Are religious-based twelve step programs better at stopping addiction than other programs?
In 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous was formed by two men struggling for sobriety, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith. Theirs was a new type of program in that it formalized a series of twelve steps that an alcoholic must follow in order to get sober and stay that way. The original Alcoholics Anonymous was only the first of many such programs set up to address just about every type of addiction and obsessive behavior you can think of: Overeaters Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Underearners Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Clutterers Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and even Online Gamers Anonymous. Today we’re going to look a bit into the history of twelve stepping and also how it compares to mainstream psychological treatment of addiction, but mainly into the most important question: Does it work?
It’s impossible to discuss the history of the twelve steps without acknowledging that it is first a religious practice, and second a recovery method. Seven of the twelve steps invoke God. This is the main thing that separates it from medical or psychological addiction treatments that are primarily targeted at the biochemical and psychological causes of addiction. So let’s get started by reviewing the actual twelve steps, and these are the steps as published by Alcoholics Anonymous:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
- 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.
- 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.
Wilson and Smith were both from an evangelical Christian organization called the Oxford Group, and the twelve steps they formalized were reminiscent of practices from the Oxford Group. It had standards it called the Four Absolutes (honesty, purity, unselfishness, love), a set of four spiritual practices, and the “Five Cs” procedures: confidence, confession, conviction, conversion, and continuance. Thus, salvation through evangelical Christianity was deeply interwoven with the concept of twelve stepping. In the words of Bob Wilson:
“…Early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Group and directly from Rev. Sam Shoemaker, their former religious counsel in America, and from nowhere else.”
Because of this, twelve step programs have been strongly criticized, usually by people who dropped out of the programs for one reason or another, and became disgruntled. Some have written books and devoted whole web sites to the idea that twelve stepping is just a bait-and-switch program; come to stop your addiction, but stay to join our church. It’s the same criticism that’s been leveled at Scientology’s Narcanon; it promises to help you get off drugs, but is in reality just a side door into the Church of Scientology.