The inclusion of religion and spirituality in addiction treatment has long been a hotly debated topic. Most famously, the 12 steps created by Alcoholics Anonymous (with over 2 million members worldwide) are heavily associated with religion and spirituality. Being that the 12 steps are one of the most commonly used treatment strategies in the addiction recovery industry, it’s safe to say a large majority of addiction recovery programs are influenced in some way by religion and/or spirituality.

The importance and impact of religion on the recovery of addicted individuals has been questioned for decades, but multiple studies have shown a positive correlation between religiosity and abstinence from substance abuse.

Defining Religion, Religiousness and Spirituality

Perhaps the root of any controversy involving religion, religiousness or spirituality is in the difficulty to provide an exact definition of either. These words have different meanings to each person. What one person may call being religious or spiritual may be described differently by someone else. For the purposes of this article, we will assign definitions:[1],[2],[3]

Religion: An organized structure with the purpose of developing spirituality for its members. A personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs and practices.

Religiousness: Relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity. Refers to specific behavioral, social, doctrinal and denominational characteristics.

Infographic showing that seven of the 12 steps defined by Alcoholics Anonymous make some reference to God. Spirituality: A universal dimension of human experience arising within inner subjective awareness, relationships with others and/or a relationship with something that is transcendent and beyond the self.

Seven of the 12 steps defined by Alcoholics Anonymous make some reference to God or spirituality.[4] For those who have no religious affiliation or do not believe in the existence of a higher power, this could create a conflict.[5] This could be especially true if a person does not understand the impact religiousness or spirituality could have on his or her recovery.

The Power of Religion on Substance Abuse

Despite rampant skepticism about the influence of religion or spirituality on substance abuse and addiction, there is considerable evidence that they both play key roles in recovery and abstaining from future substance abuse. In fact, spirituality has been shown to be effective in improving a wide range of psychiatric conditions.[6] Spirituality or religion can help a person find purpose in his or her life, fill a void, cope with mental distress and adhere more to morality. But there’s a difference between believing in the existence of God or a higher being, which nearly 90 percent of Americans do,[7] and religiousness.

“People for whom religion is considered important are less likely to have drinking problems.”

Simply believing in God does not by itself impact substance abuse, addiction or any other condition. Rather, the acts of praying, meditating, going to church and participating in other religious rituals and activities are what create the potential for healing. A person’s religiousness or religiosity (the degree to which they are religious) has been found to be positively correlated to both the prevention of substance abuse and progress in addiction treatment.[8]

Religion and Spirituality in the Prevention of Substance Abuse

A person who deeply values the teachings of his or her religion may be less prone to substance abuse because many religions ban the use of alcohol or psychoactive drugs. In others that do not explicitly ban the use of drugs or alcohol, excessive use is often frowned upon and considered sinful. People who subscribe to the teachings of one of these types of religions may be less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. Here is what some past research into the protective factors of religion and spirituality have concluded:[9],[10],[11],[12],[13]

Infographic comparing the impact of religiousness on adolescent marijuana use.

  • People for whom religion is considered important are less likely to have drinking problems
  • Alcohol and drug use-related problems are associated with a lack of religious affiliation and involvement
  • All religious groups have fewer alcohol misusers than found in non-religious groups
  • Adults who view themselves as being “very religious” consume less alcohol and less psychoactive drugs than subjects who consider themselves “not religious at all.”
  • In addition, increased use of alcohol, marijuana and amphetamines is associated with being “not religious at all”
  • Individuals who attend church at least weekly are one-third less likely to report alcohol abuse and dependence than those who attend church less frequently
  • Among adolescents for whom religion was important, 9.9 percent had used marijuana at some point in their lives, compared to 21.5 percent of adolescents for whom religion was not important

In addition to providing a foundation of morals that denounce substance abuse, religious involvement can also provide drug- and alcohol-free activities for adolescents and adults alike. This allows adolescents and adults to form peer groups with others who do not abuse drugs or alcohol and could create an environment in which substance abuse is not seen as something that helps you have a good time or improves mental distress.

Religion and Spirituality as Components of Treatment

It’s one thing to say that being religious might prevent a person from drinking or using drugs; it’s another to say that inclusion of spirituality in addiction treatment will produce more positive results. Yet, this is what research has shown fairly consistently. To understand this, one must first understand what drives a person to substance abuse and then to recovery.

“Researchers found that spirituality and religiousness were positively related to reduced psychopathy, greater emotional well-being and improved coping.”

Many people abuse drugs or alcohol because they want to feel better. It could be that they are trying to treat an undiagnosed mental illness, reduce stress, find a way to relax or find some level of enjoyment in life. People enter addiction treatment frequently as a result of negative life consequences or out of a desire to have a better life. In many respects, spirituality during and after treatment directly addresses this. Long before the advent of addiction recovery facilities, humans have relied on spirituality and religion to improve the quality of their lives and as a source of healing.

Research supports the efficacy of including spirituality in addiction recovery:[14],[15],[16],[17]

  • In one review of over 200 studies, researchers found that spirituality and religiousness were positively related to reduced psychopathy, greater emotional well-being and improved coping
  • Another study found that people with strong religious faith report higher levels of life satisfaction, greater happiness and fewer negative psychosocial consequences of traumatic experiences
  • Several studies have confirmed that the people in recovery with higher levels of faith and spirituality are linked to more positive health outcomes, including higher resilience to stress, lower levels of anxiety and more effective coping skills
  • A 1997 study by Project Match, the largest-ever randomized trial of spiritually based treatment, compared 12-step therapies against motivational enhancement therapy. Clients who were assigned the 12-step therapy did much better on measures of complete abstinence. The inclusion of spirituality in treatment was related to more positive outcomes as well

At Unity Behavioral Health, we realize people with drug and alcohol addictions need every possible ally in the fight against substance abuse. We include spirituality in our treatment strategy because we believe addiction is an affliction of the mind, body and spirit. You can find out everything you need to know about our programs and how we implement spirituality by contacting us at 561-708-5295.

[5] Ellis, A., Velten, E. (1992). When AA doesn’t work for you: rational steps to quitting alcohol. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books
[14] Matthews, D.A., & Larson, D.B. (1995) The Faith factor: An annotated bibliography of clinical research on spiritual subject, Vol. 3. National Institute for Healthcare Research, Rockville, MD.

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