How successful can you be at alcohol rehab if you do not believe in a higher power? Is the atheist or agnostic just doomed to be a drunk for the rest of their lives? What hope is there for such a person if the only solutions seem to involve faith based recovery? Can a person choose to have a spiritual experience?
Most of alcoholism and addiction recovery today is based on spirituality. If you go the traditional route in recovery then this means treatment based on AA or NA programs. These are 12 step programs that are based on the belief in a higher power. For the record, one of those 12 steps states “…Came to believe in a higher power that could restore me to sanity.” The following steps hinge on this step and refer back to it often. The belief in a higher power is essential to the 12 step program.
The main alternative to this is religious based recovery, though there are also a few alternatives that do not involve spirituality at all. But an important point to realize here is that those alternatives that do not involve a higher power are few and far between. They make up perhaps 5 percent or less of all recovery solutions offered to alcoholics and addicts today. So when you consider the big picture, the message seems to be “you don’t really have much choice, therefore you better change your belief system quick and get yourself a higher power.”
But is this really necessary? Is it possible to recovery from addiction without the belief in God?
Another way you might phrase the question is:
“What is really keeping those people clean and sober?”
Is it possible to deconstruct recovery and find out what really helps people to stay clean and sober, aside from whatever spiritual relationship they have built in their minds with an intangible higher power?
I believe the answer is “yes.” You can recover without belief or faith.
Is it possible to recover without believing in a higher power?
I know of many examples of people who are working a strong recovery today that is not faith based.
The confusing thing is that some of these people have gone on later to also develop some form of faith, religion, or spirituality in their lives. But in the beginning of their recovery they did not depend on this at all. My own journey in recovery is a good example of this.
For example, there is one recovery program that is based entirely on exercise. The program does not have any reference to higher powers, to spirituality, or to God. They simply try to help people to recovery by putting them on an intense path of exercise and physical health.
Does it work?
It works about as well as AA, depending on which data you believe. And that is a huge problem with recovery programs in general: It is very difficult to get reliable data in terms of success rates. The only way to really measure people’s success in recovery is for them to keep checking in and being tested (you cannot take their word for it due to the shame factor with relapse). Second of all you would have to keep checking the people in the study for a long time in order to get meaningful data. In other words, we are more concerned with if a program keeps people sober for 3 years than we are if it can keep them sober for 3 months. Yet it is very difficult to design an accurate study that can measure people staying sober for 3 full years unless you are relying on their honesty in telling you whether or not they relapsed (bad idea).
So programs that rely on exercise or alternatives to spiritual and faith based programs tend to look pretty good on paper. Another way to look at the issue is to realize that faith based programs don’t actually look so hot on paper. Relapse rates tend to be pretty low, regardless of which program you are measuring. So maybe you see a study that shows that an exercise based program has a 4 percent success rate when measuring 3 years of continuous sobriety. You can probably find data that shows the same success rate for 12 step based programs. The point is that there are alternatives out there to faith based recovery and it is not clear that any of them are much worse than faith based recovery.
By some measures, faith based recovery programs are about as successful as the same rate as spontaneous remission in alcoholics. That is to say, they are completely ineffective because a small percentage of those alcoholics would have stopped anyway, even without a program. I am not sure if I really believe this argument but I have seen the data presented to support it. But again, the data in this field is never super reliable and you can generally find whatever data you want to support any assertion.
The bottom line is this though:
If you look at all of the alternative recovery programs (other than AA or religious based recovery) you will see a variety of options that do not rely on a higher power. These programs are about as successful as faith based programs if you look at the right data. You can also find data showing that AA is better than these programs, and you can find data showing that AA is worse. So you can take that all for what it is worth, but just realize that the option does exist. There are non-spiritual solutions out there that do work for some people. This is evidence enough that the alternative does exist.
The search for purpose, meaning, and direction in recovery
If you do not have a higher power in recovery then what do you use as your guiding principles?
Most people in recovery are searching for something. This is because they have worshiped their drug of choice for so long that they feel empty inside when they suddenly quit using it. Their life loses a lot of meaning all of a sudden because they are used to deriving that meaning from their drug or alcohol use.
You can find meaning and purpose in life in many different ways. For example, I have a friend in recovery who is very much involved in working with newcomers in recovery. This person has made it their life work to help others who are struggling to get clean and sober by working directly with them. He does this as a sponsor in AA but he has also started his own meetings. He gets a huge benefit to doing this and I don’t think he would change what he is doing for any reason.
Another friend of mine in recovery never goes to any meetings. But they still have meaning and purpose in their life because they do counseling and therapy with people who are struggling to put their lives back together. Again, this person is reaching out and helping others and this gives his life purpose and meaning.
I have another friend in recovery who says that “healed people heal people.” He really likes the idea of paying it forward, of changing someone’s life for the better so that they can go forward and do the same thing for someone else. He focuses on “creating ripples of positive change” in people. He wants to create a movement. He has real purpose.
These are just 3 samples of real people in my life off the top of my head. If I sat here and thought for a while I could list out ten more without any problem. All of these people are in recovery from alcoholism and addiction and they have found some sort of purpose and meaning in their lives. Note too that none of these examples are explicitly depending on a higher power in order to generate that meaning. They have all found purpose or direction without it necessarily being about a higher power, or their faith.
This is not to say that you should not seek your purpose in recovery based on faith, only that it is not necessary.
Traditional recovery is spirituality based, but true recovery is always a holistic endeavor
This is one of the biggest issues I have with traditional recovery. If you go to AA or to any mainstream recovery solution, you will notice that they present the solution to addiction as being “spirituality.” They say: “If a solution isn’t spiritual, it isn’t practical.”
Most recovery programs teach the idea that the solution is spiritual.
I have found this to be false.
The solution is not spiritual. The solution is actually bigger than that.
The real solution in recovery is holistic. It includes spirituality, but it is actually a broader concept.
In order to recovery from alcoholism or drug addiction, you have to make changes in your life. You have to take the negative effects of your addiction and turn them into something positive.
So for example, instead of putting chemicals or alcohol into your body, you start to live healthy again. You eat right, you exercise, you quit smoking. You focus on improving your physical health.
But you can’t stop there with just your physical health. Recovery is holistic. That means that you need to pay attention to all of these different themes in your life:
If you are neglecting even one of those areas then it can seriously trip you up and cause you to relapse.
Really, just ignoring one of those things can compromise your recovery.
For example, one of those themes is “social.” As in, you relationships.
When I was in early recovery I lived in a long term rehab with several other men. Some of these men relapsed. In fact, nearly all of them did. And what I started to notice over time was that it was almost always about a relationship. They relapsed because their emotions overwhelmed them, and it was always due to a relationship in their life. Every single time.
Notice that one of the themes in the holistic approach is “spiritual.” So spirituality is still important, but it is not the entire focus of your recovery. It is but one part of it.
And instead of being about belief, spirituality can be based almost entirely on gratitude. If practicing gratitude was your only tool in your spiritual toolbox, you would do just fine. You don’t necessarily need anything more than being grateful on a daily basis.
Grateful people do not relapse.
Think about that. Realize the power of gratitude, and how the practice of gratitude can be more powerful than any faith based belief.
Why faith based recovery has always been like “a finger pointing at the moon”
There is a fantastic Zen parable about “the finger pointing at the moon.”
The master points at the moon and asks the student what it is.
The student replies: “The moon.”
The teacher corrects him: “No, that is a finger pointing at the moon.”
Don’t mistake the moon for the finger that points at it.
In the same way, do not mistake “recovery” for the program that may (or may not) lead you to sobriety.
People do this all the time in traditional recovery programs. They put far too much faith in a program, in a principle, in a concept, in a teaching.
You might go to AA and work the steps and get sober. Maybe it works out great for you. Later you are living this awesome new life in recovery. You feel like you have “made it.”
At this point, don’t make the mistake of pointing at AA and calling that recovery. AA is just one path that can get you there. But it is one path of many.
All faith based programs in recovery are like this. They might get you to a place of sobriety, but they are not the same thing as sobriety itself. Recovery programs are fingers that point towards sobriety, but they are not sobriety.
Don’t confuse sobriety with a recovery program.
Now you might be wondering, what is the practical application of this idea?
The practical application is this:
Recovery programs claim to have the answers for the struggling alcoholic or drug addict, and in some cases they do. But obviously such programs do not work for everyone. And the reason they don’t is because they are not actually the solution, they only point towards a solution.
If you look at all of the recovery programs and treatments that are out there, they all have some fundamental principles and concepts that they share with each other. For example, they all probably include the concept of surrender. They all probably include the concept of personal growth. Most recovery programs talk briefly about nutrition and health. And so on.
So if you strip away all of the faith, spirituality, and religion, what you are left with might be called “the holistic approach.” This is the real truth. Now you would want to include some form of practicing gratitude in there, or whatever spiritual process has meaning for you, but you get the idea. There are fundamental principles of recovery that cannot be reduced any further. They are the building blocks of everyone’s recovery, regardless of whether they are in a program or not. These are things like surrender, gratitude, personal growth, and so on. When we talk about “the finger pointing at the moon,” these are the things that the finger is pointing at. Real recovery. The underlying principles that make up a life of recovery.
The holistic approach is more powerful than a strictly spiritual based approach
If you want to use a spiritual or faith based approach to recovery, that is fine. Just make sure that it actually works for you. Be honest with yourself and measure your sobriety in terms of:
1) Actually staying clean and sober or not, and
2) Being happy with your life and your progress.
Are you happy with the progress you are making in recovery? If not, then change it. Start making progress. Take action in a new direction.
When you are working a traditional program of recovery you are limited when it comes to this. You are basically limited to spiritual growth because that is what traditional programs focus on.
But if you buy into the holistic idea (as I do) then your options for growth are so much more expansive.
For example, I exercise every day, and this has become a huge part of my recovery. I never would have thought that this would make much difference to my sobriety, but I have found it to be really important. The fact that I exercise every day makes a big impact on my well being in recovery.
I could not have predicted this when I first got sober and was going to AA meetings every day. No one told me at that time to explore the concept of daily exercise. It was not deemed to be important enough to recovery for people to bring it up and talk about it at an AA meeting. Instead, they are always more focused on “the solution,” which for them has been narrowed down to spiritual growth and faith.
My point is that this is very limiting. When you focus exclusively on spiritual growth you are ignoring other avenues of growth that could have a really big impact.
My faith is important to me today. But it is not really what got me clean and sober.
Personal growth got me clean and sober. Taking action got me clean and sober. Putting one foot in front of the other and taking suggestions from other people is what led me to recovery.
I did not find this personal transformation based on the 12 steps and a spiritual path. Instead, I found a personal transformation based on a holistic path of personal growth. There is a difference. In my case, the daily exercise was at least as important to me in the beginning as my spirituality. In fact it was a part of my spirituality, because exercise was like a meditation to me. It had benefits that went far beyond the physical.
At some point we are arguing about the meaning of words (for example, exercise for me becomes spiritual, but we still label it as “physical” in terms of the holistic approach). But I still think it is important for people to explore these other themes in their recovery. I have one friend in recovery who died quite young because he was not taking care of his physical body in recovery. He was sober and he was spiritual, but the lack of a holistic approach actually killed him. He neglected the warning signs in his life that were pointing him toward growth opportunities.
And this is how we should proceed in recovery. We need to be really honest with ourselves and fix the bad stuff in our lives. It takes guts to do this. It takes guts to be honest with yourself. In some ways it is easier to just take the spiritual approach and ignore the other themes of potential growth.
You can absolutely recover without a higher power, because your recovery depends on positive action and personal growth. A holistic approach is the most accurate “finger pointing at the moon.” All recovery programs try to point at the solution, which is a life of personal growth. How you get there, however, is ultimately up to you.
What has you experience been? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!