Spirituality and Religion Increase Chances of Long-Term Addiction Recovery

Many 12-step recovery programs imbed spirituality within its constructs, but how important is spirituality or religion in recovery? Insight into the trends and recent research here.

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By: Todd Barnes, JourneyPure

The Relationship between Religion, Spirituality, and Recovery

Is belief in God crucial to the recovery process?
What does research say about spiritual thought and sobriety?
And what does this mean for you?

In this article, we will look at what scientific studies on addiction recovery say. We’ll also explore the role spiritual and religious beliefs play at maintaining abstinence. Then, we welcome you to send us your questions via the comments section at the end of the page. We do our best to help all our readers find the answers and help they are looking for.

A Remedy For Spiritual Sickness?

According to Émile Durkheim, the father of social science, religion is:

A system of beliefs that unites people, and spirituality in a pattern of practices.

On the subject of addiction and spirituality, Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, wrote:

“For we have not only been mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick. When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.”

Taken together, these ideas suggest that the role of God or a higher power is essential to recovery. Furthermore, when practiced regularly, religious or spiritual ritual can be of great use to people.

The Recovery Role of a Higher Power

The role of a Higher Power is explicitly mentioned in half of the 12 Steps. The idea of a higher power may take many forms. NA suggests that a recovering addict’s higher power be loving, caring and greater than one’s self. Some members use the group or the 12-step program as a higher power and yes, some find it through religion.

Although a great majority of AA and NA members will undoubtedly profess the importance of a higher power, scientific data backing up its absolute need is lacking, yet compelling. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General’s report on Substance Use in 2016 that nearly two thirds of all recovering addicts and alcoholics consider their recovery of having a spiritual dimension. What does other research tell us?

Non-Spirituality Increases Chances of Substance Abuse

In 2001, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse conducted a study linking recovery to religion. They found that adults who don’t consider religious beliefs important are:

  • More than one and a half times (1 ½) likelier to use alcohol and cigarettes.
  • More than three (3) times likelier to binge drink.
  • Almost four (4) times likelier to use an illicit drug other than marijuana.
  • More than six (6) times likelier to use marijuana.

…compared to adults who strongly believe that religion is important. Teens and children who are not spiritually or religiously inclined have even worse odds.

“When patients believe that divine intervention will prevail in their choices over the physical realities, that their behavior is predetermined and have limited control over their destiny, or that God has abandoned them or that they are being punished, they may be more likely to relapse,” the study reads.

Spirituality and Religion: Recovery Enhancing Factors

In 2006, researchers observed 353 inner-city minority recovering addicts and the role spirituality or religion played in their recovery among other factors. Other factors included:

  • Recovery support
  • 12-Step attendance
  • Stress levels

Although the sample size was small, they found that the role of spirituality, religion and life meaning directly increased and enhanced a person’s recovery.

“Levels of factors previously identified as enhancing quality of life and recovery were generally high. This was particularly true of general social and recovery support, spirituality, life meaning and 12-step attendance. In addition, several of these protective factors were significantly and positively correlated with recovery time, suggesting that levels increase over time: in particular, social support, spirituality, religious activities and life meaning,” the study reads.

The Power of Faith

In another study in 2008, Drs. Zila van der Meer Sanchez and Solange Aparecida Nappo interviewed 85 former drug users and separated them into three religious sects: Catholics, Evangelists and spiritualists. All subjects had remained abstinent for an average of five years, with all having at least two years of continual abstinence.

Most Catholics and Evangelists interviewed had never attended conventional medical treatment and sought the church in helping to cast out the devil due to ease of access, prior upbringing and its free cost. Primary forms of treatment included prayer, confessionals and the Eucharist, infused with intensive Bible studies.

Most spiritualists studied had sought conventional medical treatment and although some incorporate prayer and meditation, their rehabilitation levied upon spiritual principles.

“Spiritualists believe that their religion offers them the opportunity to change their way of thinking and acting and, for this reason, they carry out good acts, such as charity, which in turn encourages ‘protective spirits’ to help them,” the study reads.

The study concluded that all three groups had strong factors in common, including the importance the power of faith, positive pressure, the welcoming offered by the group, and unconditional support of religious and spiritual leaders.

Spirituality is Associated With Abstinence

A recent study in 2015 analyzed the role of spirituality and religion in remission rates of 2,947 recovering subjects. They asked each subject five spiritually-based questions comprising the strength of religious beliefs and frequencies of attending religious services, reading religious books, watching religious programs and practicing prayer or meditation.

The results concluded that the higher a person’s spiritual levels, the more likely they were to stay abstinent. Those who believed attending a religious service at least once a week had a 20% advantage at staying clean. However, 63.6% of all subjects believed praying every day is very important, yet more subjects with this belief reported relapse than those who had stayed in remission.

“The finding that a stronger belief in religiosity or spirituality, significantly, reduces relapse from drugs of abuse has clinical relevance. It supports the perspicacity of 12-Step programs and the ability of social bonds to remedy lack of social norms,” the study reads.

Healing The Soul Is a Part of Addiction Recovery

The studies mentioned all paint the same picture:

Spirituality, religion and life meaning increase the abstinence odds of most recovering addicts and alcoholics.

Luckily, 12-step programs implore members to keep an open mind, practice willingness and explore a relationship beyond themselves, whether it be a power greater than themselves such as a recovery program with a set of spiritual principles or a God found in a religion.

The second step found in NA’s Basic Text says, “the point is that we open our minds to believe. We may have difficulty with this, but by keeping an open mind, sooner or later, we find the help we need.”

We encourage you to do the same.

If you’re having trouble embracing spirituality, why not experiment with it? Isn’t there a lot to gain?

Got Any Questions?

If you have something that you’d like to ask, or you’d like to share a personal story regarding the role of spirituality and religion in the addiction recovery process…please feel free to post in the designated section at the end of the page. We value your feedback and try to provide a personal and prompt response to all legitimate inquiries.

Reference Sources: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of the Surgeon General (2016). “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health.” Washington, DC: HHS.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University (2001). “So help me God: Substance abuse, religion and spirituality.” New York: The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University.
Laudet, A. B., Morgen, K., & White, W. L. (2006). The Role of Social Supports, Spirituality, Religiousness, Life Meaning and Affiliation with 12-Step Fellowships in Quality of Life Satisfaction Among Individuals in Recovery from Alcohol and Drug Problems. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 24(1-2), 33–73.
Sanchez, Zila van der Meer, & Nappo, Solange Aparecida. (2008). Religious intervention and recovery from drug addiction. Revista de Saúde Pública, 42(2), 265-272.
Schoenthaler, S. J., Blum, K., Braverman, E. R., Giordano, J., Thompson, B., Oscar-Berman, M., … Gold, M. S. (2015). NIDA-Drug Addiction Treatment Outcome Study (DATOS) Relapse as a Function of Spirituality/Religiosity. Journal of Reward Deficiency Syndrome, 1(1), 36–45.
Narcotics Anonymous (2008). Narcotics Anonymous Basic Text. Narcotics Anonymous World Services. Print.
About the author
JourneyPure's mission is to help those struggling with addiction to get healthy and stay healthy. We offer individualized, comprehensive treatment plans that are evidence-based and coupled with dual-diagnosis mental health services. Aspects of nutrition, fitness and mental wellness are incorporated into each program and are monitored daily following treatment with a digital continuing care plan accessed through our innovative JourneyPure Coaching™ app.
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