Addiction: A Spiritual Illness with a Spiritual Solution – Conference Report

Addiction: A Spiritual Illness with a Spiritual Solution?

A report on the one day conference held on Wednesday 14th March 2012.

Addiction: A Spiritual Illness with a Spiritual Solution

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The unusual crosscutting style of this conference brought together seventy participants; academics, senior professionals in addictions treatment, addicts and alcoholics in recovery through different methods and in different stages, adherents of religious traditions, and interested member s of the public, to explore the relationships between addiction, spirituality and recovery.The event also brought together diverse discourses that reflected different perspectives : the political, public policy, theological, spiritual, scientific, empirical as well as simple human narrative. It was a day characterised by deep listening, shared experience and courteous exchange, and one in which everyone present had their perspectives altered in some way.

The conference, co-sponsored by Alcohol Research UK and the Centre for Faiths and Public Policy at the University of Chester, aimed to examine the role of spirituality and religion in the understanding of drug/ alcohol addiction and its treatment, to promote dialogue between religious and secular understandings of the nature of addiction and models of recovery, to develop new theories for understanding the inter-connectedness between addiction and recovery, religion and spirituality and to consider the public policy implications of the conference themes. In order to achieve those aims seven speakers brought their expertise to bear on these crucial questions for today’s society.

Dr Wendy Dossett, senior lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Chester and Principal Investigator in the Higher Power Project, set the scene for the day before some members of AA described what it is to be in the grip of an all-powerful addiction, and what recovery from that state felt like for them.  Then Professor Chris Cook who is Professorial Research Fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion, Director of the Project for Spirituality, Theology & Health, at Durham University, and Author of Alcohol, Addiction & Christian Ethics, Cambridge, CUP, 2006 explored the potential for Christian theology to shed light on the nature of addiction. Dr Ashraf Kahn, Consultant Psychiatrist at the Woodbourne Priory Hospital, Birmingham and Non-Alcoholic Trustee on the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous introduced the audience to the history of Alcoholics Anonymous and explored some of the data from a recent AA survey. Dr Lynden Finlay, Director of the Treatment Team at Rhoserchan Residential Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment Centre explained her groundbreaking work in attempting to interpret the Twelve Steps for a secular clientele. Wynford Ellis Owen,  Chief Executive Officer of the Welsh Council on Alcohol and Other Drugs, Chief Executive of Living Room Cardiff, and Author of No Room to Live, Cardiff: Gomer Press, WCAOD, 2010, explored some theories about the origins of addiction in parental relationships, loneliness and isolation, as well as the spiritual nature of recovery, and Sandra Hobbs, former counsellor for the ARA Project in Bristol and Representative of Quaker Action on Alcohol and Drugs (QAAD) probed the similarities in the spiritual paths of the Religious Society of Friends and Twelve Step programmes. Professor Jim Orford, Emeritus Professor of Clinical and Community Psychology, University of Birmingham and International expert in gambling as well as other addictions, drew many of the conference themes together by highlighting the similarities between religious, spiritual and secular approaches to recovery as well as explaining the significance of our debate for public policy. Speakers and delegates spent the afternoon in group sessions to focus on particular approaches to the debates, and conference received feedback on the contributions of both Theology and Religious Studies to the discussion, implications for the direction of public policy, and the nature of Twelve Step spirituality.

The conference also provided a forum, chaired by Professor John Stoner of the Higher Power Project, for a focus-group discussion of a draft questionnaire which will form one of the Project’s research tools. Delegates in recovery or with experience of those in recovery generously provided the research team with invaluable insights which will help to shape this emerging piece of research into the ways people in recovery through Twelve Step programmes interpret and use the concept of Higher Power.

The conference was therefore a rich opportunity for knowledge exchange on many levels. Delegates and speakers enjoyed displays and resources brought by the various organisations represented, and appreciated the opportunity for networking.  Feedback received described the conference as ‘inspiring’, ‘fascinating’ and ‘powerful’. One delegate said the day made him feel less isolated in his interests and another said that bringing such diverse people together to discuss issues at that level is precisely what the academy should be doing.  The conference organisers would like to thank delegates, speakers, and Alcohol Research UK for all their contributions.

The conference organisers hope to take some of the insights emerging from this conference forward in a variety of ways, which will include further similar days. If you would like to be on the mailing list for these, please send an email to