When Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935, the question “What’s your religion?” meant, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” The only other alternative was Jewish—Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists lived somewhere in exotic Asia, and anyone who self-identified as atheist was looked on almost as somebody from another planet.
Today, thousands of Americans are openly proud of being atheists. Major U.S. cities are home not only to Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, but also to Zoroastrians, Shintoists and Wiccans. Many other people, of every background and personal theology, simply lack interest in religion.
And sheer volume of religious (and non-religious) diversity has made public religious references a controversial topic—even in Alcoholics Anonymous, where “non-religious” chapters are now editing “God” references out of the Twelve Steps.
Tolerance controversies aside, there’s no question that religious and spiritual beliefs help many people achieve and maintain sobriety:
- The idea of Someone watching out for you reduces feelings of loneliness and helplessness.
- The traditions and organized systems of religion provide a sense of security and of being part of something bigger than oneself.
- Religion emphasizes higher purpose in life, providing motivation to stay healthy and responsible.
- Religion also emphasizes generosity and cooperation—no one need “go it alone.”
- Religious congregations are full of potential friends with shared values and purposes—and congregations usually offer free access to counseling as well.
Granted, most of these benefits aren’t exclusive to (or guaranteed in) religion. Still, a congregation is often the best and the easiest place to find them.
Here are some tips for those who want to make religion a significant part of recovery:
PRACTICE PRAYER AND/OR MEDITATION DAILY
It’s emphasized in the Twelve Steps and in every religious tradition, but the concept of sitting quietly for spiritual nourishment is still one of the first priorities to go when life gets busy. Even so, if we look at the giants of religion—few of whom were idle types—we have to conclude they became more effective by taking time to quiet their minds and get their thoughts in order:
- Jesus, as described in Luke 5:15–16 (New Living Translation): “Vast crowds came to hear him preach and to be healed of their diseases. But Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer.”
- Martin Luther: “I have so much to do today that I will have to spend the first three hours in prayer.”
- Gandhi: “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”
We tend to see prayer as “wasted time” because it’s not obviously “productive.” But a closer look reveals that time spent clarifying our priorities actually protects us from wasting time on “busy work”—and from generating more stress that increases the risk of wasting time in addiction relapse.
GIVE YOUR TIME, TALENTS AND RESOURCES
Most religious traditions have customs (sometimes set rules) of volunteering time and/or donating a portion of income. Even if your congregation doesn’t specifically emphasize “giving,” look for opportunities. You’ll not only help someone else, you’ll help yourself feel more worthwhile and effective.
Besides financial donations and organized volunteer projects, here are a few other ideas for giving:
- Give a bit of your time after the service to talk to someone who looks lonely or upset.
- Give a word of appreciation to the people cleaning up after the big seminar.
- Give someone else a chance at the best parking space, and leave your own car in the rear of the lot.
STAY OUT OF FIGHTS
Many people who self-identify as Christian apparently missed the Bible verse that says, “Don’t get involved in foolish, ignorant arguments that only start fights” (2 Timothy 2:23, New Living Translation)—in a context that emphasizes winning others over with kindness and patience. The trouble is, when our pride is hurt, defending our opinions by every possible means doesn’t feel “foolish and ignorant” to us—though it certainly looks that way to the impartial observer. Try to stay impartial yourself and give the other party a chance to explain his point of view.
And try not to join a religious congregation full of internal bickering or “us-vs.-those-on-the-outside” attitudes: pressure to take sides, or constant negativity, can easily become relapse triggers. You’ll be much better off in an atmosphere of positive acceptance.
Given the time of year, it seems only fair to leave you with these parting words:
Happy Hanukkah (December 12–20)!
Merry Christmas (December 25)!
And for Christians who observe Advent (December 3–24): As you enter the season of hope and anticipation, remember to apply the same principles to your recovery!