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Faith Based Recovery: Stigmas & Reasons for Turning to Religion

Religious belief has often been a topic of discussion in counseling and therapy, as to whether it can provide patients with a foundation for better mental health. The same dynamic has been examined in substance abuse rehabilitation, and many faith systems have models for providing patients with a structure for healing and self-improvement. This guide to a faith-based addiction recovery looks at the complicated intersection between drug and alcohol abuse, religious belief, and rehabilitation.

Do Religious People Abuse Drugs and Alcohol?

Much research has been conducted on how religious belief impacts drug abuse, and vice versa. A study in Switzerland, for example (where around 66 percent of the population are either Roman Catholic or Protestant) found that men who profess a belief in God have a lower chance of smoking cigarettes or marijuana, or even taking psychedelics, than men who have no religious belief.[1] Researchers suggested that a belief system “is a protective factor against addictive behavior,” to the point where religion might be a condition that prevents the misuse of addictive and chemical substances.

It would be inaccurate to say that “people who are religious will not become addicts.” The study, for example, did not determine whether there are differences in the test groups (religious and atheist) that come down to ethical values or to social determinants (such as where they live) that can also be a bigger factor in whether or not they use drugs than what their religious beliefs and practices are.

Nonetheless, the researchers were satisfied that further investigations into the development of addictive behaviors should consider protective factors, such as the possibility of adhering to a faith system.[2]

Other research has offered some ideas as to why this might be. MRI scans of people with religious beliefs have found that experiencing powerful moments connected to perception of the faith in question “activate the same neural systems” as those in people who consume drugs. Neuroscientists working at the University of Utah found that spiritual experiences share similarities with the euphoria that comes with consuming a psychotropic substance. In other words, the mental change that occurs during a drug high is comparable to the mental change that occurs when participating in a powerful religious experience.[3]

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Feeling the Spirit

A study of 19 young members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints revealed that when those people “felt the spirit” (a specific concept in the Mormon faith, which has been described as “a warm shiver and a tingle [going] through [the] body”), the areas of their brain dealing with reward and reinforcement (the nucleus accumbens) were activated.[4] Additionally, the lobes of the brain that regulate attention and decision-making were also stimulated by the experience of “feeling the spirit.” Perhaps not coincidentally, these are the same sections of the brain that trigger the release of the dopamine neurotransmitter when drugs are consumed, which is the main mechanism of addiction.[5]

A Search for Purpose

Why do religious people use drugs? At an extreme end of the spectrum, people who have left their respective religions consider spiritual devotion to be a form of addiction in and of itself. The language used to describe the feeling of enjoying the effects of drug and alcohol – pleasure, joy, security, happiness, comfort – is the same used when talking about the benefits of corporate religious worship. People distancing themselves from their religious communities discuss experiencing withdrawal in the same way that discontinuing drug use induces distressing psychological effects. Pacific Standard magazine notes one person who writes of anxiety and mood disorders as a result of separating from “years of being obsessed with finding the assurance of personal salvation.”[6]

Perhaps because religious belief and substance addiction have surprisingly similar neurological mechanisms, the risk factors that compel a person toward drug and alcohol use might overcome, or play into, the function of faith and spirituality. In “God Forbid! Substance Use Among Religious and Nonreligious Youth,” the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry noted that the search for identity, community, and purpose among adolescents may be strong enough for them to find such important markers in both religious gatherings and harmful peer groups. While religion can protect against substance abuse, youths – especially those from low-income and minority groups – face “multiple developmental and social changes,” so much so that the hypothesis of religion being a protective influence may be challenged.[7]

Further research has suggested that religious belief alone may not be enough to dissuade people from using drugs. In “Religious Involvement and Drug Use among Urban Adolescents,” researchers writing in the Journal of Scientific Study of Religion point out that even though religion maintains a significant effect on the use of and attitudes toward drug and alcohol use, the degree of importance of religion as a predicting factor depends on the nature of the substance involved and “other sources of social control” that a person’s respective church may or may not be in alignment with.

Drug Use among Christians

The Huffington Post reported on the results of an unscientific poll of 1,012 drug users, sorted by the different spectrum of religious belief covering practicing Christian, agnostic, and atheist. The results of the survey had 95 percent of self-reporting Protestants and Catholics admitting to smoking marijuana, more than the 94 percent of atheists who did so. Harder drugs like cocaine were used by only 30 percent of Christians, and 30 percent of Protestants and a slightly smaller amount of Catholics said they used prescription stimulants, narcotics, psychedelics, and hallucinogens recreationally.

As many as 75 percent of the Catholics and Protestants who admitted to drug use agreed with the statement that “drug-induced spiritual experiences can be positive for individuals,” and that experiencing a high had spiritual value. Some people admitted to buying drugs at their church. Under 20 percent of Catholics, and more than 15 percent of Protestants, admitted to attending church services while under the effects of cannabis. This suggests that despite the potentially protective effect of religious belief, “the grip of addiction does not discriminate based on religion.”[8]

The complexities of the reality of drug addiction have led to many of the world’s religions debating on how to approach the danger of substance abuse among their faithful and what this means for the person at the center of the problem. In the past, most traditions considered chronic alcohol abuse or drug addiction to be a moral failing or a sin. Some of the central sociological concepts of a religious tradition, such as meaning and righteousness, predate the modern scientific understanding of addiction. While this has given members a community, discipline, and a sense of purpose, it has also on occasion put these faith traditions at odds when it comes to accepting the now-standard model of addiction as a disease.[9]

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Addiction Recovery for Christians

When looking at faith-based addiction recovery, the perception of the complexities of drug addiction can be further divided into the many denominations that exist within a single religious belief. For example, Pentecostal Christians will likely view substance abuse and how to treat it with a very different lens than an Episcopalian might.

For Catholics, members of the single largest Christian denomination in the world, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, examined the question of whether addiction is “a sin or a sickness,” and pointed out that the debate has long been a point of discussion among Catholic theologians. Catholic Philly quoted a former chair of moral theology at a seminary in Pennsylvania as saying that traditional models of treating addiction as a sin are outdated, and the Catholic Church’s official position is that addiction can be both a sin (with elements of disease) and a disease (with elements of sin).

Catholic priests, theologians, and healthcare providers are tasked with identifying the degree of addiction to the point where the patient loses the ability to choose otherwise. This difference is important for patients whose addiction started as the result of the legitimate use of painkillers for injury or depression, but who developed a psychological dependency on the medication.

Addiction Recovery in Evangelical Christianity

In Evangelical Christianity, on the other hand, the difference is much less nebulous. The Catholic Church does not explicitly forbid practicing Catholics from consuming alcohol (instead advising them to be mindful of the dangers of alcohol to themselves and others), over half of the world’s Evangelical leaders argue that alcohol consumption is inconsistent with their understanding of Christian teachings.[10][11]

Heather Kopp, an author and former Evangelical Christian, wrote of how she was brought up in a church that taught that alcoholism was purely an issue of sin, which forced her into a spiral of drinking, guilt, and relapsing.[12] Christianity Today (considered the “flagship magazine” of the Evangelical movement) posits that concepts of personal guilt and sin have been “replaced” by modern understandings of “social or biological forces.”[13][14]

Those outside the Evangelical world say that this method of addressing addiction and recovery has shifted the blame of substance abuse to the patients, placing more emphasis on the loss of their Christian beliefs than on their psychological wellbeing. Members who struggle with addiction, despite their faith systems and practices, are made to feel anxious and depressed because of the perceived paradox and more likely to experience shame that they try to medicate with both prayer and substance abuse.[15]

Generally speaking, a recovery program targeted for Christians would be based on teachings found in the Christian Bible and further interpreted by Christian theologians. Such an approach would define the standard therapy and rehabilitation in terms of spiritual reflection. These would be implemented in all levels of counseling, both with the patient individually and in family and group settings.

As explained by the Substance Abuse journal, Christian-oriented rehab programs present addiction as a harmful way of filling a spiritual void. Recovery, therefore, is the mechanism by which God “saves” the patient, and the way this is done is by framing the entire process in Christian teachings.[16]

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The Higher Power

An example of such teachings is found in the Bible’s Book of James, where believers are called to “confess [their] sins to one another, and pray for each other.”[17] This is applied in the classic 12-Step model, where groups like Alcoholics Anonymous call for participants to both acknowledge before God (or their chosen higher power) and to other people, “the exact nature of [their] wrongs.”[18] By investing their recovery in a concept greater than themselves, the 12-Step philosophy reassures people in recovery that their beliefs can do for them what they cannot do for themselves.[19]

A Christian addiction recovery program will differ from a standard program. While secular courses look to teach clients how to eventually re-enter the workforce, a faith-based system will place greater emphasis on concepts of personal structure and discipline, with a keen emphasis on family and community values. According to the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, recovery programs that are based on Christian teachings will likely include practices of group and individual worship as part of their functions.[20]

Addiction in Islam

Treating addictions in other religions follows a similar path. In Islam, for example, scholars have also gone back and forth on whether substance abuse is a medical condition or a question of sin. The Quran, the most sacred text for the 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, has clear provisions against the consumption of “any form of intoxicating substance,” says Muslims and the World.[21] While the use of wine is central to key Jewish rituals (and in Christian practices, depending on denomination), the Quran encourages believers to “leave [strong drink],” cautioning that the sin of drunkenness outweighs any potential benefits and outweighs the ability of some people to moderate their drinking.[22][23]

In some understandings of the Quran, this is taken as a directive for believers to completely avoid anything to do with drinking. Hadiths (official records of the teachings and actions of the Prophet Mohammed, from which Islamic laws are derived) quote the Prophet Mohammed as saying that God has cursed everything to do with wine: its production, consumption, transportation, and sale.[24]

Modern interpretations of the Quran and its Hadiths have led to a compromise, whereby Muslim countries will serve alcohol, but only to non-Muslims who must carry a specific license that entitles them to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages in restaurants, bars, clubs, and other official venues. This practice varies by country. Sudan, for example, “is as dry as it gets,” according to NPR, but this has not stopped the rise of a black market. In Dubai, on the other hand, tourists can get Heineken and whiskey shots if they present their liquor license at the point of sale.[25]

Perceptions and Reactions to Addiction

Observant Muslims will likely eschew drinking, but this does not protect them against the environmental and mental health factors that might predispose them toward substance abuse. Muslims who move to countries where alcohol has a much bigger social and economic presence might struggle with maintaining their beliefs while balancing the easy access to alcohol and the expectation to participate in consuming alcohol at work and social gatherings.

In 2012, PRI carried the story of Khalid Iqbal, a lifelong Muslim born in India, who moved to Los Angeles. Iqbal drank beer in India (only three of India’s 29 states are dry), but his move to the United States increased his exposure to alcohol to the point where he developed an addiction.[26]

Despite familial awareness of Iqbal’s drinking, a code of silence (“typical in many religious communities”) was maintained. Publicly confessing to an addiction would be confessing to an ongoing violation of an important law set forth in the Quran, which some in the family’s community would see as a rejection of the entire Muslim tradition.

In these settings, the stigma of a substance abuse or a mental health problem is the bigger concern than the religious overtones and the dangers to wellbeing, according to a psychology professor at the American University of Cairo. Parents will refuse to consider that their adult children consume alcohol, and families who have drinkers legitimately fear the loss of community and friends if the secret gets out.

Mohamed Ghilan, a Canadian Muslim, wrote that the idea of a Muslim who maintains a practice of the Islamic faith while still struggling with substance abuse can seem so unfathomable to members of their community, that those who do suffer with addiction can feel pushed to the margins by other friends and family members. There is the idea, Ghilan writes for the Al-Madina Institute, that substance abuse is “largely confined to those outside of Islam,” so many Muslims believe that other Muslims are “immune” to developing addiction, and they are unable or unwilling to recognize the signs when one of their own has that problem.[27]

Of course, substance abuse does not recognize or respect creed and even those who are prominent in their respective communities can be at risk. Joe Bradford, an American Islamic scholar and convert, said he knows of many established Islamic scholars who drink too much, and similar issues are found in other faiths.[27]

Stigma in Islam

However, the issue of stigma remains fairly universal. Because many Muslims are reluctant to seek help or disclose their addiction struggles, data and information on the rate of substance abuse in various Muslim communities remain scarce. Nonetheless, research has discovered that most of the Muslims who choose to drink, and develop or exacerbate substance use disorders, do so while in college.

College students hailing from a “low-status social group” drank excessively (and even reluctantly) in order to find acceptance among their peers, the American Sociological Association found in 2012.[29] The idea of Muslims struggling with how they are perceived by their American classmates and coworkers has been characterized by racism, misinformation, fear, or even a simple lack of contact between Americans and Muslims (even American Muslims).[30][31] Muslims on college campuses, or those coming to America and other countries where alcohol is widely available, might turn to dangerous drinking habits in an attempt to fit in, reassure their colleagues, or simply bury their feelings of homesickness and isolation. When these problems spill over, their religious communities lack the resources to provide scientific and medical help.

Pushing against the Norm

Nonetheless, there are some Muslims who are pushing against this norm. For some families, the problem of alcoholic relatives has become too much to keep silent, so they take the risk of going to their local imam for help. That was the experience of Yassir Fazaga of the Orange County Islamic Foundation, who heard many such stories from families in his community. In the past, Fazaga was limited to only providing pastoral care to those people in the form of Quranic verses that espoused sobriety; today, he can offer connections to culturally appropriate treatment and rehabilitation programs.

A more controversial idea, one that has even received pushback from some mosques, is a 12-Step program catered to Muslims called Millati Islami or the Path of Peace in English. Based on purely Islamic theology, Millati Islami presents human beings as servants of God (drawing from the literal definition of Islam in Arabic, which means “submission,” and Muslim as “one who surrenders”). For Muslims seeking recovery, Millati Islami reminds them that the central concept of Islam is that humans are meant to serve only God and not something that can become a source of idolatry and addiction (ranging from Muslim iconography, to chemical and psychotropic substances).[32] In the context of this relationship, a Muslim’s mind, body, and soul belongs to God; therefore, Muslims are responsible for taking care of their bodies and their mind, which extends to avoiding substances that change how their bodies and minds work. For example, while Muslims are generally allowed to take medication for medical purposes, they are encouraged to do so with the belief that the power of the healing comes from God and not the chemical reactions in the medication.[33]

Recovery and Reconnection

Millati Islami’s mission is to combine the treatment paradigms of the 12-Step movement with Islamic theology, creating a hybrid program of the two. In doing so, it acknowledges that humans have fallen short of the standards of behavior set out in the Quran, and it requires that Muslims seeking treatment acknowledge that addiction exists in their communities, and that it can and does happen to individuals. Without this, warns Millati Islami, many Muslims who could find recovery in their faith will fall deeper into addictive thinking.

The Millati Islami program was devised with the idea of helping Muslims living in majority non-Muslim parts of the world, to better help them connect their reality of their addiction with the principles of their Islamic faith without having to sacrifice one to benefit the other.

One of the people who has been able to turn his life around through such faith-based recovery programs has been Khalid Iqbal. In 2012, he celebrated his fifth year of sobriety after reconciling the original Christian principles of Alcoholics Anonymous with his Muslim beliefs, with more contemporary versions of the program that did not infringe on his own religion.

However, Iqbal’s success story is still a rarity in a religion and culture that value honor for family and community above all else.[34] Even in talking about his story, Iqbal requested the use of a pseudonym to protect his family from the shame that would come from publicly admitting to an addiction problem.[35]

Addiction in Judaism

Unlike Islam, where all forms of chemical substances are discouraged, wine plays a central role in Judaism. Because of this, a myth has arisen that Jewish people do not (or even cannot) abuse alcohol. Ivy Koptstein, an addiction services counselor at the Jewish Child and Family Services in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the concept of communal pride and honor is very important for conservative and Orthodox Jews, so the idea of a member of the faithful abusing alcohol is anathema.[36]

Drinking wine as part of religious rituals begins early in life for many Jews, a symbol of the long history of wine in Judaism. For 5,000 years, faithful Jews have been making and drinking wine as part of their sacred and traditional meals. It is drunk at almost every Jewish holiday and on their most important holy days. The Book of Judges in the Tanakh explains that wine brings joy to both man and God, and the Biblical Jews included wine in every sacrifice they offered in their Holy Temple. There is even a special blessing, created by rabbis, to be offered with the ritual offering and drinking of wine.

The ancient Jews were not ignorant of the potential risks of alcohol. Many Jewish texts have examples of influential figures in Jewish history getting drunk on wine.

Rabbi Menachem Posner writes that wine is a holy beverage imbued with powers that adds to the sacredness of holy occasions, but that it is also powerfully destructive and should be completely avoided. What makes the difference, writes Posner, is the human intention behind the consumption of the wine.[37]

Wine, Culture, and Religion

In Jewish thought, there are two ways to consider the effects of wine. On the one hand, wine helps the soul shine; it inspires people to religious experiences in the community of other believers. But too much of it, and wine becomes a dangerous escape from the responsibilities of what it means to be a member of the Jewish faith.

On a community level, the Journal of Addiction notes that there is a “long legacy of denial among Jews” that there are people within their families and networks who abuse alcohol or drugs. Indeed, the Journal of Addictive Diseases writes that by and large, most Jewish people are of the belief that alcoholism cannot exist in Judaism, so there are no alcoholics, and only people who aren’t Jewish can be alcoholics.[38][39]

Myth of Addiction

This conclusion, inaccurate as though it may be, speaks to some of the common myths that many people in respective religious communities have about addiction: mainly, that their creeds and doctrines should prevent the development of a substance use problem. Research has indicated that in Judaism, which does incorporate the ritual use of alcohol, there are many misconceptions that have arisen because of the lack of interest in fully exploring the topic of addiction within the faith. Examples include:

  • Practicing Jews have a form of divine protection against mental health and substance abuse.
  • Practicing Jews know better than to drink or to drink abusively.
  • Jews with substance abuse problems are experiencing a spiritual crisis or have given up on their spirituality.
  • There is no need for recovery programs because the doctrines of Judaism are enough.

The silence had led to a culture of alienation of practicing Jews who struggle with drinking and drug use, which sometimes culminates in tragedy. Because of the silence, there is a limited amount of information on addiction within Judaism and Jewish communities, and little education exists for people who want to find out more. The Religions journal notes that even though the “North American Jewish community” largely considers alcoholism to be a medical illness, sufferers still experience a strong sense of stigma and shame, and they are often blamed for their own condition.[40]

Sober Seders and Grape Juice

However, an increase in the general awareness of the realities of addiction (and the dangers of letting it go untreated) has led to a rising challenge from certain members of respective Jewish communities, especially those who have had firsthand experience with substance abuse. Groups such as Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others (JACS) take the basics of the 12-Step system and integrate the concepts with those taught by Jewish theologians.

Jewish believers in recovery have anonymously praised programs like JACS and others that have helped them connect their addiction recovery to the principles and basis of their faith. New innovations in helping Jews in recovery, such as celebrating the traditional Passover meal without wine, have been widely adopted. A principle called pikuach nefesh, which means that saving a life is of a greater priority than religious traditions, has led to wine being replaced by grape juice as specific “sober seders.” Those in recovery talk about how the substitution has allowed them to engage with their faith and other believers on a much deeper and clearer level.[41]

Last Updated on June 22, 2021
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