Chapter 6: The Psychodynamics of a Religious Approach to Alcoholism

Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 6: The Psychodynamics of a Religious Approach to Alcoholism

To be realistic and adequate, it is essential that a religious approach to alcoholism include an awareness of the distinctive contributions which a religious as compared with a non-religious approach can make. Any attempt to throw more than superficial light on this matter carries one into a consideration of the dynamic relationship between alcohol and religion, a relationship to which sufficient psychological attention has not been given.


The Dynamic Meaning of Alcoholism

An understanding of any religious approach to alcoholism must include the recognition that, for the alcoholic, religion and alcohol often are functionally interchangeable. Just before committing suicide, a seemingly "hopeless" alcoholic was asked by a psychiatrist, "Who can help you?" To this the alcoholic replied: "No person or institution. Only what I do not now possess -- a belief, a faith in something outside myself, something stronger, more overwhelming than my weakness -- some form of spiritual substitute that yet evades me." 1.

If a religious approach is to be successful, it must supply what this alcoholic called a "spiritual substitute" for alcohol. The ability to provide such a substitute is a most important advantage which a religious approach has over a nonreligious approach. It accounts in part for the fact that religious approaches have proved to be relatively effective in this area.

There are two ways in which religion and alcohol are deeply related in terms of their dynamic function. Because of the intensity of their negative feeling concerning alcohol, many religious leaders have overlooked the fact that alcohol has answers, however unfortunate in the final analysis, in two problem-areas of life in which religion also gives answers. In the first place both give answers to the problems of weariness, boredom, drudgery, rejection, and loneliness in our dog-eat-dog society. Thomas Wolfe, whose books contain many insightful references to alcoholism, asks the question, in Of Time and the River, to which alcohol has been the answer for many:

‘Where shall the weary rest? When shall the lonely heart come home? ‘What doors are open to the wanderer? And which of us shall find his father, know his face, and in what time, and in what land? Where? ‘Where the weary heart can abide forever, where the weary of wandering can find peace, where the tumult, the fever and the fret shall be forever stilled. 2.

Alcoholism is a tragic response to areas of tragedy in our culture. The insecurity and emotional malnutrition bred by an anxious, puritanical, competitive society has resulted in many damaged orphans of the spirit. These are people who, because of their fears and inner conflicts, are cut off from trustful, fulfilling fellowship with other human beings. Alcohol has always had something to offer these, the weary, the anxious, the lonely, the spiritual wanderers. It offers the illusion of unity with one’s fellows, temporary deadening of anxiety, and the quieting of inner conflict. Its relief is temporary and illusory, but available to many who have found no other. A fluid which for a time can banish disappointment, frustration, and feelings of inadequacy, which can give feelings of self-confidence and the illusion of strength has tremendous appeal, an appeal which those who seek a better way must take into account.

In the mood of a psalmist Thomas Wolfe speaks through one of his characters, expressing the feelings of those who satisfy their religious needs by means of alcohol:

Immortal drunkenness! What tribute can we ever pay, what song can we ever sing, what swelling praise can be sufficient to express the joy, the gratefulness and the love which we, who have known youth and hunger in America, have owed to alcohol? We are so lost, so lonely, so forsaken in America: immense and savage skies bend over us, and we have no door. 3.

Through the use of wine, man has anesthetized the sufferings caused by social chaos. This was what William Booth had in mind when he wrote, "Gin is the only Lethe of the miserable." The author of Proverbs 31 offers this prescription for the alleviation of social suffering: "Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more." As the social burdens of civilization and industrialization increased, the desire for the escape of alcohol grew. Many centuries ago the psalmist (104:15) thanked God for the wine "that maketh glad the heart of man." Some men, as Jellinek once put it, began to use wine not to gladden the heart but to put to sleep the soul. 4. The tragic inadequacy of the use of alcohol as an opiate for social chaos becomes apparent when the cure is recognized as a cause of further chaos.

Religion, too, has always had something to say to the weary, the anxious, the lonely, the spiritual wanderer. In our discussion of the religious approaches to alcoholism we have seen how religion can give real fellowship, abiding comfort, and strength. Like alcohol, religion has offered solace and a haven from the burdens of society. At times it has, like alcohol, become an opiate, blinding men to social injustice. But at its best it has shown men principles by which they could work for justice and has inspired them to live by these principles. In this sense, it is totally unlike alcohol as a solution to social chaos.

But man’s burdens are not limited to those imposed by social disequilibrium and chaos. There is another dimension to his problem. His very finitude, his earth-boundness, his impotence in the face of the forces of nature and death -- these facts are inherent in his nature as a creature, and all of them impose a burden on his soul. This is what we have discussed as "ultimate anxiety." Man is the animal who knows that he will die; he is the animal who wants to transcend his animality -- to become something larger, more powerful, to feel infinite. Alcohol can give him an illusion of transcendence. In Look Homeward Angel, A Story of Buried Life, Thomas Wolfe describes this power of alcohol to give feelings of grandiosity. His character Eugene is intoxicated for the first time. Here are his musings: "In all the earth there was no other like him, no other fitted to be so sublimely and magnificently drunken. . . . Why, when it was possible to buy a God in a bottle, and drink him off, and become a God oneself, were men not forever drunken?" 5. In discussing religious mysticism during his Gifford lectures, William James recognized this similarity of function between alcohol and religion:

The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the Yes function in man. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him for the moment one with the truth. Not through mere perversity do men run after it. . . . The drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystical consciousness. 6.

Because alcohol has the power to give temporary feelings of adequacy, expansiveness, and ecstasy, it has been regarded in many cultures as something magical, even divine. In Greek mythology, for example, Dionysus, the god of wine, was also the divine representative of the future or larger life. In the Greek, Roman, and Jewish traditions we find wine used as a frequent symbol of abundant life and of the "fluid of life." The figures of drunken men were sometimes carved on ancient gravestones as symbols of the life beyond death. The use of wine in the Christian tradition -- viz., in the Catholic mass and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in certain Protestant churches -- is another example of the manner in which alcohol has symbolized the ecstatic element in religion.

When one sees the way in which the vital, the ecstatic element in life has often been crushed by the mundane and the puritanical in our culture, the "charm of the Dionysian," as Nietzsche called it, is apparent. Alcohol has the ability to give temporary feelings of mutual acceptance and unity among men, and between man and the rest of creation. In a world of barriers and separation, the desire for such unity is very strong. Nietzsche describes the way in which alcohol satisfies this desire:

Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but Nature which has become estranged, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her prodigal son, man. . . . Now all the stubborn, hostile barriers which necessity, caprice or "shameless fashion" have erected between man and man, are broken down. . . . He feels that the veil of Maya has been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious Primordial Unity. 7.

Alcohol gives the individual the temporary ability to accept himself. Tillich has written concerning man’s inner schism, "The depth of our separation lies in just the fact that we are not capable of a great and merciful divine love toward ourselves." 8. To the person who is not able to accept and love him-self, alcohol gives the temporary illusion of self-acceptance. It stills the inner conflict and makes him feel unified and at peace with himself. Alcohol also gives a brief "taste" of being accepted by (and acceptable to) others. We have discussed man’s isolation from his fellow men in our culture. Etiologically speaking, the parent who does not feel accepted, by himself and others, is unable to give his child the warm, vital experience of being accepted. Having never felt accepted, the child grows up unable to accept himself and, therefore, unable to accept others or feel accepted by them. Thus, the experience of rejection, and the anxiety which results from it, is passed on through the generations. Alcohol gives a person suffering from rejection the temporary experience of interpersonal unity. The problem has its broader dimension -- the feeling of being rejected by and isolated from life or God, to use the religious term. This feeling becomes intermingled with a man’s ultimate anxiety. As a part of its pseudo-answer to life’s problems, alcohol apparently can give some people a feeling of mystical unity with Life.

The saddest part of all this is that so many people are able to find the experience of acceptance only via alcohol. That so many must find their spiritual satisfactions in this way is a profound tragedy. The situation was aptly described by William James when he wrote: "It is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognize as excellent should be vouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what in its totality is so degrading a poison." 9.

There was pathos in the experience of the alcoholic interviewee who recalled: "When I reached a certain point in a drunk, I felt as though I were on the edge of a beautiful land. I kept drinking to try to find it." Bill W., co-founder of AA, once said, "Before AA we were trying to find God in a bottle." It is, at least in part, because men have not found God elsewhere that they seek him in a bottle.


The Dynamic Significance of the Religious Experience

It is apparent that personal religion and the religious fellowship can be paths to the experience of being accepted. The genius of Protestantism has been its emphasis on what is described in biblical language as "salvation by grace through faith." This is essentially the experience of acceptance. Through a religious experience the person feels accepted by God. He does not earn this acceptance. It is his because he is a child of God. When he comes to the place in his own experience, often through suffering, at which he can accept the fact that he is not God, he is able to establish a relationship of creative trust, i.e., "faith," in God. Someone has described this step in spiritual maturation as "resigning as General Manager of the universe." This creative trust opens the door of one’s heart to the grace or acceptance of God. It is when one feels accepted by God that one can "accept himself as being accepted," to use again Tillich’s phrase. When one has accepted himself, one is able to accept and feel accepted by others. It is through this feeling of divine acceptance that one’s ultimate anxieties are allayed.

Thus, religion has genuine answers to the spiritual problems to which alcohol gives pseudo-answers. Sound religion gives one a feeling of unity, of self-forgiveness, of acceptance, and of the larger life. ‘When religion has not had its spiritual vitality squeezed out, it can satisfy man’s need for Dionysian experience. In a lasting and genuine way it can help men accept or overcome their anxiety about their own finitude. Religious faith, in fact, provides the only satisfying answer to ultimate anxiety.

When a person uses alcohol as a persistent substitute for all that a religious orientation can give him, his alcoholic solution, sooner or later, is bound to crumble in a heap around his head. It is then that religious resources, mediated through a religious group, can often bring healing. They accomplish this by being a channel for the experience of being accepted, thus providing a substitute for his unsuccessful alcoholic way of life. To the extent that a religious group can mediate this experience of being accepted it is an effective approach to the problem of alcoholism.

As we have seen in this Part II, religious groups provide spiritual substitutes for

alcohol in a variety of ways. The chart below gives a synoptic view of the ways in which the four religious groups studied sought to provide constructive answers to the problems of the alcoholic in place of the destructive answers of alcohol. Column I, entitled "The Alcoholic Feels," describes the major emotional problems of the alcoholic at the stage of his sickness at which he usually has arrived when he comes to a religious group. Column II, "Alcohol’s Solution," describes the unsatisfactory answers which alcohol gives to these problems. Since the dynamics of the rescue mission and the Salvation Army are quite similar, the solutions which these approaches give are lumped together in Column III. The solutions of the Emmanuel Movement and AA are presented in Columns IV and V. In the case of each movement, the solution is that achieved by the operation of that approach at its best.



If, as has been presented in this chapter, alcoholism is to be understood as in part a tragic attempt to satisfy certain spiritual needs, it is obvious that an effective religious approach to the problem has certain inherent advantages over a nonreligious approach. Let us summarize the most important of these advantages:

1. A religious solution can provide the individual with a sense of superhuman help, not only in meeting the specific problem of alcoholism, but in bearing the general frustrations, disappointments, drudgery, and interpersonal friction which contribute to the etiology of alcoholism. The help of a "higher Power" is reliable and available even when the help of individuals or of the group is not. In AA this help is often thought of as supplementing the therapeutic help of the group. Because of the alcoholic’s grandiosity and his ambivalence toward authority, the opportunity provided by a religious approach for him to come to terms with a "Power greater than himself" can be a real growth experience. It may mean that he surrenders some of his infantile grandiosity by coming to accept his need for help from above himself. In a healthy sense, it may mean an acceptance of his creature-hood and finitude, his human dependence on the Creator, and his need for relatedness to the rest of creation. In some cases, the sense of superhuman help may result in an immature dependency relation -- a childish relationship to Deity. In such cases religious regression has replaced alcoholic regression, which, though not ideal from a standpoint of mature religion, is a relatively constructive substitution.

2. A religious approach can provide the alcoholic with a feeling of being accepted by life. As we have seen, in AA an individual first experiences acceptance by the group and, on the basis of this experience, gradually is enabled to accept himself. When his higher Power changes f.rom "the group" to God, it is often an indication of psychological growth in the sense that he now feels accepted by life itself (instead of just the ingroup of fellow alcoholics). To put it another way, the alcoholic has reestablished contact with larger areas of experience. He has become less defensive because he has experienced acceptance. He is no longer a rebelling child. Nor does he feel that he needs to earn acceptance from God. He is accepted as a child of God; he can therefore accept himself. We have seen that success worship on the part of parents is often a factor in the psychological roots of alcoholism. The child feels he must achieve impossible goals in order to be acceptable. In this context, the significance of the religious experience of self-acceptance on the basis of being accepted by God is evident.

3. A religious approach can provide the alcoholic with a means of handling his ultimate anxiety. 10. If it is true that philosophical anxiety -- anxiety about death, meaninglessness, and finitude -- is a factor in the etiology of alcoholism, then a religious solution makes a unique contribution toward eliminating the causes of alcoholism. It does this by providing the individual with a sense of relatedness to and participation in the larger life. It helps to satisfy his need for experiences in which he transcends his finitude and receives mystical life. It gives him a faith in the trustworthiness of the Ultimate and the triumph over death and the fear of death. It provides him with a concept of Providence and the feeling that he is not alone in the crises of life. All this helps him to handle his ultimate anxiety in a constructive fashion.

4. An effective religious approach can help the individual to discover a purpose in living by establishing his personality on the foundation of a meaningful philosophy of life. A religious approach is the time-tested way of satisfying what Erich Fromm has called the universal human need for a "system of thought and action shared by a group which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion." 11. By satisfying such a need a religious approach gives order, meaning, and other-directedness to living. All of these are of prime importance in providing a secure foundation for happy sobriety. By giving the alcoholic a purpose in living, a sense that he is an important part of a God-given plan to help others, one provides a positive reason for not drinking. What we are discussing here is quite different from simply rationally satisfying answers concerning basic philosophical problems. It is the zest and emotional involvement which comes from feeling oneself a part of something that really matters.

5. A religious orientation can provide a group approach to alcoholism with a unifying commitment to a group-transcending value. It is of great significance that the religious group always has an object of reference beyond itself. It thinks of itself as a channel through which a Power greater than itself can operate. This tends to give the group a stronger sense of purpose and a greater cohesiveness. There have been some speculations about the feasibility of, and at least one unsuccessful attempt to have, an AA group without the "spiritual angle." The predominant view in AA is that any such attempts are foredoomed to failure. The spiritual angle and the group therapy are not distinct entities but are interrelated. It seems to be true that for alcoholics it is important to feel themselves a part of something that is bigger and more important than the individual AA group and that this "something" is more than simply a creation of human ingenuity. This sense of what might be called the "vertical dimension" of the religiously oriented group can be a powerful factor in satisfying not only the longing to belong but the need to belong to something that has fundamental and abiding significance.


1. Jerry Gray (pseud.), The Third Strike, p. 32. [Italics supplied.]

2. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935), p. 2.

3. Ibid., p. 281.

4. Summary lecture at the Yale Summer School of Alcohol Studies, 1949.

5. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947), p. 525.

6. The Varieties of Religious Experience, pp. 377-78.

7. The Works of Nietzsche, pp. 172-73.

8. Shaking of the Foundations, p. 158.

9. The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 378.

10. For a more comprehensive discussion of the role of ultimate or existential anxiety in alcoholism, see Howard J. Clinebell, Jr., "Philosophical-Religious Factors in the Etiology and Treatment of Alcoholism," QJSA, September, 1963.

11. Psychoanalysis and Religion, p. 21.