Religion and Spirituality

Alcoholics Anonymous, with its Twelve Steps treatment program, claims to be spiritual rather than religious, but aspects of the Twelve Steps theory appear to be religious to many. For example, the belief in a Higher Power, individual helplessness, confession of wrongs, and developing a moral inventory all appear to be religious in the common sense understanding of the terms. Yet, AA adamantly denies any connection to religion. For the most part, this has allowed the Twelve Steps theory to escape the scrutiny of those who oppose the mixture of religion and drug treatment.

How is it possible, then, to tell the difference between religion and spirituality, and is there really any difference between the two terms? The goal of this chapter is to differentiate between religion and spirituality so that spirituality can be used in addiction treatment without becoming religious. Twelve Steps theory has not successfully done this, and the efforts to distinguish between religion and spirituality have only watered down the religious aspects of AA and Twelve Steps.

The separation of AA from religion has allowed the treatment program to join with the medical community’s disease approach to addiction. Since the 1930s an effort has been made to promote the disease connection to alcohol abuse and more recently the application has been made to other behaviors. As a result, an unusual alliance between religion and medicine began in the 1940s and continues to the present. The disease model approach to behavior and the religious aspects of the Twelve Steps theory were not seriously challenged until the work of Peele (1989), Fingarette (1998), and Schaler (2000). Today, the disease concept of addictive behavior is seldom questioned by the general public because of its connection to many in the medical community. Treatment programs for behaviors other than alcohol and drug abuse have generally followed variants of the Twelve Steps theory while the medical community has obliged by also labeling these behaviors as diseases. In response to the charge of being a religious treatment approach, many point out that AA is just a support group and not a treatment program. However, the Twelve Steps theory involves 12 steps of treatment and this program is advocated by AA.

The efforts of AA and the Twelve Steps theory proponents to water down their religion by making it universalistic does not solve the problem. Religion is religion, and whether it is specific in nature as in biblical Christianity, or universal as in some vaguely defined Higher Power, it still offends those who are not looking for a religious-based treatment program. This becomes especially offensive when drug courts order secular addicts to enter a religious-based treatment program. It is also offensive to religious people who happen not to agree with the kind of religion promoted in the Twelve Steps theory.

Spirituality and religion must be defined differently for the benefit of both believers and non-believers. In discussing religion, I make no attempt to include or describe the different religions of the world, or even all of the religions that wear the name Christian. Instead, religion is defined in terms of biblical teaching, which means I occasionally cite passages from the Bible to illustrate biblical teaching.

Spiritual capacity and insight is a part of personhood, and has been given by God to all humankind in creation. Perhaps it is a part of being created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). Just as humans have been created with many capabilities, such as sight, smell, hearing, cognition, and mobility, humans also have a spiritual component that they can use in times of need. Although the spiritual capacity in humans is not religious, it is an important aspect of biblical religion.

Both religion and spirituality can be helpful in addiction recovery. Those who come from a biblical perspective recognize spirituality as a vital part of biblical religion, but spirituality, properly defined, is a human capacity that exists in contexts other than religion. One of the problems in addiction treatment is the blurring of these two concepts. For example, although the Twelve Steps theory insists it is spiritual and not religious, it nevertheless defines spirituality in religious terms. The better way is to define spirituality in a way that is separate from religious terminology and concepts. This is not a secularization of religion, but a simple recognition that humankind has a spiritual capacity that is beneficial to both religion and addiction treatment. The goal now is to formulate a more precise definition of both religion and spirituality.

A good general definition of religion is that it is an organized social system containing a body of beliefs and practices with a view to some kind of ultimate reality (Ciarrocchi, 2002). This fits nicely with the religion described in the Bible, but a more precise biblical definition of religion would depend on the time period and the covenant under consideration. For example, religion is expressed differently for each of the covenants with Adam (Genesis 3), Noah (Genesis 6), and Abraham (Genesis 17) . These covenants point the way to the grand covenant with Moses and the nation of Israel (Exodus 24:8), which finds its ultimate fulfillment in the new covenant of Jesus Christ (Jeremiah 31:31; Matthew 26:26-28; John 1:17; Hebrews 8:7-13).

J B Myers


Faith and Addiction

Elders and Deacons

Life Choices 

Leave a Reply