Religion’s role in treating addiction

Religion has increasingly been recognized as a resource for treating addictions, ever since Alcoholics Anonymous introduced its 12-step program – with its recognition of a “higher power” – in 1935. AA’s success inspired a multitude of other 12-step programs (Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous), as well as addiction recovery programs tailored to a wide variety of faiths. The U.S. government began funding in 2006 religious addiction recovery programs as part of its faith-based initiatives. The questions asked by many scientists are why and how religion and spirituality aid recovery.

All this attention brought new information and new questions. Many scientific studies have confirmed that religion does play an important role in addiction recovery. Thanks to AA’s efforts and scientific research on the brain, the understanding of addiction as a moral failing or character flaw has been largely replaced by the notion of addiction as a chronic, progressive disease of the brain.


The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health and the Fetzer Institute have both sponsored conferences on scientific research on alcoholism and spirituality and have funded numerous studies to examine the role they play in recovery and resistance to drug and alcohol abuse.

Whether the addiction is to alcohol, drugs, gambling or shopping, the biochemical and structural changes that occur in the brain are the same. Meanwhile, scientific studies are exploring a number of questions:

  • Will studies provide information about what makes faith-based recovery programs effective and whether they are more or less effective than secular ones? How will this influence government funding?
  • Should doctors “prescribe” religious involvement to people with addictions? Numerous studies have shown that people with religious or spiritual involvement are less likely to be addicted to drugs or alcohol. Should the government fund religious treatment programs?
  • Should addiction treatment be personalized, and does religion help some people with addictions but not others? Research also shows that successful recovery from addictions occurs with secular approaches. What specific factors make one treatment program more effective than another?
  • If religious and spiritual approaches help with addiction, could addiction also be partly a moral problem? Some groups adamantly challenge studies that characterize addiction as a disease rather than a moral failing, believing that an addiction is a symptom of other, underlying problems.

Why it matters

Addiction is prevalent in the United States, at a great cost to society through crime, health care costs and more. Approximately 22.1 Americans over the age of 12 were substance-dependent or abused substances, according to 2010 statistics from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Many, if not most, treatment programs use a belief in God or a higher power as a guiding principle, yet it remains somewhat controversial. Science’s embrace of religion and spirituality as a useful tool in healing substance abuse may provide evidence and answers that shape the future of treatment.

Questions for reporters

  • How do religion and spirituality shape people’s attitudes about addiction and recovery?
  • What accounts for the success of faith-based treatment options?
  • What do recovering addicts say about the importance of keeping God in (or out) of their treatment and lasting recovery?
  • Talk to addiction treatment providers about their experience using 12-step programs and secular approaches. What are the differences? Does one approach fit one “type” of person?
  • Do secular recovery groups address a need for meaning, as spiritual or religious groups do? If not, why not?
  • If addiction is a disease, what role does human free will play?
  • How are clergy responding to addiction and substance abuse in their congregants? Are there new alliances between secular mental health and addiction treatment centers and religious leaders? How do clergy deal with their own problems with addiction?


Other background

National sources

  • National Institute on Drug Abuse

    A comprehensive primer on addiction and treatment approaches is available from the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

    Contact: 301-443-1124.
  • American Society of Addiction Medicine

    The American Society of Addiction Medicine in Chevy Chase, Md., is an organization of physicians trained in addiction medicine. The organization is focused on increasing access to addiction treatment and improving it. It runs a yearly scientific meeting and certifies physicians in addiction medicine.

  • National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse

    The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York City is an interdisciplinary research and educational organization founded in 1992 by Joseph Califano, former U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare and drug “czar.” With a staff of 70, its expertise spans addiction and substance abuse, public policy, criminology, psychology, public health, epidemiology and statistics. It runs yearly conferences and publishes reports.


  • Alcoholics Victorious

    Alcoholics Victorious was founded in 1948 as a support group to offer a safe environment where recovering people who recognize Jesus Christ as their “higher power” gather and share their experience, strength and hope. AV meetings use both the 12 steps and the Alcoholics Victorious Creed.

    Contact: 561-598-9079.
  • Overcomers Outreach

    Overcomers Outreach in Sylmar, Calif., is a ministry born out of a need of support system for members in evangelical Christian churches. Its support groups use the Bible and the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to minister to individuals affected by alcohol, drugs, sexual addiction, gambling, food and other compulsive behaviors or dependencies.

  • Celebrate Recovery

    Celebrate Recovery is a Christian-based recovery curriculum used by church-based groups throughout the U.S. and abroad. It was developed at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., by Pastor John Baker. Celebrate Recovery uses eight recovery principles drawn from the Beatitudes that parallel AA’s traditional 12 steps.

  • Christians in Recovery

    Christians in Recovery in Tequesta, Fla., provides information, referral and resources for anyone who is in recovery or who desires to recover from abuse, family dysfunction, depression, anxiety, grief, stress, obsessive/compulsive behaviors or addictions to alcohol, drugs, food, sex, gambling or pornography. It is an online community that offers formal and informal support group meetings on the Internet, running regular Christian recovery chats daily.

  • Calix Society

    Calix Society is a 12-step fellowship of Catholic alcoholics. AA does not endorse Calix; Calix recommends 12-step AA programs to Calix members.

  • Seventh-day Adventist Church

    The Seventh-day Adventist Church has an official website with resources on beliefs and practices, missions and statements on the livelihood of practitioners and members. The website has a page with links to the church’s official statements on birth control, human rights, climate change and more than 100 other aspects of debate and culture.

    Contact: 301-680-6000.
  • Teen Challenge USA

    Teen Challenge USA (and Turning Point) was established in 1958 by David Wilkerson, Teen Challenge offers hope and healing for those with life-controlling problems.


  • Abraham Twerski

    Rabbi Abraham Twerski is a psychiatrist, Orthodox rabbi and pioneer in the treatment of addiction in the Jewish community. Dr. Twerski is the founder and medical director emeritus of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The author of more than 60 books, he has written extensively and lectured worldwide about chemical dependency in the Jewish community. A branch of Gateway has been established in Israel.

    Contact: 412-421-8524.
  • Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others

    Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others is a New York City-based recovery organization led by volunteers who help Jewish alcoholics, chemically dependent people and their families, friends and associates in a nurturing Jewish environment by conducting retreats and other events. It is not affiliated with any particular branch of Judaism and is sponsored by the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.

    Contact: 212-397-4197.
  • Union for Reform Judaism

    The Union for Reform Judaism claims 1.5 million individual members in more than 900 synagogues. It maintains a directory of congregations and a directory of summer camps. Rabbi Rick Jacobs is president.

  • Kerry M. Olitzky

    Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is a Reform rabbi, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York City and co-author of Twelve Jewish Steps to Recovery (Jewish Lights, 1991) and author to a number of books and articles on a variety of topics.

    Olitzky has been vocal about the need for the Jewish community to face its problems with addiction.

    Contact: 212-760-1440.


  • Judith K. Muhammad

    Judith K. Muhammad is vice president of Islamic Health & Human Services in Detroit, which provides a full range of social services, primarily for Muslims, and training in Islamic health care for non-Muslim health care providers. Muhammad is also a contributing writer to and has presented at many workshops and conferences around the country on topics such as Islamic health care, marriage issues, juvenile justice and substance abuse.


  • G. Alan Marlatt

    G. Alan Marlatt was a professor of psychology and director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington in Seattle. His major focus was in both research and clinical work is addictive behaviors; he conducted research on Buddhist meditation as a treatment for substance abuse in and out of prisons and wrote and spoke about Buddhist philosophy and the treatment of addictive behavior and relapse prevention.

  • Kevin Griffin

    Kevin Griffin is a meditation teacher in the San Francisco Bay area and former addict who uses meditation, the 12 steps and Buddhist precepts of free will and mindfulness to help addicts recover. He is also one of the founders of the Buddhist Recovery Network.He is the author of One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (Rodale Press, 2004).


  • Greesh C. Sharma

    Greesh C. Sharma of Morrisville, Pa., has been a practicing psychologist for 30 years. He works at the Institute of Behavior Modification. Sharma, who was born in India, has written for Hinduism Today magazine on psychotherapy, addictions and Hinduism.


  • Moderation Management

    Moderation Management is a New York City-based behavioral change program and national support network for early-stage problem drinkers. It encourages individuals to accept personal responsibility for choosing and maintaining their own path, whether moderation or abstinence, and offers a choice of behavioral change goals. MM has a nine-step program of moderation and balance with exercises, goal-setting techniques, self-management strategies and support groups.

  • National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence

    The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in New York City was founded in 1944 by Marty Mann to teach the public that alcoholism is a preventable and treatable disease. The first woman to stay sober in AA, Mann wanted to transform the view of alcoholism from a moral failing into a public health issue. The council’s mission now is to fight the stigma and the disease of alcoholism and other addictions. NCADD produced the first radio and TV ads about alcoholism and to prevent teenage drinking, pioneered employee assistance programs, advocated putting warning labels on all alcoholic beverage containers, established the national HOPE line (800-NCA-CALL). It publishes The Washington Report, a public policy newsletter.

  • Christopher D. Smithers Foundation

    The Christopher D. Smithers Foundation in Mill Neck, N.Y., was founded in 1952 to focus on alcoholism education and prevention, based on the conviction that alcoholism is a treatable disease that requires abstinence and that controlled drinking, whether called “moderation management” or “harm reduction,” is not possible with alcoholism. The foundation has worked to reduce the stigma attached to alcoholism and donated $10 million in 1971 to establish the first alcoholism facility that was an integral part of a leading hospital, thus becoming a model for similar units worldwide.

  • Self-Management and Recovery Training

    Self-Management and Recovery Training in Mentor, Ohio, uses rational emotive behavior therapy and cognitive behavior therapy in a self-help, abstinence-based addiction recovery program. SMART does not accept the disease concept of alcoholism and is not a 12-step program. It was founded in 1992 when it split off from Rational Recovery.

  • Rational Recovery

    Rational Recovery in Lotus, Calif., is a program of independent recovery based on abstinence and banishing of self-doubt. It uses the Addictive Voice Recognition Technique, which is taught on the program’s web site in eight 90-minute sessions. RR has no groups, meetings or treatment centers and maintains that its technique is incompatible with AA and other 12-step programs because they foster dependence and discourage self-discovery. RR maintains that it fits well with any religion except 12-step programs.

    Contact: 530-621-2667.
  • Women for Sobriety

    Women for Sobriety in Quakertown, Pa., describes itself as the first national self-help program for women alcoholics. It was founded by the late Jean Kirkpatrick in 1975 with the belief that women with addictions had different psychological needs in recovery than men. This notion stemmed from the fact that at that time, men had better recovery success rates. It has 13 affirmations, called the “new life program.”

  • LifeRing Secular Recovery International

    LifeRing Secular Recovery International in Oakland, Calif., was founded in 1999 as a secular alternative to AA. LifeRing does not subscribe to any particular theory of alcoholism/addiction but is held together by a common commitment to abstinence.

  • Secular Organizations for Sobriety

    Save Our Selves, or Secular Organizations for Sobriety, was founded in North Hollywood, Calif., in 1985 as an alternative to AA. The largest secular sobriety group in the world, it has 100,000 members, including believers who want to keep religion separate from recovery as well as atheists, secular humanists and non-Christians. It respects diversity, welcomes skepticism and encourages rational thinking and emotions. It makes sobriety a separate issue from religion and does not oppose 12-step programs.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Margaret Ensminger

    Margaret Ensminger is a professor and associate chairwoman of the department of health, behavior and society at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. She has studied inner-city youths and families and has done research on the effect of family religiosity on young adults’ alcohol use.

  • Kevin Chen

    Kevin Chen is a professor of addiction psychiatry at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Piscataway, N.J. Dr. Chen additionally studies adolescent substance abuse and conducts studies investigating the feasibility and efficacy of Chinese energy therapy and meditation as a treatment.

  • Gerard Connors

    Gerard Connors is director of the Research Institute on Addictions at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He has studied Alcoholics Anonymous participation, spirituality and alcohol outcomes.

  • Christopher D. Ringwald

    Christopher D. Ringwald was a journalist in Albany, N.Y., and the author of The Soul of Recovery: Uncovering the Spiritual Dimension in the Treatment of Addictions (Oxford University Press, 2002). Ringwald studied and wrote about how the use of spirituality within a wide range of treatment options works. He also examined the controversies surrounding the faith-based treatment and recovery movement.

  • Alexandre Laudet

    Alexandre Laudet is a social psychologist and the director of the Center for the Study of Addictions and Recovery at the New York City-based National Development and Research Institutes. NDRI, a nongovernmental research agency, works to advance scientific knowledge of substance abuse, mental health, HIV/AIDS and related social and health concerns in order to contribute to their prevention and solution. Laudet was the principal investigator of a study exploring social supports, spirituality, religiousness, life meaning and 12-step program participation in the recovery process from addiction. She studied more than 300 recovering addicts from New York City, many of whom were inner-city ethnic minorities formerly addicted to crack cocaine or heroine and who had used multiple substances for more than 20 years.

  • Marc Galanter

    Dr. Marc Galanter is director of the division of alcoholism and drug abuse in the department of psychiatry and a professor at the New York University School of Medicine. His books, Spirituality and the Healthy Mind: Science, Therapy and the Need for Personal Meaning (Oxford University Press, 2005) and Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion (Oxford University Press, 1999), deal with issues of spirituality, religion and addiction.

  • Richard Saitz

    Dr. Richard Saitz is a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University’s School of Medicine, associate director of the Youth Alcohol Prevention Center and director of the Clinical Addiction Research and Education program. He studies the effectiveness of a brief, hospital-based tailored intervention for patients with alcohol problems.

  • Howard Shaffer

    Howard Shaffer is an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Division on Addictions. He has written extensively about the treatment of addictive behaviors and the nature of addictions.

    Contact: 781-306-8600.
  • John Knight

    Dr. John Knight is the associate director for medical education in the division on addictions at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass., and a leader in pediatric education. He has studied spirituality and alcohol use in adolescents, and treatment and prevention of alcoholism in adolescents.

  • Ram A. Cnaan

    Ram A. Cnaan is a leading expert on faith-based social services and the chair of the doctoral program in social welfare at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He wrote the article “Defining Who Is a Volunteer: Conceptual and Empirical Considerations” for the journal Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (1996). He is also director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research and co-author of The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare.

    He has studied religion’s response to addiction.

In the South

  • Mark Gold

    Dr. Mark Gold is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville. He has conducted groundbreaking research into opiate addiction, its mechanism of action in the brain, and treatments.

  • David Whiters

    David Whiters is a social worker and the executive director of Recovery Consultants of Atlanta, a faith-based, peer-led recovery community services program. Whiters is a doctoral student at the University of Georgia’s School of Social Work and recently co-authored a historical review of faith-based treatments for addiction in Counselor: The Magazine for Addiction Professionals.

  • Joel Dinnerstein

    Rabbi Joel Dinnerstein of Deerfield Beach, Fla., has directed a Jewish 12-step counseling program, Ohr Ki Tov, since 1985. Inspired by Hasidic Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, this organization integrates prayer, song and storytelling with the 12 steps and Jewish learning, values and practice for recovery. Dinnerstein was the first rabbi to become a certified addiction counselor; he also focuses on the family in recovery.

    Contact: 954-480-6230.
  • Tonja Myles

    Tonja Myles is a former addict and founder of the Set Free Indeed Ministry and Clinic in Baton Rouge, La., a faith-based addiction clinic. Myles was recognized by former President Bush at the 2003 State of the Union address. She and her husband, Darren, founded Set Free Indeed 14 years ago. They offer one-on-one counseling for people who are or were incarcerated. Their Indeed Faith-Based Intense Outpatients Clinic offers outpatient treatment services. They work with ex-offenders and offer transportation, transitional housing, job placement and life skills. Tonja received the President’s Call to Service Lifetime Volunteer Award in 2005.

  • Peter R. Martin

    Dr. Peter R. Martin is a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s division of addiction medicine in Nashville, Tenn. The department is involved in research, treatment and teaching.

  • Mary Holley

    Dr. Mary Holley is a doctor in Arab, Ala., who founded a Christian-based support group called Mothers Against Meth-Amphetamine, or MAMa, in 2002 after her brother died of methamphetamine addiction. The group now has 75 chapters around the country. She has produced several educational videos for drug education and prevention and speaks in schools and jails. The group now has 75 chapters around the country.

    She believes that a religious approach to treating addiction is more effective than law enforcement.

In the Midwest

  • Elizabeth Robinson

    Elizabeth Robinson is a research professor at the University of Michigan Addiction Research Center’s department of psychiatry in Ann Arbor. She has conducted a five-year study on long-term spiritual changes in alcoholism recovery and has also studied the spiritual and religious status of those entering alcohol treatment, ethnic difference in religious coping styles of those entering treatment, and many other related topics.

  • Thomas Johnson

    Thomas Johnson is a professor of psychology and associate director at the Center for the Study of Health, Religion & Spirituality at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. His research focuses on the relationship between alcohol use and religiosity/spirituality, and spirituality and motives for drinking and not drinking.

  • Kathleen Goggin

    Kathy Goggin is a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri in Kansas City who has studied the protective role of spirituality in alcohol and HIV risk behaviors.

  • Linda Mercadante

    The Rev. Linda Mercadante is a professor of theology at Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio. She is the author of Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious (2014). Her focuses are spirituality, victimization, gender, addiction, sin and evil, imagery of God, and the Shakers.

    She cites four basic concepts of Christian theology – God, sin, grace and human nature – and states that misperceptions of these can lead people to addiction or prevent them for taking a spiritual approach to recovery. She believes that addiction is a psychological, social and medical disease, and sometimes also a spiritual disease. Treating a spiritual disease requires a spiritual remedy, she says.

In the West

  • J. Scott Tonigan

    J. Scott Tonigan is a research professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque whose expertise in treating alcoholism includes studying spirituality as a variable in alcohol abuse and alcoholism. His work on a study called Project MATCH shows that treatment for alcoholism with Alcoholics Anonymous can affect the degree to which one reports higher God-consciousness and religious practices.

  • William R. Miller

    William Richard Miller is a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He served as director of Clinical Training for UNM’s doctoral program in clinical psychology and co-director of the Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addictions (CASAA) with a focus on behavioral treatments for addictions.

  • Michael Winkelman

    Michael Winkelman is a professor of anthropology at Arizona State University in Tempe whose research focuses on shamanism and medical anthropology. He has studied contemporary applications of shamanic healing in substance abuse rehabilitation, pioneering the idea of shamanism as humanity’s original neurotheology.

  • Paul Spicer

    Paul Spicer is a cultural anthropologist who researches human development, behavioral medicine and bioethics. He is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. He has studied American Indian spirituality and alcohol.

  • Chris Prentiss

    Chris Prentiss is co-founder of Passages in Malibu, Calif., an eclectic, holistic substance abuse treatment center that claims to have a cure rate exceeding 80 percent. Prentiss developed his individually based approach by dealing with his son, who was addicted to heroine, cocaine and alcohol for 10 years. Prentiss recently published The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure: A Holistic Approach to Total Recovery (Power Press, 2006). Contact 888-777-8525.

  • Linda Hyder-Ferry

    Dr. Linda Hyder Ferry is a professor of medicine at Loma Linda University’s School of Medicine and Public Health in Loma Linda, Calif., who is doing research on spirituality and recovery from addictions, specifically from nicotine addiction. She is the founder of the Foundation for Innovations in Nicotine Dependence (FIND).

  • Lee Ann Kaskutas

    Lee Ann Kaskutas is the director of training at the Alcohol Research Group, National Alcohol Research Center in Berkeley, Calif. Her focus is in non-professional treatments such as self-help groups, peer support, social networks, spirituality, and education on the effects of alcohol consumption.

  • Walter Ling

    Dr. Walter Ling is a professor of psychiatry and director of the Integrated Substance Abuse Programs at the University of California, Los Angeles.

  • Barry Solof

    Dr. Barry Solof is a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, Calif., and a fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. He heads the Kaiser Permanente addiction medicine department in West Covina, Calif., and is a board member of the Secular Organization for Sobriety.

  • Sarah Zemore

    Sarah Zemore is an associate scientist at the Berkeley, Calif.-based Alcohol Research Group who studies social disadvantage and the role of ethnicity, race and socioeconomics in substance use, substance abuse and treatment.

    She has studied and written about Alcoholics Anonymous and spirituality in recovery.

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