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Recovery Without Religion: Spirituality and the First Four Steps

Some people who recognize that they need to be in recovery simply refuse to attend AA or NA meetings: They just don’t want to be “hassled” by others who practice religion openly in their lives. It turns them off when they hear someone say that they will be doomed if they don’t embrace religion, that they can’t achieve recovery or maintain sobriety without the help of God.

Is that a valid excuse for skipping step work? Can you find your way into recovery without embracing religion?

If you go into a recovery program for 90 days, for example, you will learn the 12 steps of AA or NA, but because understanding each of the steps takes so much time and thought you will really only work your way through the first four steps. They talk about being powerless, believing in a higher power, turning yourself over to your higher power, and conducting a fearless moral inventory.

If you were raised in a household where religion was practiced sternly or not practiced at all, you simply might not see the relevance of turning your life over to the care of God.  After all, all religions are man-made organizations.  They don’t encourage exploration or expansion of the inner self. Some people don’t want to go to confession. Others practice a gay or lesbian lifestyle or believe in other liberal agendas that may be excluded by some religions.

Those people do not take pleasure in participating in a religion that requires the subjugation of oneself to a church leader who passes judgment and sets expectation.  The precepts of most religions require you to accept certain teachings blindly, without question.

However, the key to succeeding in a 12-step recovery program lies in that little phrase at the end of Step 3: It refers to God “as you understand him.”  What that really means is that you are ready to turn yourself away from the self-destructive practices of using alcohol or drugs and instead turn toward a higher power—a new spirituality—that will bring enlightenment and happiness into your life. It doesn’t matter whether your higher power is a supreme being or something else, like a commitment to earth stewardship or a devotion to meditation and healthful living.

Realizing that you can embrace recovery without committing yourself to a strict theological approach is quite possible. It’s a joyous idea! What you really will do is focus not on religion but on spirituality.

Instead of forcing you to accept the stern doctrines of an organized religion, your spirituality will allow you to embrace an inner peace. Instead of accepting creeds etched in stone dictated by church leaders, spirituality allows you to ask questions and formulate your own theories.

Instead of fearing the punishments proscribed by church leaders and bearing heavy guilt for your past sins, you can learn to forgive yourself and move forward. You can learn to forgive the others in your life who have hurt you, and when you cannot change something you can learn to move forward from it. 

So let’s take a good look at the first four steps: 

  • Step 1: You are powerless over your addiction: Well, if it’s true, admit it, God or no God. Are your relationships with other people damaged? Have you jeopardized your job and your ability to provide clothing, food, and shelter for yourself and your family? Has your substance abuse brought you legal problems? Has your addiction at times made you physically ill?
  • Step 2: A power greater than yourself can restore you to sanity. You owe it to yourself to evaluate your perceptions of religion. If you don’t like religion, why not? How was it practiced in your household when you were growing up? Do you think that scientific energy drives the universe? If so, how can you synergize with the world around you?
  • Step 3: You will turn yourself over to the will of God as you understand him. There is not a God in any known religion who wants you to obey him mindlessly. If you do embrace the idea of a supreme being, think of Him-Her-It as a being that wants you to do what you believe is the right thing. Once you embrace the thinking, the recovery program, and the 12-step group, you can focus on using your intellect to learn.  You can begin to work on recognizing your relationship with your addiction, your need for treatment, and the triggers that spur you on to substance abuse.
  • Step 4: The searching and fearless inventory. The first three steps all lead to this one. No matter whether you believe in God or if you deny his existence, you reach the point at Step 4 when you have to turn your probing inspections inward at yourself. What kind of character do you have? Are you a good person more than a bad person? What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Recovery by way of development of your inner spirituality can certainly work when you don’t hold a conviction to religious beliefs. What spirituality means in real practice is an attention to yourself: Enhance your inner self with meditation. Expand your mind through journaling. Focus on outward practices such as environmental causes or mentorship in an area where you have strengths.

You may do well in a recovery program that helps you explore those inner needs and characteristics. Yoga can help you become a more calm and focused person. Holistic treatments, acupuncture, and artistic therapies let you develop self-confidence and emotional healing. Even a guilty pleasure such as massage helps to relieve discomfort and reduce stress.

Learn to treat your body better as you begin your spiritual recovery from addiction. Drink healthful foods. Read the nutritional panels on the packages of your favorite healthy foods when you shop. Find an exercise program that suits you, whether it involves free weights, a machine circuit, cardio classes, or swimming. If you once enjoyed reading, drawing, singing, or another creative pastime, then take it up again. Only when you embrace your own complete harmony with the world around you will you be able to travel down the road to recovery, whether you travel with God or without him.

Vista Taos Renewal Center’s therapeutic efforts are grounded the Twelve-Step  model.  For more information on the residential treatment program contact them 1.800.245.8267.

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