Do I Have to Believe in God to Recover from Addiction?

The short answer to this question is it depends—it depends on your response to questions like:

  • How do you define God?
  • What does it really mean to believe in something?
  • Do you have to be spiritual to believe in God?
  • What does it mean to be spiritual?
  • How does someone become more spiritual?

These are each heavy questions surrounded by controversies that shroud them with even more question marks.

Instead of adding to the controversy by attempting to answer all these questions, let’s generally consider the idea of spirituality in light of recovery. Then we can talk about how God—or what many simply call their higher power—plays a role in recovery.

Spirituality in Recovery

To help us understand spirituality in recovery, we sat down with Harrison, a counselor at Duffy’s. Harrison has a spiritual journey of his own that eventually lead to his recovery right here at Duffy’s, so he seemed like the perfect person for the job.

Q. Can you define spirituality? What do you mean by it, and is it important during recovery?

Harrison: The way that it was explained to me, and the way I understand it, is there are 12 principles behind the 12 Steps—these are the spiritual principles that lay the foundation for the 12 Step program.

These principles include: honesty, hope, faith, courage, integrity, willingness, humility, discipline, love, patience,  awareness, and service. Spirituality is living by these principles.

Taking the next right step in recovery can only happen if I’m acting within those principles or steps.

Q: In your counseling, do you distinguish between spirituality and recovery, or do you present them as basically the same thing? Both seem to be a way of living…

Harrison: Definitely the same. They equal each other.

I’ve heard it put this way: talking about the spirituality of the program is like talking about the wet part of the ocean. The entire program is a spiritual program, and, like you said, it’s a lifestyle—a spiritual lifestyle and a spiritual existence.

Q: Can you help me understand exactly what is meant by a higher power? Obviously, it would be difficult for an atheist to believe in a “higher power” or “god” of sorts, right?

Harrison: Well it depends on what your concept of a higher power is.

For some people the principles behind the 12 Steps are their higher power; others identify their higher power as their support network. Basically, what is meant by a higher power is just a power greater than yourself that will help you stay sober.

Typically when you seek help in recovery, you’ve been unable to quit on our own. And in the first step, you admit that you are powerless, so the key is to find a power greater than yourself. And people find that in many forms.

Q: So are you basically saying that what a person wants to eventually become is their higher power?

Harrison: Well, sort of. It’s whatever can help them recover.

For instance, someone may come in unable to stay sober independently, but they find that when they work with other alcoholics and addicts they are able to recover. So their concept of a higher power might be the group of people helping them stay sober.

A lot of times through working the Steps and being in recovery and living by these spiritual principles, your concept of a higher power develops over time.

The start is usually just a very basic concept that helps you refrain from drugs and alcohol.

Q: Ok, so let’s imagine an addict walks into your office this afternoon—day two of recovery, doesn’t believe in God. The first things you’ll try to communicate to her are the foundational principles of the 12 steps, then you’ll just leave it up to her find her higher power, and sort of feel it out? Is that basically how it works?

Harrison: Yes, pretty much.

I’d carefully guide her through the principles of the steps, and help her develop a concept of what would work as her higher power.

Q: How would you encourage someone who doesn’t believe in God to integrate spirituality into his/her recovery?

“What’s important is having a set of principles and guidelines to live by.”

Harrison: First, I would mention that spirituality and religion don’t need to be lumped together—they can be considered separately. What’s important is having a set of principles and guidelines to live by.

The way I was introduced to the spiritual aspect of the program was through this story:

Before the program existed, there was a guy from Rhode Island named Rowland Hazard. Rowland was a very successful and wealthy guy who came from a prominent family. But Rowland was an alcoholic struggling to get sober.

He eventually went to a psychiatrist named Dr. Carl Jung to get help.

When Jung discovered that Rowland was an alcoholic he deemed him as “hopeless and beyond the reach of medicine.”

Rowland asked him if there were any exceptions, and Jung consented that there had been such occurrences when people had, what he called, a “vital spiritual experience.”

What Jung meant by this was basically a change in someone’s personality, beliefs, and thinking. As he explained these occurrences to Rowland, he encouraged him to get involved in a religious movement.

Upon returning home, Rowland sought out “The Oxford Group,” a popular evangelical Christian movement. He started practicing their principles, and quickly found that he was able to stay sober because of it.

What Dr. Young was describing, and what Rowland eventually discovered, was a change in personality sufficient to bring recovery.

When I talk about spiritual experiences, that’s what I mean.

When you live by these spiritual principles, your personality changes, and you’re able to recover.

Q: What are some practical things people can do to develop and/or maintain their spirituality as they recover?

Harrison: One real basic thing everyone can do is service work—helping others, getting outside of yourself, or volunteering your time are all helpful.

Q: So the principles are most effective when you’re putting them into action?

Harrison:  Yes, definitely. The principles are pointless unless you do something about what they mean to you.

Harrison has counseled at Duffy’s for just over a year. When he’s not actively helping others, you’ll find Harrison backpacking through the mountains, surfing the pacific waves, or reading his favorite literary classics.