It’s a comment I’ve heard often in my years helping those with addictions: “I tried AA, but I just couldn’t get past the God part.”

The God part, of course, refers to the references to God and spirituality that appear in Alcoholics Anonymous literature – the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions in particular – as well as to the more overt signs of religion that can be part of some AA meetings, such as the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer.

For the agnostic, atheist and humanist, it can feel like a distraction from the work at hand as well as a disturbing admonishment to check their beliefs at the door.

For others, however, tapping into God’s power is the very thing that makes recovery possible. How, then, to ignore it?

The conflicting mindsets have created tension over the years, a tension that AA has sought to address by encouraging a personal definition of God as any higher power the person may choose. It could be, for example, nature, love or the AA group as a whole (in the latter case, as the explanation goes, G.O.D. becomes Group Of Drunks). Even so, when the nonreligious find themselves encouraged to follow steps such as “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” (italics in the original), the process rings hollow.

Broadening the concept of higher power brings more people under the tent poles, but it doesn’t answer the question whether this belief is essential to the recovery process.

Secular Options Grow

In response, a number of non-12-Step groups have sprung up that offer a secular approach to recovery help – groups such as Secular Organizations for Sobriety and LifeRing. Among the most popular is SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training), which emphasizes the science behind addiction and encourages self-reliance and empowerment.

It has also led to the creation of agnostic groups under the umbrella of AA that adapt the meeting style and the 12-Steps wording as they feel best suits their philosophy. There are now secular AA groups in virtually every major city in the nation, according to AA Agnostica, a website created by a group of secular AA members and designed to be a helping hand for those put off by the religious content of some AA meetings.

A handful of secular AA groups have been around for decades, but the majority were created since the turn of the century, growing in step with a national trend away from religious affiliation. Self-described atheists and agnostics now represent approximately 6 percent of the population, according to PEW Research.

An agnostic AA group can be the best of all worlds for those who want to tap into the fellowship and support that AA has offered for almost 80 years but who aren’t comfortable with “the God part.” A secular group can also be an important option for those who are ordered by the courts to attend AA meetings, still a common occurrence and one that is increasingly being challenged as an infringement on the rights of the nonreligious.

But not all are happy with the proliferation of the secular groups within AA. In 2009, an Indianapolis group organized under the name We Agnostics was twice taken off the directory of area AA meetings by the area Intergroup (a type of AA community office), which determined that the members’ revised version of the 12 Steps meant they no longer qualified as an AA group.

Two Toronto secular groups underwent the same fate in 2011 – delisted by their Intergroup for posting their revised 12 Steps online. Step 6, for example, had been changed from “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character” to “Were ready to accept help in letting go of all our defects of character.” An AA member who was on hand for the Intergroup decision told the Toronto Star that the altered 12 Steps of the agnostic group “are not our 12 Steps. They’ve changed them to their own personal needs. They should never have been listed in the first place.” Resentments simmered.

What puzzled the agnostic groups about these decisions is that AA’s founders didn’t design the 12 Steps as gospel. The list was an attempt to outline what had worked in the program for others who wanted to follow in their footsteps. In fact, according to William L. White’s encyclopedic exploration of the history of addiction treatment in the U.S., titled “Slaying the Dragon,” an original draft of the 12 Steps had much of its religious language softened by the AA membership at the time so that it might be more inclusive. An introductory sentence was also added: “Here are the steps we took which are suggested as a program of recovery.” Suggested.

In addition, AA was created with and prides itself on its bottom-up power structure. It “ought never be organized,” its Traditions state. AA members make their own decisions about their groups and are encouraged to be autonomous. “The only requirement for AA membership,” No. 3 of the 12 Traditions states, “is a desire to stop drinking.”

It’s often noted that the early language of AA represents the era in which it was created. But it also reflects the beliefs of AA co-founder Bill Wilson, who underwent a dramatic spiritual experience in the depths of his addiction that led him to believe a reliance on a higher power was essential to recovery. He hoped others would come to the same conclusion but wanted to leave the door wide open to all, “regardless of belief or lack of belief.” In a 1946 essay in the Grapevine, the journal of AA, he wrote: “So long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous Group has been formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our Recovery Program, even anti-each other — these rampant individuals are still an A.A. Group if they think so!” (Italics in the original.)

Looking Ahead

So can competing mindsets exist with AA? As secular groups proliferate, will their call for inclusion be met with acceptance, or will those who are uncomfortable with traditional practices and 12-Step language feel more and more compelled to turn to secular support organizations outside AA? And if they are welcomed, will this prompt a counter reaction from those who feel references to God and spirituality must be protected as an essential part of AA? And what of those who are OK with the call for spirituality but not to the references to God?

AA will doubtless continue to evolve and as it does, my hope is that all sides will remember the needs of the person in recovery and do everything possible to ensure that the AA tradition of welcome continues. Despite any personal differences, those in AA are kindred spirits at heart, all struggling to subdue alcohol’s hold on their lives. And for that, support is essential. Rather than dispute which path is best, we’re wise to remember the words of AA co-founder Wilson: “The roads to recovery are many.”

Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees a network of 12-step based addiction treatment programs as well as 12-Step alternatives at Lucida Treatment Center in Florida and Clarity Way in Pennsylvania. 

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