The Future of Secular Recovery

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Addiction recovery unfolds within the larger context of personal beliefs—one’s view of self in relationship to the universe and the search for life meaning and purpose. Variations in personal beliefs are evident in religious, spiritual, and secular pathways/styles of addiction recovery, just as larger shifts in cultural values and practices influence recovery pathways.

A recently released Gallup poll of U.S. adults reveals a striking diminishment of religious orientation and practices. U.S. adults reporting church/synagogue/mosque membership fell below 50% for the first time since polling of such membership began in the 1930s. Overall, membership in a religious institution among U.S. adults has declined from 73% in 1937—two years following the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous—to 47% in the latest survey. U.S. adults reporting no religious preference has risen from 8% in 1998 to 21% in 2020, with a 20% drop in religious membership over this same period. These trends reflect larger cultural and generational shifts, with a progressive increase in secular orientation spanning baby boomers, Generation X, millennials, and Generation Z. These trends cross boundaries of gender, ethnicity, education levels, marital status, political affiliation, and geographical regions.

Below are a few observations and projections on how these larger changes will influence the future of addiction recovery in the United States.

  1. There is a long history of secular frameworks of addiction recovery as well as tensions and conflict between proponents of secular, spiritual and religious pathways of recovery.
  2. Distinctly religious, spiritual, and secular styles of addiction recovery will continue well into the future, with secular styles garnering increased numbers of individuals and increased cultural attention.
  3. Appreciation will increase for the distinct and shared elements of religious, spiritual, and secular styles of recovery as well as how such orientations may differ across cultural contexts and evolve across the developmental stages of recovery.
  4. Shared elements across religious, spiritual, and secular pathways of recovery include problem recognition, commitment to change, and the value of peer and family support. The major distinctions lie in two areas: 1) reliance on experiential knowledge versus scientific knowledge, and 2) reliance on transcendent power (reliance upon resources beyond the self) versus reliance on intrapersonal power (assertion of self-control over the drug relationship).
  5. There will be substantial growth within the secular wings of A.A., N.A., and other 12-Step programs (e.g., specialty meetings for atheists and agnostics; secular versions of the Twelve Steps, secular Twelve-Step literature, etc.). Such growth is already underway (e.g., A.A. for Atheists and Agnostics, A.A. Agnostica, and Secular N.A.)
  6. Explicitly secular recovery mutual aid groups (e.g., Women for Sobriety, SMART Recovery, LifeRing Secular Recovery, etc.) will collectively experience substantial growth in the decades to come and will be joined by new secular recovery support groups and related services. As most secular groups not expect prolonged mutual aid involvement, the sustainability challenges for these groups will be to address the needs for leadership development and leadership succession planning.
  7. Mutual aid groups and addiction treatment programs with a secular orientation will attract a larger pool of individuals with less severe and complex problems (including AOD problems that do not meet diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder) and greater problem resolution resources. Secular groups may also have greater appeal to those seeking a non-abstinent resolution of substance-related problems.
  8. Traditional Twelve-Step-oriented addiction treatment programs will face increasing pressure to offer a broader service philosophy that is respectful of differences in religious, spiritual and secular orientation of those they serve and that recognizes and supports each client’s freedom of choice.  
  9. Mutual aid groups and addiction treatment programs with strong religious orientations will be tempted to move into protective isolation to avoid these larger secular influences. The dilemma they will face is how to maintain historical continuity and integrity and scientific credibility while avoiding cult-like isolation and the abuses and eventual organizational implosion that such isolation can breed.
  10. Without substantial training and supervision, recovery status within a particular style of recovery will no longer be viewed a sufficient qualification to serve as a peer recovery support specialist.
  11. Addiction treatment professionals will require training in the wide varieties of recovery experience, including the diversity of religious, spiritual, and secular orientations, and how concepts and practices within each of these orientations can serve as catalysts of addiction recovery.
  12. The emerging philosophical diversification of recovery mutual aid, addiction treatment, and peer recovery support resources will broaden the menu of language, ideas, metaphors, stories, values, symbols, and rituals that can incite and strengthen the processes of recovery initiation, recovery maintenance, and enhanced quality of person and family life in long-term recovery.

Dr. Ernie Kurtz and I devoted most of our collaborations to celebrating the growing varieties of addiction recovery experience. Those varieties will grow exponentially in the future, and that IS cause for celebration.