Who Answers?
This site is authored by American Addiction Centers - a specialist in drug and alcohol addiction treatment. If you are interested in learning more about our options for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, please call 888-480-1703 to speak with an admissions navigator.
Call 888-480-1703

Recovery without God


A recent study performed by Harvard University’s McLean Hospital looking into the recovery process concludes that “faith in God positively influences treatment for individuals with psychiatric illness.”  While the belief in a God, often euphemized as “Higher Power” in many mental health and addiction recovery communities, is promoted heavily especially in 12-step programs, it is not for everyone and recovery is possible without this approach.  I prefer a more personalized approach based on self-empowerment and support from others.

The McLean Hospital study “followed patients receiving care from a hospital-based behavioral health program to investigate the relationship between patients’ level of belief in God, expectations for treatment and actual treatment outcomes” (Nauert). The researchers found that people with a solid belief in a higher power had better treatment outcomes on a number of treatment criteria, including “improved psychological well-being” and “decreases in depression and intention to self-harm,” according to David H. Rosmarin, Ph.D., an instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (Nauert).

McLean Hospital also reported that “given the prevalence of religious belief in the United States — over 90 percent of the population — these findings are important in that they highlight the clinical implications of spiritual life.” It could very well be that because so many people look to God as source of power or inspiration, they fare better in treatment than people who do not have a source of inspiration.

However, belief in a higher power may not actually be a causal factor in producing better treatment results. In other words, trying to get the people who don’t believe in a higher power to start doing so will not necessarily positively affect their treatment results. That is not what the study tested.

According to, “In order to imply causation, a true experiment must be performed where subjects are randomly assigned to different conditions.”

Studies like the one performed at Mclean, where people are simply surveyed and two or more criteria are measured and then compared to see if there is correlation, proves only that: that there may be a correlation – not causation. Correlation could mean that causation might go in either direction or that there could be another variable for the correlation (

A webpage by a consulting firm provides a few examples of “spurious correlations.” If asked to compare data about the amount of monetary damage caused by fires in San Francisco on a given year and the number of fire trucks that were at the fire, even though you may find a positive correlation, you would be hard-pressed to come to the conclusion that the fire trucks caused the damage. You would more likely conclude that the size of the fire caused both more fire trucks to be called to the scene and the amount of damage. (William C. Burns and Associates)

Many people who suffer from mental illness also suffer from substance abuse and other addiction issues. The overlap is often referred to as “dual-diagnosis,” and many treatment centers, including McLean Hospital, treat at least some of their clients on a dual-diagnosis basis (McLean Hospital).

As a dual-diagnosis patient, the concept of a higher power has been pushed upon me frequently in treatment, almost exclusively in the realm of addiction recovery programs, and specifically in 12-step programs. Most rehab centers use twelve-step programs, many of which revolve around a higher power. From my experience, it is hard to find a treatment center that does not use the Alcoholics Anonymous (12-step) model for recovery from addiction or substance abuse.

A study on 12-step participation cites that “as many as 95 percent of inpatient alcohol treatment programs have reported the use of a 12-step approach” and that “a survey of drug treatment programs in Los Angeles County estimated that 75 percent placed some emphasis on the 12 Steps” (Brigham).

As part of my stints at several treatment centers and sober living programs, I went to dozens of Anonymous meetings over a period of several years, either because they were a required part of the program I was in or because someone had highly recommended them or pressured me to go. It is unfortunate that so much of my time was spent being pressured into accepting a higher power when doing so wasn’t likely to help me.

From a spiritual point of view, I consider myself an agnostic. I don’t totally discount the possibility of some kind of God, yet I don’t want to commit to believing in one. I like it that way — not being forced to either side, and not being pressured or forced into claiming a belief in something that I view as very difficult for humans to actually understand with definitiveness.

So, when I am pressured into accepting a higher power, I believe it defeats the whole purpose. Spirituality, to me, is a very personal thing. When someone tries to push a subjective belief on you when you are not really feeling it, the belief itself kind of loses the magic or beauty.

What I did gain from the meetings was hearing other people’s personal stories and knowing that there were others like me who suffer from various forms of addiction. However, that wasn’t enough to keep me going. I never found the general formula for success or even specific solutions presented there to resonate with me much. They just didn’t leave me feeling hopeful or empowered.

The slogans, such as “keep coming back,” made me feel like I would be a slave to this program for the rest of my life – a program that, quite frankly, did not feel like a good fit for me. For one, I just didn’t seem to fit in very well with the other participants at any meeting I went to, and I never felt that sense of fellowship even when I made efforts to try to talk to people. I even made a few heartfelt efforts at getting a sponsor and working the steps but it just didn’t work out. And I never really felt comfortable at the meetings. I almost always could not wait to get out.

The “one day at a time” slogan suggested that deep down drugs were really something I wanted to do, and that I just had to push aside my cravings and put up with my problems for one day and repeat that every day. Instead, what I needed to learn was that drugs were something that I really didn’t want to do and that I could live a happy life without them, without constant cravings, and without living every day in agony. I needed to learn that my problems were solvable and that even though it may take some time, if I did the work, over time I could accomplish what I needed to.

I also had issues with the steps themselves. While I may have realized that at a specific point I had become powerless over my addiction and my life had become unmanageable (Step One), I never caught on to the idea that the solution was turning my life over to a higher power (Step Two and Three). I needed to learn that, instead, through my own hard work and the help of others who cared about me, my problems were solvable and that even though it may a long and involved process, over time I could accomplish what I needed to.

Another step that bothered me was asking God to rid us of our character defects. I believe that taking note of your character strengths and building on them is just as important as trying to rid yourself of character defects, but the twelve steps seem to focus only on the latter.

Despite that, I acknowledge that the 12-step model has worked for thousands of addicts, many of whom would not be alive today or as successful as they are if it were not for programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), etc. It is a great program for many people, perhaps the majority of people, as the McLean study might corroborate. For many people, twelve-step meetings provide a sense of community and support that I believe would be vital to the success of non-twelve-step recovery programs.

If twelve-step programs are not working for you then I would like to offer some alternatives and share what has worked for me so that you may realize that there is hope for recovery for nonbelievers. A person need not be relegated only to one program that may not be a good fit or conducive to his or her sobriety.

One important lesson I have learned in my recovery is the importance of radical acceptance. This principle is the ability to accept and live with things that you cannot change. For example, if I am stuck in a traffic jam, instead of starting to shout, I try to relax to some enjoyable music until traffic dies down.

AA’s serenity prayer states, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I was never really hostile toward that prayer despite the God reference because I believed in the basic message; however, applying that message to my struggles in life was exceptionally difficult for me despite hearing that prayer dozens of times.

I suffer from a serious case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and often have trouble accepting things I can’t change and, consequently, am unable to focus on the things that I actually can change. Instead of asking a higher power I don’t really believe in to grant me this serenity and courage, I now know that the change has to come from inside of me and my own hard work, while my psychiatrist and other allies help reinforce the concept and give me guidance.

If I also choose to ask for supernatural help, that would be my decision. I’m not ruling it out completely, but it would not be the first source I go to because I find other sources of inspiration more helpful. This principle of radical acceptance is something I am still working on.

Besides trying not to obsess about things, I am working on other life issues all the time: solving conflicts with people, finding motivation to accomplish things I care about, taking care of myself physically, planning my budget well, building a fulfilling social life, and solving other problems and making good decisions in general. All of these things require my own hard work and a support system to help me.

There are some non-12-step recovery programs that are not as prominent or widespread as Anonymous groups. In doing research for this article, I learned about a group called SMART Recovery, which stands for “Self-Management and Recovery Training.” On its website, the organization describes itself as “the leading self-empowering addiction recovery support group. Our participants learn tools for addiction recovery based on the latest scientific research and participate in a worldwide community which includes free, self-empowering, science-based mutual help groups.”

I have never been to a SMART meeting. I do not know if I will go because, at this point, because I feel pretty secure in my recovery with the resources I have. However, just from this description, it sounds like it would be a better resource for me than twelve-step meetings.

Besides non-12-step meetings, there are other things you can do if the 12 steps are not for you. It is essential to have a good treatment team; this may include a psychiatrist, therapist, and/or case manager skilled in addiction issues to help you navigate through your recovery. It is good to stay in touch with friends who are in recovery and share ways you have found to stay clean and sober.

A very good friend of mine who I keep in touch with happens to live on the other side of the country. He is an addict who attends AA and NA meetings. We didn’t meet there, but we talk about our addiction and mental health issues and use each other as a means of support. It is also good to pursue your goals and engage in hobbies that keep you occupied and motivated towards goals, and having the support of friends and family members can aid in these pursuits.

It was only two or three years ago that I would ruminate about using marijuana all the time. Now, I hardly think about it at all. I don’t even smoke cigarettes anymore. I still have issues with overeating and obsessing, but I am in treatment for those issues and luckily I have made a lot of progress and will hopefully get those under control.

One of my primary focuses currently is my desire to build a more satisfying social life. Being clean and sober is definitely the condition and mindset I want to be in while I do it and look for people who have similar interests as me whom I can build connections and friendships with. A few years ago, I would not have realized this, but with the hard work that I have done with my treatment team, friends, and family, I now know that this is the way to go.


Works Cited:

  1. Brigham, Gregory S. “12-Step Participation as a Pathway to Recovery: The Maryhaven Experience and Implications for Treatment and Research.” Addiction Science & Clinical PracticeNational Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2003. Web. 16 May 2013.
  2. “Correlation vs. Causation.” 2012. Web. 2 May 2013.
  3. “Faith in God Positively Influences Treatment for Individuals with Psychiatric Illness, Suggests McLean Hospital Study” News & Information: Press Releases. McLean Hospital, 25 Apr. 2012. Web. 10 May 2013.
  4. Nauert, Rick. “Belief in God Can Improve Mental Health Outcomes.” Psych Central News. Psych Central. 26 April 2013. Web. 2 May 2013.
  5. Patient Care: Adult. Mclean Hospital. 2013. Web. 2 May 2013.
  6. Spurious Correlations.  William C. Burns and Associates. 1997. Web.16 May 2013.
  7. “The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.” A.A. World Services. n.d.  Web. 2 May 2013.



Related posts:

Filed under: Life, Recovery, Spirituality, Substance Abuse · Tags: 12-steps, AA, agnostic, Alcoholics Anonymous, atheism, God, higher power, NA, narcotics anonymous, Recovery, SMART recovery, sobriety, Spirituality is operated by Recovery Brands LLC, a subsidiary of American Addiction Centers, Inc.
Learn more about what this means here
© 2019 All Rights ReservedPrivacy Policy | Terms Of Use is operated by Recovery Brands LLC, a subsidiary of American Addiction Centers, INC.
An American Addiction Centers Resource