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 – as valuable today as it was when it was first written – is their sharing of this freeing secular translation.
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.
Chapters of the book have been posted on AA Agnostica and can be accessed here:
- The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery
- Second Edition
- A Program for Living
- Step 1
- Step 2
- Step 3
- Step 4
- Step 5
- Step 6
- Step 7
- Steps 8 and 9
- Step 10
- Step 11
- Step 12 and How to Work a Program