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.

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I stopped going to meetings many, many years ago.  Except for during 10 days in Barcelona in 2010 during which I may have ingested a little THC, I have been straight as a rail since 1988.  I would not meet the criteria to be diagnosed with any kind of substance use disorder, and I wonder whether or not I actually have one.  I didn't need a higher power.  Mostly what I needed to do when I stopped partying excessively at 23 was to grow up and gain some serious coping, social, and work skills.  

It doesn't really matter because I have chosen to live my life as I do.  I also realize that is not as easy for many.  However, I am very grateful for AA/NA because they certainly did help me at the beginning.

I can't speak the veracity of that statistic, but anecdotally I can believe that the success rate is very low, In AA meeting you can hear many talk about "planning their relapses." I am a firm believer that recovery from addiction needs much more than a quasi spiritual belief in a higher power. A support group format is great, but you need to get medical help for your addiction as well.

I once attended a few AlAnon meetings with what now is an ex-girlfriend, and had an opportunity to familiarize myself with their basic format. Granted, the program began decades ago when religion was more relevant than it is now, and the "Higher Power" initially referred to "god," but I believe the purpose of using the concept of a Higher Power lies in the assumption - usually quite accurate - that the alcoholic or drug abuser has repeatedly tried quitting on their own and found themselves unable to do so.

But I agree that one should never stop searching for that same power within yourself - once you realize that there simply IS no other power out there, that leaves the only possible platitude: "If it's to be, it's up to me."

First of all, gotta say, love your acronym, "G(roup) O(f) D(runks)," very clever!

Secondly, I don't know the stats on AA, so I don't really know the relapse rates, I was simply trying to explain "higher power" from a possibly different perspective than a deity.

I certainly wouldn't say these people are insane by any means (though some may well be), but I do believe there are mental issues involved with any addiction, whether it's to alcohol, drugs, tobacco, food, or sex.

Let me ask you this, Ilse - and I ask this sincerely, not sarcastically - what would you suggest as an approach?

@Ilse - sorry I took so long to get back to you, but I decided to have a computer-free evening, just to see how it felt.

I didn't mean to put you on the spot when I asked your opinion, I would never expect anyone to have THE solution, but I did want to know your opinion, as you seem to be far more knowledgeable in this area than I (as clearly evidenced by the G.O.D. example).

Personally, my only addiction (except for possibly computer usage) is to nicotine - and don't ever believe for a second that it doesn't qualify as a drug - and I am in a constant daily struggle to walk away from it, so far, without success. If I thought for an instant that turning my life over to a doorknob would help in the least, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

Interestingly, from a psychological point of view, the ones you've ranked as being in the top, at first glance, seem to be ones that cults also often use for indoctrination and membership retention, suggesting they offer a double-edged sword, depending on your use of them. Fascinating.

Thanks for your input.

Arch, having a computer free evening....

As usual, Strega --http://www.cool-smileys.com/images/288.gif

'Nuther problem. 'Nuther group.

ASCA rejects AA's Higher Power.

Adult Survivors of Child Abuse holds that power has to reside in the person.

The abuse took it away; the survivor has to retrieve it.

Here is a poster who is telling you that the AA program, regardless of it’s woo – woo connotations, is having a positive result on him. So why are some of you running it down or saying that it doesn’t work?

The point of these programs is to humble you.  To help you understand that you can’t do it on your own and to stop trying to control it. To humble you enough to ask for help.  Often the belief that someone understands you completely and knows exactly how much you are suffering can be an amazing cathartic experience.

When it comes down to it, it’s all psychology and it DOES work for many people.

Regardless of whether the program is bullshit or not, it does not ask you to harm others but to help and be kind to others. It fosters empathy.

Empathy is a very powerful tool.

I wish Ezra all the best.

Thank you for your response Angela. One of the main impediments to my growth as a human being, my addiction notwithstanding, is arrogance. Being accountable to a sponsor who calls me out on my nonsense and arrogance as well as being accountable to a group of peers has been a very humbling experience. I admire those people who can quit and move forward with life without the association of others who have been there, but I am a social person by nature and find a group of like-hearted people to be useful.

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.


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