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12 step program for agnostics or atheists

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December 7, 2021
Reviewed by: Rajnandini Rathod

Ralph G. Nichols, the author of “Are you listening?”, said something very profound, “The most basic of all human needs is to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”  

There are many ways to help someone with an addiction problem and the most basic of them is to offer to listen to them without any judgement. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has been that kind of listening ear to millions of recovering alcohol addicts around the world.

AA started its journey in 1935 in Akron, Ohio by Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, both alcohol addicts who were determined to quit drinking and help other alcohol addicts do the same. AA is an international fellowship of men and women who come together and share their experiences with alcoholism and offer strength and support to each other to stay on the path of sobriety. AA has over 2 million members in 180 nations and more than 118,000 groups. 

12-Steps program of Alcoholics Anonymous

AA is nonprofessional and it doesn’t have any clinics, doctors, counsellors or psychologists on board. There is no central authority governing the AA groups and members of the groups decide how they function. All members of the groups are recovered alcoholics or recovering from alcoholism. Although there is no fixed way of the recovery process, most groups follow the process contained in Twelve Steps describing the experience of the earliest members of the Society:

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.

These 12 steps are not compulsorily enforced on newcomers; however, they are asked to keep an open mind, attend meetings and share in the experiences of recovered alcoholics who have achieved sobriety through the 12-step program.  

What is interesting about these 12 steps is that, “God” or “higher power” is mentioned in 6 steps either directly or indirectly. In these steps, the alcohol addicts are asked to seek God’s help in overcoming their addictions and to believe that there is a “higher power” that will help them on the path to sobriety. 

Understanding “higher power” in AA for agnostic or atheist

While the 12-step program may work for people who believe in “God” and or in some “Higher power”, it may not necessarily sit well with individuals who question the existence of “God” (agnostics) as well as individuals who don’t believe in “God” at all (atheists).

So, should agnostics and atheists dismiss the 12-step program? Not at all. Firstly, one needs to understand that the reason why “God” or “higher power” is mentioned so often in the 12-step program is because Alcoholics Anonymous was founded as a Christian organization in 1935. Secondly, these 12 steps can be and have been reinterpreted to fit the logical beliefs of agnostics and atheists. Thirdly, alcohol addicts or recovering alcohol addicts are encouraged to come up with their own definition of what “higher power” means to them.

An atheist or agnostic can replace the words “God” or “higher power” with words like “my reality”, “my truth” or any feeling or emotion that resonates with their inner emotional environment. For many atheists and agnostics in the AA program, they have found that the 12-step program works for them by simply replacing the word “God” or “higher power”, with either the power of the fellowship of the group, or power of reason or just plain old common sense. 

Alternative support groups to AA for atheists and agnostics

Getting on the 12-step program at AA may not seem possible even when you have substituted the word “God” or “Higher power” because you are still surrounded by people who strongly believe in “God”. Atheists and agnostics may not be able to get the support they need simply because they may not really understand or get along with their peers. The good news is there are many alternative support groups to AA that are non-religious and the 12-steps program is modified to suit atheists and agnostics. AA Agnostica, AA Beyond Belief, Secular AA offer a secular path of recovery within Alcoholics Anonymous and the community consists of agnostics, atheists and freethinkers.

There are many support groups outside of AA’s atheists and agnostic groups. Smart Management and Recovery Training (SMART Recovery), Realistic Recovery, LifeRing, Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS), Moderation Management and many more. Many of them have modified the 12-steps program to be more secular and quite a few also include other forms of therapy like Motivational Enhancement Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to identify self-destructive behaviours and to change them. For those who are not comfortable meeting in-person, there are a lot of online support groups on Reddit and Facebook.  

12-Steps program for atheists and agnostics

As AA spread across the world, the 12-step program didn’t seem to go well with the different faiths of the countries it was present in. However, Bill Wilson, one of the founders of AA encouraged members to reinterpret the 12 steps based on their faiths and beliefs. Below is the 12-step program of Beyond Belief Agnostics:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to accept and to understand that we needed strengths beyond our awareness and resources to restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of the A.A. program.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to ourselves without reservation, and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were ready to accept help in letting go of all our defects of character.

7. Humbly sought to have our shortcomings removed.

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 mindful inquiry and meditation to improve our spiritual awareness, seeking only for knowledge of our rightful path in life 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. 

Similarities between 12-steps program and Evidence-based treatment for Alcohol addiction

The 12-step program is one of the most popular ways of treating alcohol addiction. Most alcohol addiction issues stem from some or the other form of mood disorders such as anxiety or depression. The most common form of treating mood disorders is  Evidence based treatment (EBT) out of which Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is quite popular. In fact, most rehab centres offer a combination of EBT and the 12-steps program as a more holistic approach towards addiction treatment.  If you observe closely, there are quite a few similarities between the 12-steps program and EBT.

EBT and especially CBT encourages patients to change their dysfunctional behaviour and thought patterns and to have a more positive approach to life. The 12-step program also encourages alcohol addicts to accept that they have a problem and that they need help to make a positive change in their life.

Let’s make a step-by-step comparison between the 12-step program and EBT:

Steps 1, 2 and 3 of the 12-steps program deal with acknowledging a drinking problem and asking for help by surrendering to “God” or “higher power”. Similarly, patients being treated through EBT are guided towards admitting they have a problem and the therapist becomes the guide.

Step 4 asks the addict to take an “inventory” of their life. Similarly, a therapist will ask the patient to list down all the dysfunctional traits they have to change or would like to change.

Steps 5 till 7 consist of the addict admitting they have a problem and asking “God” or “Higher power” to remove these defects. Patients going through EBT/CBT also turn to their therapist to help them change their negative thought process and thereby help them with their addiction problems.

Steps 8 and 9 implores the addicts to ask for forgiveness and make amends with those they have hurt. Patients undergoing therapy will be asked to shift their negative thinking by letting go of guilt and shame. This can be achieved by asking for forgiveness and admitting they have let down their loved ones.

Step 10 asks the addict to keep a “personal inventory”. Patients in therapy as well as post therapy are asked to keep a record of their thoughts and actions and to be constantly aware of their behaviour and actions so as to not fall back into old habits.

Steps 11 and 12 ask the addicts to constantly stay in touch with a “Higher Power” and help others. EBT and CBT also suggest that patients need to keep working on themselves tirelessly even post recovery and more often than not for lifelong. Also, by helping others seek help, the recovery process becomes more gratifying and better.

In conclusion, the ill-effects of alcohol are the same on atheists, agnostics or believers. If you or your loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction then know that there are programs and therapies that can help you overcome your addiction, no matter what your belief system is. Whether it’s the 12-steps program or a combination of EBT with 12-steps, if the desire to quit drinking is strong enough then a positive change can be manifested.   

See our curated list of treatment centres in India that use the 12 Steps approach.

Sources:

(2012, Sep) A Collection of Alternative Steps. http://aaagnostica.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/A-Collection-of-Alternative-Steps-2012-07-09.pdf 

12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. http://www.aagsoindia.org/about-aa/12-steps-of-aa/

Erickson, M. (2020, March). Alcoholics Anonymous most effective path to alcohol abstinence. Stanford Medicine. https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2020/03/alcoholics-anonymous-most-effective-path-to-alcohol-abstinence.html

Knack, W., (2009, March). Psychotherapy and Alcoholics Anonymous: An Integrated Approach. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232586304_Psychotherapy_and_Alcoholics_Anonymous_An_Integrated_Approach

The “God” Word Agnostic and Atheist Members in A.A. https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/p-86_theGodWord.pdf

Zemore, S. E., Lui, C., Mericle, A., Hemberg, J., & Kaskutas, L. A. (2018). A longitudinal study of the comparative efficacy of Women for Sobriety, LifeRing, SMART Recovery, and 12-step groups for those with AUD. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 88, 18–26. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsat.2018.02.004