Sunday Thoughts: How Bout We Keep Your Religion Out of Our Treatment Programs

God is bigger

Last week I was talking about the intersection of community service organizations and religion [Sunday Thoughts: Get Your Religion Out of Our Community Services] and put forth a bit of an argument for why having religious organizations providing supports and services to vulnerable people can very easily lead to a variety of social justice issues. This week I am going to carry on with that theme and ask my readers to consider a story that came out of the U.S, California, about a man who refused to submit to a 12-step program, and consequently was jailed for an additional 100 days.  I’d ask my readers to think about all the reasons (and there are many) that this is a problem.

There are a lot of people who still believe the best treatment resource we have for addiction are the 12-Step programs; Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-anon, Narcotics Anonymous and heaps of other off-shoot programs which look at everything from Co-dependents Anonymous (CoDA), to Food Addicts Anonymous, to Sexaholics Anonymous .   What they all have in common is 12 ‘spiritual’ principles that are considered fundamental to recovery.

These are the original twelve steps as published by Alcoholics Anonymous, courtesy of Wikipedia:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

No god talk there … right?

smells like bullshit1

Across time the language of these steps has been tweaked to SOMETIMES remove gender biases and to try to convince people that AA programs are not religious, but are rather, spiritual. I think right here, we start these programs with a lie. The 12 steps may endeavour to be non-denominational, ie. not promoting any one religion or god over the other (though it smells a lot like Christianity to me), however, it most assuredly promotes the need for us to believe in something – you can dress it up as “higher power” but, the programs are still wearing religious knickers, even if you never see them. Read the 12 Steps. Carefully. Do you believe this is a religion free zone because if you do …

stupid that is

The 12-Steps, don’t work for atheists … not even a little. We don’t believe in god(s) or higher powers – we aren’t waiting for someone or something to listen to our “wrongs” let alone forgive us. We aren’t waiting for a god or higher anything to remove our “short comings” and we are very damn sure that if we are going to change ourselves or our lives, the effort to do so will need to be our own. We don’t have a god or a higher anything to blame our relapses on. If we fall on our asses its our fall. And we don’t believe for a second that if we relapse it’s because we don’t believe in god or a higher power.

Again I will use my experience as a clinical therapist / social worker who spent years working with addictions and addicts – that the 12 Steps never sat well with me, even when I was not calling myself an atheist. I appreciate that many people have successfully managed their addictions with participation in 12 Step programs, however, I would say that is in spite of the god shit, not because of it. I have also seen many people get a grip on their addictions without so much as a single muttered prayer.

Sooooo … why does this all matter today? Well, back to that news story: Atheist Jailed When He Wouldn’t Participate In Religious Parole Program Now Seeks Compensation. In short:

Barry A. Hazle Jr., was serving time for drug possession in 2007 when as a condition of his parole he was required to participate in a 12-step program that recognizes a “higher power.” Hazle, a long-term atheist and member of secular humanist groups, informed the parole officer that he did not wish to participate in the program but was told here were no secular treatments available.

When Hazle refused to undertake the program he was arrested for violating parole and returned to state prison for an additional 100 days, prompting him to sue on the grounds that his First Amendment rights had been violated.

Anyway, personal / professional experience aside, as an atheist I think we need alternatives to treatment programs that are god focused, ‘spiritual not religious’, or higher power-driven. We do in fact have  such a beast, for example, Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS )(also known as Save Our Selves) provides a successful and increasingly popular non-religious alternative to “Twelve Step” recovery programs. I think we need to actively call out this “sort of religious but not religious” shit .. which is just as problematic as openly religious shit. Yes I say shit. Barry Hazle’s extended prison sentence is a social justice issue – a man in the year 2013 spent over three months jailed because he refused to submit to a higher power (god) driven program.

How about we keep religion out of our treatment programs. How about we do proper research and undertake evidence based practice. How about we learn the difference between what works ie. social support versus god talk. How about we make people responsible for their behaviour and problems and how about when they successfully overcome their challenges we give credit where credit is due. We save ourselves. We save ourselves with the grace of community, social support and hard work. How bout that.

5 responses to “Sunday Thoughts: How Bout We Keep Your Religion Out of Our Treatment Programs

  1. the only guarantee in the 12 Steps is “a spiritual awakening” – not the cessation of alcoholic or addictive behaviors. it might be inferred that a 12 Step practitioner will use his or her newfound ‘spirituality’ to aid in living a sober life, but, again, that is not explicitly guaranteed or directly implied.

    while it may be non-denominational, 12 Step is demonstrably religious. atheist/agnostic/secular practitioners may argue otherwise, but the canonical texts (yes, each [fill in the blank]A program has at least one canonical text) & the overwhelming majority of the rhetoric at meetings proves the religious bent of the practice.

    take ‘spirituality’ out of 12 Step practice & you’re left with nothing.

  2. I totally agree: moving from one addiction (drugs/alcohol) to another addiction (sky fairies/religion), is very dangerous and doesn’t come close to solving the problem at hand.

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