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The Role of Spirituality in Addiction Recovery

Does spirituality have a place in recovery?

 Sam English
Source: Sam English

Recent years have seen a steady stream of criticism of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program of recovery from addiction. This criticism—primarily from individuals who reject the ideas contained within the 12 steps, as well as therapists who advocate competing approaches to recovery—continues despite more than two decades of scientific research on the 12-step model that documents its effectiveness. To sum it up succinctly, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office recently issued the following statement following its analysis of this research: “Well supported scientific evidence demonstrates the effectiveness of 12-step mutual aid groups focused on alcohol and 12-step facilitation interventions”


Critics of 12-step recovery seek to throw a shadow over every aspect of the program. One favorite target is the concept of spirituality. Critics are fond of accusing AA of being a religious cult and dismiss the idea that recovery is, at least in part, a spiritual phenomenon. They seem to bristle at the very idea of spirituality, or that individuals do at times experience epiphanies or “spiritual awakenings.” Marsha Linehan, the architect of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, herself reports having just such an experience:

As therapists, it’s important for us to keep in mind that addiction in fact progressively robs individuals of their “spirituality.” Spirituality has some connection to religious experience, to be sure. However, if we define spirituality more broadly as the values and priorities we live by, along with our important relationships and the degree to which we feel we have a place and purpose in the world, it’s easy to see how addiction progressively erodes all of these things. With this in mind, 12-step fellowships can rightly be called spiritual because of the values, beliefs, and activities they advocate. These values include honesty and humility (as opposed to arrogance) and behaviors such as altruism and prayer/meditation.

How Does Spirituality Relate to Recovery?

Therapists, as well as those contemplating giving a-12 step fellowship a try, can benefit from knowing what research tells us about spirituality and recovery. Let’s look at two studies.

Dr. Stephanie Carroll of the California School of Professional Psychology defined the following as aspects of spirituality:



Reading spiritual material (for example, daily meditations)

Spending time in nature (for example, hiking or camping)

Interacting with art (visiting a museum, painting or drawing)

Attending a religious service

Greeting a newcomer at an AA meeting

Engaging in AA service activities

Engaging in non-AA community service activities

Volunteering to be a sponsor or temporary sponsor

Following 100 AA members, Dr. Carroll found that activities such as meditation, prayer, reading spiritual material, and communing with art or nature, were significantly correlated with length of recovery (Carroll, S. (1993), Spirituality and purpose in life in alcoholism recovery. Journal of Studies on Alcoholism, 54, 297-301.)

Dr. John Kelly of Harvard University examined the role of spirituality in recovery in a sample of 1,726 men and women and defined spirituality in this way:



Attending religious servicers

Reading holy or spiritual writings.

What Dr. Kelly found was that as involvement in AA increased over time, spirituality also increased. This led him to conclude that “spirituality is important in recovery, and that AA appears to mobilize spiritual changes, which help explain AA’s beneficial effects on recovery.” (Kelly, J. F., Stout, R. L., Magill, M., Tonigan, J. S., & Pagano, M. E. (2011). Spirituality in recovery: A lagged mediational analysis of Alcoholics Anonymous’s principal theoretical mechanism of behavior change. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental)

Spirituality: Good for Recovery?

If we are willing to look beyond the skeptics and critics of 12-step recovery and the blueprint for living that it offers, we see that the two interact—that spirituality supports recovery and that 12-step involvement, in turn, supports spirituality. This can be important information for those who are struggling to control or stop their use of alcohol or drugs. Therapists can promote this spiritual dimension of recovery by working collaboratively with their patients to implement aspects of it into their lifestyles. This might also help to ease their misgivings about whether they are about to join a cult, or exactly what “spirituality” is.


Joseph Nowinski, PhD is the author of If You Work It, It Works, The Science Behind Twelve Step Recovery, (Hazelden Publishing, 2015) and assistant professor at the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies. For more information visit