A few months back, the one and only Jordan B. Peterson invited me onto his podcast, and I’m happy to say the episode has just been released. Our discussion ranges from climate change to divorce rates to the Pareto principle. Jordan is a clinical psychologist, so we spend a lot of time with our social scientist hats on.
We also get into some more personal material. Jordan’s early research into addiction leads him to ask about the place of spirituality in my own experience with addiction and recovery. As you may know, in the 1980s, I became addicted to crack cocaine. I had a terrible habit, and it could easily have cost me my career, my family, and my life. I had the support of friends, treatment, and my late wife Linda to help me through, but I also found a kind of spiritual support from two different sources: Christianity and Alcoholics Anonymous.
The sense of humility that I received from Christianity at that time was instrumental in helping me, in so many words, get over myself and admit I had a problem. But as it turns out, spirituality and mystical experience play an important role in the research around addiction and recovery as well. In the following excerpt from our longer conversation, Jordan and I discuss recovery’s spiritual dimension and my own path to getting clean.
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JORDAN PETERSON: Can I ask you, and you don't have to answer this, I guess it's the clinician in me. So I studied alcoholism and drug abuse and addiction as my primary research topic when I was grad student. And one of the things that was well-known among alcoholism researchers at that time—and hard-edged researchers—was that religious transformation was about the only reliable treatment, so to speak, for alcoholism. No alcoholism treatment programs work. And that's still the truth today, no matter what people say. They just don't work.
That doesn't mean people don't stop, because they do. But spiritual transformation seems to be a ticket out of drug addiction. And it's interesting in that regard, for example, that Roland Griffiths and his team investigating psychedelic mushroom psilocybin have shown that one dose producing a mystical experience produces 75% permanent cessation in smokers. Most powerful pharmacological intervention.
GLENN LOURY: That's unbelievable.
It's unbelievable. He's done all sorts of other interesting ... And he's a hard-edged research scientist. This guy's no pie-in-the sky mystic. It's really something. And there's really something to this that we don't understand.
Could I ask you, you said you were struggling with addiction problems. That's a catastrophe, and you had this religious transformation. What was that exactly? And why do you think it was relevant to the drug abuse issue? Why did it help you stop?
Okay. I'm not sure I know the answer to the question, but I understand the question. And there were really two dimensions to my spiritual experience in the late 1980s, when I was a cocaine addict, and it was killing me. It was killing me.
One of them was explicitly religious. I was born again. I became a born-again Christian. I was baptized at the age of 40. I came to believe that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as we would have put it, died for me, personally, Glenn Loury. And that there was a path to my having a relationship with almighty God through my belief in Jesus Christ. Now I'm not trying to proselytize here. I actually don't have the same degree of religious fervor contemporary in my life now as I did at that time.
But I came to believe that the other thing that was of a spiritual significance for me was the Alcoholics Anonymous program. You know, the 12 Steps. I admitted that I was an alcoholic. My life had become unmanageable. I came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to [sanity]. I made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God, as I understood him. And one day at a time, I was going to not drink. I was going to talk to my sponsor. I was going to go to my meetings. I was going to deal with whatever came up in life without drinking, because I know that I'm an alcoholic, and my life had become unmanageable and et cetera, et cetera.
Yeah. Well, that program has a strong spiritual/religious underpinning. And that's part of the influence of Carl Jung, who was instrumental as a thinker.
I didn't know that.
Yes. Yes. The person who set up AA was in correspondence with Jung quite intensely. And so it's influenced a lot by his thoughts about the psychology of religion.
I just want to respond to your question, which was “What did the spirituality do for me?” And it took me out of myself. It made me humble and it made me patient and it made me want to stifle myself and to “let go and let God.” That was another one of the bumper stickers that we used to have. That I was my own worst enemy, that I needed to surrender. It was a kind of radical humility.
Well, you need that radical humility if you're dealing with an addiction problem. There's no doubt about that. Because that's a wicked devil to have in your head. And if there's any arrogance and pride in you, that's going to be a real obstacle to any healthful recovery, that's for sure.
Yeah. I'll tell you a story if you've got time. I'm in the halfway house, and it's run by this grizzled old Irishman. Bob Brown is his name, and he's been getting men sober for a quarter century. And I'm in this halfway house with drunks who'd been sleeping in boxes in the subway station and people just come out of prison and just out of the detox and whatnot. I'm the only professor in the halfway house.
So one day, the Bob Brown is listening to me interact with a counselor, and I'm snowing the counselor with how much I know about the 12 Step Program. 'Cause I'm a professor and I have read the book and I know it all. And Bob Brown, he turns to me, he overrides the counselor, and he says, “You know what, Professor Loury, if you're so smart, answer me this. What were you doing out there in the streets of Boston showing your ass, just like an N-word from the projects?” He didn't say “N-word.” This is a white guy. He's an Irishman. He confronted me with this slur and this insult. I'm professor at Harvard University, and this guy is talking to me like I was an N-word from the projects.
And my first instinct—this is just a point about stifling yourself and about radical humility—my first impulse was to strike him. But then I looked, and he stood 6'3" and he weighed 280 pounds. So I decided against that.
That seems wise.
My next alternative was to bolt from the house. I didn't need to be there. There was no law keeping me there. To hell with him, I'm not going to allow anybody to talk to me like that. But my Christian teaching allowed me to see that I did not know the answer to the question. The question was, “What was I doing out there doing what I was doing?” I had no idea what I was doing.
Yeah. And a more specific question is, like clearly you're smart. And so how do you reconcile the gap there? And that's a big question. Intelligence is not wisdom, that's for sure.
Okay. And so I decided that I had better stay put right where I was in that halfway house. I took it. I took the insult without comment. I stayed there for another five months, and I haven't used cocaine since. That was 1989.
How did you have the confidence to regain your position and to readopt it after having gone through that cataclysmic experience?
I had the loving support of my wife, Linda Loury, who is no longer living. She died 11 years ago. I had the very strong support of Harvard University and of my colleagues and friends there who continued to afford me the opportunity to show that I was worth a damn and that I could get it back together again. I ultimately left and moved across the street to Boston University, a very fine place, and I had a good job there. I left in way because they was so nice to me at Harvard, I couldn't bear it. [laughs] I mean, I felt like I didn’t ...
Yeah, exactly. At some level, I didn't deserve their forgiveness. I wanted to strike out and start again someplace on my own. I didn't want to let them be as nice to me as they were being. But I had support, is one thing that I'm having. The other thing is, I got back to science. I had been drifting into a political ... I was a big public intellectual in the 1980s. I was writing in Commentary magazine and in The New Republic magazine, when it was a place worth writing in, and other such venues. I had friends in the Reagan Administration. I was friends with people like soon-to-be Justice Thomas and many others. I was a high-flying conservative black intellectual. And you know, I actually forgot what I was saying.
You were saying you got back to the science.
Oh, that's it. Exactly, exactly. I said to hell with all this newspaper stuff, to all these arguments with all these people. Let me just try to remind myself what I fell in love with when I became an economist in the first place. I had four papers in the American Economic Review in 1993.
For those who are listening, that's kind of like the equivalent of doing a whole PhD in one year, I would say. Because you can get a PhD with three papers, if they're well-crafted. So that's about what that is.
I was publishing up a storm between '93 and '96, '97. I published six or seven really strong papers that got thousands of citations and stuff like that, even to this day these papers are cited. So I went back to doing economics, and that, I think, allowed me to get my feet under myself and get grounded again.
Amazing. Certainly, Professor Laury, Christ sent you to us.
OK, you exchanged one addiction for another. It's like heroin addicts treated with methadone.
Not mocking, here. I've never been addicted to substances but I've had that transformative religious revelation thingy. I know how real it seems and if it helps anyone get through life by leaving more obviously deleterious habits behind, it may be a net good. But it's still a dependency.