Religion is one of those “hot button” issues that causes emotions and tempers to flare at the drop of a hat. The topic not only gets people talking, in many instances, it leads to passionate defense and heated arguments. Despite the slippery slope, and whether we like it or not, religion is a central part of many recovery programs.
The question is why?
Religion is Not a Prevention Tool
Various studies indicate that young people who describe themselves as “religious” are less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol. This may be due to the regulation and structure of a religious environment or the social support provided by a congregation, writes Byron Johnson, professor of social sciences at Baylor University, and Maria Pagano, a professor of child psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in the Wall Street Journal.
If there’s one thing we need to understand when it comes to faith and addiction, it’s that having a religious background does not prevent addiction or substance abuse.
“I was afraid to try drugs and alcohol until I was 18,” says John, a 26-year-old alcoholic in recovery. He grew up Catholic and says it was “hammered into my head that drugs and alcohol are sinful. I was literally scared straight.”
Despite that fear, John eventually began using drugs and alcohol in college and says, “Once I did, I was hooked.” Now two years sober, John has returned to “some form of spirituality,” but no longer identifies with the main tenets of Catholicism.
Many drug and alcohol addiction treatment programs, including AA, incorporate religion, spirituality or the idea of “god consciousness.” In Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, members are encouraged to find a “higher power,” which may or may not take the name “God.”
“‘Higher power’ works for me,” says John. “The word ‘god’ still makes me feel kind of icky because of growing up Catholic. But I like higher power, or ‘HP.’ I usually just think of it as the AA group, but it changes.”
AA and other faith-based programs have come under criticism from both members and non-members, as well as many addiction specialists, who say that religious indoctrination can hijack recovery and prevent people from getting help.
“I resisted AA for years because I’m an atheist,” says Rebecca, who is 42 and has been sober and in recovery for 11 years. “I still kind of bristle at the ‘God stuff’ in the rooms [of AA] but I’ve actually found that the 3rd step [which emphasizes turning one’s will over to a ‘higher power’] is really helpful.”
Rebecca says she realized, after a few years of “fighting the program,” that it “wasn’t actually religious. I just needed to get past that old school terminology and realize it’s more about ‘letting go’ and less about praying to some man in the sky.”
The Act of Giving
In addition to encouraging a belief in some form of higher power or God-consciousness, AA also emphasizes service. Members are encouraged to help others by sharing their own experiences, listening and volunteering to do tasks like stack chairs after meetings or make coffee. Research shows that people who help others are more likely to stay sober and out of jail in the six months after discharge, a time during which 70 percent of addicts relapse.
…half of young people who self-identified as agnostic, atheist or nonreligious when they were admitted to treatment said that, two months later, they had found some form of spiritual affiliation.In another study, half of young people who self-identified as agnostic, atheist or nonreligious when they were admitted to treatment said that, two months later, they had found some form of spiritual affiliation. And those who claimed spiritual affiliation were less likely to test positive for alcohol or drugs during treatment.
So how do “God” and service help people stay sober? Some scientists say it may be neurological. In his 2010 book, How God Changes Your Brain, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg says a focus on spirituality and helping people can actually realign neural pathways in the brain, helping people break addictive habits.
Research suggests that people with addiction tend to suffer from anxiety, which is created in the left hemisphere of the brain. But an intense emotional experience, such as a “spiritual awakening” of some kind, can trigger their right brains, offering a sense of optimism or resolution.
Even people in 12-step programs who are not religious or spiritual often say that a sense of “spirituality” and a commitment to service helps them stay sober. So, even if you never step foot in a church again, if you’re in recovery from addiction, it might not be a bad idea to at least give the ol’ “HP” a chance.
Additional Reading: Who’s Going to AA? Inquiring Minds Want to Know
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