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The Doubled-Edged Sword of Religion and Alcoholism

Posted: 03/19/11 12:22 PM ET

A major celebrity appears to be destroying himself with alcohol before the eyes of a nation, and his antics become comic fodder, fueling an endless thirst for celebrity voyeurism.

What is obscured among the ridicule being heaped upon Charlie Sheen is our own discomfort in confronting alcohol addiction.

The star of the hit TV show Two and a Half Men elicits laughter for attacking those who seek professional treatment as "trolls" lacking the "tiger blood" to beat the disease themselves. But he also points up powerful contradictory attitudes about alcoholism that scholars say can prevent alcoholics and their loved ones from seeking help.

Shame lies at the heart of addiction, said Robert H. Albers, a professor of pastoral care at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and the author of Shame: A Faith Perspective.

"The pervasive resistance to help on the part of those affected and afflicted is due in part to the ingrained belief that if we were strong enough, we could overcome this malady. ... Deep down inside, many of us do not believe that addiction is an illness," Albers wrote in an article in the Journal of Ministry in Addiction & Recovery. "Denial and the conspiracy of silence are no mystery when it comes to addiction. The power of shame shackles all of the people who are adversely affected by addiction."

Religion can be both help and hindrance in the battle against alcoholism, research suggests.

Fewer problem drinkers

Religious institutions have differing perspectives on alcohol use, from general prohibitions among some evangelical denominations and groups such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the use of wine in the Eucharist by groups such as the Catholic Church.

There is, however, almost a universal teaching against alcohol abuse, and research tends to consistently show people who are active in their faith are much less likely to be problem drinkers.

Some 100 studies have suggested religion has a positive effect on preventing alcohol-related problems, researchers Christopher Ellison, Jennifer Barrett and Benjamin Moulton noted in an article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion on "Gender, Marital Status, and Alcohol Behavior: The Neglected Role of Religion."

In perhaps the most consistent finding, the researchers said, individuals from conservative Protestant and sectarian religious communities, along with people from all groups who worship regularly, are less likely to use or abuse alcohol.

In their analysis of 15,424 respondents to the General Social Survey from 1977 to 1994, Ellison, Barrett and Moulton found a particularly strong relationship among religious conservatives married to one another.

Compared to unmarried nonconservatives, men in conservative unions were nearly 80 percent less likely to be problem drinkers than abstainers, the study found. Women in conservative marriages were 86 percent less likely than single, nonconservative women to be potential problem drinkers.

For all individuals, people who attended services regularly were much less likely to abuse alcohol, the study found.

A study involving a telephone survey in 1995, 1997 and 1999 of more than 5,000 Hispanics also indicated positive effects from frequent attendance and being a member of a denomination that objects to alcohol use.

Among Catholic respondents, for example, 16 percent who attended services weekly or more -- compared to 42 percent of those who did not attend services -- were likely to have reported binge drinking in the past month. Sociologist Julie Ford of the State University of New York-Brockport, reported the findings in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

When it comes to dealing with the disease, however, many religious communities are less successful.

Overcoming shame

The role of religion in addressing alcohol abuse "may be sort of a double-edged sword," said Ellison, a sociologist at The University of Texas at San Antonio.

The strong norms against alcohol abuse, particularly in conservative congregations, might deter a lot of people from admitting they have a problem and seeking help.

"It's very difficult to talk about. If you do have a problem, who are you going to?" Ellison said.

It is especially difficult to seek help from groups that emphasize alcoholism as a problem of human sinfulness that can be overcome by free will, he said. Religious groups that are more understanding of genetic and social factors that contribute to the disease may be more open in confronting alcoholism.

In his journal article, Albers noted that the belief that addiction is a weakness is a powerful contributor to the conspiracy of silence on alcoholism: "In a society that idolizes the strong, the tough, the independent, and the self-made and self-saved person, succumbing to the power of addiction is an obvious manifestation of weakness."

Even family members of alcoholics often isolate themselves out of fear of what people will think. "So the family gradually disappears from the social arena of community and church," Albers wrote.

Yet research indicates being part of caring communities can help both alcoholics come to terms with their addiction and provide family members and friends with critical support.

So what are we to make of all the snickering attention devoted to Charlie Sheen, the piling on of shame and ridicule that only reinforces the fears and silence of millions of Americans dealing with alcoholism?

Duh. Losing.

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

 

Follow David Briggs on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ReligionData