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religion and spirituality can help with addiction recovery.
February 27, 2017

What’s the Difference Between Spirituality & Religion and Their Roles in Recovery?

religion and spirituality can help with addiction recovery.There are notable differences between spirituality and religion that have bearing on a discussion of spirituality as it relates to addiction and recovery.

The fact that spirituality and religion are not the same thing finds contemporary illustration in the growing number of self-described “spiritual but not religious” people in this country. These Americans say they experience “regular feelings of spiritual peace and wellbeing” according to 2016 findings by the Pew Research Center, while simultaneously reporting lower rates of participation in traditionally religious expressions of spirituality, such as prayer and religious service attendance.

How Spirituality and Religion Differ

Spirituality and religion share some points of intersection and can complement one another, but ultimately they are not the same thing. These differences are helpfully summarized in a 2009 article in Spirituality & Health where Rabbi Rami Shapiro wrote the following:

Religion is about belonging, community, shared values, shared rituals, and mutual support. Spirituality is about living life without a net, forever surrendered to reality and meeting each moment with curiosity, wonder, gratitude, justice, humility, and love. The two are not antithetical. Religion is often a container in which spiritual practices are preserved and passed on. Some people find the container as helpful as what it contains and choose to belong to a specific religion. Others simply take what they need from the containers and fashion their own way.

To sum up, religion consists of:

  • Shared rituals and beliefs
  • A community of relationships and mutual support that is defined by these shared rituals and beliefs

Spirituality, in contrast, is the subjective, individual experience of relating in meaningful ways to one’s world, which can manifest itself in various ways. “Curiosity, wonder, gratitude, justice, humility, and love”, in the words of Rabbi Shapiro, are some of the many ways in which spirituality can express itself.

Spirituality also can manifest itself as a search for life meaning and identity that can be embodied in questions like the following, some of which first appeared in this guide to spirituality from the University of Minnesota:

  • Am I a good person?
  • Is there a God?
  • If there is a God, do they care how I live my life?
  • What is the meaning of my suffering?
  • What makes me happy?What defines me, and what do I want most to define me?
  • How am I making a positive difference?
  • What is my connection to the world around me?
  • Do things happen for a reason?
  • How can I live my life in the best/fullest way possible?

At Beach House Center for Recovery, where spirituality is an integrated emphasis in clinical programming, “spirituality is connection,” according to Clinical Director Candice Rasa. She notes that this very simple definition makes spirituality more practically accessible to clients.

How we experience connection thus varies between people. Because it is such a subjective enterprise, “connection” is necessarily unique to each person: its perception, expression and interpretation can differ on an individual basis.

Religion, in contrast, is not the connection(s) itself, but can be a helpful “container” for spirituality, understood as connection. At its best, religion can facilitate these connections. The shared doctrines, rituals, and sense of community of a particular faith — a weekly practice of confession and communion, for example — can help adherents interpret the world around them, deepening their sense of connection to God, others and oneself.

12-Step Spirituality vs. Religion

For others, though, an experience of connection may come more authentically and accessibly through participation in a 12-step group like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), or during time spent in nature, meditation or yoga, among other non-religious venues.

AA, for example, prides itself on being a “spiritual” program for recovery that accepts people from many religious traditions; and “12-step spirituality,” in the form of daily surrender to a “Higher Power,” forgiveness and service, has helped millions of people recover from drug and alcohol addiction. The “12 steps” are, in essence, a blueprint for spiritual transformation.

Yet AA is careful in its official literature to correct “a misconception … that it is a religious organization.” The group may meet in the basement of church buildings and end its meetings with a prayer, but ultimately AA’s “sense of community” arises from “our shared suffering and our shared solution.” Some members may return to their “religious roots” by working the steps. Others may follow “different spiritual paths” that lead to “a God of their understanding,” but a “Higher Power” that is detached from any organized religion.

How Spirituality Can Improve Rates of Recovery

The integration of spirituality in treatment can improve rates of recovery, as evidenced in this more in-depth exploration. Some studies have suggested religious involvement boosts recovery outcomes, probably because organized religion can be a natural container for relationships of support. But that container is not a universal requirement for success in recovery. On the contrary, an experience of connection with a Higher Power is a predictor of better success rates in recovery, regardless of whether it can be described as a “religious” experience. In this sense, the classification, “spiritual but not religious,” may also describe recovery.