Question of the Week: Enabling Alcoholism

Okay, so I completely forgot to publish  a question of the week.  Hey, but that’s okay.  It’s been a busy, busy week and I haven’t had time.  I’m sure you’ll all forgive me.  Well, most of you.  Perhaps.

This week’s question is one I’ve been pondering for a while, though I’ve never been able to come up with a satisfactory response to.  Maybe you can.  In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins argues that moderate religion is an enabler of extremist religion.  Sam Harris has been known to make the same argument, which runs broadly along these lines:

  1. Religious moderates and religious extremists share the same basic beliefs.
  2. If we attack the core beliefs of the extremists, we will offend the moderates.
  3. If we seek to avoid offending moderates, we cut ourselves off from being able to tackle the real problem: the irrational nonsense that forms the foundation of the religion.  Instead we are limited to criticising the actions of extremists, even when they are only taking those same foundation principles to their logical conclusion.
  4. To be able to properly tackle extremism we cannot, therefore, offer any special protection from criticism to the moderates.
  5. Therefore, we should subject religious moderates to the same level of criticism as the extremists.

This argument makes some sense to me.  And perhaps to you too.  But my question is this:

How is this argument logically different for alcoholism?  Don’t “moderate” drinkers (i.e. pretty much everyone reading this) enable “extremist” drinkers (aka alcoholics)?  If we are to criticise alcoholism for the damage it does, shouldn’t we subject moderate drinkers to the same criticism?


  1. #1 by Marc on November 2, 2009 - 09:35

    I think there is a difference personally, moderate drinkers may enjoy a drink but have no core drinking belief structure that they base their choices on other than things such as don’t drink and drive, there is no “the barman tells me to drink so I must and no one can tell me otherwise” unlike “God tells us in his holy book to kill the heathen and infidel” A similar question of the week might be rape is bad and causes damage and rape is sex so should we criticise all people that have sex and ban it all together, reproduction can now be done artificially so there is no argument that stopping all sex would stop any children being born.

  2. #2 by Stu on November 2, 2009 - 13:09

    I would echo Marcs’ sentiments exactly. I would also say that, at the correct levels, alcohol can be beneficial. Religion, on the other hand, however moderate is delusional at best and child abuse (as stated in the god delusion) at worst. This is probably best debated after a few pints during a skeptics in the pub meeting!

  3. #3 by Mike on November 2, 2009 - 18:47

    There’s a difference between the argument and the analogy of alcoholism.

    The argument states in point 3 that the real problem is “the irrational nonsense that forms the foundation of the religion”. The equivalent in the alcohol analogy would be the act of drinking alcohol. But it doesn’t work, the act of drinking alcohol isn’t the problem, the problem is drinking too much, or becoming addicted. So the same argument doesn’t apply to alcoholism.

  4. #4 by Jez on November 2, 2009 - 21:19

    I think what is often held to enable alcoholism is helping the drinker avoid responsibility, for example by always driving them home from parties, paying household bills when they’ve spent it all on drink etc. Funnily enough, it’s the way that religion allows believers to abrogate responsibility that appears to make it so attractive to them. Not really sure what my point is, but thought it was an interesting parallel.

  5. #5 by Mike Hall on November 3, 2009 - 20:13

    I can see what you’re saying Mike, but I think that drinking alcohol is a more reasonable equivalent for religious belief than you’re giving credit for.

    For example, a theist could very easily take your rebuttal and turn it around on you, claiming “Belief in God isn’t the problem, the problem is religious extremism.”

    In terms of the logical structure of the argument, I’m still struggling to see a difference between “most people drink alcohol in moderation, therefore alcohol itself isn’t a problem” and “most theists believe in moderation, therefore religious belief itself isn’t a problem”.

  6. #6 by March Irving on November 3, 2009 - 22:33

    Drinking and religious beliefs are not analagous. The problem with religious beliefs taken to extremes is they can cause harm (to society or individuals within society) because adherence to doctrines is considered more important than the negative impact of the doctrines. (e.g The pope’s stance on condoms in Africa) However, with drinking there is no central tenet. It is possible to enjoy drinking sensibly without the drinking equivalent of “picking and choosing” which doctrines to follow which is what religious people are usually forced to do.

    This having been said. There is a problem with Dawkins’ argument in that it is possible for people to hold religious ideas without causing harm. For example, if the only religious people were the Quakers, or other moderate Christians who just want to worship and do charity work then we wouldn’t have any problem with these people.

    To some extent we need to separate the beIiefs and the actions. don’t think we should stop criticising the beliefs on the basis of the evidence, and the extremists based on their actions. However, we do not need to criticise the moderate believer if they are not actually causing harm.

  7. #7 by Colin H on November 4, 2009 - 19:06

    For myself, I believe they are analogous, but only in the sense that I am unconvinced by the central argument on both sides. The people who become extremists or alcoholics do not do so because of exposure to religion or alcohol, it is because of a particular mindset or problem they already have.

    The type of person who becomes a religious extremist does so not because he/she starts out in moderate religion. Their blinkered mindset is already in place. Extremists tend to display the same kind of narrow and ignorant thought processes in other areas of their lives, it’s not specific to their religious belief. If you removed religion from the scene, that person is still potentially dangerous. They will find another enabler.

    The same with alcoholism. The addictive personality will use whatever is at hand, whether it’s alcohol or not. In drying out clinics, they try to discourage any kind of repetitive, compulsive behaviour, whether it’s relentless exercise or smoking, because they person is just displacing the addictive drive from alcohol to something else. The trick is to deal with the drive to drink, not the drink itself. Something is always available to take drink’s place.

    Of course, you could argue that without religion, there’s no excuse for an extremist to blow somebody up or impose restrictive opinions upon others. However, I think for the extremist, the excuse is simply the decoration, and there will always be another excuse to be found.

    That’s my penny’s worth anyway. I may change my mind tomorrow, as I’m a fickle git.

  8. #8 by Michael on November 6, 2009 - 20:46

    Also in the US the Alcoholics Anonymous program is Christian led. They substitute alcohol with religious worship. However lollipop abusers cause damage to themselves and others (246 eye injuries in 2005 ONS website) Is it the moderate lollipop user who is ultimately responsible for all the black eyes, facial cuts and occasional blindness befalling the victims of lollipop abusers? Also in 2005 there were 26 deaths due to trousers in the UK alone. Casual trouser wearers have to take some blame for this surely. OK I’ll stop calling you Shirley. However Sam Harris’ argument was against a cultural backdrop and the omission of the logical fallacy that religion deserves respect. We don’t respect alcohol (with the exception of a good Speyside Malt, of course) so without the cultural backdrop…yadda yadda. Also alcohol is REAL. This morning’s hangover goes someway to prove this, Oh and Marsh made me forget my umbrella and I lost my spleen on the way home, but I have made a new one from the unused body parts of my recently deceased budgie. Hospitals are responsible for a large amount of deaths- they should be closed down.

  9. #9 by Alcoholic on October 6, 2010 - 06:19

    We just discussed this last night in group. Everytime someone relapses, which is all to frequently, we have to go over what happened and devise tactics to defeat it next time. Sometimes that means re-visiting the basics and sometimes it gets a lot more complicated. Anyway, thanks for sharing.

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