I Don’t Get Beer

As an observant Mormon, I am obviously not the most qualified person to talk about beer or any other alcoholic beverage. I think I tasted alcohol once when I bought home made “ginger ale” out of the back of a pickup truck in the mountainous woods of western Virginia (that would explain the snickers as I purchased my bottle), but I didn’t drink enough of the strange-tasting liquid to get a buzz or anything. And that is about the extent of my experience with alcohol.

Not that I have anything against them. My interpretation of the Mormon prohibition on alcohol is that it is:

1. Partially a mistake. (The original scripture appears to have referred only to liquor, with a specific exemption for beer)

2. An attempt to build solidarity within the community. 

Here’s the relevant scripture, in case you’re curious. According to the preamble, the anti-alcoholic stance was originally “sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint” and was “adapted to the capacity of the weak”. At some point after the original revelation, however, it went from suggestion to commandment, and I’m OK with that. As near as I can tell, it basically boils down to the idea that some Mormons would be unable to drink alcohol without becoming alcoholics (because they are human, nothing special about Mormons in that regard) and then they wouldn’t be able to drink any more. And then you’d have a divide in the community: the “weak” who couldn’t drink responsibly and the strong who could. Rather than have that divide, we just decided nobody would drink. Kind of beautiful, really. (Verse 17 is the one that makes me think this was originally not about beer at all, by the way.)

The point of the previous paragraph is just this: although I don’t drink alcohol I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically immoral about it. In fact, my wife and I purchased a couple hundred bottle of wine for our wedding reception because most of our friends and family aren’t Mormon and we wanted them to feel comfortable and have a good time. (My wife’s cousin certainly did! Near the end of the reception the waitstaff gave him one of the last unopened bottles, expecting him to take it home, and instead he took it around back and drank it, then came stumbling back to tell everyone bleerily “I love you for who you are.” Still one of my favorite  memories from the reception!)

And there’s a lot about drinking alcohol that makes sense to me. Sometimes you just want something nice to drink–with a meal or just sitting on the porch–and water and soda just don’t do it. I get frustrated ordering drinks at fancy restaurants, because my choices are always the same as if I was eating at McDonald’s. So, that aspect I get. What I don’t get, however, is the idea that you have to drink alcohol to lower your inhibitions. This has been something I’ve heard people talk about all the time. Going out with grad students early on in a new program, and the party is always stiff and uncomfortable until the drinking starts, and everyone loosens up. Alcohol, right? I doubt it. I think it’s almost entirely a placebo effect. The mythology around alcohol gives people permission to drop their inhibitions more than the actual chemical does.

I think that because I’ve never seen people as uninhibited and goofy as perfectly sober Mormons at a good party. All the same kind of goofy silliness that I see when my non-Mormon friends get a little buzzed I see my Mormon friends just as capable of doing without any liquid courage to speed along the process. And yet this is apparently not just some kind of urban legend of alcohol. A piece by Jeffrey Kahn in the New York Times argues quite seriously that using alcohol to lower inhibitions was necessary for the development of human civilization. As he put it:

To free up those [exploration, artistic expression, romance, inventiveness and experimentation], we needed something that would suppress the rigid social codes that kept our clans safe and alive. We needed something that, on occasion, would let us break free from our biological herd imperative — or at least let us suppress our angst when we did. We needed beer.

2013-04-18 Beer Gave Us Civilization

He also mentions a book he’s written as well as other articles, so I’m pretty sure he’s really serious. But I think it’s a bit silly. Or, at least, I think that alcohol was important then primarily as it is important now. Not because it’s actually necessary to the lowering of inhibition, but rather like Dumbo’s feather. Once everyone knows that everyone else expects alcohol to lower inhibitions, then a new set of rules comes into play.

I don’t mean for any of this to sound anti-alcohol. I’ve got no problem with it. I just think it’s a bit silly to build the urban legend up into an academic theory. Drink or don’t drink, I don’t mind. As long as folks are being safe and enjoying themselves, what further explanation or excuse do you really need?

12 thoughts on “I Don’t Get Beer”

  1. I had never tasted beer until I came to Germany and I found that it was quite common for Church members (mainly in Bavaria) to drink alkoholfreies Bier. I still find it a bit too bitter for my tastes, but the alkoholfreies wheat beer (Weißbier) is astoundingly refreshing and tasty. I drink it regularly.

    There are still a lot of German members who abstain from even the alkoholfreies stuff, and I respect that. There’s 0.5% alcohol in there sometimes but my reading of the WoW is the same as yours (and if you really want to be a strict 100% tee-totaler then you’ll have to give up sauerkraut, soy sauce, a lot of pasta dishes at the Olive Garden, and any fruit juice that isn’t freshly squeezed).

    But the WoW is an interesting thing. We say we don’t drink tea, but in Europe especially, we are quick to define that as “black tea.” Why? Well it’s not necessarily the caffeine (we can drink Coke and Red Bull after all and still have a temple recommend and yet most consider decaf coffee under prohibition). So what is it that we’re avoiding?

    My personal idea is that is has as much to do with obedience and “setting ourselves apart” as it does health. Also, all the drinks prohibited by the WoW tend to be drinks that are culturally significant but not necessarily culturally mandatory. Our obedience to the WoW shows our willingness to put our faith above societal pressure. It’s one of the nice ways we can be in the world not of the world. Also, I would hazard a guess that the most-often-asked question that leads to more questions about the church is: “So why don’t you drink beer (or coffee, etc.)?”

    That’s why I think it is aptly named “the Word of Wisdom,” and not just “the Law of Health in the Navel” or something. It’s purpose goes far beyond health.

    It amuses me when good-meaning Church members describe the wine drunk in the scriptures as “just grape juice.” Uh…..no. Even Joseph Smith enjoyed a glass of wine with his dinner in Nauvoo. As you mentioned, it took a few decades before the WoW became the commandment we know it today.

    I also agree with you about alcohol being a “Dumbo’s feather’ for lowering inhibitions. I’ve noticed the same phenomenon with Mormons and I’ve seen it in myself when I’m out with non-Mormon friends and they are drinking and I’m not.

  2. As someone who abused alcohol in early college years, had lots of friends abuse it in college, and has a few alcoholics in my family, I agree with you up to a point. There is this tipping point with alcohol. A little alcohol can make you feel more relaxed, a little warm, maybe a little tipsy, but I would not say it makes you any goofier/sillier/bolder than relaxing with friends without alcohol. Excessive alcohol (and the amount depends on the individual’s body as well as prior food consumption) definitely heavily affects the brain, decision making, and inhibitions. People do things, including myself regrettably, that they would never, ever do sober. Tipsy does not take away the ability to reason and think clearly; drunk absolutely does. And you wake up the next day wishing a hole would swallow you up, because the mortification over regrettable behavior is pretty intense.

    Not everyone reacts the same way — I’m sure you’ve heard of the “angry drunk”, the “emotional drunk”, the “stupid drunk”, etc. (Oddly, some alcoholics don’t display much behavior change at all.) One of my friends, a “stupid drunk”, passed out on his front lawn and was accidentally run over by a pickup truck driven by other drunk friends. He is paralyzed from the waist down now. Silly, goofy sober people (or even tipsy people) don’t go to sleep on their lawn or drive heavily impaired over the lawn. This same guy would not have decided to sleep on his lawn sober. I won’t even go into the sexual mistakes of many, because I’m sure you already have an idea. One does not have to be drunk to make these mistakes, but I’ve seen many a person make these mistakes — decisions that would not have happened sober — precisely because they were drunk. I have endless examples, and I won’t make this comment any longer for you :).

    I fortunately do not have the “alcoholic gene”, and I learned my lessons the hard way. I enjoy the occasional cocktail or a few glasses of wine, but I don’t *need* them to relax and enjoy company. In fact, I don’t think anyone *needs* to get to the alcohol-induced lowered inhibition stage. And that’s where I agree with you. But they will get there if they aren’t mindful.

  3. Nathan-

    I didn’t know that Mormons in Germany drank alcohol-free beer, but I guess that makes sense, considering. I really liked your explanation overall: I think the Word of Wisdom does function to separate us from society a little bit, and that that can be a good thing for religion.


    I was only talking about responsible drinking in my post. You’re right: excessive drinking is a whole different ballgame. The binge-drinking culture is a big part of why I never made friends in college the way I did in high school. There was just no way for me to build relationships in that context.

  4. Unfortunately, there isn’t a big, dark clear line between responsible drinking and binge-drinking. I never “binge drank”, although I know people who did. It doesn’t take much to inebriate someone of my size, and then there are certain populations who do not metabolize alcohol well (like certain groups of Native Americans — no binge-drinking required!). Having a drink is definitely very different then downing alcohol for hours on a Friday night, but there is a lot of in between, which does include “lowered inhibitions”. Definitely not just “Dumbo’s feather”. I guess if you were just talking about someone like my husband — who would require a concerted effort and lots of alcohol to lower his inhibitions — then your post would make sense.

  5. LT-

    Well, like I said, I’m certainly no expert on beer. I guess the way it’s been explained to me is that you basically have three levels of intoxication: none whatsoever, buzz, and drunk. My understanding was that the buzz level was where you got the lowered inhibitions, but didn’t yet have a serious degradation of motor and speech skills. I figure that’s what most people were after when they talk about needing alcohol as an icebreaker and also what the article was referring to when talking about a need to be able to break some of culture’s rigid rules in order to have progress.

    The reason it reminds me of dumbo’s feather is that I think once people drink, they feel liberated because they have that excuse–for themselves and others–that they are at least a little intoxicated. That can be really liberating, but it really couldn’t help advance society if people were getting seriously drunk because then inhibitions may be down, but so what? You can’t do anything.

    Does that make sense? Or am I still missing the mark? I’ll definitely take your word for it, ’cause I’m just basing this all off of hearsay.

  6. To use my husband as an example of responsible drinking, if he plans on celebrating a big event, like a wedding or graduation, he has a DD. He doesn’t drink to get drunk. He likes the taste and even used to brew beer. He doesn’t do anything over the top or embarrassing, but he recognizes that drinking could still impair him enough to make activities like driving unsafe. Responsible drinking still has effects on the brain, unlike silliness during sobriety. So I’m contradicting my previous post with an example of my husband as a responsible drinker, who does not binge drink, but still recognized the effects of alcohol on the brain.

    I think this is why I find your post confusing and my response difficult to articulate — Everyone reacts differently, and even responsible people can find themselves suddenly over the limit. There are many factors involved in responsible drinking (recognizing you are “feeling it” and that one more will push you over the limit, for example. Not everyone is good at recognizing this limit, but they still may navigate the evening without noticeable embarrassment.). It’s not as simple as saying responsible drinking is a Dumbo’s feather for lowered inhibitions, while simultaneously recognizing that binge drinking has drastic effects on the brain. Binge drinking doesn’t magically turn on the lowered inhibitions with responsible drinking akin to sobriety. I don’t know if I’m making any sense :).

  7. And I have no doubt that some people do use it as an excuse. :). I’m with you there! It’s just hard to pinpoint the exact person unless you know them well. And some of your confusion I think stems from reasons behind my own confusion — It really isn’t that simple. I know that I personally can drink two drinks, under most circumstances, and be okay. But that’s sort of where it ends, because other people are different. And I discovered my limit by accidentally going over the limit (and stupidly testing the limit more than once). But not everyone can perfectly number or recognize their limit, and hence some people don’t drink at all if they know what’s good for them. The three phases are about accurate, but I think they are more generalizations about reality than actual reality.

  8. No worries! I usually ignore the little “Reply” button and just go straight to the form at the bottom to make sure it gets added at the end of the list ’cause I don’t have enough people commenting yet to really have to worry about having threaded discussions.

    Maybe I should turn that off…

  9. Thanks for describing this all to me. I haven’t had a lot of honest discussions with people who aren’t Mormon about drinking.

    I wonder if one way to think about it is this:

    1. In practice it’s really too complicated to break down and analyze the way that I did.
    2. What I was analyzing wasn’t really how people drink, but how people talk about drinking.

    Does that make sense? ‘Cause the rationale I most often hear is from people who are saying that the right amoutn to drink is just enough to loosen up a social environment without getting drunk. In reality: that might be very, very hard to do.

    But for me even the idea seems a little weird, ’cause I think that really people who have a good time (or, referring back to the original article, make artistic breakthroughs) are probably quite sober but just using the presence of alcohol as a kind of permission slip to behave a little more loosely than they ordinarily would.

    Is that possible?

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