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Faith, Religion & Substance Use Disorder Treatment

Claire Wilcox, MD profile image
Medically Reviewed By Claire Wilcox, MD • Updated Apr 20, 2022 • 8 cited sources

Religion and faith can have a big impact in treatment and recovery for substance use disorder (SUD). 

Nearly 80% of people in the United States have some kind of religious affiliation. Religious beliefs can help lower stress and anxiety, provide healthy coping mechanisms, and offer a more optimistic worldview while also providing a high level of social support. 

When combining religion and faith with SUD recovery, these positive attributes can be amplified.

There are a variety of faith-based programs as well as those that focus more on spirituality, such as the 12-step programs. Spirituality has more to do with a recognition of a feeling or sense or belief that there is something greater, rather than specific beliefs. Both can be beneficial in SUD recovery.

The Role of Religion in SUD Recovery

A meta study has found that faith is a positive factor in addiction recovery and prevention 84% of the time with very little risk. 

Religion can provide a host of beliefs that can encourage positive behaviors. It can also encourage people to abstain from potentially unhealthy behaviors, and there is a high level of support in belonging to a religious community. 

A sense of community, belonging, and ongoing support is vital to recovery. Faith communities can promote healthy peer relationships and balanced social outlets.

Faith can have a positive impact on mental health, and this is important in long-term recovery. People with religious beliefs are often able to see things in a more positive way, accept past failures, offer self-forgiveness, and find a way to move forward in recovery. This may be elevated through a religious community. 

Between 40% and 60% of people with addiction relapse. In fact, relapse is a common factor contributing to the chronic aspect of addiction. 

People who have a strong belief in a higher power and are active in a spiritual community are less likely to engage in drug and alcohol use. Staying connected to a faith community can act as a deterrent for future substance misuse and help to minimize the odds for relapse.

Faith-Based Programs for Substance Use Disorder Recovery

In SUD recovery, faith-based programs often include peer support groups that can offer both spiritual support and guidance as well as emotional and relapse prevention measures. 

A faith-based support group will focus on coping mechanisms and tools for dealing with triggers and stressors. It will also offer spiritual guidance to help an individual transform their lifestyle into a healthier version.

Faith-based programs for SUD recovery can be nondenominational and include all members of faith, or they may be specific to certain religions. It is important to find a program that feels “right” and will be a good fit. 

A faith-based program can take a more holistic approach to substance use disorder recovery, helping a person to heal both spiritually and emotionally. These programs may focus on some of the following principles:

  • Connection with a higher power
  • Serenity
  • Happiness
  • Freedom from substance misuse and negative behaviors
  • Courage to face difficulties
  • Kindness toward others
  • Mindfulness
  • Selflessness
  • Inner peace
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-control without pity
  • Love, both for oneself and others

12-Step Programs & Religion

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are 12-step programs that focus on spirituality, not a specific religion. These peer support groups work on following 12 specific steps to achieve a spiritual awakening. 

The 12-steps are as follows:

  1. Admit to powerlessness over the substance.
  2. Believe in a power greater than oneself for restoration.
  3. Decide to turn life over to that higher power.
  4. Take a moral inventory of the self.
  5. Admit individual wrongs to the higher power and another person.
  6. Ask the higher power to remove these character defects.
  7. Ask the higher power to remove shortcomings.
  8. Make a list of those harmed and prepare to make amends with these people.
  9. Make direct amends, except in cases where it will cause harm to others.
  10. Continue to take personal inventory and promptly admit wrongs.
  11. Improve spiritual connection with the higher power through meditation and prayer, praying for the knowledge of their will and the power to follow through.
  12. Have a spiritual awakening from the steps and carry the message to others struggling with SUD.

Participation in AA may increase rates of continued abstinence and remission in recovery and reduce future health care costs. It can also contribute to improved mental health.

For some people, regular participation in a 12-step program may enhance recovery. These programs are widespread. They often host meetings in churches, synagogues, and community centers, and meetings are available around the world as well as online.

Some people enjoy the peer support and accountability of 12-step programs like AA and NA, but they don’t adhere as strongly to the belief in a higher power. Some people who participate are religious or spiritual, but not everyone is.

Religion vs. Spirituality

Religion is organized and centers around a specific set of beliefs and practices that are commonly shared by a faith-based community. Religion focuses on a person’s beliefs directly. 

Spirituality, on the other hand, is more a state of being than believing. Spirituality is generally more individual-centered around a sense of purpose and inner peace. 

Spirituality is often viewed as more of a personal and internal journey involving self-reflection, while religion is often seen as more external. Religion is typically practiced in public with groups of people in a place of worship, and spirituality is more private and can be embodied anywhere. 

Someone who is religious affiliates with a specific group, while being spiritual does not require this. A person can be both spiritual and religious.

Religion & Other Treatment Programs

Nearly three-quarters of all treatment programs involve some form of spirituality, often in the form of a 12-step program. Not all 12-step programs are religious or faith-based, however. 

Treatment programs that are not faith-based will support people who are religious. Many religious or spiritual individuals participate in secular treatment programs.

Treatment programs that focus on evidence-based research are not mutually exclusive with religion, for instance. They can work together to support recovery. These programs will not rely on religion with treatment methods, but they can still support religious and spiritual beliefs and practices. 

When looking for a treatment or recovery program, it can help to decide if you want a secure program, spiritual and non-secular approach, or a specific faith-based program. Ask the program how they incorporate or support religious and spiritual beliefs and practices.

Medically Reviewed By Claire Wilcox, MD

Claire Wilcox, MD, is a general and addiction psychiatrist in private practice and an associate professor of translational neuroscience at the Mind Research Network in New Mexico; and has completed an addictions fellowship, psychiatry residency, and internal ... Read More

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  2. Religious Faith and Spirituality May Help People Recover from Substance Abuse. American Psychological Association (APA). 2000. Accessed March 2020.
  3. Belief, Behavior, and Belonging: How Faith is Indispensable in Prevention and Recovering from Substance Abuse. Journal of Religion and Health.  July 2019. Accessed March 2022.
  4. Treatment and Recovery. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). July 2020. Accessed March 2022.
  5. Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. 2022. Accessed March 2022.
  6. Narcotics Anonymous World Services. NA World Services, Inc. 2022. Accessed March 2022.
  7. The Twelves. Alcoholics Anonymous Intergroup Houston, Texas. 2022. Accessed March 2022.
  8. Alcoholics Anonymous and 12-Step Facilitation Treatments for Alcohol Use Disorder: A Distillation of a 2020 Cochrane Review for Clinicians and Policy Makers. Alcohol and Alcoholism. November 2020. Accessed March 2022.

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