Is Spirituality Necessary for Addiction Recovery?


The spiritual component of the Twelve Step programme was formulated at the start of AA by co-founder Bill W and colleagues and owes much to input from eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung. Many consider it crucial to the movement’s success in helping people recover. However, people today are more likely to question the existence of God than they were in the mid-twentieth century.  Here we consider if the spiritual aspect is still important or even still necessary for recovery.

Bill W’s Correspondence with Carl Jung

Do you need a spiritual experience to recover successfully from addiction? Bill W, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, certainly thought so. In his 1961 letter to Carl Jung, the eminent psychologist, he thanked Jung for his “conviction that man is something more than intellect, emotion and two dollars-worth of chemicals.” Jung’s much-quoted reply shows he thought so too, affirming this with the words: “Alcohol in Latin is ‘spiritus’ and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula, therefore, is ‘spiritus contra spiritum’ (spirituality against alcohol)”.

Views on Religion Have Changed

At the start of AA in 1935 and in the mid-twentieth century generally, religious experience was a much more acceptable idea than it is now, simply because far more people practised a religion of some kind. But how do people feel about spirituality for addiction recovery today when 41% of the British population do not believe there is a God or a Higher Power, according to a 2020 survey by YouGov?

Many People Still Recommend Spirituality

Perhaps surprisingly, many people still appear to think that spirituality is necessary for a happy and lasting recovery, whether they believe in God or not. It’s almost like they have the same attitude as Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr, the atheistic physicist who, when questioned why he had a lucky horseshoe over his front door replied: “They say it works, even if you don’t believe in it.”

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Successful Twelve-Step Programmes Do Not Insist on Spirituality

Twelve Step programmes (where belief in a Higher Power is highly recommended) remain by far the most popular route to recovery, fifty years after Carl Jung wrote his famous letter. Its members have all been to hell and back, experiencing the awesome power of addiction to devastate their lives by never letting them free. They have learnt that recovery from addiction is so difficult on one’s own that when you reach rock bottom, you become ready to try anything new because nothing else has worked.

When you have exhausted all the possible solutions, only the impossible ones are left, provided that they are even more powerful and perhaps more baffling than the addiction itself. They are saying in effect: ‘You really do need a lot of help from somewhere outside of yourself.’ Twelve Step programmes still flourish around the world and it should be noted that spirituality is not specified as a requirement for membership – the only requirement is a desire to stop drinking, using drugs, gambling or whatever other addiction they aim to overcome.

Spirituality Cannot Be Cancelled by Outside Forces

Because so many people are nowadays wary of anything with a religious overtone, they try all sorts of other ways first, but none seem to meet their requirements. Consider James for example, who spent six weeks in rehab for chronic substance abuse and discovered that exercise helped him to stay away from temptation and gave him peace of mind.

After completing treatment, he went to the gym every day and exercised so hard that he was too exhausted for anything afterwards except sleep but, he was staying sober. Then, along came the pandemic, and lockdown, and all the gyms were closed. Within a week James had relapsed. Later he overdosed and ended up in rehab again. So much for exercising as a response to addiction. Spirituality, on the other hand, is something that cannot be taken from us.

Spirituality Has Many Benefits

Spirituality helps you find a sense of meaning and purpose in life beyond addiction. This provides motivation and a sense of direction in the recovery process. It helps you to cultivate qualities such as compassion, empathy, and kindness which enhance relationships with others and helps to navigate the challenges of life with greater resilience and inner strength. Additionally, practices such as meditation, prayer, and mindfulness can help to develop a deeper awareness of thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, enabling a better understanding of inner experiences.

spirituality and recovery from addiction

Spirituality Assists in Key Areas of Recovery

More specifically, Spirituality affects certain key areas of recovery in a beneficial way, making them easier for a newly sober person to address, such as:

  1. Honesty – an important purpose of spirituality in recovery is for us to have something to turn to for help – communication with a Higher Power. When we start to do this, we quickly realise that there is no point in being dishonest with our Higher Power – that would be bound to fail. Although as addicted people we are used to self-defeating behaviour, recovery only works if our attitude is positive. Honesty is key.
  2. Forgiveness and acceptance – people in recovery learn through spirituality to cultivate forgiveness and acceptance towards themselves and others, which can promote healing and reduce feelings of guilt and shame.
  3. Hope – this is another product of a quest for spiritual growth that fosters a sense of purpose and strengthens commitment to recovery, even during difficult times. Spirituality also encourages us to engage in self-reflection and introspection, which can help develop a more accurate understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.
  4. Humility – simply by recognising the existence of a power greater than ourselves we gain humility. Spirituality also emphasises the importance of serving others and putting the needs of others before oneself. This focus on service can help develop a sense of humility by encouraging us to see ourselves as part of a larger community, rather than as individuals who are solely focused on their own needs and desires.
  5. Connection – spirituality emphasises the importance of compassion and empathy towards others. When we are encouraged to practice these, we are more likely to feel a sense of connection with others and to develop relationships based on mutual understanding and respect. The sharing of beliefs, values and experiences that often occurs when people are exploring spirituality leads to a sense of connection and community. Many spiritual traditions emphasise the interconnectedness of all things.
  6. Openness – many spiritual traditions encourage people to be open-minded and curious about the world around them. By focusing on personal growth and development, people are led to seek out new experiences and ideas in order to expand their understanding of themselves and the world.
  7. Personal responsibility – spirituality can help people take responsibility for change by encouraging self-reflection and accountability. They feel a sense of purpose and become more empowered to take action and make the changes they need, so as to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life.

Spirituality Gives Us New Coping Skills

Addiction often stems from a lack of coping skills to deal with stress and difficult emotions that can arise in certain situations. Spirituality can provide individuals with new ways of managing these emotions and finding inner peace.

Spirituality Is a Topic of Debate

The role of spirituality in addiction recovery remains a topic of debate among researchers and practitioners in the field. While some therapists and organisations continue to emphasise its importance, others prioritise evidence-based approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) motivational interviewing, and medication-assisted treatment.

Spirituality Is a Part of Most Treatment Programmes

However, most addiction treatment programmes today still incorporate spirituality into their treatment approach, though sometimes as a complementary or alternative therapy. Many people find that spirituality, which can encompass religious or non-religious beliefs, provides them with a sense of purpose and meaning, which can be helpful in maintaining sobriety and making positive life changes. Very few organisations promote the idea of a truly atheistic approach to addiction recovery.

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Each Person’s Recovery Is Different

It’s important to note that recovery from addiction is a highly individualised process, and what works for one person may not work for another. While spirituality may be an effective tool for most people in addiction recovery, it may not necessarily be essential or appropriate for everyone. Ultimately, the most effective approach to addiction treatment is one that is tailored to the individual’s unique needs and circumstances, and that may involve a combination of evidence-based therapies, support from peers and loved ones, and a sense of purpose and meaning.

At Castle Craig, we always put the individual’s needs first. Our treatment programme fully recognises and promotes the spiritual element as a component of most successful recoveries. However, we recognise that some people succeed in recovering without a spiritual awakening and we further recognise that spirituality itself is a very broad subject that encompasses a wide variety of religious beliefs and philosophical ideas.

If you need to talk in complete confidence about your own or a loved one’s possible addictive behaviour, please give us a call at 0808 271 7500

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