Drug treatment programs should take approaches that are welcoming to people of many different beliefs.
Drug treatment programs should take approaches that are welcoming to people of many different beliefs. (Toby Talbot / AP)

By Thomas Higdon

Addiction is the great equalizer. It does not care what you look like, where you live or how much money you make. People of all backgrounds could find themselves addicted to drugs.


As the state and country grapple with alcohol and opioid addiction epidemics, treatment programs must be made welcoming to people of all backgrounds. Too many programs rely on religious principles, which hinders or outright prevents the recovery of those who don’t subscribe to the same beliefs. This is something I have experienced first-hand.

I grew up with hopes and dreams familiar to most Americans: work hard, start a family and give back to my community. When I started drinking in college, I never dreamed that I was heading down a path that would leave me unemployed, homeless and alone. When I reached my darkest point, I discovered that if I wanted to beat my addiction, I could not do it alone. I needed help. More importantly, I wanted help.

I was fortunate to receive a coveted spot in a state sponsored treatment program, based on the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Most Americans know AA, but what they often don’t know is that AA is a spiritual program. For example, the Third Step reads: “Make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him.” Many of the other steps refer either to god, a higher power or a spiritual practice such as prayer. As an Ethical Humanist, the spiritual nature of the program presented a challenge for me.

Ethical Humanism is a religion of ethics and relationships that is concerned with how we treat one another rather than the existence of god. When I confided to my counselor that I could not, in good conscience “surrender to a higher power,” I was told to work through the steps or I would be discharged from the program. I tried my best to reconcile the 12 steps with my religious beliefs, but ultimately I failed. For a time, I felt hopeless. I even embraced active addiction, trying to drink myself to death. Then, I discovered that there were alternatives to the traditional 12-step approach, particularly a group called SMART Recovery.

SMART Recovery (Self-Management & Recovery Training), like AA, is a free peer-support group that helps individuals gain independence from addiction. However, SMART’s tools and techniques are based on scientific research and evolve as we learn more about the nature of addiction and what works in treatment. Most importantly for me, SMART believes that the power to change resides within each person and does not depend upon a higher power or adherence to a spiritual viewpoint.

Almost 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, yet only 10% of them receive treatment. With approximately 26% of Americans not identifying with a faith, we can assume that more people with substance use disorders would seek help if secular options were more accessible. To ensure that no one suffering from addiction is alienated, it is critical that more support and access be granted to secular treatment programs and support groups like SMART.

Today, with the help of SMART, I have the life I dreamed of before addiction: a good job, a loving family and the opportunity to give back to my community. I even started a weekly SMART meeting at my congregation, the Baltimore Ethical Culture Society. Not only has this science-based program been a life raft for me, I’ve witnessed it be the same for hundreds of others in Baltimore.

To be sure, 12-step programs are very meaningful for many people, and that should never be discounted. I have many close friends who say that AA saved their lives. Still, we should ensure that other options are available. Secular programs are proven to work just as well as their spiritual counterparts and could make a critical difference in the life of a person with a substance use disorder.

As a country built on religious freedom, we are doing our values a disservice when spiritual treatment programs are the only options for Americans. We are fortunate in Baltimore to now have multiple SMART groups all over the city, but in some parts of the country, the 12-steps is the only option. Finding the right program for me was do-or-die, and that’s the case for many other people with substance use disorders. We need to expand secular recovery options to make sure no one struggling with substance use is left without a life raft.

Thomas Higdon (higdon.thomas@gmail.com) is a survivor of addiction and a member of the Baltimore Ethical Society, a humanist congregation that is a part of the American Ethical Union.