Recovery and Religion

Sky with sun

There was a post recently in the Alcohol Explained Facebook Group with some fairly pronounced religious overtones. The recovery community is an amazing thing in many ways. It’s hard to imagine where else you could find such a large group of people whose main interest is to help one another,  and who are so friendly and supportive. But if there’s one thing guaranteed to animate people, it’s the issue of religion in recovery.

When examining this topic it’s worth remembering that alcohol anaesthetises. This means that when we are drinking we tend to be able to ignore parts of our life that would otherwise be intolerable and that (without the alcohol) we would take steps to rectify. It ranges from little things like not bothering to shave, or tidy up, or make proper meals, to much bigger things like ignoring bills, not bothering to work at a relationship, or even staying in an otherwise toxic relationship.

girlfriend ignoring boyfriend

It’s a self-propelling problem. When we are drunk or hungover we just don’t feel mentally equipped to deal with things, but those things don’t go away, they stay there in the back of our minds like a cloud forever hanging over us, making us all the more likely to reach for a drink to take the edge off our ever increasing worries, which leaves us even more drunk and / or hungover. And so the cycle continues.

So often when people stop drinking they often face a swathe of problems that they need to do something about, now that they can no longer hide from them behind a haze of alcohol. The good news is that as the person returns to their usual level of mental resilience and confidence they feel far better equipped to deal with these problems, even those that may seem insurmountable. These problems could be relationship problems, work problems, financial problems, losing weight, eating better, taking exercise, etc. If the person is ordinarily spiritual there may well be a spiritual element to this. People who are religious may well neglect their religious beliefs and practices when they are drinking, causing them to feel guilt and conflict, and find when they stop they naturally look to rectify this. 

It’s also the case, as I often say, that quitting drinking isn’t just about not taking another drink, it is about finding something else to turn to when times get hard. Drinkers drink when the bad times come, they use it as a coping mechanism. When they stop drinking the bad times still come, and they need a way of coping with those bad times now they can no longer just reach for a drink to take the edge off them. I use to exercise a lot, so I often advise people to exercise. Others suggest meditation, meeting friends, reading, yoga, or reaching out to other sober people. All these suggestions are made with the best intentions; to help someone who is struggling, to help them find a way to a far better life. If someone is spiritual or religious they may well use this to aid them when times get hard. It can help them to put up with adversity, to face their own mortality, and to make sense of their time on this planet.

If someone has stopped drinking, and has then taken steps to redress the spiritual side of their life, and then used that to help them to deal with their life, then I can fully understand why they would then try to help others by suggesting a spiritual approach to quitting. The problem is that religious and spiritual beliefs are incredibly complicated, and belief is not something you can simply choose. Trying to convince yourself that you believe in something when you don’t believe in it creates a false foundation. Whatever you then build on that foundation is a tower just waiting to collapse. It is a frustrating and ultimately pointless process. For many, convincing them that their sobriety is reliant on believing in something that they cannot believe in, is akin to telling them that they can never quit. It is a death sentence, or in many ways worth than a death sentence, because the misery caused by long-term heavy drinking is often worse than death (which the suicide rates among those with alcohol dependency is a stark testament to).

The reverse is absolutely the case too. Some people are spiritual. When they stop drinking they will turn again to the spiritual side of their lives, and they will use that as the coping mechanism where once they relied on alcohol. Denying them a spiritual solution is just as much a death sentence for them as forcing the spiritual solution on someone who does not have it in their nature to believe that the solution to their problem is religious or spiritual.

Addiction does not have a ‘one size fits all’ solution. What works for one person may not work for another and it is not even as black and white as spiritual / non-spiritual; the vast majority of people are in a huge area of differing shades of grey.

All we can do is offer advice and help to others. We usually (but not exclusively) do this by explaining and recommending the route we found out of the maze.

people with their hands in the middle in unison

What we need to be careful not to do is to become so enamoured with our own solution that we forget that it might not be right for someone else, or become annoyed or defensive when someone recommends a method that didn’t work for us.

What we need to keep at the forefront of our minds is that every time someone offers a solution, they are doing it to try to help another human being. And the person seeking help needs to remember to treat this as a buffet, not a set menu. They need to look at what’s on offer, decide what they like the look of, take that and discard the rest.

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13 Responses

  1. This is such an important post and so well written. You hit the nail on the head! The topic of religion and recovery can sometimes cause friction in the online community I’m in. You’re so right it’s not a one size fits all thing and people do have the best intentions when they make suggestions. I especially loved the “route we found out of the maze” bit! I imagine our routes into the maze are also very different so how can we expect to find the exact same routes out? ??

    1. You’re right. I suppose to finish the analogy we’re all in a slightly different place in the maze, so we all May need directions from more than one person to piece together our own route.

  2. I like the buffet metaphor. And thank you for this: “Trying to convince yourself that you believe in something when you don’t believe in it creates a false foundation…” and, “For many, convincing them that their sobriety is reliant on believing in something that they cannot believe in, is akin to telling them that they can never quit.”
    In the US, we supposedly have “separation of church and state”. Yet, AA, a religion-based recovery program (which does not acknowledge nor incorporate–nutrition, biochemical repair or exercise, and for which a belief in GOD and undying professions of individual “powerlessness”) is THE ONLY treatment option actually mandated by the state. It’s mind-boggling and wrong, especially now that we know so much about biochemistry and how to repair the brain and body and better set people up for success in their recovery.
    No church/religion should have the corner market on recovery. Religion-based programs are not the gold-standard. And our government is doing a grave disservice to those who were not programmed or indoctrinated before the age of reason, and therefore cannot return that state of ignorant bliss.

    1. I wasn’t aware of that. I suppose I’m originally because it was unknown, AA seemed to help people and was the only thing out there offering a solution. But as you say things have moved on now, our understanding isn’t where it was a hundred years ago.

  3. Perfect! Well said. I’m always in awe of how articulate and diplomatic you are. Well done and thank you for taking the time to write that post.

  4. Sometimes the way out of the maze is a selection of different things. A little exercise, new hobby, some spiritual awareness, ie manifestation. Cooking or any creative arts. Maybe it’s healthier to have a wide range instead of concentrating on one specific idea. Having reached the age of 70 and still struggling at times I find an all encompassing approach easier. Anyone else my age group any tips?

  5. Very nicely written, William, thank you. I know someone who had help to turn his life around in AA over 20 years ago and was (still is) successful. I would never want to knock that despite it not being for me, or indeed for 95% of attendees (sobriety in AA after 5 years is only 5%). The buffet and maze analogies summarize this nicely, thank you.

  6. I have rarely seen this expressed so eloquently. You have hit the nail on the head. Recovery is a minefield of support and at the beginning when you are desperate to hang your hat on something it can be easy to jump on things that don’t suit you and then become despondent because they didn’t work.

    You explain beautifully how important it is to find out what works for you, to share that with others but to allow them flexibility in finding their own supports. Thank you.

  7. Thanks again for your insights. I often catch up with the William Porter reads well after the event, and here down under, we’re mostly on a break after the cold winter and raring to get out and be more physically active. A great topic with very few people game to tackle it. I’m a regular on Naked Mind Facebook chat, with a predominantly American membership, which now seems to have grown more global, but has reduced in what I found earlier in the year dominated by more religious conversations. This bent was never going to last and this was evident in some people making grand exits with a particular criticism of one day repeaters. Those of us remaining were left dumbfounded, but I reflected on the idea you so eloquently point out that we’re a diverse lot, with varied entry points and also working to reclaim and restructure a life of peaks and troughs that in many respects is more arduous than if losing oneself in alcohol. You get, as in understand, addiction when you’re faced with the stark reality of life.

    Religiosity is interesting and its attachment to addiction. Not dissimilar to the programs that come out of religion for broken marriages, unwanted pregnancies and abject poverty. I guess it stems from the centuries of zilch social capital from political leaders. And with fundamentalism having a far more individual indoctrination, it’s no wonder that it has found its way into self healing and wellbeing. But despite everyone’s individual bent, foundation, as you say, I find this idea that without my faith I couldn’t overcome my addiction so misleading. It’s like an annex that is attached but a worthless piece of information for those who aren’t religious. What’s the point of putting it out there when it has no place in the writings of addiction and how to overcome them. Religion either totally bans alcohol or suggests extreme moderation based on a moral stance that’s caught up in ideas of sinfulness, which builds up guilt in relation to accountability to an imagined super force and adheres to public shaming. This might work for some people but it doesn’t deal with improving your life for the opportunities of living a life that you can have without alcohol, with a psychological motivation to make the most of life, guilt put aside because addiction can be readily explained, the power is intrinsically sourced from our thinking, our mindsets.

    You point out so many great ideas, and as someone says, you’re very diplomatic. But i don’t feel that religion needs any latitude, and in fact I think it can be a source of driving people to drink when they become dissidents. If religion doesn’t work, what are you left with, a huge unnecessary void. And people who claim that they found strength in their religion, I find unconvincing because if it were the truth then, by its own credence, it would have to be for all. Personal power, preference and variability are all caught up in who we are as individuals, what has made us who we are, and if religion was part of that, so be it, but still it is one’s own mindset that makes the change, not some miraculous outer power source.

    Sorry if I come across defensive, some might find aggressive, but I have experienced the control of religion and I find it promotes emotional and psychological dependency, and it’s not the way forward in our understanding of how to overcome addiction.

    I’m going to remain anonymous in this instance.

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William Porter

William wrote Alcohol Explained to share his approach on recovering from alcohol dependency.

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