The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery

Alternative 12 Steps

In 1991, two women were successfully working the 12-Step program… and they were atheists. They knew the program worked, and translated the Steps into secular terms.

This ground-breaking book is as valuable today as it was when it was first written.

In The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery, Martha Cleveland and Arlys G. show how the 12-Step program can be interpreted and worked by those who simply do not believe in an interventionist deity. At the same time the authors conscientiously maintain the intention and integrity of the program – its values, scope and depth. A chapter is devoted to each Step. The language is clear, engaging and personal.

This is a unique, inspiring and helpful book for anyone – regardless of belief or lack of belief – who  would like to work the 12 Step program.

Review by Chris G.

This is my own experience on finding this book:

A few years ago when I first came to AA, I was a very sick drunk, and I only wanted some relief from the torture of drinking without end, unable to stop or even slow down. I was mentally, physically, morally and spiritually broke. The 12 Steps were about the first thing I met, and I was assured that if I learned what they meant, and what to do with them, I could stop drinking. That sounded good to me, and I eagerly applied myself to them, along with joining a group and getting a sponsor.

Like a miracle, it worked. Within a few weeks, the craving was gone most of the time. Within a year, I had “done” the 12 steps. I was recovering in mind and body. This progress continued for the next two years or so.

Then a strange thing happened. I began to get bored with the literature and bored in meetings. I got especially bored with the “god thing”. The progress slowed down. As my mind cleared, my life-long agnosticism reasserted itself. I realized that the easy faith enjoyed by many of my co-AAs was not going to cut it for me any longer. I had given it my best shot, but the Jesus road was not for me.

What to do? I sure was not going to give up, stop going to meetings, and maybe drink again. AA does fix drunks, first and foremost, never doubt that, but hitting the overwhelming local Christianity with my agnostic head was becoming a serious pain.

I began to explore the Internet for whatever might be going on with agnostic alcoholics. And of course it turns out that there is a very great deal going on. Many thousands of AAs are squarely in the same dilemma… and they are doing what AAs do best: sharing their experience, strength and hope with other alcoholics!

Through a long series of happy connections – my religious friends would probably use the word “miracle” – I was introduced to The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery. And what a book it is. The title nowhere nearly does it justice. I started reading and stayed up nearly all night to finish it. It gave me the information and inspiration I needed to restart my program.

This book is not just for AA. It is not just about being secular. This is the 12 Steps unleashed as an engine of recovery for almost anyone with an addiction of any kind.

Martha and Arlys scarcely address what we call “the God problem” at all, except in the introduction, as an impediment for many people who could otherwise do a 12-Step program. They don’t have to, for what they do is find the root power of each step, and translate it into plain simple language of everyday life.  Anybody can understand this. To use the steps, there is no need for any particular religiosity; nor is there any need for psycho-jargon. This is the 12 Steps for anyone.

When most of us come into AA, we feel that our craving is a problem that we have to solve. Many of us spend untold hours and angst “fighting the problem” or trying to “solve the problem”. If we are lucky or maybe just work at it long enough, we realize that there is no problem at all to solve. We change and grow in certain ways, the craving disappears, and the “problem” simply evaporates. As Martha puts it in Step 1:

And this is when amazing things happen. When we stop trying to manage and control our problems, we mysteriously stop doing the things that are causing us the trouble.

Addiction is a human condition. It eventually corrupts all our activity and behaviour. No matter how we come into addiction, we end up in a morass of confusion and hurt on every level. The 12 Steps, along with the support of our fellows, can guide our actions and thinking in such a way as to lead us out of this confusion. No religion is needed, but neither is it excluded. The 12 Steps, as presented here, are simply religion-neutral.

For example, in discussing Step 2:

Step 2 tells us we can use spiritual resources beyond our own ordinary personal power to restore and heal ourselves… Lots of us confuse spirituality and religion. The words are often used interchangeably and we must realize that they shouldn’t be, for they have different meanings. To call religion spiritual is true, but religion is only one source of spiritual power. There are many, many others.

One of the tools we need is spirituality. Yes, religion has it, but it is abundant elsewhere. Simply find it and use it. But how? What is spirituality? That is often a slippery word to define. The authors put it so well:

The phrase “spiritual resources” can be interpreted in many ways. Does it have to mean something great and mystical? Probably not. Does it mean there are a certain number of clearly-defined sources of power that we can tap into? No. There are many sources of spiritual power, more than any of us will ever be aware of or be able to use.

Spiritual power comes from whatever gives us peace, hope or strength and enhances our humanity.

In the Introduction, Martha and Arlys tell the stories of their 12-Step experience and introduce the purpose of the book. As Arlys says:

This book is a map for anyone to use. But it is not a detail map or a topographical one. It is a map that only the person using it can understand – to others it may make no sense. It is to be followed within the context of each individual life. Each person’s destinations will be unique, each person determines how far he or she will go and how long it will take. The important thing is to decide to take the trip. It starts with the First Step.

In Chapter 1, “What Is Your Suffering,” the story of Bill W. and Dr. Bob is used to introduce the 12-Step origins and concepts, and to make the point that the 12-Step program can be used by anyone, not just alcoholics. Chapter 2, “A Program For Living” gives an overview of the 12-Step program – what is it? How do we live it? What can we gain from it?

Chapters 3 through 13 examine the 12 Steps. Each one is broken down into easily digestible pieces, and many contain real-world examples from real individuals. This is the meat of the book.

Chapter 14 is devoted to “Groups: Shared Energy for Growth” – how they should function, why they are important, what to look for in a group that will meet your needs.

The 12 Traditions are covered in Chapter 14 as well.  All are stated in religious – and addiction – neutral terms, the most remarkable being Tradition 2: “Group conscience is the group’s authority. Decisions are arrived at by group conscience. Minority ideas get thoughtful attention. Leaders themselves have no authority; they are trusted servants.”

“How To Work A Program,” Chapter 15, is eminently practical advice on what you actually do in working a 12-Step program – what to focus on, the mind-set, how a group fits in, what to do every day.  This is especially good guidance for anyone approaching a program for the first time, or for anyone who is trying but floundering a bit.

In the last chapter, “The Ongoing Journey,” Arlys and Martha share their own experiences with where the program has taken them… up to the present… for both are continuing the journey… it has no end.

I hope I made it clear that I am very happy to have found this book, for the furtherance of my own personal program as an agnostic AA.  Here is an anecdote that is worth telling:  I am currently taking a sponsee through the steps. He is an AA, he has been through the revolving door a couple of times, he is very familiar with the “canonical” AA literature – and he is a reasonable devout and practising Catholic. I have begun using this book as an adjunct to the Big Book. He absolutely loves it. He is finding the plain-talk “what, why and how” tremendously enlightening – it is giving him a whole new start on his program, and does not interfere at all with his religious beliefs. The neutral and yet inclusive treatment of the Steps is amazing.

The one thing that grabbed me most when I first read this book was Step 7. Step 7 had been causing me a lot of concern – the big hand reaching down and plucking out my bad bits was an image I just couldn’t handle. Martha and Arlys have an approach to Step 7 that I can really get a grip on. It becomes a human action step:

We begin to change by actively letting go of our shortcomings, our actions and feelings that are liabilities. We cut our losses and start again. We begin by discarding old patterns of acting and old ways of thinking. We let go with slow, cautious and reluctant moves…

Effort alone is progress, and we value our progress more than we value the perfection of the outcome. We learn not to judge our efforts in the short term because deep and lasting change for the long term takes a long time.

Little by little, step by step, stage by stage, we will reach a goal. And when we look back, we can’t really explain how we got there. So much depends on our willingness to “become entirely ready” and to work hard. So much depends on our willingness to be open to the spiritual energy that strengthens us. But for each of us it will happen, and we are grateful and we move forward.

Work honestly, humbly and courageously to develop our assets and to release our personal shortcomings.

This is a process I can really work with.

The Big Book says in Appendix II, Spiritual Experience, “that the personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism has manifested itself among us in many different forms.”  Martha and Arlys present many ways indeed to work on making this change happen, without reference to divine intervention.  I hope that this review will encourage you to explore them, no matter what your experience into the 12 Steps has been to date.

If you choose to do that, you will have a hard time finding a better book than The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery.

Alternative 12 Steps Cover 300x450

The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery is available as a second edition at Amazon.

It is also available via Amazon in Canada and the United Kingdom and Europe.

EBook versions of The Alternative 12 Steps are available online in all formats. Click here for KindleKobo or Nook. An iBook version for the Mac or iPad is available at iTunes.

Chapters of the book have been posted on AA Agnostica and can be accessed here:

21 Responses

  1. Jo says:

    Just ordered it on my kindle, and you can highlight e-books, but can understand those wanting a hard copy.

  2. Lisa M. says:

    You are NOT AA, so stop using our name.

    • Mitchell K. says:

      The Alcoholics Anonymous Preamble

      Copyright © The A.A. Grapevine, Inc.

      Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.

      The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for A.A. membership; we are self-supporting through our own contributions. A.A. is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy; neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.

      Lisa – I hope that you have not only heard this at meetings but that you have read it as well. I also hope that you have read AA’s 12 Traditions in their long form.

      That being said, EVERY person who says they are an AA member by virtue of having a desire to stop drinking is part of AA and have every right to use “OUR” name.

      “Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse no one who wish to recover. Nor ought AA membership ever depend on money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.”


      ” Tolerance expresses itself in a variety of ways: in kindness and consideration toward the man or woman who is just beginning the march along the spiritual path; in the understanding of those who perhaps have been less fortunate in education advantages; and in sympathy toward those whose religious ideas may seem to be at great variance with our own.”

      That tolerance quote was from the July 1944 AA Grapevine article written by Dr. Bob.

      Given AA’s Third Tradition and AA’s Co-Founder’s description of the importance of tolerance makes me wonder about comments like “You are NOT AA, so stop using our name.”

      Lastly, I just want to quote one more thing:

      “I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that I am responsible.”

      Nowhere does the responsibility pledge state there are conditions or requirements to receive help other than reaching out for help.

      If the attitude about AA exclusivity and lack of tolerance prevailed during the founding of AA, there would be no AA. The AA name is not owned by any members. The name is owned by a corporation, a business. It is property. And we all know about property diverting AA from its primary purpose.

      I pray for people who lack tolerance and understanding about what Alcoholics Anonymous is.

      You see, I am neither an Agnostic nor Atheist. I believe in God as I understand God as is my right as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. I love my brothers and sisters within this great Fellowship regardless of their beliefs or lack thereof. Out of love and tolerance, I will not violate AA Tradition and our code by telling anyone they are not AA or claim ownership of any property such as a name (other than my own).

      • Camille says:

        Thank you for that very diplomatic reply! It’s people like her that pushed me away from face to face AA meetings. I got very tired of explaining ‘love and tolerance’ to the hateful and intolerant. It’s fear that drives people who don’t comprehend the true message into writing GET OUT, you’re not welcome here. I like to think of my atheism as my higher power. It has enabled me to grow far deeper and stronger than the years I spent ‘coming to believe’ in a power greater than myself. Oh well….live and let live!

    • Jaye says:

      Actually, Lisa, the agnostic/freethinkers groups in Toronto ARE AA. We are all registered with District, Area, and General Service Office (GSO) in New York. Toronto Intergroup is NOT registered with any of these AA service structures. Each of our group’s GSR participates in AA area assemblies and regional forums. We have received support from our GSO Delegate and other AA bodies.

    • denisk says:

      Those who attend Agnostic meetings including myself are all AA members, we simply have a different and INCLUSIVE approach. Take a little time to read some of the articles on this site; drop by the Tuesday Agnostic meeting in Vancouver where you will be warmly welcomed regardless of your beliefs or lack of. We are there to discuss living well and sober.
      And Lisa, take a couple of minutes to read that quote in the Big Book attributed to Herbert Spencer about contempt prior to investigation.

    • John M. says:

      Hi Lisa,

      If you and I were to attend a particular meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and they served beer at all their meetings, you and I would probably want to do something about this by either getting the word out that they are running a meeting like this or set about trying to get them identified as non-AA. This would be an immediate and natural reaction by us I would think.

      Ernie Kurtz tells the story that Bill W. and another “senior” AA member visited a group in Arkansas (I believe this was the State) and the group served beer at their meetings. His colleague asked Bill what they were going to do about it since this was clearly not what an AA group should be doing. Bill responded by saying they were not going to do anything about it since John Barleycorn would eventually solve the problem.

      Bill W. and many of the other early pioneers of AA sincerely believed that AA was self-correcting – everyone just has to be patient, although advocating for a specific point of view without ostracism is certainly in order.

      So Lisa, if you think that we atheists, agnostics and free thinkers are harmful to AA in that we might not offer the kind of program of recovery in our groups that, historically, more “traditional” groups have provided down through the years, be patient (and loving). For if we are not offering the necessary service and support to those who suffer, in time, our groups will simply shrivel and fade away.

      Have faith, Lisa, that AA is self-correcting. We also have faith that AA is self-correcting though we will disagree with you on the direction this takes.

    • Pat N. says:

      Lisa,I think you may be confusing what you have experienced as CUSTOMARY in your corner of the AA world with the way it OUGHT TO BE. I really encourage you to attend lots of meetings wherever you travel and learn how varied the paths can be up the mountain.
      In the early days, a Buddhist group (in Asia, I think) asked GSO if they could alter the steps because of discord over the God statements.
      The answer was “yes” of course, with Bill W’s complete endorsement.
      Some folks are unaware that the first few years of AA meetings did not include “How It Works”, nor were the 12 Promises discussed. Do you know why?

    • Stephanie says:

      I’m a member of AA if I want to stop drinking and I identify myself a member. I have to say that it’s the kind of attitude that Lisa is expressing that has made me want not to be a member of AA and made some meetings really hostile places. Fortunately there are lots of people – atheists, agnostics and believers – who are kinder and understand the Traditions and take the Responsibility Declaration seriously. If it hadn’t been for places like this site I never would have found them. And I’d have been out of the rooms and trying to do this on my own.

      So we’re here, and we’re AA, and we’re not going anywhere. I want everyone to recover, regardless of belief or lack of belief. Do you?

    • Murph says:

      Hey Lisa, breathe, smile, go slow. Good luck with your recovery.

  3. Camille says:

    I felt the same way about AA when I hit 22 years. The atheist in me could no longer be contained. I tried all the antidotes; fake it ’til you make it; use my god; god = good orderly direction; use the American Indian’s great spirit; use the earth…none of them gave me satisfaction when it came to the ‘higher power’ thing. I finally came out of the God closet and said, I just don’t believe. Many people no longer speak to me. Such a pity for them because I’m still the person I used to be, only I’m not lying to them anymore. Maybe many like the lie. They have no idea what to do with someone who doesn’t believe. I cannot wait until I can purchase this for my Kindle.

  4. Pat N. says:

    Sounds great, and I look forward to it. HOWEVER, there are still some of us greybeards who really like 3-dimensional books, especially since they can be underlined/highlighted. Any chance this will be republished, or can one print it out from these electronic sources? I’m really not a Luddite, but I also think of the electric typewriter as a new invention.

    • Roger says:

      Hi Pat: You can easily get a used copy of it via various dealers on Amazon. That’s where I initially got my copy of it, way back when I was including the version of the 12 Steps in this book in The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps. Roger.

    • Chris G. says:

      About printing this from an ebook – if you get the free and open source book management program “Calibre”, you can convert the book to a variety of word-processing formats, and then print the whole book or selections from it. You can get it at I do this to get material for sponsor/sponsee discussions – including this very book.

  5. Murph says:

    Sounds like precisely what I need to read. Have you any idea how soon it will be before the Kindle version is available?

    • Roger says:

      Hi Murph: I just called BookBaby – the distributor for our ebooks – and they tell me it will happen in the next couple of days. Meantime, don’t miss the introductory chapter, A Program for Living, which will be posted later today! Roger.

      • Murph says:

        Thanks for that. I shall grab a copy as soon as it’s there. In the meantime, I see the introductory chapter is up, and that shall be my bedtime reading tonight.

        I love this blog, by the way. I’ve been struggling with being an atheist in AA for some time (don’t hear much about this in the UK), and getting the link via the Reddit stopdrinking group has been a real gift. Keep up the good work, and thanks.

      • Murph says:

        Thanks for the heads up re Amazon; I’ve bought it, and it’s on its way to my Kindle even as we speak. Really looking forward to reading this.

  1. February 25, 2014

    […] I want to recommend Waiting by Marya Harnbacher (the review on the website guided me to it) and The Alternative Twelve Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery by Arlys G. and Martha Cleveland (again, website) and A Woman’s Way Through the Twelve Steps by Stephanie Covington. As a […]

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