The Useful Lie

The book, The Useful Lie, got me thinking about how we use the power of myth to obfuscate painful things we’d rather not see. The author, William Playfair, maintains that addiction is a useful lie we tell ourselves to obscure the painful choices we make. Playfair looks at addiction from a Christian perspective. He believes that too many Christians have bought into the harmful idea that addiction is a sickness rather than a sin.

I learned about the book from reading Addiction is a Choice by Jeffrey Schaler whom I had on my podcast a while back. In Playfair’s book, he mentions he is a fan of a recent guest on my podcast, Staton Peele, and a book I am currently reading called Heavy Drinking, by Herbert Finegarette.

Playfair says that the Bible teaches that a person is morally responsible for the choices they make in life, including the choice of addicting oneself to alcohol or drugs. He also points out that scientific studies show that even the worst so-called addicts can control their behavior when they are incentivized to do so.

Playfair sheds light on the pathetic track record of the addiction industry. He points out that treatment programs don’t actually work any better than no treatment at all. Most addicts eventually outgrow their addictions. But he maintains that one must take moral responsibility for one’s behavior. His basic message is that the disease model of addiction contradicts science, the Bible, and that treatments like AA don’t work.

Addiction as Myth

I am fascinated by myths. When we look back on history, we can clearly see the myths that our ancestors blindly accepted. As modern people, we tend to think we have given up on living by myths. I don’t think that is the case. Think of the familiar slogans being tossed around today like, “believe in science”. This sort of idiotic slogan shows how embedded our myths have become. The myths we fail to see are often right in front of our faces.

Myths from the past included demon possession, witchcraft, and masturbatory insanity. Yes, even into the 20th century, self-abuse (masturbation) was a major social concern. They even had torture devices for kids to wear to prevent such dangerousness.

How did physicians know and why did people believe that masturbation caused all these diseases? The same way that physicians now know and people believe that chemical imbalances cause mental diseases, such as attention deficit disorder: by “diagnosing” and “treating” the (involuntary, child) “patient” and by discovering “cures” for the disease. Among the widely accepted treatments of masturbation, the most important were restraining devices and mechanical appliances, circumcision, cautery of the genitals, clitoridectomy, and castration. As recently as 1936, a widely used pediatric textbook recommended some of these methods.

Thomas Szasz

The medical model of addiction is a fashionable myth of our age. It’s what Playfair calls, The Useful Lie. The concept of addiction is so useful, and won’t go away anytime soon because people don’t want to look at the painful reality. The reality is that people use their own free will to make poor choices and screw up their lives and the lives of those around them. For many, it is easier to believe that something called addiction has taken over a person’s life than to look at that painful truth. It’s easier to believe that a brain disease called addiction caused someone to screw up their life. But, it’s not true. It’s not a brain that screws up a life, it’s the whole person. It’s the human spirit that chooses a quick fix over the slow painful boredom of diligent living.

Drugs and alcohol have been with us forever, but only in the past 120 years has the term addiction been used to describe behavior that we don’t like. In 1880 Dostoyevsky wrote presciently about the newfangled idea that brain science would engulf the concept of personhood in The Brothers Karamazov. Demitri says to Alyosha:

Imagine: inside, in the nerves, in the head-that is, these nerves are there in the brain … (damn them!) there are sort of little tails, the little tails of those nerves, and as soon as they begin quivering … that is, you see, I look at something with my eyes and then they begin quivering, those little tails … and when they quiver, then an image appears … it doesn’t appear at once, but an instant, a second, passes… and then something like a moment appears; that is, not a moment — devil take the moment! — but an image; that is, an object, or an action, damn it! That’s why I see and then think, because of those tails, not at all because I’ve got a soul, and that I am some sort of image and likeness. All that is nonsense! Rakitin explained it all to me yesterday, brother, and it simply bowled me over. It’s magnificent, Alyosha, this science! A new man’s arising —that I understand. And yet I am sorry to lose God!


Playfair’s book is an interesting one. I appreciated the alternative perspective on addiction from a religious stance. I think it could be helpful to anyone dealing with addiction, especially if they come from a Christian background.

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