Humanism and SMART Recovery

SMART Recovery’s principles and practices provide a science-based, self-empowered method for battling addiction—one of the most significant healthcare crises of this century. From the beginning, there was a strong alliance between the secular community and SMART Recovery, which stands for Self-Management And Recovery Training.

Let’s begin by traveling back in time to the last quarter of the 20th century. The American Humanist Association (AHA) was already well established at this time and, among its causes, was finding science-based and secular recovery help for people who could not connect with programs that have a religious orientation and require surrendering to a Higher Power. Thus, the AHA played a significant role in laying SMART Recovery’s foundation. Among the founding board members was Michael Werner, who was the AHA president from 1993 to 1994—the very years when SMART was being formed. He is still among SMART’s greatest advocates and facilitates many mutual aid meetings.

While I’m not a card-carrying humanist, I can see the philosophy’s influence in SMART’s principles and practices.

The SMART model integrates the proven science to treat addiction with the lived experience of those who have recovered. The science comes from cognitive and motivational therapies, including ones created by Humanists of the Year Carl Rogers and Albert Ellis, who their peers regard as among the top psychologists of the 20th century. Both emphasized a person-centered approach to therapy and recovery from addiction through self-awareness and empowerment. It is this feature that attracts many people to SMART.

SMART offers an elegant and practical 4-Point Program® that can be used to address many life challenges:

  1. Get motivated to change and stay motivated.
  2. Cope with urges that can sidetrack you through relapses and distractions.
  3. Manage thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Learn how they interconnect. This takes practice, but life grows a lot more manageable once you figure this out.
  4. Lead a balanced, purposeful, and meaningful life.

It is not enough to stop misusing alcohol or other addictive substances or to honestly address destructive activities such as excessive gambling, overeating, sex addiction, or compulsive spending. To fully recover, people must develop a new life—and the lifestyle, values, and relationships that come with it—to replace the one damaged by addiction.

A further hallmark of SMART is the high value it places on humanity—the equitable worth of all individuals. SMART rejects the stigmas associated with addiction and, for that matter, all forms of discrimination. People are not “addicts” or “alcoholics,” much less “junkies” or “crackheads.” Labels are sticky and belong on jars, not people. Addiction is a behavioral problem that can be resolved. It is not who you are. This is a critical distinction that many people in society do not grasp.

The program does not tell people what to do. Participants share experiences showing how they resolved problems that others may have. They focus on the present and future, which they can change as they recover—not the past, which they cannot. This is the essence of SMART: a self-empowering, science-based, stigma-free pathway to transformative change and a fulfilling life.

Through its alliance with the secular community, SMART advocates for choice in recovery based on freedom from religion, a First Amendment right. The recovery world is still dominated by treatment based on theistic principles and the related idea that people are powerless over addiction and require an outside agency to change.

People need choices. And the courts have overwhelmingly ruled that they have the right to choose recovery support that is non-religious. In many cases, legal advocates from AHA have represented defendants who choose not to attend court-ordered treatment based on a religious program. There have been so many court rulings—in seven federal appellate cases and three state supreme court cases—where this legal issue is resolved. In one of the appellate rulings, the court commented that this issue is an “…uncommonly settled case law” (Inouye v. Kemna, 2007).

Now, let’s move to the present day. Drug overdose fatalities have grown over the past two decades, totaling 750,000 from 1999 to 2018. Many of these lives could have been saved if we had more science-based treatment and recovery support.

These deaths are not tracked as closely as COVID-related ones, although this is changing. Just as it seemed that the yearly rate could not grow worse than 70,000 in 2018, the latest CDC data show that overdose fatalities will far exceed 80,000 once the 2020 numbers come in. Over 12 months, up to May of last year, overdoses took more than 81,000 lives. And this timeframe only includes the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once the pandemic forced SMART to stop holding in-person meetings, there was an unprecedented campaign to move these support services online. Marked on my calendar is March 14, the date SMART formed a task force of staff, board members, online volunteers, and IT experts to launch this effort. Over the following three months, some 500 meetings moved online. We bought Zoom licenses by the hundreds. We developed crash training courses for facilitators who had never run online meetings.

We benefited from already having two decades of experience running online meetings through our national website, and we had already switched those over to Zoom in 2018. We increased the number of national online meetings from 35 to more than 50, adding new meetings on mindfulness, in Spanish, and for teens, while managing a huge increase in attendance. Some of our national online meetings attract 300-plus people.

But the fact remains that we need thousands of more meetings. Strategically, we need to enhance the value of these meetings. At first, most people thought they could never replace the personal connection that one enjoys from meeting in-person. Yet, it is also true that many people prefer online meetings and have recovered through attending them. People are growing accustomed to meeting in this manner, and SMART is introducing so-called hybrid meetings, where people meeting in-person can also join others online.

As much as SMART has grown, it must become a lot larger in the years ahead to make meetings accessible to everyone who could benefit. Before the pandemic required us to suspend most in-person meetings, SMART had more than 2,000 groups meeting weekly in the U.S. and another 1,500 in other countries. To help end a much worse addiction epidemic, we will need at least 5,000 meetings in the U.S. Having more online meetings now will support this effort. Making more meetings available, we can count on one factor to drive this growth: the alliance between SMART Recovery and the secular community, especially the American Humanist Association.