I am both a recovering alcoholic and recovering adult child of an alcoholic. I’ve made great progress through 12-step programs such as AA and Al-Anon and I am grateful for their existence. However, the underlying “spiritual” nature of the program and the subsequent god talk has always fallen rather flat with me.

Many times I have asked myself exactly what am I doing in a program that can’t seem to bring itself into the 21st century. The program works without needing to believe in any kind of god, higher power or spiritual quasi mystical hoo hoo. I’m an atheist and a secular humanist and I now go to great lengths to share that with my fellow members.

It turns out I am not alone. There are many atheists “in the pew” as it were.  I get thanked all the time by other secular members who seem abashed or fearful to express their lack of belief. It has gotten me to wondering if there are strictly secular approaches that exist. What alternatives to AA or Al-Anon exist that are more up to date with the science and psychological understanding of our present age?

My mantra for has become “I am powerful.”  I’m just not all powerful and it is important I get straight about certain facts of existence so that I can exert my own “power” (not to be construed to be anything but the power of human will and my psychology.

I know that there must be other atheists here who are recovering from addiction or coping with the addiction of a loved one. What alternatives have you found to be useful? Are their secular support groups for people such as us? I’d love to hear from you.

Tags: Alcoholism

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AA and its twelve steps have remained unchanged since its fundamentalist founding more than 75 years ago . Other human endeavors that are unchanging are things like religion and astrology . Bullshit is still bullshit irrespective of how many people a particular brand of bullshit claims to have " helped" .


Hi Belle:

Thanks for sharing. I'd totally be up for creating AAA. AA is a theist based program that has a Christian pedigree tied to the Oxford movement of the late 19th and early 20th century and an odd mix match of New Thought Christianity. This did work for me when I started. I’ve recently read that founder Bill Wilson received his revelation leading to AA through an experience he had on hallucinogens. I was a little taken aback if not disturbed. 

I have become a self-appointed historian of AA and there were a lot of goofy things that the early members did as they created the program. There are stories of spiritualism and other “occult” type psychology. No wonder AA has a reputation for being “cultish.” These folks were making this up as they went. Some of the old timer approaches such as refusing to take aspirin or other medically necessary medications as well as the “gang up” on people who were relapsing or falling away added to the cult mystique. I’ve never experienced any of this in my 12 years of involvement. I hope that this is not going on anywhere else. It would be a great tragedy if it were.

While the religious and “spiritual” talk falls flat and often seems an impediment that I have witnessed in the recovery of others, there are elements that still work for me such as the friendships and the collective wisdom of others garnered through experience. I found it to be better than going it alone. But, I’m not the lone wolf type.

For me the ultimate "effectiveness" of the 12-steps had to do with my desire to change and ability to gain insight into my own life and personality. This had nothing to do with a higher power or a "God as we understood him." In fact, I often share that through my personal process of recovery I came to be an atheist and learned to reject supernatural and mystical claims. This is quite the opposite for most of my associates and acquaintances who I have had the privilege of working through mine and their addictions with.

Diane, commenting on March 8th below, echoed my experience:

The conclusion I came to was that, whatever the means, there has to be a fundamental and profound shift in thinking.  Something monumental has to happen in the psyche of the addict or alcoholic to facilitate change.  That's a huge, vague understatement, but it's crucial for lasting recovery.  Sometimes AA or NA attendance can help to bring about that change.

However, while many of the scientific studies I am currently aware of are inconclusive in some respects (mostly due to lack of control groups or data gathering methods) it does seem clear that AA/NA alone is not all that effective for the majority of members. Diane’s response above suggests to me that the answer to effective treatment of addiction is best served by understanding the neuroscience of the brain and how it affects and “programs” are thinking. I’d be interested in any scientific study that draws strong conclusions either way – if anyone has some to share.

One of the tidbits that I have been sharing in my home meeting recently for those who have a hard time reconciling my atheism with success is this: until the pain of letting things stay the same exceeds my pain or fear of change I won’t change. The desire to change along with the willingness to do what it takes to break the cycle of my addiction (any issue plaguing me, really) I won’t do much.

We also know a lot more about addiction medicine than we did in the 1930’s when Alcoholics Anonymous was getting started. This leads to what is probably my chief complaint with 12-step programs in general; they are too rooted in the past. Tradition often trumps science. I have been advocating in recent years for an update in the language of the program and the need for it to incorporate the latest evidence from the neurosciences and other scientific disciplines.

AA is a faith based program and no evidence based on fact is necessary. Given my love and respect for science this is troubling. It seems little to no distinction is ever made between personality flaws (defects of character) that we all have and pervasive personality disorders are ever made. A psychological diagnosis needs more than just the 12-steps and often this group of people won’t benefit (anecdotally speaking from personal experience) much from these programs unless worked in conjunction with professional, science based help.

Finally, I’ve always considered AA to be a poor person’s behavioral modification program. When I came to a place where I was ready to quit drinking I found the cost of the available rehab programs to be prohibitive. The least expensive one was 2 years salary. It also meant time away from work. The insurance I had provided dismal coverage for treatment. But, this is another conversation altogether.

I would conclude, despite my positive experience, with the responses of many who have posted. Faith based programs, which is what we are really describing here, are largely ineffective. The success rate is hard to measure empirically and what we can measure is not much greater than those who simply quit on their own without help. AA often behaves like a religion even though members go to great length to protest otherwise.

Hi and well done, not an easy one to go through. You mentioned that you are also the adult child of an alcoholic. Sounds like you are predisposed to adiction by genetics. Have you tried CBT ( Cognitive behavioural therapy) It helps addiction, depression, OCD and other problems. Basicaly it works by finding the negative triggers and responses and turning them into a positive. You work on the thought pattern of the mind that is astablished and change that , which means changing the way you feal about yourself, the way you view others, the meaning you attach to words and actions of others and respond to that. It is to learn how to dictate to your mind and not your mind to you. Taking controle of your automatic thought patern and your automatic respons to that. Their is self help books on this , but therapy works best and why not start your own group where religion does not make out part of the sharing, a group where you will feal at home to be yourself. A group is about sharing, with people that can truly say I do understand what you are going through, that will be able to suport you without any preconcieved ideas or hidden agendas. And mostly where you can find the suport that you need. Stay strong and be proud, I admire the fact that you can talk about this.:)

I went to Al-anon for several years and gave up on it because I couldn't move forward with it...the 12 steps we're something I could do without a higher power that made sense. This was a couple of years before I figured out there is no God. 

The lasting impact in my life from the program came from two concepts:

1) Detachment. A great concept when dealing with jacked up people whose behavior could affect you. However this is not a concept that cannot be found elsewhere. 

2) Surrender. The idea of admitting your life is out of control and that you cannot be well without a higher power--it was suggested to me that I make the group or the program itself a substitute for a higher power.  This is a very dangerous concept because it erodes your sense of self-determination, responsibility and empowerment. It took me as many years as I was in the program to undo that mindfuck!

It frustrates me that I was referred to al-anon by a licensed counselor. I wish there had been an alternative support system for family members/friends of addicts that my counselor respected enough to recommend. 

SMART recovery is secular.

Hi Ezra,

    For some reason the words "Secular Sobriety" popped into my head. So I googled it. Here is the wikipedia page: Secular_Organizations_for_Sobriety

Take a look at the external links and references section and you may find what you are looking for.

Hope you find what you are after.


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