Does Addiction Treatment Require a Higher Power?

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

Addiction treatment is an area already engulfed in many debates as to what approach is most effective, but no debate has been more heated than the discussions on the controversial role of 12-step programs. For those looking for non-religious AA programs, the 12 step program is a touchy subject. Learn more about the question, “Does addiction treatment require a higher power?”

AA vs Non-Religious AA

The 12-step program is based on the Big Book, the Alcoholics Anonymous playbook, and in this book, there’s a fair amount of focus and reference to a “higher power.” Most people immediately think of God, or a god, even if not their own god, and struggle with lending any sense of credibility to the content of the program. Proponents of the non-religious AA simply cannot bring themselves to embrace a faith that has been of no use to them up until that point. In some cases, they actively seek any program that is a non-religious AA such as this group.

The Problem with AA

Today, around 80 percent of the currently available addiction treatment in America is based on the ideology of the 12-steps. The goal is to persuade followers to become members and as such, they will be told to attend meetings for the rest of their lives. This doesn’t sit well for some. To others, it seems downright cult-ish. To them, it almost seems that they’re trading one dependency for another as if they’re powerless to fight addiction alone.

Undeniably, there are millions of devout followers that will tell you most directly that AA (and other programs like it) have saved their lives. Where things get sticky is when you dig a little deeper. AA’s reliance on a higher power to many means that faith must play a role in healing. Many people suffering from addiction have long turned away from the faith for any number of reasons. Some have always been atheists or agnostic. To a lot of people, this means treatment for addiction is so completely and totally unlike treatment for other medical or psychological disorders that it calls into question whether addiction is a disease at all.

Does Addiction Treatment Require a Higher Power

Going a step further, if simple prayer were enough to cure addiction, why wouldn’t churches be in the rehab business? Going even further than that, imagine if the 12-step approach was proposed as a treatment for heart disease, strokes or autism.

Scientists generally agree that addiction is a genuine medical problem. So much so, in fact, that insurance covers many forms of treatment. That said, other research suggests that it’s also a developmental disorder. Addiction is one of the most studied conditions in medicine.

When AA was founded back in 1935, many doctors had essentially given up on treating people with addictions. When reports of AA’s success became public, health professionals, not surprisingly, were enthusiastic. As time passed, the 12 step program was introduced into the rehab process.

The 12 Step Program

The 12 step program was unique in its conception. The first step requires an admission of being absolutely “powerlessness” over the addiction. The second, a belief in a “Higher Power” that can restore you to “sanity.” The third being a surrender to “God as we understood Him.” Steps four through ten focus on taking a moral inventory of oneself and freely confessing the details to someone while at the same time, asking God to remove your “character defects.” This is followed by making amends for harm done to others.

If these steps were demanded of people in treatment for any other medical condition, they would very likely argue that they were being treated as sinners rather than patients. Who would choose a physician who wanted to focus on your moral failings as a human being rather than focusing on your medical condition? This is where some people simply tune out – they just can’t bring themselves to see the logic in this approach. They become reticent to commit themselves to any treatment for their addiction that involves the 12 step methodology and starting looking for alternative programs such as a non-religious AA.

Non-Religious AA

There’s another consideration, though. If one were to more loosely interpret the “surrender to a higher power” precept, one might be able to see this higher power as simply a force that exists within themselves when they summon it. The higher power could be anything – will power, desire, yearnings, a force not understood, sometimes uncontrollable, perhaps even tameable. It could even be reality itself that is the higher power. In fact, an Atheist group has embraced that very notion.

This same group goes on to suggest that believers can happily mix with non-believers in recovery because each person in recovery must find and adopt whatever works for them. The point is that believing that outside of religion, there are forces that exist that mankind has yet to understand. These forces act upon all things in the universe in ways may never be able to comprehend. However one reconciles the “higher power” concept, there is an argument to make that the 12 step plan brings structure to a person when chaos had previously ruled. The 12 steps at that point become guidelines that help provide a gauge of progress as well as pride at each milestone. In this regard, you can view this as more of a set of values.

Commit to Recovery

Whether you’re choosing a 12 step program or a non-religious AA, you should be honest with yourself about your commitment to recovery. No program will be successful if you’re not ready for recovery. The concept of a higher power, however you choose to interpret it, is only one part of the recovery process. Addressing your personal issues and problems to overcome the root causes of your addiction is paramount to your success. If a non-religious AA is more your cup of tea, there are options, After rehab/detox, you should continue treatment for as long as it takes. Whether you continue treatment in a sober living home, at an IOP facility or in some sort of structured environment, you have choices.

Get Treatment Today

Whether you believe the answer to the question “Does addiction treatment require a higher power?” is ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ it is still important to get treatment. At Renaissance Recovery, we offer a variety of addiction treatment programs, including:

To get more information on the question, “Does addiction treatment require a higher power,” call [Direct] today.

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Diana Vo, LMFT

Diana is an addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in the field of mental health for over 10 years.

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country