Are you spiritual, but not religious?
If so, you’re in good company. Greater numbers all of people all over the world are identifying themselves this way. And, as a friend of mine said recently, “it’s not a good time to be in the religion business.” He talked about the decline of the churches in Europe and the United Kingdom, and how Ireland has gone from being the most religious country to the least. And while it’s taken longer for the trend to reach the United States, it has. Attendance in mainstream denominations is down across the board here, too. He sympathized with those who have found formal, organized religion too hard a pill to swallow or who endured abuse at the church’s hands, and talked about his own lifelong “love/hate relationship” with religion.
Interestingly, my friend is an Episcopal priest.
I wanted to find out how all of this interplay of religion and spirituality had worked in the actual lives of those in recovery. Some of what I learned, including through interviews with people in Twelve Step programs, surprised me. It added to my ever-growing appreciation of just how rich and complex human nature is, and how different our experience of the same things can be.
ORIGINS OF THE TWELVE STEP PROGRAMS
Having attended a variety of Twelve Step meetings to deal with my own issues and to support friends, I knew something of the extent to which religious and spiritual ideas had formed their foundations.
As much research has shown, even before the beginnings of the first Twelve Step program, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), “spirituality, religiosity, or some belief in a higher power has been thought to be one of the driving forces in someone attaining and maintaining sobriety from alcohol and/or drugs,” as Anthony G. Foster, PhD., the Chief Operating Office and Interim CEO at the Treatment Center of the Palm Beaches, observes.
The direct roots of AA go back to the early part of the twentieth century, through a group founded by an American pastor in 1921, originally called a “First Century Christian Fellowship,” connected to the temperance movement. Some of the ideas that were later embraced in the Twelve Steps were a part of this group, which believed in the power of total spiritual surrender and fellowship, and in faith and prayer, to heal addiction to alcohol. By 1931 it had changed its name to The Oxford Group. Over time, they attracted famous members as diverse as automobile inventor Henry Ford, film star Mae West, President Harry S Truman and baseball legend Joe DiMaggio.
It was, however, the world-famous psychiatrist Carl Jung who was to provide the spark that launched the Twelve Step program as we know it today. Jung told an American member of the Oxford Group named Roland Hazard that neither medicine nor psychiatry could help him, and that his only hope was religious conversion, or spiritual awakening. This insight of Jung’s galvanized Hazard, who after returning to the U.S. succeeded in achieving sobriety. Though Hazard, a mix of Jung’s and the Group’s ideas reached Bill Wilson, the legendary Bill W., who founded Alcoholics Anonymous. Wilson came to believe that a spiritual awakening was the key to recovery. He took what he felt to be the most important ideas, and out of them developed the beginnings of AA, culminating in the 1939 publication of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous.
As Dr. Foster states, “Ultimately the book and the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous changed the way people dealt with alcoholism and addiction. As a spiritual and social movement, Alcoholics Anonymous was founded on the principle of one alcoholic helping another and the need for a spiritual awakening. All future 12-step programs followed suit and are based on AA’s 12 steps.”
In the original manuscript of the book, Bill Wilson used the word “God” and talked about how God had affected his sobriety. However, he was persuaded by his fellow authors that the use of the word “God” could become a stumbling block for those just beginning their sobriety. Wilson adopted the phrase a “power greater than ourselves,” instead of “God”. This opening of the viewpoint to a less defined understanding of exactly what one’s “Higher Power” is, tying it less tightly to religion, proved a saving grace for many who either had no natural connection to the concept of God or who had been harmed by organized religion. But there can be no question that in one form or another, spirituality lies at the heart of the Twelve Step approach.
As Dr. Foster points out, “sobriety and spirituality often go hand and hand. According to multiple studies, this connection is no coincidence. This topic is especially important considering how many treatment centers across the national incorporate spiritual components into their recovery plans.”
Some studies have tried to determine what effects the spiritual aspects of treatment program have, partly as a result of the perceived success of the Twelve Step model. Many of these have concluded that spirituality is crucial to recovery, especially long-term recovery, such as those conducted in 2009 by White, Montgomery, Wampler and Fischer, and by Mason, Deane, Kelly and Crowe. Other researchers, such as Pardini and Plante (2000) and Warfield and Goldstein (1996), found that spirituality consistently emerges as one of the top five factors in long-term recovery.
If this is true, what exactly is “spirituality,” anyway, and what are the elements of it that most benefit those in recovery? And what distinguishes it from religion?
ELEMENTS OF SPIRITUALITY IN RECOVERY
Much of this appears to be in the eye of the beholder. The Twelve Step programs employ tools such as prayer and meditation (Step 11), and talk about them as a way of knowing God’s will and seeking God’s power to carry that out. What seems to make a crucial difference is not that the tools are unlike those in many religious traditions, but the emphasis on individual freedom to define and understand “God” or “Higher Power” in whatever way one chooses, without having to sign on to a top-down human authority on the subject.
Another aspect that distinguishes a spiritual approach from a more secular one is the notion of admitting one’s “powerlessness” over addiction, and the turning over of the problem to one’s Higher Power. This takes the religious practice of confession out of the emotionally charged realm of “sin” and “judgment,” in which so many people feel that they are being blamed for something over which they have no power. In effect, what we call spirituality in these cases is a way of taking the best aspects of religion out of their traditional context, with its history of abuses, persecution, domination, and the terrible inequalities of those in power over those beneath them. As Jung himself famously observed, religion all too often serves to keep people away from God or Spirit, rather than helping them to discover these for themselves.
By contrast, there is no hierarchy or authority over those in program. This, in itself, seems to be a healing factor for many, and a number of studies cite the benefit of this kind of group support.
All three people in recovery that I interviewed on this had gained their sobriety through the Twelve Step programs. All credited the programs with being indispensable in their recovery, and all said that the spiritual aspects of the meetings had been important to them. Beyond that, however, there were some interesting differences.
Anjie, the youngest of the three, comes from a blended background, and with her partner has a family of six. One of their children suffered from depression, alcohol, and drugs, and had an issue with suicide, and was in and out of countless rehab institutions. The last of these was based on Al-Anon, which it strongly recommended. Anjie researched it and found a local meeting at an Episcopal church on Staten Island. She has participated in the program for two and a half years.
It was only after she began attending meetings that Anjie remembered that her own father had been a recovering alcoholic who had taken her with him to meetings when she was five years old. She also realized that she had an issue with alcohol herself, and that the problem appeared in various members of her family.
While Anjie’s father had been open to different religions and read the Bible, and Anjie had a mixed Episcopalian, Roman Catholic and Jewish background, and spent time spent as a Jehovah’s Witness, she parted company with formal religion in her recovery. Although she describes herself as “always very spiritual,” she said she found religion “very regimented” and no longer has any association with it. Using the word “God,” she felt, was too limiting and made the source of everything “too human.” Anjie prefers to speak of a connection to “the universe” instead.
She describes her spiritual practice as “karmic.” It includes daily meditation and prayer, as well as “energy,” which led to her becoming a Reiki master. Yet, while she said she has “a lot of questions,” she also said she believes in the Bible “absolutely.” One of the grace notes of the program for her is that it encourages you to “take what works and leave the rest,” and she has clearly done that.
When asked why she thought Al-Anon worked so well for her, she mentioned several themes that surfaced in my research: the openness of the emphasis on one’s Higher Power, which she said helped her to center, and the sense of peace and serenity that working the Steps gives her; the “structured community” and the support it provides; the absence of harsh judgment and the importance of keeping the focus on one’s self. She also noted the sense of a shift that occurs when one’s personal burdens are turned over to something greater than oneself.
The idea that individuals come to program “isolated and abandoned” then find their troubles divided and strength shared with others, appeared in what Sophie and Dolores, the other two people I spoke with, had to say as well.
Sophie’s background is in Al-Anon and also Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA). Sophie’s then-husband was an alcoholic when she learned that her friend, their building’s superintendent, also had an alcoholic husband. The friend was in Al-Anon and invited Sophie to attend with her. She wasn’t convinced at first, saying she “didn’t see the value.”
Anjie had mentioned that there is a saying in program that you need to try at least six meetings before you can make a fair decision if it’s right for you. Going back with her friend eventually helped Sophie to see that the meetings “are really for us,” for everyone affected by alcohol and addiction. “I have the same ways as him (her husband), except I don’t drink,” she told me. She was very clear that in her view, addictive patterns are usually part of the warp and weave of the family or neighborhood one grows up in. Boerum Hill, the part of Brooklyn she grew up in, is a beautiful, upscale area now; but back then, it was a poor neighborhood bedeviled by alcohol, drugs, prostitution and violence.
Sophie’s relationship to religion was more positive than Anjie’s, though mixed. Her experience of Catholic school was painful—the nuns hit the children and the stresses led to her wetting herself in class and having serious stomach problems. Overall, she found church “very boring.”
This changed when she attended a protestant church with a young girlfriend of hers. There, she found a different approach, noting that they were “kind to children.” She began attending Al-Anon meetings in an Episcopal church, then started going to services, which didn’t seem as boring.
Sophie then said something that surprised me, the sort of thing I have found more often coming from people in metaphysical circles. Saying that she “always believed in God,” Sophie asserted that “God always answered my prayers. Anything I asked for came around” when she was a child. For her, this was what they were talking about when she came to Al-Anon in her late 30s—what they called “Higher Power.” She felt they knew what they were talking about.
In fact, she had stopped going to church before finding program, saying how angry she had been back then. It was the spiritual message of the Twelve Steps that reminded her of her earlier connection, and she came back to the church. “You kind of believe again,” she added. As with Anjie, she touched on one of the elements that kept surfacing in the studies: “It brings back your hope.” Hope was talked about by many of the research subjects, who felt that part of the effectiveness of a spiritual approach is that it connects you to something not only greater than yourself, but also something that cannot be destroyed or taken away by the circumstances of life.
My final interview was conducted with Dolores, a woman of Mexican-American and Native American heritage I have known for many years, starting when we were in therapy together.
While she too described substance abuse as woven through her family background, for her, the addiction was also personal, in the form of alcohol, pot-smoking, bulimia, anorexia and compulsive behavior, starting in junior high with the stress of working hard to get into college. She spoke of what she called “untreated generational addiction,” going back at least to her grandfather, who was “smart, funny, a drunk, a bigot and a racist,” as well as “angry, crude and violent,” though not to the children. He died from the disease. Of all the family members affected, only Dolores and her sister sought help in program. Today, Dolores is a successful Yoga and exercise instructor, and her sister works for the city of Los Angeles on issues relating to domestic violence.
A friend invited her to an AA meeting when she was 24. Dolores has just celebrated her 36th year of sobriety.
“I was impressed by their ability to speak honestly on a heart level” about their struggles with alcohol, she said of those first meetings. This ability to clearly perceive then articulate what is really going on with them, without deceiving themselves or others, and without shame or blame, is yet another important element of what makes the Twelve Step programs work.
Dolores, too, said that she found the freedom offered in program to work out for yourself what your Higher Power is was invaluable. For her, what is happening in program is that “all of the religions of the world are coming together” in a kind of distilled essence of all that is good and that works in them.
The Twelve Steps are “divinely inspired” in their foundations, she believes.
Like Sophie, Dolores’s religious background was more inspiring than problematic. Her family was Catholic, and they were churchgoers; she was “intrigued by saints” as a child, and later came to love Gregorian Chant, feeling “clean inside” from the simplicity of the lives of the Franciscan monks conducting the chant. She also thought that the “continuity and structure” (of the church) cut through the dysfunction of the family.” This need to recover such structure in one’s life is a note often sounded in recovery studies.
All of this fell away from her when she left home and was on her own, and questioning everything. Confusion and pain were total.
And it’s worth noting that, as with Sophie, it wasn’t love at first sight for Dolores with program, either.
“I asked myself, ‘Is this a cult?’” The Steps, the traditions, the “parroting phrases” from the Big Book and other sources initially made her uneasy. “You guys are brainwashing me!” she accused the group leaders. One of them coolly replied, “What, you think your brain doesn’t need washing?” Dolores found the humor and lack of defensiveness helped defuse her fears and access “the magic in the rooms”: not judging; love and service without payment; the scale of the concepts; the inclusivity, in which all are welcomed.
Today, Dolores regards herself as both religious and spiritual. Besides the influence of the Twelve Steps, she still considers herself a Christian; has explored the teachings of the Unity movement; prays and meditates daily; and has engaged her Native heritage in the form of sweat lodges and vision quests. All of this, she believes, has opened her intuition to the information the universe provides us all as stars to steer by, if we will only see and use them.
Part of what I’ve learned in talking with people in recovery, is that some have left religion with its historical baggage and their painful personal memories behind, and found refuge and help in a spirituality that is less defined, more open, more subject to question, and more individualistic than the one in which they were raised. Others have discovered that the spirituality of their recovery programs allowed them to reconnect with the positive experiences of religion they had earlier in life, but lost.
But what about those for whom even “spirituality” is a dirty word, too much to deal with? Those whose rationality or painful experience creates a barrier to receiving the potential benefits of healing communities that talk about God or a Higher Power? All three of the women I interviewed said that they have seen atheists and agnostics sometimes struggle with this. Interestingly, all three checked off the box on “anger” as what they thought was one of the reasons some cannot deal with even the most open-ended spirituality. It’s as though once someone fixes on the notion that there is or might be a “God” of some sort, all of their rage about what they’ve endured can get focused on that God-idea, making them incapable of relating positively to it.
Fortunately, there is help available for those who can’t stomach any form of God-talk at all.
Meghan Hamilton, the former Events and Social Media Coordinator for the American Humanist Association, recognizes the tremendous value that the Twelve Step programs offer to so many. But, she says:
These meetings are important and vital to those suffering but there’s one big catch. Many recovery programs and meetings are centered around religion, calling on the addict to rely on a “higher power.”
While this method may work for many, how does the nonbeliever complete recovery programs based around a system that is not present in his or her life? How does an atheist work a step program that encourages prayer and God in order to properly arrest their disease? Having witnessed this scenario, I can verify that it’s not easy. It leaves the godless addict feeling disconnected from their recovery and causes a feeling of incompleteness of the program. It causes the addict to focus on spirituality and biblical readings rather than understanding emotional and cognitive dysfunction….Many of these programs don’t teach the addict about changes to their brain chemistry, nor do they address mental problems, or even approach the disease with more than an elementary level reason.
Hamilton goes on to list several recovery centers that are completely secular and scientific in their approach, minus any element of spirituality, although she does note that some of these may be “inaccessible…or too expensive” for some who would like to use them. She provides information on one group, called SMART Recovery (Self-Management for Addiction Recovery), that she says is turning up in more parts of the United States. “This program provides a friendly place for addicts to group together and combat their addiction, similar to that of a traditional step program. This group is free to join, accepting only donations used to run the meeting, and bills itself as ‘the leading self-empowering addiction recovery support group.’ Participants learn tools for addiction recovery based on scientific research and use a four-point program that includes: 1) building and maintaining motivation, 2) coping with urges, 3) managing thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and 4) living a balanced life.”
In addition to this, Kelly Fitzgerald, in a July 24, 2017 article called “Four Ways Atheists and Agnostics Recover,” lists AA for Agnostics and Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS), in addition to SMART Recovery. More controversially, speaking from her personal experience, she also argues for at least the possibility of self-recovery, an idea that many in recovery would find unacceptable. It’s worth noting that her list of techniques include meditation and Yoga, and an eventual turning to a “spiritual side of life” that she defines as having nothing to do with religion or God.
There are also Buddhist approaches to recovery, for those who might not feel comfortable with God-based religious or spiritual ideas, but find the practical, body-based, rational approach to meditation of many forms of Buddhism more workable.
Josh Korda of DharmaPunx NYC runs one such group, and says that “One of the core things Buddhism has that AA does not is that Buddhism focuses so much on working with the body and the breath to bring about peace of mind. It talks about learning how to read your body to note where you carry vedana dukkha—uncomfortable feelings. Feelings of sadness. Buddhism talks about how to become aware of how you are holding your stress and bringing it from moment to moment in different places in your life, and how to relieve yourself of suffering.” One of the other differences he goes on to remark about is the emphasis on one’s own inner power, rather than locating the source of healing in something thought of as outside or beyond oneself, such as a “Higher Power.” While I think many in AA and other programs would argue that their Higher Power is within them, and not something separate from them, the difference in frame of reference may be helpful to some.
Korda does concede, though, that he thinks it’s better to start with AA and the support of others going through something similar, then perhaps add Buddhist practices down the road.
What I see throughout all of this is how important the ways in which we frame things is, and how much we all need to find ways of thinking about our own recovery that actually work for us. If we get beneath the surface of the language we use, many points of contact can be discerned between what at first glance may seem to be very different approaches. Whether you appeal to God or a Higher Power, or to the universe or simply the support of a compassionate community of likeminded individuals who have been where you are, turning out from the isolated enclosure of one’s own small, pain-filled world can be the beginning of the journey to recovery. Learning to find the language and courage to honestly express our inner reality and take hold of a view of the world that gives hope and helps us to own our own lives, are principles common to all of these approaches. Shakespeare wrote that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Whatever you call the power that helps free you from addiction to unfold the gifts addiction conceals, all of these approaches offer powerful testimony that when we do call, it will answer.