Honor the power of your voice and begin your journey with us today!
Honor the power of your voice and begin your journey with us today!

The Atheist and the 12 Steps

First, I should tell you that I’m a lifelong atheist and I am 10 years sober with the help of a 12-step fellowship (Note: I’m not saying I’m a member of any single fellowship or group, as that would be a tradition violation). I went to 30 days of inpatient treatment and followed it up with meetings of one fellowship primarily. My non-belief or disbelief in God(s) and religion was not for lack of trying, effort, or experience. It simply made no sense to me, ever.

After many years of trying to believe, I simply accepted my disbelief and moved on. This isn’t meant to belittle or challenge anyone else’s belief system, it is simply my truth. Everyone’s story and beliefs are different. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “There are as many concepts of god as there are souls on earth.”

Can An Atheist and the 12 Steps Get Along?

The relationship between the atheist and the 12 steps is a complex and often debated topic. The 12 steps, created by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), have been used as a guiding principle for many addiction recovery programs. 

The first step of the 12 steps states: “We admitted we were powerless over [insert problem here] – that our lives had become unmanageable.” For those who do not believe in a higher power or God(s), this can be a difficult concept to accept.

Many atheists argue that the idea of surrendering oneself to a higher power goes against their belief system. They believe that they have the power to control their own lives and do not need a higher power to guide them.

Additionally, some atheists may feel uncomfortable with the spiritual aspect of the 12 steps. However, others argue that the 12 steps can be interpreted in a secular way. For example, instead of interpreting “higher power” as a deity, one can view it as the collective support and strength found in a community of like-minded individuals.

Furthermore, some atheists may find solace in certain aspects of the 12 steps, such as admitting powerlessness and making amends for past wrongdoings. These principles can be applied without the need for a belief in a higher power. As someone who has attended a fair share of AA meetings in my day, I can empathize with this perspective.

What Are the Standard 12 Steps of AA?

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Copyright 1952, 1953, 1981 by Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing
(now known as Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.)

How To Make AA Work As An Atheist

If you’re trying to make AA work as an atheist, take a second to find out what is motivating this choice. Maybe you’re not interested or comfortable in checking out alternatives to AA. Alternatively, you may know that you benefit from in-person meetings and lack access to other local recovery meetings in your area. Whatever your reason, it’s fine, but a general rule of thumb is that it’s best to know why you’re doing something before you do it. Having your reason for joining an AA meeting in mind can also act as a piece of rational data to keep you calm if some god-fearing Christian starts to make you feel some type of way.

For me personally, I use the substitution principle. God and higher power are interchangeable words according to the Big Book of AA. I substitute my current higher power (a god of my understanding) whenever the word God comes up. I also substitute power or love for God. To me: God = Higher Power = Any Power = Love. You say God, I say Love. It works for me and many others.

A Brief Overview of Religion in AA

AA was established as an offshoot of The Oxford Group. The Oxford Group was a Christian organization founded by the American Christian missionary Frank Buchman. Buchman believed that the root of all problems were the personal problems of fear and selfishness. Buchman also believed that the solution to living with fear and selfishness was to surrender one’s life to God’s plan… which is a nice idea in theory.

Due to its roots, a lot of people think AA was founded as a Christian organization, but it wasn’t. Instead, AA’s founders were Bill Wilson, an agnostic with minimal ties to the church, and Dr. Bob Smith, a devout Christian who participated in daily Bible study, prayer, and reflection. As a result, a lot of the text reflects Dr. Bob’s religious background. While there are certainly enough mentions of God throughout the literature, there is no requirement to follow any religion to participate in a 12-step group.

How to Cope With God in the 12 Steps

Regardless of whether or not AA is or isn’t a religious group, there is no denying the overt presence of God, religion, and Christian rhetoric in its literature. Not to mention, God is mentioned 5 times in the steps themselves. What are the atheists and agnostics supposed to do? Not go? Or go to meetings, but raise a fuss or stomp their feet a lot and be miserable and make as many other people as miserable as possible?

Here’s some practical advice: If your contempt for God or religion is so great that any mention of them is keeping you from getting support, then it’s likely that a 12-step program is not for you. Similarly, if you find the concept of an all-knowing being laughable and disingenuous, these groups may be counterproductive to your recovery. 

To truly heal, it’s important for you and those around you to accept that you won’t benefit from groups like AA or NA. Instead of trying to force yourself into participating, it’s time to start looking into other options. Thankfully, there are a wide variety of alternative groups and methods you can benefit from in recovery.

As you begin your search, know that studies have shown that alternative programs and fellowships have roughly the same success outcomes as traditional 12-step groups when people attend them regularly. Likewise, any attendance in a recovery program that is motivated by the desire to achieve lifetime abstinence from drugs and alcohol will lead to a better outcome.

For Those on the Fence About AA

If you do decide to go to a 12-step meeting, it’s never a requirement to participate in every activity of the meeting or every activity of the group or groups in your area. We would all agree that if you go to a fellowship’s group meetings, going to a fellowship event like a conference, business meeting, or dance is certainly not required. Likewise, there’s no requirement that you must join in a group prayer. You can simply stand quietly or leave — whatever you’re most comfortable with. To reiterate: You do not have to stay prayer to prayer.

After all, Bill Wilson, the co-founder of AA, said “It must never be forgotten that the purpose of AA is to sober up alcoholics. There is no religious or spiritual requirement for membership. No demands are made of anyone. An experience is offered which members may accept or reject. That is up to them. “

Over my 10 years sober going to meetings, I have done all of it. One day, I might join in the conversation. Another day, I’ll simply stand in the back while thinking up amusing alternative prayers. Other days, I may get irritated by someone’s energy elect to make an early exit before the end-of-meeting rush to get home.

What if I Don’t Want to Go to AA?

In recent years, there has been an increase in secular support groups such as SMART Recovery, Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS), and LifeRing Secular Recovery. These are alternative programs for those who do not wish to incorporate spirituality into their recovery process. Instead, non-12-step programs offer evidence-based techniques and tools for overcoming addiction without incorporating spirituality. 

In general, secular meetings focus on empowering people to take control of their recovery journey, which sounds way healthier than some of the blame-and-shame rhetoric I’ve heard spewed across church basements.

Alternative Programs of Recovery

Maybe AA or NA aren’t working for you, because you cannot see past the religious aspect of the programs. Don’t worry, there are many alternatives to these widely recognized 12-step programs.

The alternatives are:

AA Agnostica

AA Agnostica is meant to be a helping hand for the alcoholic who reaches out to Alcoholics Anonymous for help and finds that she or he is disturbed by the religious content of many AA meetings. For this reason, AA Agnostica is not affiliated with any group in AA or any other organization. Likewise, AA Agnostica does not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Their only wish is to ensure the still suffering alcoholic that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or having to deny their own. 

The word “Agnostica” is derived from Chapter Four, “We Agnostics,” of Alcoholics Anonymous, otherwise known as the “Big Book”. When they use the word “agnostic” in relation to AA — or words like “atheist” or “freethinker” — they are simply referring to the specific wisdom of groups and individuals within the fellowship who understand that belief in a “God” (of any understanding) is not a necessary part of recovery from alcoholism. There are a number of groups within AA that are not religious in their thinking or practice. These groups don’t recite prayers at the beginning or end of their meetings, nor do they suggest that a belief in God is required to get sober or to maintain sobriety. If the readings at their meetings include AA’s suggested program of recovery, then a secular version of the 12 Steps will often be shared.

Secular AA

Is an International Organization that supports the Secular AA Community. The mission is to assure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or deny their own. Secular AA does not endorse or oppose any form of religion or belief system and operates in accordance with the Third Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous: The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.

Buddhist Recovery Network

The Buddhist Recovery Network promotes the use of Buddhist teachings and practices to help people recover from the suffering caused by addictive behaviors and is open to people of all backgrounds, and respectful of all recovery paths.

SMART Recovery

Smart Management and Recovery Training focuses on empowering the individual to sustain recovery. The SMART Recovery program is not based on spirituality or religion; instead, its foundation is research-based. This means that scientific research and evidence are used to support the techniques and methods that are used. SMART Recovery programs offer both local in-person meetings and online support through a 24/7 chat board and daily online meetings. SMART Recovery programs avoid labels, such as “alcoholic” and shy away from the disease model of addiction. They focus on methods that use both Motivational Enhancement Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy components to engender change in self-destructive behaviors.

Smart Recovery is based on a four-point program that focuses on:
a. Creating the motivation to change, building on it, and sustaining the motivation long-term.
b. Learning how to manage and cope with cravings and urges.
c. Finding ways to regulate thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
d. Creating, sustaining, and learning how to live a balanced life.


This secular group provides a healthy network of peers focused on remaining abstinent from drugs and alcohol. They have an online community and local meetings throughout the United States, LifeRing Secular Recovery is an alternative to traditional, spiritually-based, 12-step programs. LifeRing believes that each individual holds their own key to recovery, and it is not necessary to then place control in the hands of a spiritual being.

As a secular self-help group, LifeRing meetings and doctrine encourage members to maintain abstinence from drugs and alcohol, and strive toward enhancing each person’s “sober self” while weakening their “addict self.” LifeRing concepts hold that everyone has a “sober self” inside them. The group works on developing techniques to enhance this version of self instead of the addict self who has previously been in control of all decisions and led to destruction in life. Each person is encouraged to find their method of encouraging their “sober self” within a LifeRing program.

Women for Sobriety (WFS)

Women for Sobriety is a nonprofit, abstinence-based program made up of women supporting each other in recovery. Face-to-face groups meet throughout the United States. The groups are led by moderators who promote emotional and spiritual growth, free from the bounds of alcohol abuse and addiction. WFS uses 13 acceptance statements to support its “New Life” Program that asks members to focus their energies on positivity over negativity.

Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS)

SOS Sobriety is a nonprofit network made up of secular recovery-based groups. Secular Organizations for Sobriety is not one specific program, but rather a collection of programs that are autonomous from each other. SOS provides individuals with alternatives to spirituality-based recovery programs. SOS hosts both online and physical face-to-face meetings to help people overcome any form of addiction.

Moderation Management (MM)

Moderation Management is not based on abstinence but instead on learning how to moderate and control problem drinking behaviors. is very different than many other recovery and support groups. MM focuses on helping people manage problematic drinking and behaviors that are destructive and encourages positive lifestyle changes. It is a peer-support program that acknowledges that behaviors are changeable and that alcohol abuse (which differs from dependence) is a habit that can be altered.

Moderation Management understands that there are varying degrees of alcohol abuse and that not everyone suffers from a severe form of addiction; however, most people can benefit from learning how to change behaviors related to drinking that are problematic. They believe that problematic drinking is not always the same thing as addiction or alcoholism, and in less severe instances, individuals may be able to moderate their drinking instead of abstaining completely. Moderation may not be the best strategy for everyone, MM acknowledges, but it may work well for some.

Young People in Recovery (YPR)

Young People in Recovery (YPR) envisions a world where all young people have the resources they need to thrive in recovery from addiction to drugs and alcohol. YPR’s mission is to provide the life skills and peer support to help people recover from substance use disorder and reach their full potential. YPR’s core values are community, caring, respect, inclusion, and commitment.

Online Recovery Resources

If you’ve never participated in conversations on Reddit or online groups or chats, then you might not know just how close-knit and supportive the people you meet online are. Check a few out.


  • r/stopdrinking
  • r/redditorsinrecovery

Online Forums:

Facebook Groups:

Online Recovery Communities:

Why Are 12-Step and 12-Step-Alternatives Important?

You need support. Everyone does. Especially those of us in recovery. Since we all need support to stay sober in the long term, finding a non-secular support group can be a serious challenge for atheists in recovery. While it is easier to find AA and NA meetings near you, that’s only because they are by and large the most widespread support groups out there. 

You should know that regardless of your religious affiliations or no affiliations or god belief, you are welcome in AA and NA. The only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking or using. If you don’t like 12-step groups, there are other 12-step alternative groups available. If the alternative groups aren’t an option, you can also participate in local support groups at hospitals and medical centers, student groups, private group therapy, or your rehab’s alumni group meetings. 

Go wherever you are willing to go TODAY. 

If doesn’t work out, go somewhere else tomorrow. The important thing is to try. And keep trying. Who knows what will happen, you could go to one type of group for a week or a month and then go to another for six months. You could combine all of them or a few, it doesn’t matter, what matters is you reach out and get support.

Support Groups: The Salad Bar of Recovery

Think of the 12-step groups and the non-12-step groups, the methods, the online meetings, and the chats, like one of those industrial-sized salad bars that could feed an army. Here you are with your chilled plate looking at the bounty of stuff in front of you like it’s an Olympic challenge. First, you get a little romaine lettuce, a carrot or two, and a spoonful of cherry tomatoes. Then some chicken, garbanzo beans maybe a pasta salad. Then cover it with all the dressing you want. If you end up disliking something, leave it on the plate. If you’re still not satisfied with your meal, go back for seconds and try something new.

Try everything, take what you want, and leave the rest. Then, go back for more. You’re not supposed to like everything or understand everything on day one. No one does. As you participate in different support groups and grow in recovery, your tastes will change. Be open to trying something new, broaden those horizons, and try the beets for once. Live my friend! And stay sober.

Find the Best Recovery Community for You

If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction, please reach out to our addiction specialists for guidance and support, at (877)-RECOVERY or (877)-732-6837. Our addiction specialists make themselves available to take your call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Because We Care.

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