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The Puzzling Role of Religion in Recovery

Alcoholics who report “spiritual experiences” do better at the 9-month mark.


Illness as an existential dilemma.
Photo via bettyfordinstitute

By Dirk Hanson


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God might be optional, but so-called spiritual experiences—and an increased attitude of forgiveness—seem to give alcoholics an edge during the first year of recovery, say psychiatric workers at the University of Michigan Addiction Research Center. Like it or not, AA and most other 12-Step programs have a “God as you understand it” clause. Sometimes the emotional impulse that kicks off a successful recovery comes in a form identified as “spiritual.” Recent arguments over the issue have threatened to split Alcoholics Anonymous into warring camps. While AA diehards battle with secular 12-Steppers over the issue of spirituality and religion, Elizabeth Robinson and coworkers at the University of Michigan have been trying to look at the picture apart from the AA universe. As Robinson puts it, “prior studies have been limited to treatment-seeking and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) samples.” So the Michigan group recruited 364 volunteers from abstinence-based treatment centers, a moderation drinking program, and untreated individuals from the local community.

The researchers measured the spiritual and religious belief structure of the alcoholics at the beginning of the survey period, and again at six months. They collected reports of spiritual and religious experiences during that time, and used this data to predict who would show a “good drinking outcome” at nine months. Robinson says that participants who reported “increases in day-to-day spiritual experiences” were the most likely to be free of heavy drinking episodes 3 months later. The definitions are vague, and the study is fraught with “confounding variables,” as the researchers like to say, but Robinson and her co-workers say that the best outcomes were found in volunteers who had daily spiritual experiences, and who showed increases in psychological measures of “forgiveness” and “purpose in life.” The three-year study suggested to Robinson that spirituality, so called, “was not necessarily a matter of believing in one interpretation of God, or even belief in a God of any kind…. The relationship between spirituality and likelihood of recovery was unrelated to whether a person took part in AA or not.”

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