• Faith and Science Connection

A Science and Faith Connection?

A reader asks a question…

by Jeff and Debra Jay

Dear Jeff and Debra:

I’ve been told to go to AA, but I’m turned off by the use of “God” in the 12 Steps. I can’t believe in something that can’t be proven. I believe in science.
-Factual Frank

Dear Factual:

Prove it! If you’re a man of science, show us you’re willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

The most recent meta-study of the scientific literature showed conclusively that 12 Step programs like AA were better than other methods over three years. The meta-study was conducted by the high-regarded Cochrane Collective, under the guidance of John Kelly, PhD, of Harvard. They only reviewed the most rigorous scientific studies, and the results were clear.

For people who participated in AA, their long-term recovery rates were better than those using other methods by a wide margin. In fact, they were 20-60% more likely to achieve and maintain sobriety than others, even after three years.

Listen to the words of one Stanford University scientist who participated in the Cochrane review, “…though AA was invented by peers and not by people like me who do science for a living, nonetheless the science supports what they did. In fact, people who go to AA are about twenty to sixty percent more likely to end up abstinent than people who do not. And that is a really big treatment effect. I mean…if you could increase survival rates for cancer twenty to sixty percent, you would be overjoyed.”

Now, to your point about the use of “God” in the 12 Steps. In our hyper-secularized age, many people object to any language that references religion. But is this objection fair? 12 Step programs invite you to use your own conception of God, rather than a prepackaged notion of God. It is always up to you to decide what you will believe. What many people find challenging is that they may need to come to a conclusion.

In this regard, your scientific approach will be helpful. What works? What produces positive and reliable results? If you attend your local 12 Step meetings, you’ll find a wide variety of viewpoints, ranging from atheism and agnosticism to mainstream religions of one kind or another. And everything in between—all in the same room.

What bonds these unlikely viewpoints together? It is their common experience. When each one of them stopped relying on willpower alone, and instead started asking for help and having faith, their lives got better. For each person, as they came to believe in a power greater than themselves—whether that Power was a recovery group or God as they understood him—their addiction was lifted and they regained control of their lives. The 12 Steps are a recipe for making this change happen.

Before you say this stuff is nonsense and cannot be scientifically proven, consider two things. One, the square root of negative one cannot be rationally defined, either; yet it’s necessary to solve many binomial equations. It is what we call an imaginary number, but it is essential to higher mathematics. Second, you cannot scientifically argue against results of 12 Step participation. The belief in God or a Higher Power does not negate the statistical analysis.

But what about the people who don’t get sober in AA? Does it work for everyone? The answer is, the 12 Step programs seem to work for everyone who really participates in the 12 Step programs. In some ways, it’s like joining a gym. Does joining a gym work for everyone? No, but it seems to work for everyone who joins the gym, goes to the gym regularly, and uses the equipment under the direction of a trainer. The key element in both recovery and fitness is to do the work. Recovery isn’t a mental exercise, it’s a program of action.

For centuries now, various people have created a barrier between science and faith. But in everyday circumstances, there’s no conflict between the two. The only time problems arise is when we take a fundamentalist stance on our religious or scientific perspective. In everyday life, we act on faith in many higher-level things, and we simultaneously accept the scientific method for figuring out the physical aspects of the world.

Many of the best things in life aren’t quantifiable or qualifiable by scientific methods, and that’s OK. We don’t need algorithms for compassion, or equations for love. Rather, we need to move from the noun to the verb, from the idea into action. When we set our objections aside and participate in a program of recovery, the results are scientifically predictable. You can put your faith in that.

(By the way, there’s an informative YouTube video on the Cochrane study here: https://bit.ly/3vTPh3l )


This article was originally published in the Grosse Pointe News.

Are you a clinician looking for high-level intervention training? Jeff & Debra Jay offer the most rigorous, in-person intervention training for treatment professionals. LEARN MORE

I've attended Addiction and medical conferences for over 30 years. This was by far the best. -Michael Parr, MD

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