Why Does Religion Help Addiction Recovery and How Can Secular Recovering Addicts Replicate That?

Why Does Religion Help Addiction Recovery and How Can Secular Recovering Addicts Replicate That? October 3, 2018

Whether or not He exists elsewhere, it’s clear God lives in the deepest parts of many human minds. Belief in God helps satisfy several psychological needs in humans — so it’s not surprising that the idea of an omnipresent benevolent companion has maintained center stage in the fight against drug and alcohol addiction.

But why? Why is the idea of “belonging to something greater than oneself” such an intense psychosocial need? More importantly, is “God” the only path to that sort of belonging? And is sobriety — and even regular garden-variety self-improvement — really out of reach if one does not believe in the supernatural? Many people believe so.

You might’ve heard the phrase “Good Without God.” What about “Sober Without God”? What is the benefit of twining religion with addiction recovery? And is there hope for addicts who prefer a different type of motivation than “spiritual guidance” for turning their life around?

What Really Feeds Addiction?

We needn’t remind you that addiction is devastating to the body and mind. Our thoughts are with you if you’re close with anybody who’s fighting this battle. We probably also don’t have to remind you why addiction is so difficult to escape. It seems to feed on and worsen the very feelings that gave rise to it in the first place: loneliness.

Recent research sheds some uncomfortable light on the conditions that make drug use and abuse likely. A now-famous experiment proved that rats in isolation will choose drugged water over fresh water almost every time. But socialized rats? Rats living in larger environments with multiple companions? They barely touch the stuff.

This compelling imagery hammers home the way addiction can become a downward spiral in lonely human beings:

  • Addiction feeds on feelings of isolation and self-doubt.
  • Addiction destroys relationships with loved ones and even with so-called “higher powers” and makes it more difficult to form and maintain meaningful connections.
  • Addiction makes you unconsciously selfish and more given to pursuing pleasure in isolation.
  • Addiction, in turn, makes you lonelier — the very feeling that likely gave rise to substance abuse to begin with.

We’re social creatures — and addiction is a remedy and a cause of loneliness. Practicing religion happens to be another remedy for loneliness. The compatibility between spirituality and recovering from addiction is clear.

But isn’t sobriety without God not just entirely possible but also… preferable? We live in a country that ostensibly keeps a barrier between its Justice System and its Church. God fits neatly into the gaps in our knowledge, and since addiction remains a major knowledge gap, there He resides.
Why Addiction Treatment Seems to “Require” God

Those living in the throes of addiction are motivated mostly by the desire for another fix. Many addicts lose touch with the people and activities that once brought them direction and pleasure. They lack purpose.

Ask any believer on any given Sunday why they believe in God and attend church, and they’ll likely tell you because God gives them purpose. That purpose might be to become a strong and compassionate partner or a more attentive mother or father. Another purpose might be putting together mission trips to bring relief and joy to people in other countries.

The point is, every human being deserves a purpose and inclusion in something larger than themselves — and for a very long time, God was the only game in town. He’s a being who brings comfort when we call on Him. He’s always there. He ratifies our existing beliefs and ameliorates our fears. He provides the notion that a better life is just around the corner.

What if we didn’t need to wait for that better life? What if we didn’t need anyone in the middle? Faith-based recovery programs often concern themselves with predestination — the idea that God has a plan and that staying mired in addiction is delaying that plan from coming to fruition.

But God is unknowable, and His plan is inscrutable. Any believer will tell you this. So if we don’t know what the plan is or what our part might be, and if God lives inside us, and we’re looking inside ourselves for inspiration and motivation, then why tell ourselves all these stories? Why not just keep gazing inward at untapped potential and the limitless highways of the human mind? Why not look to our partners and friends and family for that sense of greater belonging? Why not improve ourselves for our own sake — or our wife’s or husband’s sake? Why complicate things?

If God is love, then what we’re really worshipping is adoration — not for ourselves, though. It’s adoration for others and for a healthy and sociable human civilization with a strong, just and fair social contract. Faith in God is one route to sobriety. Another is faith in others — faith that God isn’t the only being in existence worth staying sober for.

In Pursuit of a Secular Approach to Addiction Treatment

There’s no more famous faith-based addiction recovery platform than Alcoholics Anonymous, but one has to wonder if they’re truly unique. Here are some of the major tenets of the AA mantra:

  • Recovery requires admission of powerlessness over alcohol.
  • Finding motivation to recover from addiction requires belief in something larger than the self.
  • Lasting sobriety means making peace with the knowledge that life is full of feelings and events we cannot control.
  • Addiction recovery requires a penitent heart and a “fearless moral inventory.”
  • Social recovery from addiction requires amends be made to people to whom we have brought harm.

All of this is necessary, but see how easily you can omit God and still have a sensible plan forward? If you wanted secular texts to substitute for cherry-picked Bible verses from AA, you might consider “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius. In it, he argues that we cannot control events beyond ourselves — we can only choose how we react. That includes reacting by self-medicating. You might also study Epictetus’ teachings on human intellectual and emotional self-development.

If there’s a reason why secular recovery programs are met with skepticism by believers, it’s probably the monstrous social stigma against addicts and recovering addicts. They are treated with suspicion — even after they have attained sobriety. We see them as broken, and we tell ourselves God is the only licensed carpenter.

So it’s little wonder addiction recovery seems to “require” God for things to work out. The trouble is, AA goes to great lengths to obfuscate their historical success rates. In other words, we know God works in mysterious ways, but we don’t actually know if He “works” at all.

Because of all this, we seem to have painted ourselves into a corner. Many of us don’t recognize addiction as a disease, but rather, as a massive personal failure. What other remedy except God could possibly suffice?

What about forgiveness for ourselves and others? As an addict must forgive themselves, so must society forgive the addict — except we don’t. Our criminal justice and healthcare systems are manifestly broken and hostile when it comes to addicts.

What would a secular addiction treatment program look like? It requires combining everything we’ve observed here today with the understanding that substance abuse is a false and fleeting way to satisfy our hierarchy of needs:

  • Self-Actualization
  • Esteem
  • Belonging
  • Safety
  • Physiological

We might even come to the conclusion that God, too, is an imperfect answer to questions as old as humanity: Why am I here? Why should I bother with any of this? Why improve myself? Why strive to do good works?

Maybe we’re just thinking too hard. Maybe self-improvement doesn’t need a reason as huge as God. Maybe it requires a reason even bigger than that — ourselves.

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