Many people see addiction . . . as a character flaw or a bad choice. They don’t recognize that addiction is in fact a chronic disease of the brain.” That statement by Vivek Murthy, surgeon general of the United States, reflects the current medical and scientific consensus about addiction. Murthy and others believe the language of moral choices only increases shame and decreases funding for more scientifically rigorous treatments. To make progress in saving lives, they argue, we need to change the way we think about addiction.
In fact, we need to recognize at least four dimensions in addiction: moral, social, biological, and spiritual. Addicts are moral agents, in community, with biology working against their spiritual goals. Biological science gives us insight into the particular ways an addict’s body makes a normal life that much harder to live. Public health can describe how a community and its institutions make recovery more accessible to people trapped in addiction. A moral framework helps us understand how addiction harms ourselves and the people we love, while also providing the basic routines of living free. Most importantly, spirituality helps us to understand God’s love for everyone (no matter how lost they are) and gives us the power to live healthy, whole lives.
Biology and the Brain
Our brains were created with neurotransmitters to help us enjoy the physical pleasures of life, adapt to stressful situations, and direct us to do what is necessary to maintain our bodies’ physical and mental health. Addictive substances (and, to a lesser degree, other addictions like pornography or gambling) pervert all of these basic brain functions, breaking the biological systems we depend on to think ...1