What is SOS?


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. 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.”

16 Responses

  1. Greg B. says:

    I’m looking for a support group (meeting) in the Omaha, NE area (68137). Thanks.

  2. Janie Mclean says:

    All those who sincerely seek sobriety are welcome as members in any SOS Group. SOS is not a spin-off of any religious or secular group. There is no hidden agenda, as SOS is concerned with achieving and maintaining sobriety (abstinence). SOS seeks only to promote sobriety amongst those who suffer from addictions. As a group, SOS has no opinion on outside matters and does not wish to become entangled in outside controversy. Although sobriety is an individual responsibility, life does not have to be faced alone. The support of other alcoholics and addicts is a vital adjunct to recovery. In SOS, members share experiences, insights, information, strength, and encouragement in friendly, honest, anonymous, and supportive group meetings. To avoid unnecessary entanglements, each SOS group is self-supporting through contributions from its members and refuses outside support.

  3. Skip D. says:

    Like others have mentioned, I think that the solution may be in the growing number of secularized AA meetings. The AA Traditions provide the freedom for such groups and meetings as being part of AA as long as they don’t have any affiliation with other organizations. Also, the General Service Office of AA has confirmed this freedom over the years.

  4. Glenna R. says:

    Thank you, once again, Roger, I like JIm Christophr’s ideas about SOS and especially like the idea that character, values and identity are separate from our addictions. This has always bothered me as I believe in Bill White’s scheme of things: I am a transient alcoholic. This means I spent years developing character, values and identity when I wasn’t drinking. Often, I got the impression in AA that none of that mattered–years of sobriety without AA were all wasted and I was born anew in AA—reminds me of being, “washed in the blood.” and other Christian ideas I’m quite familiar with! AA remakes us anew and we owe everything in our lives to AA. I’m sorry and I say this with gratitude for AA, but I had a whole other life before AA.Please do not misunderstand, I’m an alcoholic and know too well the need for abstinence.I’ve been beaten up enough by alcohol as has my whole family that I don’t need people who never wanted to stop drinking or chronic alcoholics telling me I’m not the real thing. Not only are there different paths to sobriety, there are very different ways that people came from before sobriety. Thanks again, Glenna

  5. Bruce C. says:

    I’ve never been to an SOS meeting or any of the other secular programs out there as there are none in my area. I did, however, recently attend my first freethinkers AA meeting in Houston, the Midtown Secularists Group. I felt so relaxed there & it was a wonderful experience. No Lord’s Prayer etc. Just wish I wasn’t an hour & a half away from it. At least there are “some” rational people in regular AA groups. I believe things are starting to change however slowly it may be.

  6. Skip D. says:

    I was a member of an SOS group in Ithaca NY, until the SOS newsletter started pushing “micro-nutrients” as a valid treatment for addiction.
    I was stunned by lack of rigorous skeptical scrutiny regarding these claims. I wrote a short letter to SOS complaining of the lack of evidence to back up the claims. I received no response and the letter never appeared in the newsletter. I’ve not seen or heard much of SOS since.
    I was quite surprised this pseudo-science was embraced by SOS, as SOS’s parent organization is/was(?) also the publisher of The Skeptical Inquirer.
    Until that is corrected, SOS will still stand for Snake-Oil-Sobriety as far as I’m concerned.

  7. John M. says:

    I’m glad AA Agnostica will be running (as it has in the past) a series of articles on other paths to recovery. Over the years I’ve checked out meetings of SOS, LifeRing, Smart Recovery and a few other types as well as attending many “traditional” AA meetings and certainly more and more WAFT meetings over the past couple of years. Throw these all into a “hat of options’ and I prefer WAFT meetings but I still feel comfortable in any of the other types when I have the time to attend.

    Other folks will pull out a different type of meeting out of the hat and that means it’s the best fit for them.

    Thanks Roger and Bill for bringing us this interview with James Christopher.

  8. steve b says:

    I helped start two SOS meetings in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, but both of them failed to catch on, and, as far as I know, there’s no SOS meeting at all in the entire Chicago area. And it’s such a shame too, because I think that SOS is a far nicer fit for an atheist than AA. I know I enjoyed it more even than the few atheist and agnostic AA meetings that grace Chicagoland. I guess most recovering alcoholics just assume that AA is the place to go to if you want to get sober, and give no thought at all to secular alternatives. Sometimes I get so tired of listening to sappy devotional readings at AA meetings, and hearing members praising the lord for their sobriety. Religion is perhaps the greatest delusion which now grips our nation, and it has certainly succeeded in enveloping the field of addiction recovery.

  9. David H. says:

    Thanks for this interview.
    It’s refreshing to hear that there is no opposition to or competition with other groups. Fifteen or so years ago when I checked out Rational Recovery and Life Ring, their obvious beef with AA was what turned me off.
    It sure does sound to me like Christopher had a “..great clean wind of a mountaintop…” experience like Bill Wilson. I’m glad he didn’t turn it into a “god thing”.
    Up with SOS! The more alternatives the better.

    • Brent says:

      “The more alternatives the better”. Really? I’m not so sure of that.
      After thirty years of coming in and out of AA, coming in because my alcoholism was getting worse, leaving because there was always some aspect of AA that I could use as a deal breaker.
      Anybody observing me all those years might have suggested that I didn’t really want to get sober and they’d likely have been right. I wanted the trouble to go away, but deep down I didn’t want to stop drinking. Yet in going in and out of AA I was learning about myself and what I had to do to stay sober. Over three years ago I hit a bottom that saw me lose everything. I went back to AA because there was nowhere else to go. Besides over the decades I’d met some sober people who I would have been friendly with regardless of where I met them so AA wasn’t a difficult place to return to. Nevertheless, when I went back, I was really just putting in time at meetings, not actively seeking recovery. I figured, in having repeatedly fought with AA and rejected its tenets so many times before, that I would eventually go back out as I always had.
      That didn’t happen and today I’m more than three years clean and sober. And my mind is more open to participating in an AA group than it’s ever been. Still I had my issues, not the least of which was God. But in doing my homework and talking in good faith to folks I respected, I came to understand that I didn’t have to swallow anything that I genuinely couldn’t come to terms with. In fact there were plenty in the rooms who believed strongly in some interpretations of AA while others believed something else.
      But what was really important for me to grasp and was consistent throughout AA was its contention that alcoholism is pathological and therefore an alcoholic’s only hope for a contented life meant abstaining from alcohol. That and being a contributing, accountable member of a group would help ensure that I remained abstinent better than anything else. Whether I believed in God or I didn’t apparently didn’t matter and, in fact, popping up at the time were a handful of groups built precisely from a secular premise. But they didn’t diverge from AA’s basic diagnosis of the alcoholic: a. that he/she cannot drink alcohol safely in any amount, b. that alcoholics who stay sober do so by dedicating themselves to the greater good of the organization and its members than by focusing on him/herself.
      So it took me thirty years to discover the harsh truth about the nature of alcoholism and how to live contentedly without a chemical crutch.
      But let’s imagine that every time I left AA there was another group and a different approach to getting sober for me to try. Knowing me, I could have forever been “shopping” for a treatment modality that I liked; that conformed in every way to the recovery program I would have built. But I would never have found that because what was really going on was, I didn’t want to confront the truth about myself, that I was powerless over alcohol, something I heard at my very first meeting of AA.
      Like I said before, I did my homework about alcoholism and addiction, came to understand the neuro-physiology of addiction, and the fundamental answer from the doctors and scientists conducting this research was no different than AA’s – abstinence is the first step and finding community is the best reinforcement for abstinence. Faith in something greater than oneself was a characteristic of almost all successful people but that “something greater” didn’t have to be God. It was much more about the frank recognition that none of us is driving the big bus. There’s great consolation in that realization.
      It’s frequently said that AA isn’t for everyone and for years it wasn’t for me. But today I see that if AA’s adhere to the traditions, there’s little reason to search too much farther for effective support. Alternatives are good when I’m buying ice cream, but until it’s proven that AA’s take on alcoholism and recovery is wrong, I would only be confused by too many alternatives to recovery. Especially when there’s apparently little to interpret about the true nature of the problem.

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