The History of Secular Organizations for Sobriety — Save Our Selves: An Interview with James Christopher
By William L. White
For more than a quarter of a century, James Christopher, founder of Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS), has advanced the idea that there are multiple pathways to addiction recovery and that these pathways include secular, rational approaches to the resolution of alcohol and other drug problems:
SOS is an alternative recovery method for those alcoholics or drug addicts who are uncomfortable with the spiritual content of widely available 12-Step programs. SOS takes a reasonable, secular approach to recovery and maintains that sobriety is a separate issue from religion or spirituality. SOS credits the individual for achieving and maintaining his or her own sobriety, without reliance on any “Higher Power.” SOS respects recovery in any form regardless of the path by which it is achieved. It is not opposed to or in competition with any other recovery programs.
SOS supports healthy skepticism and encourages the use of the scientific method to understand alcoholism.
SOS is a non-profit network of autonomous, non-professional local groups dedicated solely to helping individuals achieve and maintain sobriety.
In this interview (completed in 2012), Jim describes the beginnings of SOS and what distinguishes SOS as a framework for long-term addiction recovery. Join us on this journey through the history of SOS.
Bill White: Jim, describe the circumstances that led to the founding of Secular Organization for Sobriety (SOS).
James Christopher: Well, after several false starts, I got sober on a continuing basis beginning April 24, 1978. After a few days, I went to AA because that’s where one went in those days, but after a while, I began to back away from it. I thought the people in AA were very helpful, but this particular approach was just not my cup of tea. Sobriety was my cup of tea, and I was sure you could achieve that without the spiritual and religious trappings of AA.
At the age 35 on April 24, 1978, I had what I think of as my “epiphany”—a strong, out-of-the-blue spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and visceral experience all fused together. It was sort of a flash neon reality of, “What is this? This isn’t a life. This is a horror.” I later came to think of this experience as “cognitive, visceral synchronization.” It was this mind-gut fusion where you actually see the connection between the euphoria of drinking and its later consequences. Some might call it a “spiritual experience.” Some might call it an emotional breakthrough. But more than anything, it is this deep realization that alcohol equals pain. I mean pain! My troubles are from drinking alcohol!
And so it was this epiphany—this cognitive, visceral fusion, this deep realization that alcohol equals pain that led to my long-term sobriety. The straightforward way to get sober is to speak to your primitive addictive self in its own language: Alcohol equals pain.
A while after I was sober, I began to miss the camaraderie of other folks in recovery, so occasionally I would go back to an AA meeting, but they were just not for me. I wrote an article for Free Inquiry, an international humanist magazine, entitled “Sobriety without Superstition” that was published in 1985. I also began giving talks on a secular approach to alcoholism recovery at various humanist meetings.
Bill White: Many people know of SOS from the books you wrote. How did these come about?
James Christopher: The books were a way to elaborate responses to all the questions that were coming into SOS from the public and the press. My first three books, How to Stay Sober: Recover Without Religion (1988), Unhooked: Staying Sober and Drug Free (1989), and SOS Sobriety (1992), were all published through Prometheus Books. These books further elaborated the SOS approach to recovery. My fourth book, Escape from Nicotine Country: How to Stop Smoking Painlessly (1999), was my response to the hideous cigarette addiction problem.
Bill White: How have face-to-face meetings grown since your inception?
James Christopher: The growth began shortly after the Free Inquiry magazine article. Then we got this tremendous publicity from other corners. Articles about SOS from the Los Angeles Times to the Journal of the American Medical Association stirred interest in what we were doing. There really was not any geographical pattern to our growth, except maybe in the larger states such as New York and Texas.
In New York, court cases ruling that AA was a religious organization and that you could not mandate people to AA also reinforced the importance of choice and created a climate in which our expansion unfolded. Early on, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice invited us to offer an alternative to the 12 Steps for their inmates. California has also been a large group area, especially southern California.
We have also seen growth in Canada and Europe, particularly Western Europe. Perhaps the fastest area of overall growth has been that of our online groups.
Bill White: Where would you place SOS historically in the growing varieties of alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous?
James Christopher: Well, we’re the oldest of the secular alternatives other than Women for Sobriety, and we are the largest in terms of size and availability of meetings. We have maintained good relationships with Women for Sobriety and SMART Recovery, and we’ve always invited them to our conferences. At SOS, we champion the alternatives and feel the more alternatives the better. We’re considered the world’s largest alternative to 12-Step programs, and we maintain a growing database of more than 20,000 persons.
There is a distinctive approach within SOS. The SOS way is to encourage the individual to develop his or her own personal approach to recovery utilizing tools and structure that we offer. They can take what they like and leave the rest. I’m sure you’ve heard that before, but we actually mean it. There is no holy writ or anything carved in stone in our meetings. What works for Fred might not work for Ethel, you know what I mean? We don’t have a “large P” program; we have individualized “small p” programs—as many as we have individuals in SOS. This has been confusing to professionals who want to know our version of the 12 Steps, but it makes perfect sense to SOS members. SOS is a friendly alternative to the 12 Steps.
The SOS Program
Bill White: Jim, one of the core ideas that came out of your epiphany was this notion of sobriety priority, which came to be such a central concept in SOS. Could you elaborate on the meaning of sobriety priority?
Jim Christopher: The sobriety priority means that whatever else happens in your life is a separate issue from the issue of drinking or using drugs. Nothing gets in front of my sobriety. My sobriety is numero uno as a separate issue from everything else. It’s very simple for me—my name is Jim, I’m a sober alcoholic, I don’t drink or use no matter what. Why? Because I can’t drink and use and get away with it and what’s more, I don’t want to drink or use and get away with it.
The sobriety priority is a key tenet of SOS, I need to also say even that can be rejected in a free-thought forum. Any SOS member is free to say, “That’s a bunch of malarkey, but I consider myself a member of SOS, too.” That’s fine. The point is that if they’re sober, we clearly see that they’re doing something right. So, if they don’t go along with these core ideas, I want to make it clear, they’re still welcome in SOS.
Bill White: Some see recovery tied closely to a larger process of transformation of character, values, and identity, but you are emphasizing that drinking is very separate from any such broader changes. Is that accurate?
Jim Christopher: That is accurate. Issues that contributed to people becoming addicted may be personally important, but they are not important to the decision to stop drinking and using drugs.
What you choose to do or not do to develop yourself is separate from the more primitive issue of, “I am dying. This is not helpful. I am addicted to alcohol and I can’t drink or use and get away with it.”
Bill White: What common practices in AA would not be found in SOS?
James Christopher: I will give you a few examples. We don’t have sponsorship, which we believe often fosters guru-ism. As a new member, we don’t direct you; we walk beside you. If you have three days of sobriety, we don’t say “Put cotton in your mouth and open up your ears, sit down and shut up.” We say “Participate, participate, participate; we’re not going to force you to, but we hope you’ll get quickly involved.” We don’t use bumper sticker lingo, so you would find SOS meetings free from the sloganeering common in other groups.
We encourage free expressions of members to each other in the meetings, and we are tolerant of people using any methods that are helping them stay sober.
And we are fine with people leaving SOS meetings when they feel they no longer need such support. A lot of people get pretty healthy here so there’s nothing wrong with people moving on with their lives as long as they can take the necessary sobriety priority and sobriety tools with them. We have what I call the SOS Sobriety Priority for folks—something right off the rack—but if someone wants to craft their own program, they are free to do that in SOS. But there are also many things SOS and AA share in common—a focus on abstinence, a focus on mutual support, a meeting format, exchanging telephone numbers, and so on.
Bill White: Some people are surprised to find that there are members of SOS who also simultaneously participate in AA.
James Christopher: There are some folks—I call them United Nations folks—who can go to anything and get what they like out of it. They are very, very open to all ideas and can listen to all sides and be reasonably objective. Such folks can go to 12-Step meetings, SOS meetings, Women for Sobriety meetings, and SMART Recovery meetings and on and on and get something out of all of them. But then there are ones in each group, and in my experience particularly from 12-Step groups, who just don’t think other groups should exist.
In the early days, almost all SOS members had prior experience in AA, but today people achieve and maintain their sobriety who have never been to an AA meeting.
Bill White: Does SOS have a particular stance on medications as an aid to recovery?
James Christopher: Medication for addiction or a co-occurring psychiatric condition can be helpful depending on the individual. I’m not a person on medication, so would I say, “Ain’t I great?” No, I would say, “Ain’t I lucky,” because I don’t imagine things and hear voices in my head. I’m just fortunate that I don’t, but am I better than those who need medication support? Of course not!
SOS Organizational Structure
Bill White: Could you describe the organizational structure of SOS?
James Christopher: We take a free thought forum approach, not that it’s a free for all. That means that there’s the SOS clearinghouse, which doesn’t tell you how to live but supplies meeting materials and connects folks with others. Each meeting is autonomous as long as they have three precepts in place: they are secular, they are self-help rather than professionally facilitated meetings, and their primary reasons for existing are to achieve and maintain abstinence and to support each other in that process. If they have that going for them, then they can conduct the meetings as they wish. We don’t have a one size fits all format that we impose on all SOS groups. We have a general suggested format, and they can add or take away from that, whatever helps their particular meeting.
Bill White: Is there a governing structure of SOS?
James Christopher: Yes, each meeting governs itself. We don’t have any structured hierarchy. We only have the clearinghouse as a support to local meetings and host of our international gatherings. Free anonymous meetings all over the world, each responsible for itself, has worked very well for us.
Bill White: So many groups that preceded AA self-destructed, and AA’s resilience has been attributed in great part to AA’s twelve traditions. Is there a counterpart to the traditions in SOS?
James Christopher: The answer is yes, and what we think of as general principles and guidelines are outlined in our brochures and can be found displayed on our website, SOS.
Future of SOS
Bill White: Jim, any final reflections as you look back over this work you have been involved in for so many years now?
James Christopher: I’m just a regular down home guy who’s happy to be off the sauce and to have a life that I’ve enjoyed immensely. I’m looking forward to the day when AA takes its rightful place as one of many recovery pathways. I’m looking forward to a time when more lives will be saved because of these expanded choices. SOS, AA, Women for Sobriety, SMART Recovery, and all the rest: they are all needed because not everyone who needs recovery support is going to be attracted to or stick with AA. Recovery from addiction is hard, and we need all the help we can get. And if one door doesn’t work, maybe another door will. That’s my only point in this work I’ve done with SOS. We need these alternatives; we don’t need just one true way.
Bill White: Jim, thank you for taking this time to share your experiences and ideas, and thank you for all you have done for people seeking recovery.
This is a edited version of the interview and launches National Recovery Month for us at AA Agnostica. The original, with other materials (SOS principles, guidelines and related reading materials), is posted at William White Papers. Re-posted with the permission of both Bill White and Jim Christopher. The exploration of SOS is part of a series of posts over the next months celebrating the “many paths to recovery.”