In many faiths, a lot of emphasis is placed on cultivating self-control, denying base impulses, and leading a disciplined life. In environments in which drug or alcohol use is seen as an indulgence, it can be very difficult for individuals to get the help they need with addiction. Addictions in religious environments tend to be hidden, adding shame to what’s already a difficult disorder to come to terms with.
While many religious communities are beneficial and offer generally positive experiences for followers, a toxic spiritual view of addiction can be a potential roadblock for someone who’s ready to pursue sobriety. It’s important for clergy and community members alike to understand what addiction is —and just as important, what it’s not—and to create a supportive environment for those who want to get clean.
Masking Addiction Doesn’t Help
The idea of getting treatment for addiction can be intimidating. The financial and time commitments alone can make many people wonder if the pay-off is worth it. However, for those involved in religious communities, the fear of social fallout can be even more of a hindrance.
For many, admitting an addiction is a very humbling experience. Thanks to pop culture, people tend to have rigid ideas of how someone living with an addiction looks, lives, and acts. For those in some religious circles, living a clean, sober life is one of the things that sets them apart from the world. As a result, someone may seek to mask their addiction rather than admit that an important aspect of their life doesn’t entirely conform to their religious community’s values and moral code.
Seeking help for addiction is important for several reasons. Despite an individual’s best intentions of tapping into their willpower to stop using a substance cold turkey, this approach is rarely effective. Addiction is complex and changes the way the brain works. Addiction also tends to worsen over time. The longer an individual uses drugs, the more it impacts their brain’s chemistry and the greater their body’s tolerance to those substances. These factors make it extremely difficult to end an addiction without professional help.
Addiction is a medical condition, not a character flaw or personal failure. As such, treatment requires far more than willpower; it requires professional interventions not available outside an addiction treatment program.
How to Discuss Addiction with a Religious Community
Owning up to addiction is never easy, whether it’s to an employer, a friend, or family members. However, for someone who gets emotional support from a religious community, especially one that has inaccurate ideas about addiction, this can be especially challenging. Individuals may wonder how their standing with the community may change if they openly talk about their own addiction or that of someone in their household.
In some circles, this fear may be valid. Those who admit to addiction may indeed be at risk of being alienated from the group. However, others may be pleasantly surprised to discover that not only is their religious community open to those with addictions but have mental health professionals on staff and resources in place to help people seeking treatment.
The Religious View of Addiction: How the Five Main Religions View Addiction
The world’s top five religions have vastly differing views on addiction depending on cultural traditions, history, and teachings. Some religions are accommodating of those living with substance use disorders and provide a support structure for those who want treatment. Others have stricter views, and followers may be more likely to be ostracized for admitting an addiction.
Within every religion, there are numerous groups and sects that have differing stances on addiction and seeking treatment. While the following information provides a general overview of how substance use is handled by each system of beliefs, individuals may find their own religious community to be more or less supportive.
Of the five main world religions, Hinduism is perhaps the only one in which drug use plays a role in religious tradition. In fact, in the Atharva Veda, one of the religion’s four sacred texts, cannabis is named one of the earth’s most sacred plants. Today, ideas regarding drug use and alcohol vary considerably across castes and regions. In some cases, drug use is an indulgence for the wealthy and a means to escape the harshness of life for those in poverty, and both groups experience the negative consequences of addiction. While some Hindu sects are tolerant of substance use, many don’t accept any type of recreational drug use. In general, Hindu communities are supportive of addiction treatment as a way to bring the mind and body under control.
Though substance use disorder isn’t at the forefront of Buddhist teachings, the Buddha acknowledged addiction problems and provided advice on seeking sobriety. Buddhism focuses heavily on the human mind and on developing solutions to minimize the suffering of others. Addiction treatment fits well with the four noble truths of the Buddha’s earliest teaching, which including dukkha, or suffering; craving; the cessation of suffering, also called enlightenment; and the noble eightfold path, which includes right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
It’s not surprising, then, that numerous addiction recovery programs incorporate principles of Buddhism. Many aspects of traditional 12-step programs as well as the idea of mindfulness come from Buddhist ideals.
Judaism generally has a different outlook than Hinduism and Buddhism. In Jewish tradition, a person’s body isn’t their own; it belongs to God and is to be treated with respect. Anything done to bring harm to the body is seen as immoral.
Alcohol has played a significant role in some Jewish traditions, and certain sects have used mind-altering drugs to achieve closer union with God. However, substance abuse is generally considered unacceptable in most Jewish communities. There’s a large amount of shame and stigma surrounding addiction for many who practice this religion, posing a challenge for those who would benefit from treatment.
Christianity began as a movement within Judaism, so it’s not surprising that many of its philosophies are built on Jewish ideals. This includes viewing the body as a temple and condemning anything that would cause harm to the body. There’s a strong idea of temptation and suffering being an ongoing part of the human experience, but followers are expected to refrain from harmful behavior. Abusing drugs and alcohol aren’t just harmful to the individual and their loved ones; it’s a sin against God.
How addiction and addiction treatment is handled within Christianity varies considerably across religious communities. In some cases, addiction is strictly seen as a moral issue that’s resolved by seeking forgiveness and following the commands of the Bible. A lifestyle of addiction is enough to cause someone to be asked to leave their community. In other cases, churches have evidence-based programs in place to support those seeking addiction treatment.
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam traces its roots back to Abraham, and Islam views Judaism and Christianity as earlier and incomplete versions of Islam. In general, the religion largely condemns any use of recreational drug or alcohol use. The Qur’an specifically forbids recreational alcohol use. While there’s a history of opioid use for Muslims living in certain regions, today, individuals are expected to abstain.
Some traditional Muslim communities have a shame-based culture in which fear of being ostracized by the group is used to keep members in check. Addiction is viewed as a spiritual disease and a crime against God and society. It’s seen not only as a personal failing but a failing of the community. As is the case within Christianity, some individuals in Muslim communities experience significant social fallout if they admit to an addiction, while those in other communities find support.
The Role of Faith in Recovery
Despite persisting stigmas, many people find faith when seeking sobriety or living a clean lifestyle. Faith communities can provide accountability, encourage honesty and transparency, and offer strong social connections at times when an individual is most vulnerable. About three out of four addiction treatment programs incorporate religious principles and encourage participants to seek strength from God or a Higher Power. Religion can also provide a daily or weekly routine, which is helpful during the early days of recovery.
Regardless of an individual’s religious affiliations, it’s important for them to find a community that allows them to be honest about their struggles with addiction and is supportive of ongoing treatment.
At FHE Health, patients from every faith tradition are welcome, and we model respect for the beliefs and experiences of each person in our programs. We also value the positive role that healthy spirituality can play in the recovery journey and seek to encourage our patients in this direction. For more information about our programs, contact us today.