What’s faith got to do with it?

Andrew Misell | November 2019 | 7 minutes

A new study, funded by Alcohol Change UK, looks at the variety of faith-based recovery facilities, and asks some important questions.

Maybe it’s a false dichotomy – body and soul – but it’s one we seem to be stuck with, in the world of alcohol treatment just as in our society as a whole. On the one hand there’s all the science and the evidence-base methods: cognitive behavioural therapy, motivational interviewing and so on. Somewhere in the middle ground sit the fellowships (Alcoholics Anonymous and the like), built on user experience but still mistrusted by some as quasi-religious and unscientific. And then there are options that are avowedly religious.

With funding from Alcohol Change UK, a team of researchers from Cardiff University have spent the last two years mapping out faith-based alcohol-treatment services and trying to understand what distinguishes them from any other kinds of provision. Religion is always a sensitive subject and criticism of religious organisations is all too easy. So, it’s worth emphasising at the start the enormous benefits that faith-based alcohol services have brought to many people’s lives. Against a background of dramatic reductions in funding for public services, they are plugging a lot of gaps, and there are thousands of people who wouldn’t be getting the help they need at all if it wasn’t for facilities with roots in the churches, mosques, gurdwaras and synagogues of Britain. Also, it is important to acknowledge faith-based responses to alcohol recovery are not all the same, and there is a great deal of diversity between organisations in terms of ethos, approach, and expectations placed on service-users.

What does it mean in practice if a recovery centre is faith-based? What difference does it make for someone to check into, for example, a ‘Christian’ recovery centre rather than a ‘secular’ one?

Altogether, the researchers found 135 faith-based alcohol treatment providers in England and Wales. Three quarters of these were grounded in some form of Protestant Christianity and around half of these in turn described themselves as Evangelical. No other group came close in terms of size. Other centres were variously Roman Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Mormon or multi-faith. But names only tell us so much. What does it mean in practice if a recovery centre is faith-based? What difference does it make for someone to check into, for example, a ‘Christian’ recovery centre rather than a ‘secular’ one?

One obvious difference is that 34% of all the faith-based alcohol treatment services surveyed made religious participation mandatory for service users, a figure that rose to 52% in residential faith-based centres. This raises two important questions. First, what is participation in worship, prayer and scripture study intended to do for clients? If it’s intended to help recovery, how does it do that? If there’s an idea that if someone adheres to a certain creed, their path to sobriety will be smoother, it’s only fair to ask whether proselytising is appropriate amongst people in such a vulnerable state? Second, what do service users make of faith-based treatment routes? For some, religious participation has clearly been a genuinely positive addition to their lives, giving them a sense of self-worth and community. But the researchers also heard accounts of ‘faking it’ and ‘playing the game’ – of service users taking pragmatic decisions to take part in prayer and worship in order to stay onside with staff and keep their place on the programme.

For some, religious participation has clearly been a genuinely positive addition to their lives, giving them a sense of self-worth and community. But the researchers also heard accounts of ‘faking it’ and ‘playing the game’...

Does that matter? Maybe not, some might say, if it means people are getting help with their dependency and rebuilding their lives. But it doesn’t always feel quite right. There seems to be a need for some greater honesty and a greater willingness to acknowledge what’s actually happening at ground-level. So, as well as encouraging organisations to sign up to the Faith Covenant and commit to “serving equally all residents…without proselytising”, they also say that organisations must be brave enough to listen to the voices of current and past service users about what faith in recovery means for them. Such voices, they argue, are the best indicators of what makes good practice, and it’s hard to disagree with that.

Faith in recovery? Service user evaluation of faith-based alcohol treatment was produced by Professor Mark Jayne, Dr Andrew Williams and Dr Daniel Webb of Cardiff University.

Read the report.