Letting Go of God: How 12-Step Programs Are Losing Their Religion

Dec 31, 2014

Photo: STILLFX/Shutterstock

By Jesse Beach

“AA is spiritual, not religious—now hold my hand while we pray.”

This was the kind of message Barry Hazle faced at a California 12-step-based treatment program he was ordered to attend in 2007 as part of his parole from drug charges. Alcoholics Anonymous encourages prayer to a “God as we understand Him” for help getting and staying sober. As an atheist, Hazle asked for alternatives. He was given two: Buy into the 12 Steps as written or go back to jail. He objected and a California court agreed that Hazle’s First Amendment rights had been violated. Hazlewill receive a settlement of almost $2 million.

An estimated 69 percent of Americans believe in some form of One God, according to the 2012 Pew Research “Nones” on the Rise survey. But atheists, while still a small minority, increased from four percent to seven percent since the previous Pew survey—there were 12 million self-identifying American atheists in 2007, increasing to 22 million in 2012. It varies by region: If you live in the Northeast, 54 percent of you believe in a personal higher power. In the South, 86 percent of y’all do. Elsewhere, one in four Canadians don’t believe in God and half of Brits are non-believers. And under-30s are everywhere more agnostic or atheist than their elders. Although there’s plenty of life in God yet, especially in the U.S., the trend is clear: AA must become more accepting of non-believers or shrink.

None of this would surprise James Christopher, who got sober in AA in 1978, then broke from the pack in 1986 to found Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS). “AA is a religion in denial,” says Christopher. Interestingly, AA itself was born half a century earlier of several Oxford Group members—who themselves broke away from the Oxford Group, because they found it too religious.

Several U.S. courts at state and federal level have at different times agreed that AA is religious in nature. Part of the New York Court of Appeals’ ruling in 1996, for example, stated: “[A]dherence to the AA fellowship entails engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization.” As such, inmates and parolees cannot legally be ordered to attend AA (although as the Hazle case shows, it frequently happens).

Now, if you’re an atheist or agnostic AA member like me, the point isn’t whether or not others say the 12 Steps are religious. The question is: If I want recovery from addiction, can the 12 Steps work for me without my having to accept someone else’s beliefs or deny my own?

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38 comments on “Letting Go of God: How 12-Step Programs Are Losing Their Religion

  • Here are the original 12 steps

    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.

    I count 7 of 12 steps containing religious woo. I think that makes AA a religion.

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  • !n 1984 I went to my first AA meeting. A couple of members welcomed me as a newcomer, and the first thing I said (almost despairingly) was that AA wouldn’t work for me as I was an atheist. They told me there were no rules, no clergy, no bosses, and I could interpret the program’s content any way I wanted to. I decided to give it a go. That was 30 years ago, and I’ve not used alcohol since that first meeting, although I hadn’t taken a sober breath in the previous twenty years. True, I had to do some mental gymnastics to accommodate the overt religiosity of some members, but I remained an atheist throughout, and it worked for me. I no longer attend, but I hear that there are also ‘Atheist Meetings’ these days. I have no doubt that the basic 12 step program could be divested of it’s aura of pseudo-religiosity and pseudo-theism and still be effective.

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  • Roedy Dec 31, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    I count 7 of 12 steps containing religious woo. I think that makes AA a religion.

    “Come and trade your alcohol addiction for a woo addiction”, does seem like a poor option!

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  • I’m sure that there are people who have grit and a personality that will be determined to changed no matter what the environment. From my understanding, there is the advantage of hearing others’ experiences and a good support system which does not need to be tied to religion.

    Problems of recent have been hitting the news. Since there is clearly some religion involved, several people end up having court mandated rehab. This goes beyond church vs. state issues. Many of the people with court ordered rehab are men who have committed violent acts against women while drunk. Instead of facing prison time, they are put into groups along with vulnerable women who are trying to recover. The men frequently pick out these women and stalk them. There is a little dirty secret to AA – RAPE. Women are not made aware that a violent, alcoholic wife beater with OCD or predatory behavior is sitting next to her. He may have even been a convicted felon. There have also been several report cases of women being murdered. I did a google search “court ordered AA results in women murdered” trying to find a recent case and to my surprise the search results on the first page are for different women. (Try searching “AA rape”. This is not a small problem!) If you know a woman considering AA, please suggest she find an all women group. Evidently, even minor harassment is pervasive.

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  • “Others are felons whose records include sexual offenses and domestic violence and who choose AA over longer prison sentences.” Yep, mixed in the same group with your little sister! Success rates are between 5 and 10 percent. It adds extra meaning that religion poisons everything. Sometimes their lack of accountability (in AA) literally kills.

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  • When I lived on Quadra Island you had the choice of socialising with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the drunks or the AA. My landlady was big on AA. I went to many meetings. When I told people I didn’t drink, they just assumed I was in denial.

    They consumed gargantuan amounts of coffee, cigarettes and sugar. Every meeting there was a cake for somebody. The topics of conversation were largely “boy did I get drunk X years ago” and current trivia.

    I think alcoholics are compulsively social, and they get to associate drinking with being social. That is why they have so much trouble giving up drinking. They try to give up socialising and their social circle.

    AA provides a social circle, very much the one they gave up. It is crude and forgiving so drunks feel right at home.

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  • Thanks for that info QuestioningKat,

    this had never occurred to me. Is this universal or happening largely in the USA? I suppose they really need to think about segregating groups to some extent? It occurs to me that the sponsorship side of things would give opportunity for someone to have potentially a lot of power over someone in a very vulnerable position also, might need to be some background checking if people reach that position in the group, although I imagine that AA may not want to discourage attendance. Tricky

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  • I’ve never been in AA, but in SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous), the 12 Steps were rephrased to refer to a “higher power,” leaving it to the hearer to determine what or who the “higher power” is. It could be God, another person, one’s self, or whatever else one wants. Perhaps that’s the approach an atheist should take when AA’s version of The 12 Steps, substituting “higher power” for God, assuming it’s permitted.

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  • 9
    Jonathan says:

    I recently spent 90 days in rehab out in Canada, in fact I was released on December 18, 2014. My experience with AA as an atheist was both rewarding and frustrating. I’ll raise a few point which explore what AA means to me, and how I think it affected my alcoholism. I attended 4 meetings per week in a total of 13 weeks.

    1) Coming out as an Atheist in AA

    This was by far the most entertaining aspect of my recovery. I found AA a little condescending at first seeing as everyone in the room was a self proclaimed “believer”. I had to be careful about what I would say about god in order to maintain peace but I also had to be sure to correct anyone who thought they knew precisely what it means to be Atheist. I simply went with “Atheism is a lack of belief in god or gods, and that’s the only commonality between one atheist and another”. I found myself having to explain that time and time again as the term “Atheist”would catapult the entire conversation into some toxic argument about who’s right or who’s wrong – not easy with people leveraging their entire recovery on a belief! I chose to make my lack of belief clear one day when we were reading a chapter called “We Agnostics” out of the AA Big Book (please look it up and see for yourself). This chapter look at what AA thinks of agnostics and Atheists alike and disguises ridicule as matter-of-fact thinking and bolsters those thoughts in extremely weak anecdotal references, like a man who “was Atheist” but woke up one day to discover an overwhelming sense of faith. Strange, to say the least. The chapter itself is a hodgepodge of silly, backwards and often insulting statements that reduce me to an infuriated ball of non-belief. I kept my cool for the most part but essentially had to make it absolutely clear that I am an Atheist, and I don’t appreciate the condescending tone being used throughout this chapter, along with the condescending tone used by the members in this room when discussing those who have not and can not find a “higher power”. I seemed to set a few people off but there were also several who really couldn’t care less about what I was, as long as I was contributing and focused on recovery – those are the real people of AA.

    2) My “Higher Power”

    This took a little finesse but in the end, I considered the term “Higher Power” to be a means to show the group an understanding of a world and people combined which equate to a power greater than myself. I would often reference my family, friends, teachers, co-workers and so on as my “higher power”; it came down to those that made up my reality. Many people in AA see the term as a direct reference to a Christian God, and that’s blatantly obvious and also infuriating at times, but I learned to be patient with everyone as they were always there for the right reason, to not drink. I associated myself with people who quite frankly didn’t need to talk about what god means to them in order to talk about what recovery means to them. Those again, are the real people of AA. Simply put, if you make your lack of belief clear, you may find yourself explaining what it means, but ultimately you can weed out those who value respect for another human more than religion, and that made AA ok to me. As time passed, the group would welcome my insight into recovery from an Atheist’s perspective as I would often reference evolution, the cosmos, physics and the scientific method as a whole. I was once asked how I could trust a “theory” (evolution, of course) and I proceeded to walk over to the person questioning me, explained that gravity is a theory and based on this theory, I suspect the book in my hand, once let go, would fall right down to the floor with a resounding “thud” at its tail. My theory prevailed and I went on to explain how theories operate (mountains of data and evidence, tested and re-tested to provide us with an understanding of what it is we are exploring). Not one person questioned me the same way again. So I repeat, once you make yourself and your lack of belief clear, you will find those who value recovery more than religion. I often felt like religion was simply there as an archaic reminder of where AA came from, but not everyone was buying it. AA was just the only option they had.

    3) The 12 Steps and God

    I found this dilemma to be easily quelled. I once again made my higher power those around me combined to be a power greater than myself and applied it directly to each of the steps that referenced god. There were always people who would feel defensive around me in the rooms but my approach was always to finesse conversations in a way that was understanding rather than condemning, helpful rather than ignorant and most importantly, focused on not drinking rather than focused on why people in those rooms chose god.

    4) Offending the religious and intolerance towards Atheist members

    The happened quite a bit, especially when AA members would try to force religion on me. I would then walk said members through my thought process (how science can provide sufficient evidence for life not requiring a god – the big bang, evolution, social mechanisms and more). If they chose not to understand where I’m coming from then I certainly did not have to subscribe to their understanding of god and how it affects their recovery. To be honest, I downright didn’t mind offending them. Perhaps it was because I had forced them to think and didn’t have to raise my voice.
    I was upset an individual so much that he walked away and punched a wall. His recovery was firmly rooted in Jesus Christ and he could not accept any reasoning against his almighty God. The interesting part was how it was resolved. I explained that recovery for all religious or non-religious members was to be though of as a basketball court -in conversation or argument – we must meet each other at half court, where neither of us is stepping on the other’s personal beliefs, and the line in the middle is deeply representative of respect. Respect for each other and our common goal; recovery. I said I would always respect his ultimate goal if he would respect mine. We found a common ground and ended up discussing many, many topics of interest and how each of our views interact. This is how i knew I could tolerate AA. I knew we’re all just people doing the same thing. If you can stay respectful of your fellow humans, you will always have access to the real reasons you’re there; to not drink.

    5) The benefits of AA

    The real bread and butter of AA to me was the people and their stories. It’s truly astounding how people from such different backgrounds have experienced the same lows, be it financial or emotional or social or mental or physical. We all had that in common. Once I was “in” with the group, people would respect my lack of belief and continue to ask what I thought when religion was mentioned. Most importantly, I was able to hear the stories of the individuals in the rooms. I couldn’t care less about my lack of belief or their belief when I heard what came out of their mouths. We’re talking rape, death, insult, job loss, prostitution and a plethora of brutal experiences. Sometimes I was even glad they could form an idea of a god that wouldn’t hurt them. Some needed to know they weren’t alone and all they could do was believe in something. In this way I never argued. I never broke down what a god lacks or needs. I suggest you all head to one AA speaker meeting and understand for yourself. Some people need something, and if their imagination will stop them from drinking, then maybe later on down the line a clear mind will help them see what religion really is, but for that moment the notion of god was saving their lives.
    AA itself allowed me to feel human again. God or no God, we’re all human and if religion is too much of a problem to go to AA, I feel like you would miss out on what’s important about recovery.

    6) How to Change the AA Program into a secular movement

    I firmly believe that this can be done by actively participating in meetings and not being afraid to come out as an Atheist. Once you’ve done that, you become a novelty item. Some people simply can’t believe they’re sitting right next to an Atheist! And they look so human! it’s quite fun to see how perspectives change when members see you’ve been through the exact same things, and are recovering just fine without the need for a God. Some folks would call me out in later meetings as we went through the infamous “we agnostics” chapter, asking if I could explain what I think about the suggestion that recovery is hopeless without god. My answer was easy, “what would your recovery be like without the existence of Zeus?” – most would stare blankly until they realized they don’t believe in Zeus, some would be quite disheveled at the suggestion and others would laugh. Laughter was key. Laughter showed a commonality between us all, religious or not. I believe that being open about your Atheism, having patience and a great attitude, being willing to share and staying positive are all ways to change the program. I found that 90% of the folks in meetings would appreciate everything I said about not needing god and I’m sure I may have managed allowed others to accept their own lack of belief. The point is to show alcoholics that it’s OK to not believe. But there always has to be respect.

    Overall, I’m an alcoholic and I am recovering with other alcoholics in AA (106 days sober now). I need those people and right now it’s the most easily accessible program. I’ve thought about starting an agnostic group and I likely will, but I don’t see a reason for condemning the program when the program is useful when you look at the people involved. It’s an old program but with some until and respect, it can be updated to something much more secular. Religion cannot be erased altogether at the moment, but it can certainly be challenged and remarked upon. Honestly, it’s a whole lot of fun and I don’t need to drink to do it! In that way it’s perfect. In another it’s lacking, but that’s what I’m there for. It’s given me a small amount of purpose among others, and I appreciate hearing what other people have gone through. Like I said, AA is massive and it can be changed. Individual people can be that change.

    Lastly, AA has helped me avoid drinking, not because of the program itself, but because that’s where alcoholics currently go to get sober. It’s where one will find the folks who will care. It can challenge you and it can also help you change lives. It will certainly change yours. It changed mine.

    Thanks all!


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  • 10
    Jonathan says:

    Apologies for the typo’s strewn throughout the above! I wasn’t aware of the “edit timer”. I’ll get it right next time!

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  • I attended one meeting, and that was enough for me. I don’t see the point of the magical 12 steps, either. One should do, and it does not require a higher power to get there. Your point is so clear to anyone with a brain: the steps are dominated by ‘god’. There really isn’t room for anything else like free will.

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  • justinesaracen Jan 3, 2015 at 5:02 am

    There is a logical problem here. How can one’s self be a power higher than oneself?

    Perhaps higher will-power than one’s usual self, would suffice!

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  • “Trade” is not the correct word. Maybe “overlay”, as addiction to alcohol cannot be removed or replaced, only managed.
    There are definitely many better options and many poorer options (among the universe of all possible options), but if a “woo addiction” helps one to manage alcohol addiction and recover from its life damaging effects so that one can return to the world of the living, it is clearly the better option of the two.

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  • 15
    Dominick says:

    A good read and nicely written.. but IMHO, a violation of the 12th tradition. No one ought ever to identify as an AA member at the level of press, radio, TV or internet.

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  • My experience with AA in the UK was entirely different. I was assured that my understanding of God and Higher Power could be whatever I wanted them to be. I was told most people consider their home group to be their Higher Power. That worked for me! Bottom line is, as it says in the Big Book, if we want something badly enough we’ll “go to any length” to get it. There were many times I thought I should stop drinking and made half-hearted attempts, to no avail. When the time came, at my rock bottom, when I finalky ‘made the decision’ to stop, if I’d been told wrapping myself in barbed wire and running a marathon would help, that’s what I’d have dine; eagerly! AA only works for those who genuinely want to stop drinking. And while those with half a mind to deal with their drink problem will be welcome at meetings, and will inevitably spurn the notion of God and the 12 Steps, it will come as no surprise to any seasoned AAer when inevitably they start drinking again. It is these people who give AA a skewed success rate; among people who genuinely want to stop and who willingly embrace the programme, the success rate is almost 100%. Questioning the programme or the meanng of God within the programme is irrelevant to the primary purpose of AA, which is to help people recover from alcoholism. If you want that badly enough, it’s there for you. If you don’t want it badly enough, then that’s your choice and no concern of mine.

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  • 17
    Hasten says:

    The U.S. courts ruled that the 12 Steps had enough religious elements in them to prevent the U.S. government from ordering anyone to a 12 Step meeting or a 12 Step rehab (the courts said that the person under the court’s jurisdiction must be offered the alternative of a religious program i.e. 12 Step or a nonreligious meeting or rehab) . The courts said that if the U.S. government became entangled in the 12 Steps it would violate the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution, by which the government cannot establish, promote or favor one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.

    The courts examined specific professional rehab programs that used the 12 Steps and specific NA and AA meetings where the volunteer facilitators of the meetings taught the 12 Steps.

    The courts did not examine AA World Services to determine if the
    headquarters for AA was a religious organization.

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  • 18
    Hasten says:

    The U.S. courts said this about the 12 Step program:

    “Alcoholics Anonymous materials and the testimony of the witness established beyond a doubt that religious activities, as defined in constitutional law, were a part of the treatment program. The distinction between religion and spirituality is meaningless, and serves merely to confuse the issue.”
    — Wisconsin’s Federal 7th Circuit Court , Grandberg v. Ashland County, 1984.

    “Thus, while it is of course true that the primary objective of A.A. is to enable its adherents to achieve sobriety, its doctrine unmistakably urges that the path to staying sober and to becoming “happily and usefully whole,” is by wholeheartedly embracing traditional theistic belief. These expressions and practices constitute, as a matter of law, religious exercise.”
    — The New York Court of Appeals, Griffin v. Coughlin, 1996.

    “A straightforward reading of the twelve steps shows clearly that the steps are based on the monotheistic idea of a single God or Supreme Being. True, that God might be known as Allah to some, or YHWH to others, or the Holy Trinity to still others, but the twelve steps consistently refer to “God, as we understood Him [italics for Him added by the court].”
    – U. S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, Kerr v. Farrey (1996).

    “This was therefore not a case (again, on the present record) where the only religious note was struck by the insertion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, or other incidental references that the courts have upheld. Because that is true, the program runs afoul of the prohibition against the state’s favoring religion in general over non-religion.”
    – U. S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, Kerr v. Farrey (1996).

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  • If you read Bill Wilson’s book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, you will see that there is a section in the Appendixes, written by Harry Tiebout, MD, Dr. Tiebout was Wilson’s psychiatrist. Tiebout says that Bill Wilson and most of the early AAs all suffered from narcissism and personalities of extreme self centeredness, and they could not recover unless their egos were broken and deflated by practicing the 12 Steps so that they could come to believe in an external higher power, such as God the Father, and be humbled and stop thinking they were god. The religious nature of the 12 Steps seems to be beneficial to the “hopeless variety” of alcoholic (the fourth type who was completely powerless over alcohol) who needed to believe in the Power of the 12 Steps in order to overcome their powerlessness.

    The 12 Steps refer to the Power (notice the capital P in the second step) as God the Father (God as we understood Him).. But one can attend AA meetings and hear the 12 Steppers say that the higher power can be “anything” In addition to the tradition male figure of God the Father, your higher power could be God the Mother or Spirits of the Ancestors or the Impersonal Force or the Intelligent Creator or the Doorknob. Some people even choose to substitute the AA group for God. I suppose having the AA group as your higher power it is like praying to the pagan gods, which were a group of higher beings. Or perhaps because the AA group is supposed to become an “inner resource” (see Appendix II of the Big Book) it is like having a legion of demons that you can talk to in your head at any time of the day.

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  • 21
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    .. but IMHO, a violation of the 12th tradition. No one ought ever to identify as an AA member at the level of press, radio, TV or internet.

    The poster identified himself only by what may or may not be his first name (Jonathan). The same way people do when they go to meetings. And Jonathan relates his experiences only and no one else’s so I fail to see how anonymity was violated here.

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  • 22
    Light Wave says:

    It really should be only one step to not believing….. A bit like the leap of faith religious people talk of…..shake off the religious reassurances and notice the clarity of free thinking for the first time….its liberating…..if you were already a kind person you will continue to be a kind atheist person but for the right reasons …..if you are not mature enough to maintain full control of yourself and your thoughts thats okay …we all learn to navigate in the end…If you use religion like a crutch or a drug….you may feel empty and as though you are nothing without it…..but you are far more fulfilled without the brainwashing nonsense and blind devotion to invisibility….give yourselves some credit…..you wont fall apart without religion and if you cant get passed ….whats the point if theres no god……that is the very best point…we humans have been and always will be the masters of our freedom and of our future….bibles and religion keep us dependant and in the dark and in the past…..humans are so much better than that….

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  • Not to disparage AA because it has helped people I care about, but courts do need to accept Non-AA alternatives. Doubtless that there are many people who never tried AA because they felt that they were trading one thing that has power over them for another, and did not feel that they would have any of their own power. AA actually works on the premise that you have no power over alcohol so you need that second something with power over you. So what’s really needed are options 3. 4, 5, … for some people, and AA is the lesser, equally, or greater bad option for these people.

    David Killawee
    North Bay, ON

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  • 24
    Spruce says:

    I see what you mean. Hard to articulate, but I’ll do my best —

    Without getting too convoluted — essentially, by considering ‘self’ to be a more complex thing than the simple idea ‘myself’. For some, perhaps a wiser inner self. A reflective self, who one is at the core of their being. A vision of their better self. Something like that. Closer to meditation than theistic communion?

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  • So, disclosure – I found recovery from addiction in the rooms of AA, and am a fairly long-term member (5+ years) who is, as we say ‘active in the fellowship’. I’m speaking now as a member of AA and not a representative, from my own experiences and opinions, not those of AA as a whole.

    Also: I don’t think AA has a monopoly on recovery; I’ve seen people recover through home-brew programs, through SMART Recovery and Lifering and other secular fellowships and structures, through psychological treatment, et c. AA is simply how I recovered. It was kind of the only game in town where I was. If I’d had an alternative that worked, I’d’ve taken it. Psychological measures have done me a world of good since I got sober, but I was incapable of the honesty required for their use when I was still drinking.

    I just felt it was a little incumbent on me to hop in here to kind of second what Jon is saying, and to provide a data point a little further down the line of what atheism in recovery looks like a couple years on. I think he articulated the experience exceptionally well, though – there’s a lot of stuff in that post that was clarifying for me about my own experience, and I’ll probably end up using it as a reference further on down the line for new folks I may come across who share my basic atheism.

    My experience certainly mirrors Jon’s. I haven’t found it necessary to employ a theistic Higher Power to use the 12 step method. It did require certain “mental gymnastics” (perhaps owing to a religious upbringing, and a continued and persistent association between the terminology used and the ideas I was raised with). But I found the ‘Higher Power’ to be something of a blank I simply needed to fill in. A pass/fail assignment. It didn’t matter /what/ it was, so long as /it was something/ and it wasn’t me.

    I didn’t have to believe anything specific in order to use this method; I did, however, have to stop ‘not believing’. I entered a kind of suspension, not dismissal, of my atheism – one that persists. The question was reopened and returned to the scales for further consideration. Akin to the differentiation between implicit/explicit atheism; rather than an active and conscious rejection of ‘God’, I don’t believe simply because the evidence isn’t there. It is simply a lack of belief. If the evidence was provided and the case successfully made, I suppose I’d be willing to go the other way with it. That seems unlikely enough, but there it is. (I had an older member of the fellowship explain to me that those who believe have to engage in the same suspension — their faith is well and good, but perhaps insufficient to the task of recovery as they were practicing it. Recovery has made believers of atheists; I’ve also seen it create atheists from believers.)

    I’m at that point in recovery where I turn around and give to others what was given to me. That involves ‘sponsorship’, which, in brief, is walking someone else through the 12 step process as I was walked through it. I’m always upfront about where I’m coming from; I never demand anyone believe or disbelieve, I leave that as a matter to their conscience and reason. Many of those I’ve walked through the process go on to embrace a more traditional theistic approach to the question of a power greater than themselves. Others find alternative ways of expressing the idea.

    For me, this ‘Higher Power’ represents the principles of the program itself; the ‘technology’ of recovery. I believe it works, and I believe it works regardless of what I believe; I can feel whatever I like about aspirin, but the results will be largely identical when I eat one – my headache will be relieved. I embarked on this process with a certain amount of faith that it worked, but with a certain skepticism. What does prayer have to do with the fact that I want to drink all the time? Why make an inventory of things that bother me?

    Belief wasn’t required; just action. I took the action, got the result — /then/ began to believe there was something to this 12 step thing.

    Jon’s example of ‘gravity’ is an excellent one. Conversely, it’s an example I often end up drawing on to those new to recovery who may be skeptical of the process; a principle is a principle. I may or may not believe in gravity, but I will never float off the ground like a soap bubble.

    My entirely unscientific, anecdotal hypothesis is that the 12 step method is a kind of psychological mechanism with a spiritual user interface. That makes it easy to approach for some — it provides a ready-made conceptual framework of terminology and practices — prayer, meditation, powerlessness, a rudimentary theology. Those of us who show up from that background who have since rejected it have to do the mental gymnastics required to redefine or reimagine some of these concepts. Those of us without believe have often got to hammer out our own frameworks.

    I think it’s a mistake to think of AA as monolithic; it’s usually more reflective of the values of the community it’s embedded in, as well as the local AA culture that’s historically developed. Some meetings are outrageously religious. In major metropolitan areas, it is certainly not unusual to hear atheism and agnosticism openly espoused.

    In many of these larger cities, there’s a growing atheist/agnostic meeting movement (often with corresponding membership in Lifering, SMART Recovery, et c). I think it’s a very hopeful sign for our fellowship. There’s been, historically, similar movements by other populations that have experienced friction or difficulty within ‘mainstream’ AA (LGBT meetings, young people, women’s meetings). These ‘special interest’ meetings create environments where people can recover, and from there, return to the mainstream of AA, fortified and prepared to represent their identity or point of view; as a consequence, mainstream AA winds up adapting and accepting where before it might have struggled or rejected. If there’s any prospect for an increasingly secular character developing within AA, I think it lies there.

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  • There’s a current of thought amongst some members in AA that court-ordered AA is actually terrible for the fellowship for many of the reasons stated above.

    There’s others who cite Tradition 6, which states that “AA should never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise,” and hold that cooperation with state mandated attendance is a kind of affiliation. I’m aware of several groups which refuse to sign court papers (and suggest those who attend instead request the signature of individual members, rather than the meetings chairperson).

    Personally, I’ve always thought the much-cited 5-10% statistic has in fact much to do with the court-ordered question. Do these people count as folks who don’t recover? Who do we consider ‘a member’? Someone who has been to 1, 5, 10, 100 meetings? Someone who has ‘joined a group’ and ‘gotten a sponsor’? Someone who has worked the 12 steps? (This makes me want to check the literature for studies which have specifically studied the success rates of those who’ve worked the steps, rather than those who have attended meetings. It’d be the difference in health outcomes for those who join a gym, and for those who regularly engage in exercise — overlapping but not identical population.)

    Beyond the question of safety — in a program that strenuously stresses that it is “not for those who need it, but those who want it”, the notion of mandated attendance resulting in any kind of recovery for the vast majority of mandated attendees seems, to me, a somewhat poor one.

    As for the question of women’s safety in the rooms —

    As for sponsorship, where I’ve been, it’s always been traditional (and basically mandatory) to insist ‘men with the men, women with the women’; the exceptions made are largely around gay men and women.

    For most women I know in recovery, it’s usually been strongly suggested they attend a couple women’s meetings and build their network in and amongst other women in recovery.

    That said, the question is not settled and is an exceptionally serious one.

    I’ve one female friend who insists that AA is no more dangerous to her as a woman than the world as a whole — that she experiences less outright harassment and intimidation than she does on public transit, say, or walking down any given street.

    Your milage may vary. I think it differs, area by area, group by group.

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  • Really, the process of thoroughly “working the steps” with a sponsor is basically CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) or similar to DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), where you take a deep analysis of harmful patterns, thoughts, and habits, and learn means of addressing/changing them. Just, the means suggested consist of asking a god to help you change, whereas, if you choose the fellowship/group/program as your “higher power”, you can simply take the example and support of your friends and network in the fellowship as that higher power to help you change. This works for me. The support and guidance of the fellowship/sponsor, etc., have helped me to do what I could not do alone: stay clean/sober.
    So, I could pay some therapist a lot of money for CBT treatment and go it alone, or I can go to some meetings for free and build a network and be a part of a community of sober friends who will help me as I help them.
    I haven’t had to sell my brain to any religion to stay free of intoxicants for at this juncture, most of the last 18 years.
    I know a few other non-believers in the meetings, too, so I’m not the only one, and I do talk about it in meetings so that newcomers who are non-believers can know that it CAN work for them, too.
    It just takes a little of that “honesty, open-mindedness and willingness”.
    I’m honest in meetings about my atheism; I’m open-minded enough to know I don’t have all the answers, and that maybe there’s something useful in these other folks’ experience and knowledge of addiction and recovery (especially since they were staying clean/sober when I wasn’t), and I’m willing to go along for the ride and be a part of what’s going on there.
    I just have a slightly different understanding of how the steps work (as CBT).
    I occasionally meet some hostility, but it’s rare (of course, I live in the liberal US Northeast/New England; might have a different experience if I were in Mississippi or something).

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  • Yes…I love how, in one part of the book they say “frothy emotional appeals availed us nothing…”, and then they have an entire chapter full of frothy emotional appeals to embrace mythological beings…
    That really amuses me.
    Still grateful to be part of a fellowship that helps me do what I could not do alone, anyway…

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  • AA is a Religious program they hold hands at the end of every meeting and say the “lords Prayer” That is a Catholic prayer! so if you are not catholic of if you are an atheist you are not welcome. Also if you do anything beside alcohol also you are not welcome. I know members in AA that still do pills and smoke weed. But as long as they dont drink they are “sober” What a laugh. I go to NA no lords prayer at all and its a program of complete abstinence from all drugs. We focus on the disease of addiction rather then a particular substance. I have been clean for a very long time and know lots of members with 20 to 40 years clean only doing NA. NA has been very welcoming as far as my atheism in concerned. There are several reading as to what your higher power can be. And NA is very clear the word GOD is there for sake of convenience thats it no attachment at all to a deity.

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  • That is not the 12th tradition at all that is Tradition 11, And member can identify them self as a member just that member can not Say that AA has an opinion on a particular outside issue.

    Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.

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  • Dear Moderator. I’m sorry but I didn’t realise that I wasn’t allowed to post links to my blog here. My fault as I obviously hadn’t read the terms and conditions. I’ve made two posts to this discussion and in both of them the link I intended to include has been removed. Fair enough, but unfortunately without these links my posts don’t really make sense. I would therefore be grateful if you would delete my contributions in their entirety — including this one too. Next time I post I’ll be sure to frame the text in a way that makes sense without needing any additional links. Thanks for an interesting thread, I’ve enjoyed reading it, and sorry for the inconvenience. Jon S

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  • What a great discussion. I attended AA in the 1970s as a support person for my partner at the time and as an athiest. I thought the 12 steps were a little misguided (metaphor!) but realized that others were benefitting. Some people were merely swapping one addiction for another while leaving the addictive behaviour intact. By the way, I still use an affimation based on AA’s Serenity Prayer: “I have the serenity to accept those things I cannot change; I have the courage to change those things I can change: I have the wisdom to know the difference”. And I enjoy a glass or two of red wine.

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  • I too am an Atheist alcoholic who achieved sobriety through AA and had trouble with the religiousness of the program. I will have 23 years this February.

    First, I want to tell women, or men (they CAN be vulnerable to violence too) that one of the first things a new member should be informed about are “13th Steppers”. These are nefarious persons that use these meetings to prey (no pun intended) on vulnerable “newbies”. Also, along with this warning, per se, is another matter, “no major changes in your first year of sobriety”, which most definitely includes a romantic relationship! So, no dating if you’re single, no divorcing if you’re married, (there may be exceptions to the latter as you can guess, but the principle is obvious), change causes stress, and early sobriety is tenuous and must be a newbie’s primary focus! Following these suggestions can make the risk of rape or murder from a predator attending meetings no more likely than ordinary day to day activities.

    Next, and foremost, while I would be so much more comfortable if the program would disavow all religious reference, most folks who’ve been successful in the program truly believe that Bill’s book and the program’s format itself for that matter is, well, “Devine”, and must be strictly adhered to! It is literally revered. Sobriety for most is a life or death plane of existence and again, it’s because of the downside of religion…fear. To change anything is akin to blasphemy and can cause ineffectuality of the program, leaving sufferers to die of their disease! Really! I have worked (in service for the program) in the business section, where decisions are made about AA itself, not sobriety, and believe me, they are completely dedicated to following the original guidelines! The ONLY changes I’ve ever seen endorsed are those related to technology, but even then, they interpret and apply the original guidelines in choosing how present technology can be used. My point is, I do not see AA ever changing “How it works”! New programs may be designed using basics of AA and tweaking it to exclude religiousness, but it won’t be Alcoholics Anonymous!

    Luckily, I went to Serenity Lane first when I knew I needed help. Although one of the first things I had to agree to do was attend X number of AA meetings, I was educated about how the program worked before I walked into my first meeting. I was told to choose a sponsor by listening to what women (because I am a Straight woman) had to say at meetings and find someone who shared my beliefs and “had something I wanted”. That is an individual desire such as a good career, happy marriage, years of sobriety…whatever is most desirable for me to achieve. So obviously, I chose another atheist to be my sponsor, and she had 11 years of sobriety, which was the “something I wanted”.

    When we began, the first agenda was getting past the “God as I understand Him”…just the capitalizations even made me angry! “Never get too angry, lonely, hungry or tired” are part of the teachings so how can I embrace the program when just reading it made me angry!?

    What helped? Here is how my atheist sponsor not only convinced an atheist to believe something was more powerful in this life, but also released me from the state of mind that was causing my suffering. She said, “Let me ask you a little test. You are in a movie theatre, you notice the building is on fire, what do you do?” Immediately, (cause it was a test and I was gonna be the best!) I replied, “I would start with the first person in each row and calmly tell them about the fire and tell them to keep it going down the row before then exiting the building…” She promptly interrupted me and yelled “NO! You tell the theatre management!” After chastising me for the panic I would have caused in the burning theatre, she asked me, “Why is it YOUR responsibility to save everyone?…you know, you’re just NOT THAT POWERFUL!”

    That was it. That was the key. I want to control everything! I cannot stand bad things happening to people! (Or animals, or plants…) I was raised Catholic, a true believer, whose father died 3 weeks before my birth, and by “believing” I could be with my Daddy someday! As an adult who had seen her fair share of suffering, I had to do an internship at The Oregon State Hospital Geropsych Unit to get my degree in Social work/Gerontology; the most difficult year of my life! The suffering, the pain, the loss of life, dignity, freedom, I observed there was so overwhelming to me, that I blamed God for it! Oh, how I hated Him! I cursed him in my prayers, and felt great guilt and fear because of that, but I couldn’t let Him get away with forsaking all those people! I would risk eternal Hell to MAKE God DO something about all the suffering in this horrible, horrible, world He created!!!

    My achademic supervisor sugessted a couple of reading materials, (Dr. Dawkins’s book, yeah!) and I was free from religion! While believers find comfort in having faith, I do not. I feel so much better knowing there is no all powerful god choosing to sit idly by while his creations suffer here on Earth! Anyway, it all goes together like this, when I found some person, place, or thing, unacceptable to me, I believed it was my responsibility, as a smart, kind, driven and loving person, to DO something to help! As I discovered I could not fix the unacceptable, depression and guilt consumed me and I drank for respet from my internal struggle of powerlessness.

    When my sponsor told me that I “just wasn’t that powerful”, and it “wasn’t my responsibility to save everyone”, I clung to that. It eased my guilt, my anger, my sense of indignation. I was able, very able to accept that there are so many things about our world that are more powerful than myself! It didn’t matter that it wasn’t god! Science is more powerful than I. Gravity is more powerful than I. The sun, Earth, Moon, stars, the Universe is more powerful than I!

    The program of Alcoholics Anonymous does work. The 12 steps are important in keeping a personal moral inventory that helps because I do not have to feel worry or guilt about how my actions or behavior have hurt others. For newbies, the steps offer action, which give them the tools to discover what they are drinking or using to avoid facing, and a plan to remove those barriers so they can achieve well-being in sobriety.

    I am not saying it’s easy to make it through a lot of these meetings that can sound and actually be, more about god than the program, but I just find another meeting, or group that is more closely a match to my ideals. I am in Oregon though, a very openly diverse, tolerant, democratic state which I am sure makes it easier to locate like-minded meetings than, say, states in the south. But, like many of the other comments here say, be yourself, share your atheist views with the groups, find where you are comfortable and follow those few sugesstions I made and AA can definetly be a safe place to get and stay sober, make life-long friendships, help others and still be an atheist.

    I hope this was helpful!

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  • In my opinion, the AA is basically like a lot of religious groups who try to convert people when they are at their weakest point in life and are desperate for help. When you think about it, it’s a rather low act.

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  • This article has a small flaw. In the beginning “Alcoholics Anonymous encourages prayer to a “God as we understand Him” for help getting and staying sober” is wrong. 3rd step says “God as we UNDERSTOOD HIM” as in the past (no one has to understand god) because in 2nd step they are supposed to make a choice (is god everything or is he nothing?). The main problem in AA is that people fear so much that there is no god that they cannot be open to the scientific discoveries of today that our whole Universe is an accident and is a miniscule part of a Gigantic Multiverse that is mostly lethal. The false beliefs of the existence of a creator puts intelligent designers (creationists) in the center of the Universe and is typical of advanced primates to express their selfish based fears. It is awesome that even the so called GOD Particle (Higgs Boson, sorry physicists!) is an accident and there is no explanation for it. I find that spiritual (beyond human imagination).

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  • Darius Mar 25, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    It is awesome that even the so called GOD particle is an accident and there is no explanation for it. I find that spiritual (beyond human imagination).

    There is nothing “awesome” or “spiritual” or “beyond human imagination”, about the “hard to find”, goddamned Higgs-Bosun particle!
    Just a book editor/ publisher with no imagination, of the “god-did-it-mentality”!


    The Higgs boson is the particle that is thought to give everything else in the universe mass, but that bit of theoretical physics is unlikely to be the reason most people have heard of it.
    Its theistic nickname was coined by Nobel-prize winning physicist Leon Lederman, but Higgs himself is no fan of the label. “I find it embarrassing because, though I’m not a believer myself, I think it is the kind of misuse of terminology which I think might offend some people.”

    .It wasn’t even Lederman’s choice. “He wanted to refer to it as that ‘goddamn particle’ and his editor wouldn’t let him,” says Higgs.

    Various theologians have been pretending there is some significance in the name ever since! – That’s how “faith-thinking” works.

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