is not over. Just wait till they see this (haven’t looked at the actual study yet)
Bob Skilnik says
I could get past the first sentence; “Alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous than illegal drugs like marijuana or ecstasy, according to a new British study.”
Ecstasy? C’mon, a proper pint is more dangerous?