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. (notice I’m not saying I’m a member or representative of any single fellowship or group in that fellowship, 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 or effort or experience. It simply made no sense to me, ever.
So, after many years trying to believe, I simply accepted my disbelief and moved on. This isn’t meant to belittle or challenge anyone else’s belief or belief system, it is simply my truth, my story. Everyone’s story and everyone’s beliefs are different. Mahatma Ghandi famously said “there are as many concepts of god as there are souls on earth.”
What are the standard 12 steps of AA?
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- 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.
- 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.)
God in the 12 Steps
Okay, so we see a lot of God, God stuff, religious overtones and Christian overtones; God is even mentioned 5 times in the steps. What’s the atheist and agnostic supposed to do? Not go? Go, 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 the practical advice:
First, your objections to God(s) and/or religion(s) might be so great that any mention of them at any time or at all could keep you from getting support or staying in a fellowship like AA or NA. We should accept that and take you as you are now and offer options. There are alternative groups or methods.
There are now a few studies out that say two important things—
a. programs/groups/fellowships that are alternatives to 12-step groups like AA/NA/CA will have roughly the same outcomes as traditional 12-step groups, when people attend them regularly.
b. any program attendance when the individual has the goal of lifetime total abstinence from drugs and alcohol, will have a better outcome.
The 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. AA Agnostica is not affiliated with any group in AA or any other organization. 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 a 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 of 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 own method of encouraging their “sober-self” within a LifeRing program.
- Women for Sobriety (WFS):
This nonprofit, abstinence-based program is made up of women supporting each other in recovery. Face-to-face groups meet throughout the United States. The groups are led by moderators, and serve to 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.
- SOS. (Secular Organizations for Sobriety):
This nonprofit network is 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 overcoming any form of addiction.
- Moderation Management (MM):
This program 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 to manage problematic drinking and behaviors that are destructive, and encourages positive lifestyle changes. MM 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. MM understands that there are varying degrees of alcohol abuse and 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. MM holds that problem 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:
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 supports 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 Communities and Social Media Based Communities and 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.
If you do decide to go to a 12step 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, at a meeting, there’s no requirement that you join in a group prayer. You can simply stand quietly or leave at that point. You do not have to stay prayer to prayer. 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 (what can it hurt?) Another day, I just stand there or think to myself funny alternative prayers, and other days I just leave early and smoke before the rush to the exit.
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. There is no requirement for having a religion or specific religion in 12-step groups. While 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. Further, Buchman believed that the solution to living with fear and selfishness was to surrender one’s life over to God’s plan.) and started by two Christians, Bill Wilson (an agnostic) and Dr. Bob, it isn’t a Christian organization. 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.
Can the Legal System Force You into AA?
Can you be forced by the court to go to a 12-step program or AA NA etc.? The short answer is no. In the U.S., judges and people responsible to the court (drug court administrators, counselors, therapists, probation and parole officers) would order or mandate 12-step meetings (group attendance) or treatment that was 12-step based. That has been changed.
You can be ordered to attend treatment and treatment for a specific amount of time. But, you cannot be ordered to a 12-step based treatment center and not be given a non 12-step based treatment alternative to go to. The court is still able to disapprove your treatment plan based on a number of factors, including credentialing licensing and many others.
The court can also order you to attend some sort of support group for a period of time without an option for you to not attend. So, you’ll get the opportunity to select your support group. These court decisions are based on the finding that AA is religious enough that being required to attend it would be similar to requiring someone to attend church. Five U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal (the 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 8th, and 9th) have made similar rulings. The most recent of these decisions is Inouye vs. Kemna, Case No. 06-15474, filed 9/7/07 (and an amendment 10/3/2007). The 2nd Circuit Court decision states that AA “placed a heavy emphasis on spirituality and prayer, in both conception and in practice,” that participants were told to “pray to God,” and that meetings began and adjourned with “group prayer.” The court therefore had “no doubt” that AA meetings were “intensely religious events.” Although some have suggested that AA is spiritual but not religious, the court found AA to be religious.
A Canadian court had recently ruled in favor of an atheist nurse who objected to mandatory AA attendance and 12-step addiction treatment. Health-care professionals who work in Vancouver-area hospitals and medical clinics will no longer be required to attend 12-step programs if they want to keep their jobs after being diagnosed with addiction. The change comes as a result of a settlement between public health authority Vancouver Coastal Health and former nurse Byron Wood, who filed a human rights complaint alleging he was discriminated against as an atheist when he was fired for quitting Alcoholics Anonymous. Wood was referred to a doctor specializing in addictions, who created a plan that he would need to follow if he wanted to return to work. AA was a mandatory component. As an atheist, Wood suggested alternatives to the 12-step program, including secular support groups like SMART Recovery and LifeRing Secular Recovery, but his doctor rejected them. He also asked for a referral to a new doctor, but his union informed him it only uses addiction specialists who follow the 12-step model.
Why is all this important?
You need support; we all need support to stay sober in the long term. The biggest support groups out there in recovery are AA and NA. 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 groups available.
If you don’t like those options, there are treatment center alumni groups, support groups at hospitals and medical centers, student groups and private group therapy. Go wherever you are willing to go TODAY. And if doesn’t work out, go somewhere else tomorrow. The important thing is to try. 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.
Think of the 12-step groups and the non 12-step groups, the methods, the online meetings and the chats, like a salad bar. 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, a cherry tomato that will fly across the room when you hit it with your fork. Then you get serious with some chicken, garbanzos beans maybe a pasta salad. Then bam! All the chunky blue cheese or ranch dressing you want.
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 progress, your tastes will change. Be open to trying something new, broaden those horizons, try the beets for once. Live my friend! And stay sober.