According to research published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), 73% of addiction treatment programs in the U.S. include a spirituality-based element.
This may include spiritual guidance and counseling, principles from the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) that emphasize a higher power, and other approaches to recovery.
But for someone who does not follow a religion or identifies as an atheist, this type of treatment can feel isolating, unrelatable, and at times offensive.
As outlined by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), treatment needs to be accessible to everyone and meet the needs of each individual to be effective.
This means providing non-religious options for addiction treatment. Many rehab centers in the U.S. do this; you do not need to subscribe to a faith to get quality treatment.
Effective Treatment For Atheists
Addiction treatment does not need to have a spiritual or religious element to be effective. The NIDA suggests 13 principles of effective treatment for substance abuse.
These principles stress the clinical and professional treatment of addictions focused on therapy and evidence-based practices.
While there are no known rehab programs specifically designed for atheists, you can find treatment centers that utilize these principles of recovery without the use of religion.
Here are a few principles from the NIDA that highlight evidence-based treatment practices that do not require belief in a higher power:
Recognizing Addiction’s Effect On The Brain
“Addiction is a complex but treatable disease that affects brain function and behavior.”
A nonreligious rehab program should address addiction as something that affects the brain and a person’s behavior.
There are clinical and scientific explanations of why drugs and alcohol control behavior. Drugs physically change your brain’s neural pathways and create long-lasting changes in the brain.
There are plenty of drug and alcohol rehab programs that look at addiction through this lens and use strategies of treatment that consider brain function, changing established patterns, and more.
“No single treatment is appropriate for everyone.”
You can find a drug treatment program that creates individualized treatment plans that meet your specific needs.
Treatment specialists will work with you to create a plan that uses methods you respond to. For some, this might mean spiritual-based counseling, and for others, a more secular approach.
The right rehab center will take your beliefs, culture, background, and other factors into account to find a level of care that fits your needs.
Treating The Whole Person
“Effective treatment attends to multiple needs of the individual, not just his or her drug abuse.”
Non-religious alcohol and drug rehab centers should consider a person’s:
- medical history and current issues
- psychological problems or mental illness
- social challenges
- vocational issues
- legal problems
- family history
By taking a whole-person approach to recovery, a treatment center will take into account more than just the substance use disorder, and address additional issues that compound the addiction.
“Behavioral therapies—including individual, family, or group counseling—are the most commonly used forms of drug abuse treatment.”
Many faith-based programs use spiritual counseling that incorporates elements of prayer and religious text-based guidance.
However, atheists typically benefit from behavioral therapies in addiction treatment.
The most effective behavioral therapies include:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
- motivational interviewing
- individual, group, and family therapy
These types of therapies can help individuals in recovery to discover harmful thought patterns and increase self-awareness to build recovery skills.
With behavioral therapy, you can become more in-tune with your learned behaviors, coping strategies, and triggers, rather than a spiritual aspect of yourself or leaning on a higher power.
Following The 12 Steps From A Non-Religious Perspective
If you find yourself in a rehab facility that uses the 12 steps, or you’re interested in exploring groups that use the 12 steps, you can do so without believing in God or a higher power.
The 12 steps are focused on themes of honesty, humility, and reaching out for help. Many of the guiding principles of this recovery model discuss belief in a higher power.
- Step two: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
- Step three: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
- Step five: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
You can incorporate your own meaning of “God” within each of the 12 steps to find something you can personally relate to.
In step three, you can replace “God” with your sponsor or a rehab program. With this amendment, you’re committing to give yourself over to a person or program that can help.
Alternatives To 12-Step Groups
If you prefer a group that does not mention a higher power, there are multiple options to choose from for atheists.
- LifeRing Secular Recovery: LifeRing hosts in-person and online meetings that center on a philosophy of sobriety, secularity, and self-help.
- Moderation Management (MM): This is an alcohol addiction program offering nonreligious meetings and therapy.
- Secular Organization for Sobriety (SOS): SOS is a nonprofit network of groups that offer secular-based meetings and resources for those overcoming addiction.
- SMART Recovery: You can attend science-based support meetings that do not discuss religion or a higher power.
- Women for Sobriety: This program for women works on increasing self-value, self-worth, and self-efficacy with in-person and online meetings across the U.S.
Resources For Atheists Seeking Addiction Recovery
If you’re looking for science-based addiction recovery, there are several resources to get you started. Use the resources below to find treatment and learn more about atheists in recovery.
- An Atheists Unofficial Guide to AA – for Newcomers by Vince Hawkins: This book explores AA in a way that’s accessible and relatable for atheists.
- The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide To Recovery by Martha Cleveland and Arlys G.: This work translates the 12 steps into secular terms.
- Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous by Adam N.: This book uncovers key elements of recovery from a secular point of view.
- Modern 12 Step Recovery by Glenn Rader: A secular guide to the 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
- Beyond Belief Sobriety: This is an addiction recovery podcast that discusses topics surrounding addiction from a secular perspective.
- Sober Podcasts, “Atheists, Agnostics, and Addiction Recovery with Joe C.”: This podcast covers what a higher power might look like for atheists or agnostics.
Other resources for recovery:
- Mental Health America, “Can I go to AA if I don’t believe in God?”: How to view AA from a non-religious perspective.
- NIDA, “Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction DrugFacts”: Find easy-to-read information on evidence-based treatment, medications, therapy, and more.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Virtual Recovery Resources: Find secular mental health and addiction resources for online support.
- American Psychological Association (APA) — What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
- National Center for Biotechnology Information — Dialectical Behavior Therapy
- National Institute on Drug Abuse — Principles of Effective Treatment