4 Ways Atheists and Agnostics Recover

Sober

By Kelly Fitzgerald

A common question among those trying to get sober, and those who are foreign to addiction and recovery is, how do atheists and agnostics recover? It’s often thought that sobriety is equivalent with the 12 steps and AA, and when people think of 12 step they think of religious language and higher powers. The thinking in Alcoholics Anonymous is that addiction is a spiritual problem that needs to be solved through the 12 steps and belief in a higher power. In fact, in the Big Book, there is a chapter dedicated to agnostics and atheists that claims by the time the book is read the person reading it will become a believer. Some people are not religious, do not believe in a power greater than themselves, and therefore traditional 12-step way of life does not resonate with them. Can they still recover? Here are 4 ways atheists and agnostics recover from addiction.

1. AA for Agnostics

There is a sect of Alcoholics Anonymous specifically for agnostics, freethinkers, and atheists. They even published a book called  A History of Agnostics in AA. AA Agnostica and Secular AA are two groups promoting the religion-free version of AA. Secular AA groups do not recite prayers at the beginning or end of their meetings, nor do they suggest that a belief in God is required to get sober or maintain sobriety – a key difference from traditional AA. Readings at these types of meetings include traditional AA literature as well as a copy of the secular version of the 12 steps. Secular AA still maintains the principles of the 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous and they encourage members to share their experience with AA as a whole through the General Service structure. They provide an international service network for the Agnostic, Atheist, and Freethinking in AA.

2. Secular Organizations for Sobriety

Commonly called S.O.S., Secular Organizations for Sobriety is a nonprofit network of groups dedicated to helping people achieve and maintain sobriety from alcohol, drug, and food addiction. S.O.S. also stands for “save our selves,” emphasizing the belief that members of S.O.S. play the biggest role in their sobriety. S.O.S. respects diversity, welcomes healthy skepticism, and encourages rational thinking. Each member takes responsibility for their individual sobriety on a daily basis. At meetings, experiences, thoughts, feelings, and understandings are shared in an anonymous setting.

3. SMART Recovery

SMART recovery is self-management for addiction recovery that includes face-to-face, as well as online meetings. Members learn recovery methods based on the latest scientific research and through self-empowering science-based mutual help groups. SMART’s 4-point program includes: building and maintaining motivation, coping with urges, managing thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and living a balanced life. Their program is based on self-reliance, self-empowerment, and self-directed change, and avoids talk about religion or a God of any kind. The techniques and information for SMART Recovery are constantly evolving with the times as new scientific information becomes available.

4. Personal recovery path

Apart from these awesome, secular recovery support groups and programs, atheists and agnostics often blaze their own trail. They may quit drinking and using drugs by finding online recovery support, reading memoirs and other informative books about addiction, reaching out to a trusted friend who is in recovery for support, using the services of a recovery coach, or just engaging in healthy living habits like doing yoga, meditating, and exercising. They might not feel like any of the typical recovery programs speak to them, or they might not have the resources or meetings available nearby to attend some of the secular groups we’ve talked about.

When I got sober in 2013 I did it on my own. I was too scared to go to AA and the necessary belief in a higher power bothered me. I decided to search the internet for help. I found countless websites that spoke about addiction, recovery, and had stories of real people living normal, fun lives in sobriety. I couldn’t believe it. People actually live without drugs and alcohol, enjoyed themselves, and share about their struggles. Could I be one of them? Blogs, books, and writing helped me get through my first year. It wasn’t until after I hit one year that I began to think about the spiritual side of life and that had nothing to do with religion or God.

Atheists and agnostics recover just like people who identify as spiritual or religious, by whichever recovery path works best for them. It may change or evolve over time, but the point is they feel included, connected, and live their best lives sober.


Kelly is a sober writer based in Cape Coral, Florida, best known for her personal blog The Adventures Of A Sober Señorita. She has been published across the web on sites like The Huffington Post, SheKnows, Ravishly, The Fix, and Buzzfeed.

In August 2015, another article by Kelly, The Anatomy of a Blackout, was posted on AA Agnostica.


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4 Ways Atheists and Agnostics Recover — 33 Comments

  1. Very nice, thanks for sharing. Though I would say 5 options 🙂 – just going to God based meetings and taking what we need from them while also using outside support like online groups, agnostic recovery books to read daily and focusing on a healthy life style. I found recovery via this method (no other groups were in my area ) – and I think it makes me even more steadfast… God based Meetings were often a place I needed to practice serenity Yet having the immediate reinforcement to change the way I think 🙂

  2. Hi Kelly.

    I do not believe that AA for agnostics is a “sect of AA” but that AA is for everyone including Atheists, Agnostics and freethinkers. Our history proves it, no matter what the Fundies may think.

    Hope you are well. Jim W. in Cancun.

    • “To be doomed to an alcoholic death or to live on a spiritual basis are not always easy alternatives to face.” (BB p. 44)

      This is our history, this is the way out…

      “So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn’t think so.” (BB p. 62)

      Abstinent alcoholics are preoccupied with their own state of mind. If alcoholics are not relieved of their addictive obsession with self, their lives get worse over time whether they are using or not. Some alcoholics can remain abstinent and obsessed for decades without spiritual help. The results are not pretty.

      “Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kill us! God makes that possible. And there often seems no way of entirely getting rid of self without His aid. (BB p. 62)

      The fact is that abstinent alcoholics run a constant risk of relapse because they are not addressing the spiritual causes of their addictive obsession (selfishness). Alcoholics will not want to become recovered until managing the self-obsession becomes too painful to tolerate.

      Why is that AA Agnostica proponents insist upon changing AA to fit their program, when they should be starting their own?!?

      • Early on I was in a speakers meeting and I heard her say AA was a selfish program. Say what? I had just finished my first 4th Step painfully discovering the degree of my selfishness and I’m hearing this?

        She later explained to me if I wanted to work with other alcoholics I needed to have something worthwhile to give away. And to do that I needed to put myself first in my recovery.

  3. Very encouraging to find such vigorous yet respectful discussion on this topic. I’m a 18 year sober member from Brisbane Australia who has experienced growing unease over the years with my inability to reconcile my Atheism with the program of AA. Only recently have I become aware of the growth of secularism in the fellowship. It has been my observation that numbers attending meetings have at best plateaued and, I suspect, dropped off in recent years and I believe the “hard line” God botherers are largely to blame. Having said that I find the level of aggression displayed on some forums promoting secularism to be distressing and unhelpful. I have no issue with those who are of a spiritual bent, I simply ask that they stop telling me and, more importantly the newcomer, that there is no other way.

  4. Enjoyed your article. Glad to see that their are several avenues of recovery available to our fellow friends seeking help.

  5. There are as many paths to sobriety as there are people seeking it. All programs, literature, etc. are nothing more than resources we have to guide us to our personal paths.

  6. I like to think of Bill and Bob as the olden times, where it is like, “Earl, Bill is in the drunk tank, go pick him up.” Bill was in touch with Carl Jung, then influenced by Oxford, an evangelical Christian Organization. But they realized there were people of other faiths and beliefs. I look at the 12 steps as, “Ok I’m sober, now what.” How you do your program is up to you – it belongs to you. However there is a lot of talk about what I call “Freethinkers” and people expressing their beliefs, and I got that. I like literature – both GSO and non GSO approved – on the journey. If you belong to a freethinking group, we’re all guessing that you have a higher power that isn’t mainstream Christianity or none. However, I think sometimes we focus so much on the beliefs and not on the journey. I want to be inspired by journey and how the belief – spiritual or not – interlaced into their story got an individual sober. There are many stories about people getting sober, but give me the details that led to inspiration. I feel like that part, what they left in their wake and how they made made themselves as whole as they can, the most useful. I’ve been to SMART, but stopped going when the checkins with people took more than 1.5 hours scheduled for the meeting. Super open to all forms of recovery – it is yours and YOU have the power to own it. As much as step 1 has you admit your powerless against alcohol (drugs, etc.) you give yourself the power not to drink (even if for hours or a day) and to start your program. I am happy to be sober today, and my plan is the same for tomorrow is the same.

    • It’s the journey!

      Today I am listening, observing, patiently waiting for the next revelation in the natural world and among my human network. I trust my gratitude list will grow. My shortcomings interrupt this journey, repeatedly, but less so over time, thanks to the fellowship in AA.

  7. Let’s be clear, AA as conceived by Bill W et al is not and never has been a religion. Enuf awready with the argument. AA was formed at a time in North America when nearly every citizen was a member of a Christian group. If AA was/is a spiritual program it therefore would have meant a belief in the Christian deity. Not so at all today.

    Buddhism, Islam, and yes very much atheism are commonplace today. Ergo secular recovery. It’s kind of a no brainer today ain’t it…

    • There is a large and vocal contingent of “conservative” AA who are averse to change of any kind in principle and practice. It is ironic how we find these folks in a program that in its pure form is all about healthy change. It is like many of the fellowship are stating, “Only one radical change per lifetime allowed.” The inflexibility and refusal to accept progress or even denying that progress is possible in a “program” that is founded on “progress not perfection” is such a classic demonstration of alcoholic thought and behavior that maybe it should be preserved. The “It ain’t broke don’t look at it just move along” crowd are classic in their sheer force of denial. Who would come to AA without the fear of death and dissolution right behind them? Having found refuge in a place they would never willingly have come to without experiencing an existential threat they embrace all of its BS with the oft mentioned fervor of the drowning candidate. It is worth an article by someone literate. Historical parallels abound. Thanks Jack.

    • It is a religion! Several State Supreme Courts have found it to be. It is at least monotheism and a faith based religion. Not unlike Christianity. So I strongly disagree.

      Check out the article on this website The Courts, AA and Religion. Bill Wilson and others saying it is not a religion does not mean it is not a religion. Federal and State Courts did not buy the denial of the truth and did find it a religion. Still the denial and dishonesty persists.

  8. I shall be eternally grateful my facilitator in the treatment center observed my nervousness (fear?) whenever god/prayer was mentioned in a meeting.

    It’s been some 35 years now and her advice on how to ignore the religious overtones in the meetings saved me life.

    Live and let live was a new concept for me and it has served me well. Although I must admit, since becoming disabled, I no longer attend live meetings as the “everything happens for a reason” and god talk has gotten too much to bear.

    • I live in a small town, (pop. 15,000) in southern Illinois. There are no atheist/agnostic meetings within 200 miles; so I if I am to attend AA meetings, I must attend the God-based meetings. I would be committing heresy if I choose not to do so, since I have been attending those meetings for a few years, just “tolerating” the God talk and the Lord’s Prayer! Your note is encouraging me to cease attendance at those meetings.

      • I can well appreciate your feelings Don. I don’t have any issues with peoples beliefs unless they get over bearing and/or insist in “suggesting” their notions are the only highway.

        Frankly my intense desire and love of working with others is what kept me sober those first several decades. And I felt some of constant christian dogma being uttered in the meetings severely compromised my efforts.

  9. Thanks for the article. Being a schismatic usually results in becoming a heretic or a saint.

  10. In the Rooms, an online recovery site, has 2 video meetings that might interest some of us: a LifeRing one on Tuesday morning and an atheist and agnostics one on Tuesday night. I plan to attend them soon to try them out.

  11. I have been attending a Refuge Recovery meeting in Ohio. I have found it to be a good alternative for addicts who are non believers and see the advantage of fellowship and meditation. Check it out: Refuge Recovery.

    • There is a Buddhist refuge recovery meeting in my town also. The AA district also did allow a secular group called “tradition three” where the steps are not read at all.

      • There is a Buddhist Recovery Summit scheduled for October in the state of Washington. With some great speakers! An article with all the details will be coming soon on AA Agnostica.

  12. As others have commented, this is an excellent, concise article that describes viable alternatives that alcohol addicts have to achieving recovery besides traditional AA.

    I am most gratified that two of the alternatives Kelly mentions are organizations that I have been active in for the past several years. First, there is AA Agnostica, which I attribute to saving my recovery process within AA when I moved to a very conservative rural area on the seacoast of Oregon in 2011 where my wife, Jill, and I were shunned and shamed in AA for being nontheists. I have also been very active with Secular AA, currently serving on it’s Board of Directors. Secular AA was initiated by Dorothy H. and Pam W. in WAAFT. They coordinated the Santa Monica Convention in 2014, ably being assisted by Deidre S., who maintained the worldwide meeting list, and John S., who coordinated WAAFT Central for the last several years.

    John S., along with Doris A. and Len R., also currently manages AA Beyond Belief, a secular website that regularly posts articles and podcasts for alcohol addicts, who have no belief or believe differently from the Christian religion.

    We secular members of Alcoholics Anonymous are most fortunate to have expanding resources, both within AA and outside of AA, to help us maintain and evolve our continued recovery process a day at a time.

    • Hi Thomas B!

      A little off subject, but would you know where I could find service opportunities in Secular AA or AA Agnostica?

  13. This is a nice little article. Funny to be called a Sect, though, but I guess that’s what we are, if AA is a religion. 🙂

    I guess she missed mentioning LifeRing. A still relatively small program, but growing well. Started in California, and half their meetings are there, the other half scattered across the globe though mostly in the US. There seem to be a couple of hundred: Find a Meeting.

    I have yet to attend one of their meetings, so can’t give a further review.

    • I really enjoy LifeRing meetings, they are available 7 days a week in Sacramento County.

  14. Nice brief article on alternatives. Should also mention LifeRing, although probably smaller and newer than SOS and SMART Recovery. I’ve attended both LifeRing and SMART in Victoria, Canada, and was impressed. Same warm, welcoming atmosphere as secular AA. LifeRing is found primarily in CA, and I hope it spreads. It’s based on attendees sharing how their week has gone and what their immediate plans are, in terms of living sober. Positive crosstalk is the norm – it’s like a group of friends sitting around the living room, in my experience.

    Check out their website: LifeRing Secular Recovery. Its founder, Martin Nicklaus, wrote Empowering Your Sober Self, an EXCELLENT book on recovery, one of the best I’ve read.

  15. “There is a sect of Alcoholics Anonymous specifically for agnostics, freethinkers, and atheists…”

    Perception is an individual phenomenon. As one among those in AA who attend a non-traditional secular meeting of the fellowship, I would never have described the secular movement in AA as a “sect.” Sect implies an extremist or heretical interpretation of a religious doctrine. The author’s perception of AA is colored by those who practice and portray it as a religious experience and conversion, which is understandable enough. My perception of secular AA is from a place inside one of the many fellowships within the secular AA movement. We have come together specifically to avoid the practice of AA as a religion. That doesn’t make us a “sect” of some broader AA religion.

      • AA comes from Christianity. It is a religion (several state supreme courts also found this) so it is a Christian denomination. Agnostics, atheists etc are the same as in AA as in a Christian Church, i.e. outsiders and we always will be. Not even a sect. Historically AA has never accepted atheists so we cannot even be a sect.

  16. Buddhism is an atheist religion. The Buddha did not believe in gods. This religion has 8 steps with no focus on a HP or the Buddha. Ignorance of non western religions or one that is not faith based is common.

  17. Good article! It’s so nice to know that alcoholics and drug addicts have so many options for help besides A.A./N.A./C.A.