Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

As Is

October 10, 2009

I started this post months ago, and never quite got it right.  So it’s being posted as is. Enjoy!

As The Alder Fork continues to grow and evolve my focus adapts to incorporate new elements.  I hope my writing continues to explore many exciting avenues, and although I don’t know which aspects of this blog will remain in the future, I do hope that I can stay fresh.  Lately, in the podcast, blog and my private writing, I have been reintroducing myself to the philosophy of religion.  In particular, I have been interested in large, cross-religion ideas like dialogue, definitions, and conceptualizations of the afterlife and other religious imagery.  Has this move helped the popularity of my work? Actually no, in fact it might even be driving people away.  I am not concerned about that because The Alder Fork is primarily an outlet for my creativity and ideas, rather than a promotional device (though it can do both).

I recently read someone’s opinion that atheism should not be called a religion because it is exactly the opposite of that.  This argument swept my mind back to the endless discussion of how to define religion that I encountered as an undergrad. Indeed, one of the core questions of religious studies is how do we define the thing we study? What are the parameters for saying something is a religion, religious or spiritual?  Is it really a “I know it when I see it” kind of thing, or can we put limits on what falls inside our focus?  If we cast our net to narrowly we may leave out some obvious religious groups. For example, if we say a religion is a group of people who believe in God, we leave out those who do not believe in God, like buddhists. If we cast too wide a net we risk including organizations that are clearly not religious in any manner.  This brings me back to the question about whether atheism is itself a religious movement.  If you require that a belief in supernatural existence is a requirement of a religion then perhaps atheism is on the outside, although I don’t know that all atheists completely reject the possibility of supernatural activity, say ghosts for example.  But if we take atheism in a strict definition as those who do not believe there is a god or gods, or that there is a supernatural order to the universe, can we then say they are not a religion?

Atheists define their beliefs in relation to religion.  Without theists there would be no need for a category called atheists.  This is important because it shows the roots of the atheist’s objection to being called a religion.  For them the very notion of religion is almost an insult, though that language may be a bit harsh.  With that in mind it is tempting to say that atheism is more philosophy than religion, and that it only relates to the latter as a contradiction.  For a moment I would like to flip this idea on its head and say that because atheism exists as a contradiction it is more religion than philosophy.  Returning to the question of how we define religion (and I will likely write a whole entry on this) I have always been in favour of being more inclusive.  I don’t think religious activity is limited to those who understand themselves in supernatural terms exclusively.  We all have to accept that there are elements of the universe beyond our current understanding and then decide what we believe is the truth behind that unknown layer.  Some people believe there is nothing there, outside of physics problems and mysterious matter.  Others choose to see god in the cracks of human knowledge.  I am not here to make a value judgment about who is correct, but rather to say that by drawing these conclusions people have entered the realm of faith.

I realize this is a troubling statement to make but it grows out of my definition of religion.  In my view, religion begins in the individual and then expands into group behaviour and convention where it changes and flows back into the individual.  All people are religious people, even if they choose to disregard traditional human religions in favour of a rational or humanistic approach.  In the moments that we contemplate the mysteries of life, draw or adopt conclusions, and then act on those beliefs we are acting religiously.  For me religion at its core is not about ritual, creed, ethical action, social conventions or adherence to authority, it is the fundamental act of believing in a blueprint for the universe, whether ordered or not.  By having faith in ourselves, in our god, in science or math, we are being religious beings.  Religion as it is commonly understood by people refers to the big -isms in the world. Maybe we can add a few more isms to the list.

He Knows I’m Right

March 15, 2009

I’m counting my blessings, ’cause I’ve found true happiness, ’cause I’m a-gettin’ richer, day by day, you can find me in the phone book, just call my tool-free number, you can do it anyway you want, just do it right away!


Jesus He Knows Me

I had a great chat the other night with my friend Steph about the Branch Davidians.  You may remember the disaster that occured in Waco Texas when the FBI and David Koresh’s cult came up against each other.  We briefly debated the controversial aspects of the fire and the death of everyone, but I wasn’t that interested in it.  I was more fascinated by the character of Koresh, and his apparent Messianic beliefs.  I also kept saying “he was likely a child molester,” but that is beside my point.

The song I quoted above is not so much about the characters like David Koresh who gather small followers in an isolated place in expectation of a life altering event, promote communal life, and often have many sexual components as well.  Rather, Phil Collins and company are singing about folks like Benny Hinn, one of my least favourite people on earth.  It’s been proven fairly conclusively that many people can overcome physical ailments for a brief period of time due to the effects of adrenaline and euphoria.  The evidence has been piling up against these con artists. I will be writing a much more involved series of posts on this topic in the future. But for the moment lease check out this incredible documentary on Benny Hinn from CBC’s The Fifth Estate.

Who Can It Be Now?

February 19, 2009

(3) There is a tree outside my window,

Alvin Plantinga

Religious Belief As ‘Properly Basic’

As a student of religion I often encountered arguments both for and against a myriad of spiritual issues: the existence of a god, gods, or some spiritual essence, the value of organized religion, the reality of faith, among others.   Virtually every university hosts regular debates on the question of “god.” I have never attended one but I usually take the time to read any material about them, including the basic premise of the debate and the general positions of the participants.  Philosophers have managed to devise a limited number of arguments for both sides, and these are generally repeated in each and every debate.  The main problem with all arguments for and against the existence of god is very simple, no matter how we rationalize the unknowable, it remains unknowable.  We place faith in people, objects, our bodies and senses, nature, the universe, and, for some, god (or a supernaturally ordered universe). As we make progress towards better understanding our universe we still struggle to comprehend some of the most basic premises of existence.  Why do we die?  Why is suffering part of life?  Why are intelligent beings, such as ourselves, such a small part of an enormous universe? We have figured out parts of these questions, but we have yet to put it all together in a meaningful way outside the context of religious explanation, and even those often struggle to adequately address these questions.  We are regularly reminded that what we don’t know vastly outweighs what we do, and the answers aren’t coming quickly.  Outside of attempted conversion to one ideology or another what is the point of debating the supernatural?

Occasionally (though not very often) someone will ask me about my religious beliefs.  I think many just assume I have some deep conviction to a specific belief system because I studied religion.  People in my field range from the very religious to the very not.  Our common thread is an interest in the beliefs of people around the world, and a desire to probe the limits of what is known and what is thought. Much like the behavioural psychologist who studies people to see why they act the way we do, religious studies scholars concern themselves with the more than the how and what of belief, to break open the why.  For me it has always been part of a quest to be understand ultimate truth, the elusive answers to the questions I posed above.

Once, when I was an undergrad, I attempted to systematically document my own beliefs. I have long since lost that document, and it would be irrelevant now anyway.  A person who deeply considers their faith will normally fluctuate in what they believe over the course of their lives.  After all, when dealing with grand ideas, there are many possible points of contact, and a plethora of directions to explore.  Although I am not quite as adventurous as some, I have been exposed to a large number of different ideas about spirituality.

The common debate of religion versus spirituality, one that seems to have found its way around Western society on its own, has so many permutations it challenges even the best religious thinkers.  But that is not a question for this post.  The real question that concerns me today is, can we resolve the issue of the existence of god if we accept that neither sie will concede (short of god appearing on the mountain and moving it)?  Let me first state that I do not have the magic answer that proves or disproves the reality of the supernatural.  I have read the arguments that exist and none satisfy me in any real way. They sometimes work rationally, but most fail the “so what?” test.  It is fantastic to say that an ordered universe implies an intelligent designer, but we can then ask about the obvious flaws in that design, sickness, suffering, and the dark side of human nature.  Surely we could demand a better blueprint.  This is, again, beside the point.  I don’t want to convince you to believe in a supernatural idea.  In fact, I am mostly interested in people accepting moral responsibility for their actions and adhering to a code of behaviour that promotes the value of the person as an interdependent member of society.  Thus for me there is no need to argue about the existence of god, although I do think it is a healthy exercise as part of spiritual development (or lack of). I also see the value of philosophical discussion, even if its just a repeated thought experiment, every term, on every campus.

If we are going to get serious about the question of god’s existence, and I have no doubt that many people are serious about it, we need to ask ourselves about our endgame.  What do we hope to accomplish from this? Why are we arguing? Why is it so important to you to prove or disprove somethign that by its definition can’t be known for sure?  I can see three main motivations for engaging in this conversation, though I am sure there are more.  The first is the desire to discuss the topic at hand in a scholarly way, and thus be part of the academic community.  in other words, the participant wants to be involved in the debate because it is one of the classic debates of the last few hundred years, in particular the last century or so.  This group might also be motivated by the need to definitively convince the other side of the truth of their position.  There are certainly those who think they can change the beliefs of others by presenting them with the “facts,” and to some degree I’m sure they can persuade the undecided in one direction or the other.  But the thought that someone who is entrenched will suddenly change, even as the result of vigorous debate is mostly a dream.  Debates tend to increase people’s belief in their own cause rather than softening them to the other position.  The final main motivation I can see for such a debate is insecurity. Certainly there are those who need to convince themselves that what they believe is the truth, and by dismissing the ideas of others with rational arguments they give themselves the security blanket they desire.  Now there is nothing wrong with any of these reasons for entering a debate, and if you enjoy the process then you should get involved. I only mention them as a contrast to my own ideas about discussing the supernatural meaning of life.  I have never felt the urge to participate in such a debate, mostly because I don’t agree with the purpose of it.  If I want to discuss the nature of the universe, and learn other people’s beliefs I’d rather do it a a dialogue, not a debate. Certainly their ideas will challenge my long held assumptions, but as I mentioned on an episode of the podcast that is exactly what I want.  I don’t want to be able to hide behind the walls of my own beliefs (as ill-defined as they may be at any given time).  Can I speak with conviction about how I see the world? Of course I can, and from time to time I do so on the blog or podcast.  I think that the focus of a discussion about the existence of god should be on meaning of such a universe rather than the veracity of the claim.  We should present the arguments for and against every kind of belief for people who wish to explore them, but when we meet to discuss beliefs it is more useful to look at the impact of belief.  By all means engage in debate if you like, but I will be off sorting out what existence means for those who are experiencing it.

I recently heard a prominent fictional character say that they don’t believe in an afterlife because they don’t want life to be a test.    In a future post I will be exploring the notion that the afterlife exists independently of life on earth. In other words, heaven is not a reward for a life well lived, but the next step in the process.  Thus it is more like experiencing puberty than graduating high school.  The implications of that line of thought are enormous, and I should say that I don’t believe in acting justly because there is a supernatural reward.  I think any reward cheapens the activity, though it does not diminish its inherent value independent of the actor.

The Struggle Continues

February 1, 2009

Today I bring you the fourth and final part of my chapter on the relationship between religious belief and anorexia nervosa. For the earlier parts just click on the links, Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Many women who do recover from anorexia nervosa consider their faith and spirituality as major factors.  Several articles and books have been written containing firsthand accounts of spiritual influences on recovery.   For individuals who present with pre-existing religious beliefs, spiritual interventions are often recommended in the treatment of many mental disorders, including anorexia.   In some cases, it is necessary to address the content of an individual’s beliefs, particularly if they affect or reinforce the disorder.  For example, in a case series presented by Morgan, Marsden, and Lacey, three patients with anorexia nervosa discussed questions about their belief systems as part of their treatment.   Although the outcome in each case was different, the process of spiritual examination proved useful in continuing recovery.   It is difficult to draw broad conclusions from this study because of the small sample size.  It is useful, however, to augment the other studies discussed in this chapter.
A religious worldview can play a part in the treatment of eating disorders.  In their volume, Spiritual Approaches in the Treatment of Women with Eating Disorders,  Richards, Harrison, and Barret present a theistic model for treatment similar to Richards and Bergin’s  approach to psychotherapy.  The purpose of their approach is to foster a spiritual identity in the patient, and “affirm their…worth as creations of God.”  They particularly focus on the heart as a metaphor for spiritual healing and as a means of trusting themselves.   They recognize spiritual growth as a gradual process and not an immediate or quick fix treatment. Richards, Harrison, and Barret argue that a theistic model allows for change and healing of the whole person.   The theistic approach is intended to be flexible in order to address the specific needs of the patient. Much like other clinicians, Richards, Harrison, and Barret advocate a multi-dimensional approach that recognizes the importance of spirituality.  Their argument is supported by the evidence cited in this paper, and reinforces the necessity of a well-formed theology of the body.
In addition to the clinical approaches listed above, there have also been a number of books and articles written on the nature of anorexia and the role of spirituality in recovery.   Michelle Mary Lelwica argues that anorexia is particularly the result of spiritual emptiness.  This position is similar to Richards, Harrison, and Barret in that it recognizes a role for spirituality in anorexia. However, whereas Richards, Harrison, and Barret advocate using a theistic mode of treatment to heal the whole person, Lelwica focuses on the lack of an internal spiritual life as the primary cause of anorexia.  Her theory is related to feminist and sociological explanations for eating disorders.
There are three criticisms of this research. To start there is some difficulty in quantifying religious belief. There does not appear to be one definitive method for measuring religious belief, and as such, the various studies have used different tests to measure religiosity. The studies cited acknowledge the complexity of the task and all use more than one measure.
In 1999, Lelwica wrote that there was a lack of research into the relationship of religion and eating disorders.   This chapter has referenced some of the many studies that exist.  Bell’s book, which addressed the connection, was published in 1985. Although more research needs to be conducted, there is a large body of existing studies.
The final criticism concerns the size and composition of the sample groups used in the studies. For example, Macias et al. included a sample of only 44 nuns, while the larger studies did not exceed 500 participants. Since females are more likely to develop anorexia nervosa the majority of the cited studies focus on female populations. These sample sizes are quite acceptable for psychology studies. Despite these last two criticisms, the four broad conclusions asserted in this chapter are supported by the available research: 1) religious belief influences body image both positively and negatively 2) the “thin ideal” is not the only cultural cause of anorexia nervosa 3) being religious does not guarantee protection from anorexia nervosa 4) a deep spiritual life has the potential to assist in preventing the development of anorexia nervosa.
The final two conclusions above seem to contradict one another. This is not the case because while members of religious communities do develop eating disorders, there is evidence that suggests that explicit religious teachings about the body can influence body image both positively and negatively. This influences the incidence rates of anorexia nervosa.  The general findings, presented by the various studies, supported each other.
There are currently many clinicians incorporating spirituality into treatments for anorexia.  More research is needed to conclusively say what role spirituality plays at each stage of the illness, but there is little doubt that a relationship exists.  By understanding the role of religion in the prevention and development of anorexia, religious leaders can develop strategies for combating poor body image and disordered eating within their communities.

Awake and Cold At Night

January 29, 2009

I am on a roll with these thesis related posts so I’m going to continue today. Tomorrow is  a link day because of the podcast.  The following selection contains a number of summarized studies with accompanying discussion. If you’d like more details about any of the studies please contact me at the Click if you missed Part I and/or Part II.

There are similarities between fasting and anorexia nervosa, such as restricted food intake and attempts to control the body. It appears that strict ascetic codes and other religious restrictions on food, paired with an emphasis on the human body as inherently sinful or evil, could lead to more cases of anorexia among the devoutly religious.  This does not mean that ascetics share the other psychological symptoms of anorexics, such as anxiety disorders, perfectionism, or obsessive compulsive disorder, but rather that their attitude towards eating and the body may be similar. Harold Koenig points out in his brief survey of the literature, that there is no empirical support that belonging to an ascetic community increases the likelihood of anorexia.  In fact, research into ascetic and other religious communities has shown virtually no difference between eating attitudes and body image within the group or the controls. For example, in 2003 Macias, Leal and Vaz conducted a study of 44 women living in open communities in Spain.  The results of the study indicate that the distribution of body satisfaction and dissatisfaction was similar to a control group of university-aged women.  The study showed that 50% of the nuns either perceived that they had a high weight or were fat.    In addition these women exhibited disordered eating behaviour that was also comparable to the control.  Although religious women may not be at an increased risk of developing eating disorders, such as anorexia, as outlined above, a growing body of research indicates that religious and spiritual beliefs do not guarantee protection against the development of this illness. A significant level of dissatisfaction with body shape and size, while often assumed by the public at large to be a problem of middle-class teenage girls, has been documented in communities of nuns in Spain,  an Old Order Amish community,  and among extrinsically religious university students.   It has also been noted in case studies that some anorectics who have a strong Christian affiliation will justify their condition as a type of “spiritual starvation.”
Macias, Leal and Vaz speculate that the source of the nuns’ discomfort could come from the pressure to maintain regimented eating practices or a specified state of holiness.   The daily pressures of ascetic life might create an environment conducive to anorexia.  The challenge of controlling ordinary human desires and urges could lead some to control body weight and food intake.  Despite the author’s initial hypothesis that a cloistered community would insulate the nuns from negative body image and disordered eating, the research showed that the conditions necessary for anorexia to develop exist in an ascetic community.  Other studies of cloistered religious communities have had similar results.   In their study of an Amish community, Platte, Zelten and Stunkard, found that while the young people exhibited a healthy view of their own bodies, the elders often did not.  The authors proposed that this resulted from the focus on physical labour in the farming community.   When members of the community became unable to contribute to the work of the farm, satisfaction with their bodies decreased. It is important to note that the community was mostly shielded from secular media, and as such, these cases of negative body image are unlikely to be connected to the “thin ideal”.
In neither the Spanish study of cloistered nuns, nor the Amish study, did the authors identify a single case of anorexia in those communities.  They did, however, measure the incidence of disordered eating, which in both cases was the same as the general public.  While the sample sizes of these studies are too small to draw general conclusions, they do present the possibility that even strongly religious communities need to address body image because their current theology is not creating a significant difference from the general public. In addition, because both groups were isolated from the influence of the “thin ideal”, these studies demonstrate that this is not the only factor influencing women towards poor body image and disordered eating.
Correlation between high religiosity and positive body image has been found in several studies that have attempted to quantify this relationship.  Based on their own prior research, Mahoney et al. hypothesized that “greater sanctification of the body” would lead to a “great investment in maintaining one’s physical well-being.”   Body sanctification refers to an individual’s view of her body that recognizes its value in religious terms.  It should also be noted that studies by Levin  and Strawbridge et al.  have shown that general religiousness leads to health-protective behaviour.   The Mahoney study was comprehensive, examining a wide range of experimental factors including manifestation of God in the body, sacred qualities of the body, general health-protective practices, as well as physical fitness and asceticism.  The sample included 289 university students 77.5% of which were female.   The study participants were predominately Christian (74%), which makes the results particularly useful for this thesis.   The results of the study supported the authors’ initial hypothesis.  Of particular note they found that higher levels of body sanctification were associated with greater satisfaction with the body.   Thus those participants who attributed religious meaning to their bodies were more likely to have a positive body image.
A study by Boyatzis, Kline and Backof specifically investigated written religious affirmations and their effect on body image.   The authors attempted to establish causality through pre and posttests dealing with body image and the viewing of “thin ideal” photos.    The women were divided into three groups: a control group that read random statements not related to body image, a “spiritual group” that read positive secular body image statements, and a “religious group” that read similar theistic statements.   The religious group showed the greatest improvement in body image on the post test, while the control group saw a decline in their body image.  This study supports Mahoney’s findings about religious beliefs and body satisfaction.
The results of the studies cited above demonstrate a connection between the content of religious belief and body satisfaction. The authors’ conclusions focused on the positive effects of religious belief on body image.  Research into small religious sects has shown that religious beliefs can also have a negative influence on body image.   Although new religious groups are typically small, their experience represents the extreme of devout religious belief, much as anorexia represents an extreme of either the “thin ideal” or fasting.  The Church Universal and Triumphant provides an example of use of restrictive diet in a new religious movement and the consequences of this practice.  The leader of the group, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, dictated all aspects of eating among her followers and framed her directives in a religious context.    She dictated the content and quantity of her follower’s food intake and to avoid “the appetites of the physical body and the appetites of death.”   Members of the community ate primarily rice and vegetables while Prophet had a fridge stocked with “exotic food.”   This last point implies that the food restrictions were related to control rather than a theology of eating practice.  The Church Universal and Triumphant is an unusual example because it does not represent the normal practice of the majority of religious believers. Anorexia, too, is an extreme behaviour. This particular case, along with others cited by Paolini and Paolini,   shows the negative effects of religious teachings on body image. As noted, some care must be taken in considering followers of new religious movements that are, by their nature, part of smaller tight-knit communities. These results, however, support the findings of other studies cited in this thesis, that religious beliefs can influence body image.
In addition to the studies of people or groups who have developed positive or negative relationships with food or their bodies due to religious affiliation and belief, research has been conducted to discover if certain types of people are more susceptible to poor body image or eating disorders due to their religious beliefs.  A notable study by Smith, Richards, and Maglio examined religious orientation and eating attitude in both clinical and sub-clinical anorexic populations.   They defined four types of religiousness based on the commonly used religious orientation scale (ROS).  Intrinsic religiousness is associated with orthodox practice and personal belief, while an extrinsically religious person often belongs to a community for social purposes.  On the two extremes are the pro-religious and nontraditional groups.  The former scored high on both intrinsic and extrinsic scales, and the latter scored low on both and could be considered non-religious.  In simplest terms the difference lies in the extent to which religiousness is an internal or external commitment on the part of the person.  Although the study sample was small, no correlation was found between the intrinsically religious group and anorexia.  As predicted eating disorder symptoms were most prevalent in the pro-religious and nontraditional groups.  Therefore, those for whom religion was an internal commitment were least likely to develop eating disorders.  From this study it can be concluded that there is no connection between religiousness and eating disorder pathology since the most traditionally religious group and the intrinsically religious group did not demonstrate a connection with anorexia nervosa. Based on the research cited above, the promotion of a healthy body image, in religious terms, has positive effects on people. This conclusion will return in Chapter 3.

There She Is

January 28, 2009

I read an account today of the recent Miss America Pageant.  I didn’t watch it because I’m not particularly interested in that sort of contest. I was intrigued to learn that the contestants body’s have more in common with varsity athletes than super models.  Perhaps this has long been the case, but I doubt it. A quick look through the contestants in the swimsuit competition (which is the easiest way to gauge body shape, size, and composition) reveals that they are indeed quite shapely though certainly not average.  A quick look through past winners of the competition doesn’t give any definitive proof that the ultra thin ideal was at play in previous years, but the fact that the Miss America Pageant represents an idea of beauty that is fit rather than miniature is a good thing.  I am going to ignore the other social issues associated with beauty pageants, and instead focus on the notion of the thin ideal in society.  It is unrealistic to expect people to ignore their natural inclination towards subjective beauty because it’s part of our wiring.  We can, however, embrace a wide range of notions of beauty and, more importantly, accept ourselves as we are.  Most people are aware of the pressure of being healthy,  and thin though they are not the same thing.  With the growing movement against super thin models, and the often unrealistic ideal portrayed in the media, perhaps the Miss America Pageant is one sign of this change.  The following is Part II of my thesis chapter on the relationship between anorexia and religion.

Anorexia has only been widely recognized among the general public since the 1970’s, a period of increasing secularization in North America, and is often connected with a society obsessed with beauty and the self.  Thanks to the work of Rudolph Bell in particular, scholars have recognized what appears to be a much longer history of anorexia than had been commonly acknowledged.  The relative infancy of the modern field of psychology limits the amount of historical data that exist for anorexia. In his survey of the literature, Bell states that it was not until the late 19th Century that self-starvation was recognized as a mental disorder rather than as either a devout or diabolical pursuit.   Although it had been apparent for centuries that extreme fasting was dangerous and ultimately fatal, medical science and psychology struggled to make sense of what many early doctors termed hysteria.   In the Twentieth Century, the advancement of psychiatry and psychology provided greater understanding of anorexia nervosa, and an increasing body of clinical research.  As with other mental disorders, however, the religiosity of anorexics was generally ignored or considered part of the pathology. Thus it cannot be said definitively what, if any, effect religion has had on anorexics in the past.  Fortunately there is an ever-growing body of contemporary research chronicling the connections between religion and anorexia, from Patricia Marsden’s work with English anorexics, to Richards and Bergin’s spiritually-oriented treatment.   These authors, and others,  conclude that religiosity has a role in anorexia.  The studies discussed in this chapter examine the role of religious beliefs in the prevention, pathology, and treatment of eating disorders. This section will present the results of relevant studies in two stages of anorexia: prevention/development/pathology, and treatment/recovery.
Christianity is a religion that preaches love, acceptance, and the dignity of the human person, as part of its core message. Current research suggests that the relationship between religious beliefs and the development of an eating disorder is complex.  Notably, in the areas of body satisfaction and eating habits, several studies have shown that religious communities often offer a similar distribution of outcomes to the general population.
Despite the lack of historical empirical data concerning anorexia, both, the human body and food have been major concerns of religion for thousands of years.  From a biblical perspective, the human relationship with the body and consumption dates to the creation story and the earliest human activity.  In the book of Genesis 3:17 an act of eating is used as the symbol for sin entering the world.  This action is then connected to feelings of shame about being naked. The ancient Israelites practiced the sacrifice of edible items, animals and grains, and ritualized significant historical events with food-based celebrations, such as Passover, which features a meal as a central activity. Modern Jews (as well as Hindus, Muslims and others) continue to practice dietary restrictions. In other ancient communities, food played an important role in ritual and religious belief, particularly in relation to agriculture and fertility.   To this day, faith communities continue to incorporate food into their worship through feasting, ritual, and fasting, such as Ramadan for Muslims, and Lent for Christians. Religiously prescribed limits on food intake are similar to eating disorder behaviour in that they seek to achieve a goal through control over eating.
Current research raises questions about the nature of body image presented by religious groups.  One study discovered that Catholics and Jews had higher rates of eating disorders compared to other religious groups.   Results such as this can lead to questions about the theology of the body that is internalized by believers and possibly leads to change when necessary.  John Paul II’s Theology of the Body was itself a response to questions that were being asked about the nature of the human body in relation to sexuality.  Dialogue about body image and its relationship to disordered eating and low self-esteem is an overlooked part of Christian theology.  Its significance for anorexia lies in its connection to poor body image. Since the relationship with the body is an important aspect of anorexia nervosa pathology, influences on body image have the potential to impact the development of this illness. Religious beliefs have the potential to damage body image as well as improve it.  Research has been done on the role of religious belief in poor body image, disordered eating, and the development of eating disorders.  For example, Bell found evidence of religiously motivated behaviour that resembled anorexia among ascetic women in medieval and renaissance Italy.  As well, a survey of two large collections of case studies reveals a variety of experiences among eating disorder patients.    For example, some adhered to religious prescriptions while others rebelled against them.   In cases of anorexia, the illness was viewed as the moral high ground, operating against greediness especially, but also the less obvious concepts of “anger,” and “sadness.”  These emotions are viewed by some patients as wrong or sinful and must be controlled.  The inability to completely control “sinful” behaviour can exacerbate the negative self-image that is common to anorexia.

Should We Forget Ourselves

January 25, 2009

As I was walking through a life one morning the sun was out, the air was warm, but oh I was cold, and though I must’ve looked a half a person, to tell the truth in my own version, it was only then that I felt whole.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

Me and Mia

Long time readers of The Alder Fork Blog will know that I don’t always write about music, art, film, and theatre because my mind likes to wander.  I wrote my Master’s thesis on the connections between Anorexia Nervosa and religious belief, with an aim towards exploring pastoral options for treatment and prevention.  Many people asked to read it, and some have.  The second and third chapters of my thesis (when I was discussing the pastoral elements) are not as well written as I would have liked. I kind of tired of the process and allowed myself to make some leaps in the writing. In the end it was good enough to pass, but could have been better. The first chapter, however, is one of my proudest pieces of writing.  In that chapter I reviewed the relevant literature and drew some conclusions of my own about the existing and potential roles for religious interventions, and poastoral education.  Over the next little while I will be featuring that chapter in its entirety,obviously broken up into smaller parts. It begins today with the Part I. Please don’t hesitate to contact me about it, I love to discuss my research. If you or someone you know might have an eating disorder please seek professional help.

Anorexia Nervosa and the “Thin Ideal”
The purpose of this chapter is to present research on the relationship between anorexia and religion.  It will focus on defining anorexia nervosa, and on research about religion and anorexia.  Although there are few empirical studies related to this topic, some hypotheses can be drawn from the available literature.   Notably, the evidence suggests that a religious worldview can influence an individual’s relationship with his/her body. For example, fasting and the valuing of spirit above body have been correlated with poor body image.  As well, spiritual interventions have been useful in the treatment of anorexia nervosa.
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by an individual’s efforts to control her body weight through eating, exercise and other means.   The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Eating Disorders IV presents the following four criteria for a diagnosis of anorexia:

A. Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height (e.g., weight loss leading to maintenance of body weight less than 85% of that expected; or failure to make expected weight gain during period of growth, leading to body weight less than 85% of that expected).
B. Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight.
C. Disturbance in the way in which one’s body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of the current low body weight.
D. In postmenarcheal females, amenorrhea, i.e., the absence of at least three consecutive menstrual cycles.
(A woman is considered to have amenorrhea if her periods occur only following hormone, e.g., estrogen, administration.)

Based on the clinical criteria for a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, it is apparent that the condition is a mix of psychological (B, C) and physiological (A, D) concerns.
There are two subtypes of anorexia, “restricting type,” and “binge eating/purging type,” which reflect two different methods of controlling food intake and body size.  Restricting anorexia could be considered the extreme dieting model where the individual limits her food intake to the point that she starves herself.  Binge eating/purging type is similar to bulimia nervosa in that the individual eats large quantities of food and then attempts to expunge them through vomiting, or laxative abuse. When a person stops eating, her body first reacts by storing as much energy as possible, entering what is called starvation mode.  Without enough food energy the body shuts down organs and wastes away. For anorexics this extreme weight loss is considered a mark of achievement of body control. If untreated, anorexia can lead to death.
Although persons of any age are at risk for developing anorexia nervosa, this eating disorder is most common among young females between 12 and 25 years of age.  It is estimated that 1 out of every 8 adolescent girls displays eating disorder symptoms (including bulimia and eating disorders not otherwise specified).  The prevalence of anorexia, specifically, ranges between 0.5% and 3.7% in females, and 0.05% and 0.37% in males, with the number of new cases continuing to increase.   Up to 20% of all patients diagnosed with anorexia will eventually die from their condition.
Those who suffer from anorexia come from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds.   Anorexia occurs most often in industrialized nations that have an abundance of available food.  Eating disorders are common in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and Japan, although research in other areas of the world is currently limited.
As this eating disorder affects a diverse population, the root causes of anorexia are complex.  There is evidence to suggest that certain psychological stresses, such as dysfunctional family life, a sense of helplessness, or even genetics have a role in many cases.   There are two prominent explanations for the proliferation of eating disorders in North America.  The first can be termed controlling the body, and relates specifically to personality variables such as perfectionism, low self esteem, fear of maturation, and familial/cultural variables that leave an individual feeling out of control or dominated (primarily known as the psychodynamic explanation).  The second explanation deals with cultural and peer pressure to achieve and maintain a certain appearance, a misunderstanding of the concepts of body type and development, and fear of obesity.
A negative consequence of the social stigma associated with anorexia is the proliferation of “pro-Ana” (short for anorexia) movements among teenage girls that promote anorexia as a lifestyle choice and ideal.   This situation is perhaps the most extreme outcome of a society that values physical beauty, in the form of thinness, as a high ideal.   The glamourization of anorexia as a celebrity disease and a path to acceptance can be seen in the content of these sites.   This type of online community provides anonymous support for girls that they cannot find in the “real world,”  partly due to the fact that anorexics do not speak openly about their condition, as well as the stigma associated with the illness.  The community fostered on these sites is dangerous for those at risk of developing an eating disorder.   This issue will be addressed as part of the discussion of the theology of the body because it relates to the community of those at risk.

When I Spy A Monster

January 21, 2009

Get myself a final glimpse of the world I used to live in.

The James Clark Institute

The World I Used To Live In

Yet another episode of The Alder Fork Podcast is available over there –>. This episode features a discussions about a classic TV show, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and interreligious dialogue. Needless to say it is a bit of a different show!  I am featuring music by the very talented Laura Smith, whose music you can find out about here, and The James Clark Institute.

If you are interested in learning more about interreligious dialogue I recommend using google to find a local group that is involved in facilitating that type of discussion. Kitchener-Waterloo has the Interfaith Grand River group. Organizations like this tend to exist in most centres with a number of religious communities.

Short post today because of the podcast, but tomorrow our first guest writer, Iwona Szkudlarek, will bring us Six things you didn’t know about the GTA.

You’re Gonna Come Down

December 18, 2008

It’s a lifetime’s decision, recovering the satellites

Counting Crows

Recovering the Satellites

I wasn’t sure when I’d have time to write this post. Turns out it’s at 4:41am Wednesday.  It’s very close to 24 hours before I will actually post it.  I couldn’t sleep tonight, so mother nature provided me with something to do. I have spent the last hour and a half shovelling several houses worth of snow, while enjoying a great many songs on my iPod. For some reason I had never thought to bring it out with me on a snow adventure before. The world is so quiet at this time of the morning. I used to work nights and I loved the period between 2-7am when most of the world shuts down for a bit to sleep.

Tonight has provided me with a chance to think. My mind wandered a lot has I was thoughtlessly shovelling snow. In a previous (and perhaps future?) life I was a bit of a philosopher. I was especially mindful of the topic of religion.  Many people will say to you, oh I don’t talk about religion, but I think they are just denying themselves an opportunity for an enriching dialogue. Unless of course they are close minded on the subject and reject any prspective beyond their own. Tonight the falling snow, the solitude, and to some degree the Bright Eyes song I Must Belong Somewhere encouraged me to think about religion once again.  It doesn’t hurt that I’ve applied for a job in a religious community. Anyway a singular idea occured to me, namely that religion is the simplest proof that life is what you make of it. People are capable of believing just about anything. Don’t believe me? Think all religions are basically the same? I guess it depends on your definition of what “religion” is. If you think there is only one definition then you have not taken Religious Studies 101. We all define religion in our own way.  I’ve read stories of the cargo cults who built wooden airports in the hopes of appeasing the “gods,” American supply planes. Or how about the Breatharians whose leaders convinced several people that they could live off air alone. Those people consequently starved to death, tragically.  My point is we are all faced with choices.  Some are of course easy, like what to have after dinner (hint: ice cream is always the correct answer).  Many are a lot harder. What should I do with my life? Who should I date? Or who will date me? Should I stay or should I move? Do I want orange juice or coffee with my eggs and bacon?  What do I believe?  This last question speaks to the fundamental human dilemma. Unlike other animals we are blessed and burdened with the awareness of and the ability to contemplate everything.  Once again we have a choice. Some people try to explain it all. Some try to ignore the issue. Som listen to the wisdom or lunacy of others.  Some believe we can never know it all, and knowing that is enough.  I don’t think any of these people are wrong.  Everything must belong somwhere.