Religion Is Not America’s Drug Problem

The United States has a massive addiction problem. Individuals suffering from drug or alcohol addiction are stigmatized as criminals and failures. We could go down the rabbit hole of how drug addiction and the distribution of illegal substances are the negative consequences of an unjust and corrupt system, or how specific communities and economic brackets are disproportionately criminalized and incarcerated for drug related offenses, but that’s for another article.

Recently I read an opinion piece in Forbes by Michael Durkheimer in which he claimed that the decline of religion in the United States could be the reason for the growing number of drug users and drug-related deaths. There is no doubt that religion has been a part of the recovery process for decades. With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), more and more addicts have turned to God to rid themselves of their addictions. Both AA and NA rely heavily on the belief in a “higher power,” to whom one must surrender, and while it is up to the recovering addict to determine what that higher power is, the general message is that it’s God. The 12-step program is structured much like a religion with group members holding important positions and asking for donations, strict rules that must be followed, the 12-step book which is coveted as if it were the Bible itself, and even the suggestion that members abstain from romantic or sexual relationships with each other. Perhaps most reminiscent of religion is the ostracizing and potential condemnation of those who deviate from the program structure.

I want to make one thing clear, I don’t think AA, NA, or other 12-step programs are a complete waste of time or ineffective programs. In fact, they do help people, and for addicts who’ve hit rock bottom and feel like the only other option is death, I would urge them to take advantage of every opportunity for recovery.

However, for some there is a trade-off that occurs in these programs. Even for those who are not particularly religious, when many of them dedicate themselves to the program, they begin to develop strong religious beliefs. The religious belief tends to become, well… a replacement addiction. Addicts are simply asked to surrender to a higher power and remain abstinent from substances. Sure, substituting opioids or meth with religious belief is better, but when addicts replace one addiction for another, the mental and emotional issues surrounding their addictions are not addressed. Especially when the above mentioned 12-step programs regularly reaffirm that therapy doesn’t work. And many addicts could tell you that replacement easily leads to relapse. Then there are secular addicts who gain nothing more than comradery from these programs.

Suggesting that a lack of religious belief is driving the increase in drug use only attempts to provide a scapegoat. A friend of mine (who requested his name not be used) who is celebrating four years of recovery had this to say on the matter:

Blaming the drug epidemic on a lack of religious belief ignores the fact that painkillers are overprescribed by doctors who get kickbacks for doing so, or that misinformation is spread by big pharmaceutical companies. It’s much easier to obtain prescription drugs and it’s much more comfortable to abuse them than unknown street drugs. This epidemic has nothing to do with a lack of belief. Many addicts I know believed in God well before they used drugs and believed in God the entire time they used. People are dealing with a lot of anxiety and stress, and they are trying to deal with that however they can. Drugs have a lot to do with that. Oh… and don’t forget the US control and protection of the poppy supply in Afghanistan has pushed opiate abuse higher than before.

Even devout believers have drug addictions. In fact, some of the most religious states in the US have the highest drug use and drug death rates in the country including West Virginia and Kentucky.

In a recent survey, 12 percent of Americans have family members addicted to opioids or heroine. Drug addiction is a real ailment causing emotional and physical pain and anguish, and death. It requires actual medical and psychological attention. The idea that drug abusers are sketchy people roaming dark allies with needles in their arms couldn’t be further from the truth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2015 there were more than 15,000 deaths by overdose from prescribed opioids. In 2014, nearly two million Americans were dependent on prescribed opioids. Prescribed by a doctor who is telling you that you need them! Medical professionals experimenting with pain management methods during the 1990’s may have, perhaps inadvertently, single-handedly caused this epidemic. A recent Harvard Business Review article has suggested faulting insurance companies, and taking more careful consideration of unemployment and poverty, social trauma, and geographic location as factors that led to this epidemic.

Unfortunately, President Trump’s solution is to bring back a program that has already failed once. As the “war on drugs” ramped up during the Reagan Administration in the 1980s and ’90s, America’s incarceration rates for nonviolent drugs offences went through the roof. This didn’t prove the program to be a success; in fact, the war on drugs was nothing more than a tool to systematically oppress black people, specifically black men. Now, rather than instituting a responsible healthcare bill, investing in proven recovery programs, providing emotional and psychological support to addicts, Trump is planning for Reagan’s drug war 2.0. Whether or not Trump’s reasoning for adopting this program is oppressive in nature, or he is simply ignorant, his lack of understanding about addiction and recovery is dangerous.

Remember that article I mentioned about less religion increasing drug use? Baseless claims like that are harmful because they make false promises to addicts who are desperate for a cure. If you are struggling with an addiction, please use all available means of help, not just those rooted in religion. Scientific, psychological, and physical recovery methods can help. And please, learn as much as you can about your addiction and your drug of choice, how it affects your body, and how addiction changes the way you think.