This article could be very short.
If we consider the foundation of religion and spirituality to be faith, and the essence of faith to be belief, then we’d be confident in saying something like this:
Recovery is impossible without faith.
What we mean by that is that if an individual in recovery does not believe they can recover and has no faith in their treatment and recovery program, then the likelihood they’ll achieve sustainable, lifelong recovery is slim to none.
In other words, if you don’t believe you can do it – and don’t believe your program will work – you probably won’t.
That may sound harsh, but in our experience, it’s true. Belief in the process and faith in a positive outcome are essential.
That’s where the church, religion, and spirituality intersect with treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD) and substance use disorder (SUD): belief. While identifying with a specific organized religion isn’t required for a successful recovery, it’s important to acknowledge the positive role of churches of all denominations and religious organizations of all faiths in the ongoing work to support people in treatment for and recovery from AUD and/or SUD.
An article published in the Journal of Religion and Health in 2019 called “Belief, Behavior, and Belonging: How Faith is Indispensable in Preventing and Recovering from Substance Abuse” explores this topic in detail.
We’ll use information from that publication throughout this article, beginning with a question that’s foundational to this discussion.
What is Spirituality?
Faith is when you believe in something.
Religion is an organized system of faith and belief.
But what exactly is spirituality?
And how is it different from religion?
The authors of the study above make the following distinction:
“Spirituality is defined as an openness to God, nature, or the universe where one can experience harmony with truth, feelings of love, hope and compassion, inspiration or enlightenment with a sense of meaning and purpose in life, an individual’s connection with God or the Transcendent. On the other hand, religion is viewed as the corporate expression of that connection, where one mediates their relationship to God and the community through an organized system of beliefs and practices.”
We read that this way: spirituality means accepting there’s something beyond the individual that can help give an individual purpose and meaning in life.
We’ll step in here and say that something does not have to be ethereal, intangible, or present without concrete proof of its existence. For instance, we’ve heard countless non-religious people in the early stages of recovery say things like “AA/NA is great except for the God part.” Their point of view is entirely valid. However, there’s an easy workaround. First, AA encourages people to substitute the phrase “a higher power” if “God” does not work for them. Second, if “higher power” sounds too much like “God,” then there’s another way to approach the concept.
Here’s an example of an approach that works for people who are non-religious or even anti-religious: they consider the collective wisdom and experience of the AA community as “that something beyond themselves” and allow that understanding to stand as a proxy for the concept of “God.”
Therefore, when they work through the 12-steps, for example, they might read Step 2 like this:
I came to believe that [the collective wisdom of the AA community] can help restore me to sanity.
Further, with regards to evidence-based treatment, they might approach the same step this way:
I came to believe that [treatment, counseling, and therapy] can help restore me to sanity.
Both statements acknowledge something beyond the individual as important, both statements acknowledge valuable role of belief in the overall treatment and recovery process, and neither conflict with the principles of recovery or diminish the importance of a formal concept of “God” or the role of religious belief in the recovery process.
We’ll now delve into the paper we cite above, and review the four ways the study authors describe the presence of religion and spirituality in AUD and SUD treatment programs:
- Programs that have spiritual but not religious components.
- Programs with components that are both religious and spiritual.
- Treatment programs that have religious associations but not spiritual components.
- Programs that have neither spiritual nor religious components.
We’ll start at the beginning, with programs that have spiritual but no religious components.
Religion and Spirituality in Addiction Treatment: Four Different Examples
1. Spiritual but not Religious
This means that a treatment program has spiritual components, defined above as “…an openness to…the universe where one can experience harmony with truth, feelings of love, hope and compassion, inspiration or enlightenment with a sense of meaning and purpose in life…” but that openness/belief is not formalized or associated with any organized spiritual organization.
By that definition, most substance abuse treatment and recovery programs include components that have spiritual elements, but not religious elements, such as 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA).
- 73% of the behavioral health/substance use treatment programs include 12-step programs
- If we consider belief in something other than oneself as spirituality – belief in the process of recovery, belief in the accumulated wisdom of peers in recovery, belief in the effectiveness of evidence-based treatment, then it’s realistic to assert that some level of spirituality, vis a vis belief in something, is an essential component of successful recovery. In other words, a person who does not believe or have faith in the healing process the participate in, then the likelihood of a successful outcome decreases.
We need to take a moment here to recognize the contribution of churches and spiritual organizations to community and peer support groups like AA and NA. A study published in 2016 showed that close to 130,000 congregations around the country host alcohol and substance use recovery groups. That means they provide meeting space at low or no cost to meeting participants.
We cannot overstate the importance of this function in our country, in the history of drug and alcohol treatment in general, in our current work to mitigate the harm caused by the overdose and opioid crisis, and in our ongoing efforts to support people with alcohol and substance use disorders.
The Role of Churches in AA and NA Meetings
Since the middle of the 20th century, millions of people have attended AA meetings. The vast majority of those meetings occurred in churches, church rec centers, church fellowship halls, and unused offices or other spaces. Participation crosses all denominations: from large Catholic churches in big cities to small Baptist ministries in rural areas, almost every type of church opens their doors – and arms – to the AA and NA community.
It’s possible AA and NA would have survived and influenced recovery without the tangible support of churches in providing safe, non-judgmental spaces to meet, but it’s hard to envision AA or NA without churches. In all seriousness: some churches host thee to four meetings a day, six to seven days a week. IF AA or NA had to rent those rooms over all these decades, we think the result would have been fewer meetings, less recovery, and more pain and suffering associated with alcohol and substance use.
For those reasons, whether an individual is religious, spiritual, or a churchgoer is not important: we think that anyone in recovery, anyone working in recovery, and anyone with a family member in recovery should recognize this important and influential contribution to the worldwide recovery movement.
2. Religious and Spiritual
This means a treatment program embraces the spiritual component of recovery in the context of a formal, organized religion.
- In the 1960s, recovery groups associated with the Islamic faith were successful and active in the federal penitentiary system across the country. While their methods leveraged attitudes and used techniques that treatment professionals would not consider appropriate in 2022, those programs helped individuals – mainly with heroin use disorder – stop using drugs and enter recovery. In 2022, members of the Islamic faith support people in recovery in various capacities, including offering peer support meetings at mosques like this one in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Millati Islami, an organization that combines Islamic principles with a 12-step approach to recovery.
- Contemporary recovery organizations considered both religious and spiritual include groups like Celebrate Recovery, a community peer-support recovery program developed at an evangelical Christian church in Southern California. Based on principles developed by 12-step programs like AA and NA, Celebrate Recovery says, “This Jesus-centered program is open to anyone looking for freedom.” Celebrate Recovery reports helping over 17,000 people at its original location, and indicates there are Celebrate Recovery programs in 37,000 churches around the world.
- The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints (LDS) adapted the AA 12-Step approach in their Addiction Recovery Program. Their approach invites people with any type of addiction disorder – gambling, alcohol, narcotics, and others – to participate in meetings where facilitators adapt LDS doctrine and principles to the 12-step recovery format.
- Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles, CA, is a residential and outpatient treatment center that combines the formal theological principles of Judaism with 12-step recovery processes derived from AA and NA and contemporary evidence-based practices to create addiction treatment programs that help people with alcohol or substance use disorder “live in concert with their own inner value and dignity.”
- The Buddhist Recovery Network offers peer-based addiction recovery support meetings around the world. These meetings incorporate Buddhist principles with a 12-step approach to recovery. These two systems are completely compatible, as demonstrated here in the words of the co-founder of AA in the Akron Papers:
“Consider the eight-part program laid down in Buddhism: Right view, right aim, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right mindedness, and right contemplation. The Buddhist philosophy, as exemplified by these eight points, could be literally adopted by AA as a substitute for or addition to the Twelve Steps. Generosity, universal love and welfare of others rather than considerations of self are basic to Buddhism.”
Indigenous Spiritual Practice-Based
- The Wellbriety Movement incorporates the spiritual philosophies of North American Indigenous peoples into an approach to recovery from alcohol and substance use disorder. Their goal:
“Disseminate culturally based principles, values, and teachings to support healthy community development and servant leadership, and to support healing from alcohol, substance abuse, co-occurring disorders, and intergenerational trauma.”
3. Religious but not Spiritual
An alcohol or substance use disorder treatment program owned and operated by a church or other religious organization that receives government funding under the umbrella of their 501(c)(3) tax status qualifies as religious but not spiritual. In these programs, evidence-based AUD/SUD treatment may be delivered in a facility with a religious name and by religious individuals, but the treatment itself is secular, and based on the medical model of AUD/SUD. For example, specialized treatment for people with OUD is offered by Catholic Church-affiliated centers in Minnesota and New Jersey. In these programs, the treatment is evidence-based and secular, while the organizations and people who provide the treatment identify as Catholic.
4. Neither Spiritual nor Religious
Any treatment program for alcohol or substance use disorder that does not include AA or NA programs may be considered neither spiritual nor religious. However, this does not mean an absence of 12-step community/peer support programs. In fact, there are several approaches to community support for addiction recovery that embrace the label “AA/NA without the religion.” These programs include the Secular Organization for Sobriety (S.O.S.), LifeRing Secular Recovery, and SMART Recovery. All these programs welcome people who are spiritual and/or religious, but identification with spirituality or religion is neither required nor expected.
Religion in the Community: How it Helps People in Recovery
We discussed the role of belief and faith in recovery, above. In short, it matters – and can make a big difference. A person who believes they can recover and has faith in the process has a greater chance of achieving recovery than a person who does not believe they can recover and does not have faith in the treatment and recovery process.
We also recognized the invaluable service churches offer AA and NA groups. The simple act of allowing people seeking help in community-based peer support groups to use their church spaces at little or no cost has helped millions of people worldwide since the founding of AA in the 1930s. As members of the recovery community, we cannot overstate the role churches play here: a safe space to seek help and support when an individual is at their most vulnerable is nothing short of lifesaving. For that, we are forever grateful to churches around the country and the world.
Pastors, Priests, and Rabbis Offer Compassion and Support
We’ll end by recognizing the role of the pastor, priest, rabbi, or minister in the community – especially in rural communities. In many cases, a person with a chronic addiction problem has nowhere to turn and nowhere to go. They may have burned bridges with family, with friends, with therapists, and even with addiction treatment centers.
Pastors, priests, and rabbis, however, will accept these individuals with open arms and hearts when they have no one else – and feel like all is lost. These representatives, almost without fail, will help people with addiction get the help they need – and they most often do it with no spiritual strings attached. To make this point, we’ll wind down this article with the words of Rabbi Taub – known as the Recovery Rabbi – as printed in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) publication “The Opioid Crisis Practical Toolkit: Helping Faith Based and Community Leaders Bring Hope and Healing”:
“When I meet a Jewish person who is in active addiction, I do not suggest they go to a synagogue and pray. The first place I’m going to send them is to the appropriate 12-step group.”
We’re not embarrassed to end this article by saying “Thank You” to all the churches that have hosted 12-step meetings over the decades, and we’re not ashamed or worried about offending anyone when we say this:
“Thank God for the kind wisdom of people like Rabbi Taub.”