Blog - Beach House Rehab Center
A young man praying over an open bible.
February 3, 2019

What Is Faith-Based Rehab?

If you’re looking for a drug or alcohol rehab program, you may have come across the term “faith-based rehab,” which is an option that many people who describe themselves as Christian end up choosing. Faith-based rehab, as opposed to secular rehab—or even spiritually informed rehab—tends to be intentionally more religious in its approach, integrating the Bible and specifically Christian biblical and devotional themes into daily group and individual activities and even therapies.

But faith-based rehab is also not for every self-described Christian. Just because an addiction treatment provider promotes faith-based rehab does not mean that its treatment outcomes are superior, that the program will be your best fit, or, equally importantly, will actually meet your spiritual needs. After all, many treatment providers integrate the spiritual principles of the 12 Steps, which are not explicitly Christian, into their therapeutic offerings— and, a substantial body of research has associated 12-step involvement with the best treatment outcomes.

This article will provide you with a closer look at faith-based rehab, and will offer tips for how to determine whether a faith-based rehab program or a spiritually informed rehab program is right for you.

The Spiritual Aspects of Addiction and Recovery

Extensive writing in the world of recovery, often by former addicts, has emphasized the spiritual dimensions of addiction and recovery. Some have gone so far as to argue that the real problem of addiction is a spiritual one.

Even respected scientific bodies now recognize that the disease of addiction is as much a form of spiritual “dis-ease” as it is a physical and psychological disorder. Consider, for example, the following definition of addiction from the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM):

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

In other words, dysfunctional circuitry leads to “characteristic spiritual manifestations.” What are these “spiritual manifestations,” or spiritual roots of addiction? According to ASAM, the

“spiritual” manifestations of addiction include “distortions in the connection with … the transcendent” (often personally referred to as God, a Higher Power or an object or concept that has personal value and transcendence).

Why Spirituality (Not Religion) Is Central to Recovery

“Spirituality,” which aims to heal and deepen connection with a transcendent being, purpose, or “Higher Power” (in 12-step terminology), is therefore central to recovery. Here many people fall into the trap of conflating spirituality with religion, when in fact religion and spirituality are quite different and only one of them (spirituality) ultimately proves essential to recovery.

Here are some basic differences between spirituality and religion, recognizing that the subject is not without controversy and has drawn an abundance of differing interpretations:

  • Spirituality is about one’s private experience of connection with the transcendent (God, a Higher Power, etc.), whereas religion is more about the public expression of certain shared views and beliefs.
  • Spirituality emphasizes the individual’s personal experience of divine/transcendent connection, whereas religion is more about the corporate (group) experience of divine/transcendent connection.
  • Spirituality can also include authentic connection to oneself and one’s passions and purpose, which are not necessarily religious in nature, depending on the person.
  • Religion is more “rules-based,” insofar as it is more about articulating the boundaries of who is out and who is in.

Many people who end up in recovery may have a religious background but little to no authentic experience of connection with God. Many of them may have had a negative experience with religion and for this reason fear any mention of spirituality; others may have positive religious associations, but have never experienced authentic personal connection with God. Still others view rehab as an opportunity to reconnect with their religious faith, and believe that a faith-based approach will maximize their chances of recovery. Then there are those who strongly favor the mention of spirituality but would consider themselves largely secular.

Anyone considering rehab can therefore benefit from considering where they are in relation to spirituality and religion. Another good rule of thumb: talk with prospective providers about if/how they integrate faith or spirituality into their treatment programs.

How 12-Step Spirituality Improves Treatment Outcomes

Spirituality—and, in particular, the spirituality of the 12-step tradition—has been shown to predict better treatment outcomes for people with substance use disorders. When researchers at New York University set out to understand the role of spirituality in recovery from drug addiction, they interviewed more than 500 members of the 12-step group Narcotics Anonymous (NA). What they discovered, in findings published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, was that an experience of “spiritual awakening” or “renewal” correlated with lower rates of relapse.

Other research in the journal Substance Use Misuse has noted that many people cite spirituality as critical to their recovery. The same research has cited findings from other studies that have revealed that:

  • Commitment to a Higher Power may reduce the severity of relapses.
  • Spirituality correlated with longer sobriety.
  • Higher levels of religiosity and spirituality were associated with better physical and mental health.

What Is 12-Step Spirituality?

NA, like Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups, understands itself as a spiritual program for recovery. The “12 Steps” are spiritual principles that are meant to be practiced daily and applied to your everyday life. Here they are:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol— that our lives had become unmanageable.
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Each of the above steps involves an action— the enactment of a spiritual principle or truth, such as honesty, hope, faith, courage, integrity, willingness, humility, love, discipline, patience, awareness, or service.

12-step groups are open to people of any faith tradition or religion, including those who do not believe in God. There are no belief requirements that you have to agree to in order to become a member. In this sense, 12-step groups do not qualify as religious or “faith-based rehab.” Still, the overwhelming majority of people in NA, AA and other groups describes itself as “spiritual,” according to the same research cited above.

Deciding Between Faith-Based vs. Secular Rehab Programs

Because 12-step groups and the spirituality they promote have helped many people in recovery, many faith-based and secular rehab programs offer 12-step recovery groups to their clients. If you are a person of faith for whom spirituality is important, you therefore may be helped by any program that includes 12-step spirituality among its therapeutic offerings.

If you’re wondering whether a faith-based program would be better for you, here are some other things to consider:

  • Do you regularly attend church?
  • Did you attend a Christian school/college?
  • Do you feel more comfortable talking in Christian or biblical language about your struggle with drugs or alcohol?
  • Could you see yourself being more helped by a Christian therapist who prays with you?
  • Would you prefer being among a treatment cohort of other people who share the same Christian beliefs?
  • Have you visited a Celebrate Recovery group and prefer it to a regular AA or NA group?

If you answered “yes” to more than one of the above questions, you may benefit from attending a faith-based rehab program.

If active addiction seems spiritually desolating, recovery can be an opportunity to experience new spiritual life and growth. What’s most important is finding a rehab program that will help to facilitate that spiritual renewal, whether or not they’re explicitly faith-based or “Christian.”

For related information, check out these articles:

  1. How Spirituality Improves Rates of Recovery
  2. The Health Benefits of Awe and Tips to Include It in Your Everyday Recovery Plan