Religious rehab: Fishing for the weak

My name is Will and I am an alcoholic.”

Those words carried the 19-year-old to what he hoped would be early redemption for a self-admitted addict. The faces looking back at him were aged and weathered by years of pain, reflecting a desperation that was only just taking root in him. Alcoholics Anonymous with its bolstered reputation was the first option that came to mind. 

Then again, it was the only option that came to mind.

Will only attended two AA sessions before walking out, disgusted by its covert conversion methods: “No one there would admit that AA was religious. They claim that they do not hold you to the Christian God, only that they hold you to some higher power. They claim it can be another god. A rock. An abstract, an ideal. … It would be one thing if they had meant it … But they didn’t. If the higher power could be anything we wanted, then why did we end each meeting with the Lord’s Prayer?”

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are centered around the 12-Step program. According to 12-Step, addicts are incapable of escaping addiction without God’s help. Narconon, the rehab empire with over 180 treatment centers worldwide, grounds its program in the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology. But don’t count on them admitting that before you hand over the $27,000 for admission.

Nowhere does Narconon’s website mention its religious affiliation. Likely, they’re avoiding association with Scientology because of the bad rap it’s developed. But let’s be real: This is the same group of people pitching you their handbook called “Integrity and Honesty.” 

AA openly states its spiritual foundation, but its introduction pamphlet advertises an open-minded front: “All the great faiths are represented in our Fellowship, and many religious leaders have encouraged our growth. There are also atheists and agnostics among us. Belief in, or adherence to, a formal creed is not a condition of membership.”

But take a look at AA’s fundamental 12-step curriculum. By Step 2 the addict submits to a “Power” that is greater than him. This cleverly ambiguous higher Power is left open to the interpretation of the addict, but in any case the addict must surrender his agency and independent strength. But wait, hold on: Who says conversion can’t be an effective treatment method?

Miller’s research

As a lifelong Christian, Dr. William R. Miller at the University of New Mexico thought spirituality would surely benefit recovering addicts. To test the validity of his assumptions, he conducted a study that compared religious and secular rehabilitation treatment programs.

The results were surprising: Not only were secular programs more effective in treating substance abuse, patients of religious programs reported higher levels of anxiety and depression than those without spiritual guidance. 

In light of these discoveries, Miller concluded, “What we came away with was the sense that we had been naïve to think of spiritual direction as an acute intervention for early treatment.”

But why did graduates of religious rehab programs register higher rates of anxiety and depression? Miller speculates that it’s simply timing; with religion’s excess of moral codes and guilt-enforced modes of conduct, religious treatments only augment addicts’ stress. If that is true, what do secular programs offer that lead to lower levels of anxiety and depression?

One secular rehab program, SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training), focuses on teaching self-empowerment and self-reliance. Simple, right? SMART’s techniques also evolve alongside addiction recovery science. In fact, these are common practices in most secular rehab programs. By restoring addicts’ agency through self-empowerment techniques, recoverers graduate with the knowledge that self-control comes from within. This prepares them to stay off drugs in the future and lead more productive lives. With these outcomes, reductions in depression and anxiety are inevitable.

The greatest distinction between religious and secular treatment programs is the source from which addicts are encouraged to derive their will to quit. In 12-step and other spiritual programs, patients must sacrifice themselves to an external entity, accepting that they cannot recover alone. Addicts effectually replace their dependence on substances with a dependence on a (real or imagined) higher power.

Rather than dependency replacement, secular rehabs shoot for dependency cessation, treating the aspects of addicts’ lives that caused them to seek external affirmation in the first place.

While spirituality has provided support for many recovering addicts, that doesn’t excuse the oversaturation of religious rehabs in the treatment market. Rather than subversively proselytizing vulnerable individuals, rehabilitation programs should prioritize patients’ needs.

Not everyone needs religion to recover. The dishonest use of religion has caused more than one person to walk out of treatment, but the larger problem may lie in the many people too desperate to realize they’re swallowing a force-fed God.

The authors of this article are editors at, a resource which provides information on treatment programs nationwide and articles and interviews on drug treatment.


Freedom From Religion Foundation