The Alternative 12 Steps – Second Edition

Alt 12 Steps

We are pleased to announce that AA Agnostica has published a Second Edition of the book The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery.

As valuable today as it was then, the new edition of this pioneering and exceptional book remains as it was originally written by Martha Cleveland and Arlys G in 1991 except that a Foreword by Roger C has been added.

Foreword by Roger C.

We can learn the universal, generic pattern of life’s dance from the 12 Steps. But in our individual dance of life, we choose our own music and dance our own dance.
From the chapter on Step 3

This is a remarkable book.

And there are at least two very good reasons for that.

Secular Steps

First, there is in this book, to the best of our knowledge, the first “non-Godly” version of the 12 Steps ever published.

The original version, of course, written by Bill Wilson and published in Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939, refers to God (or a “Power” or “Him”) six times.

That’s way too much God for many of us.

And, to be sure, many in AA had already taken action to circumvent the “God bit”. In fact the term “God bit” comes from Jim Burwell, one of the first members of AA, who convinced Wilson to make the 12 Steps a “suggested” program of recovery – rather than a required one – in the AA fellowship.

Meetings for non-believers in AA have been around for a long time. Quad A (Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics) was launched in 1975 in Chicago. Only a few years later, in Los Angeles, Charlie P. and Megan D. started the very first AA meeting called “We Agnostics”. It is named, of course, after a chapter in Alcoholics Anonymous (often called the Big Book).

Today there are hundreds of AA meetings for agnostics and atheists in major cities across the United States and Canada. And more coming, more and more quickly.

Moreover, there is now plenty of literature for those who do not believe that an interventionist deity has a role to play in their sobriety.

For example, in 2013, Joe C. published a book of daily reflections called Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life. That same year The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps was published and it contains the secular version of the Steps, written by Martha Cleveland and Arlys G., which are at the core of this book.

All of the above is meant to place The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery – written in the middle of this history in 1991 – in a historical context.

The “God bit” is hardly dealt with at all in this book, except in the introduction, as an impediment for many people who could otherwise do a 12-Step program. What the authors do is find the root power of each step, and reword it.

As 12-Step practitioners, we believe in the 12-Step program. We believe it can work for anyone. Our objective is to help non-religious people accept the healing power of the Steps. This is the same program, same principles, same values, same scope, same depth – all of it said in a little different language. We have extracted the actions and principles of the original Steps and put them into a secular context.

And they do it well! Anybody can understand Martha and Arlys. To use the Steps, there is no need for any particular religiosity; nor is there any need for psycho-jargon.

An example.

The original Step 6 says: “Were entirely ready to have God remove our defects of character.”

Martha and Arlys reword that Step to say: “Be entirely ready to acknowledge our abiding strength and release our personal shortcomings.”

In both cases, the person doing the Steps must be “entirely ready.” But in this book, the work isn’t relegated to God. It is up to the individual to be prepared to take action. And, in this version, the individual doesn’t only deal with personal shortcomings (or “defects of character”), but also acknowledges an “abiding strength.”

We shall deal with this more positive approach further on.

But in the meantime, we want to point out that, in fact, these can be the 12 Steps for anyone. Especially those without a belief in an interventionist God.

Women and the 12 Steps

The original 12 Steps were written by men for men. In particular, they were written for white men with well-to-do backgrounds.

This version of the Steps was written by two women.

Does that mean it is just for women?

No. It means that Martha and Arlys add some much needed balance to the Steps.

For instance.

There is a tremendous emphasis on “powerlessness” and “humility” in the original 12 Steps. While the idea of being powerless over alcohol makes sense, the idea that a human being is by his or her very nature powerless is another matter entirely. And yet it is deeply ingrained in the original Steps.

In this day and age, preaching powerlessness and humility to women would seem a bit off kilter.

But remember, the original Steps weren’t written today or for women.

And, to come back to the religion part, they were deeply influenced by the religion of the day. The evangelical pietism of the Oxford Group, in which AA – and the Steps – had its origins, considered humans worthless. It emphasized a “deep aversion to all emphasis on human strengths.” (Not-God, p. 180). You had to “Let go and let God.” This attitude is very much embedded in the original 12 Steps.

And so when Martha and Arlys talk about acknowledging our “abiding strength,” as they do in their version of Step 6, they are, if you will, “letting go of God,” and recognizing that we human beings are indeed not powerless and have a part to play in our own sobriety, our most precious recovery.

And that is an important part of their version of the 12 Steps.

And it adds more balance between accepting the things we cannot change and mustering the courage to change what can and must be changed in our lives.

We are not criticizing the original 12 Steps or their author. Nor do Arlys and Martha do that in The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery. Indeed, Bill Wilson never claimed to have written the perfect Steps. On the last page of the main part of the book Alcoholics Anonymous he wrote: “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little.”

And this particular book is meant only to be a helping hand to we alcoholics who do not have a belief in a God and must inevitably “choose our own music and dance our own dance” on this generic but ultimately unique 12 Step road to recovery.

Let the story begin.

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 NookAn 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:

8 Responses

  1. Jen F. says:

    I think I should read this book!
    People have often told me that I should sponsor newcomers and others but I’ve always felt really uneasy at the idea.
    The “rigorous honesty” we are told we must have is a sham for me with the breathtaking jump from “a power greater than ourselves”in Step 2 ,to “God” “He” and “Him” in Step 3.
    I needn’t go on – you know what I mean,just as you know how it is to be an alcoholic !
    I do not feel I can sponsor someone and “teach” the BB and the Steps as they are without being a fraud.
    So I think this book will help me and show me how I can be of service to the many others who are as uneasy as myself .
    My Higher Power is very much in my life and program .It’s just not “God,Him and He.”

    • Chris G says:

      Jen, I have used this book with sponsees instead of the BB, and it has worked out very well. Typical comments are “this is the real stuff” and “this is something I can actually do, today”. Do give it a try!

  2. Barbara R says:

    Just want to say how thankful I am that you guys in AA Agnostica offer so many encouraging posts, literature, and thoughts to recovering people like me. I look forward each week to your posts and always get something positive from them. I recommend your site frequently to those who struggle with AA dogma. I especially appreciate how you point out the many paths to sobriety without being bitter or overly critical to those who do find that god works for them. However anyone gets and stays sober is something to celebrate!

  3. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Roger, especially for the quote from Chapter 3 of The Alternative Twelve Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery. To my mind, it describes most effectively how thousands of us WAFTs have used the generic ethical/humanistic/spiritual principles embodied within the 12 Steps to successfully recover from addiction without god, some of us for extended periods of time.

    At a meeting yesterday on the 6th Step I remarked how grateful I am that Bill, Dr. Bob and the two small groups of addicted persons first in New York, then in Akron, broke away from the “evangelical pietism” of the Oxford Group with its emphasis on the Four Absolutes of honesty, unselfishness, love and purity. We are rather urged to seek progress, not perfection.

    Today, we WAFTs are as critically needed in AA to speak our truth that successful recovery is possible without the “God-bit” as Jim Burwell with Hank Parkhurst was needed during our founding days. We balance AA’s message of recovery with the religious impulse of many within AA, who strive to return AA “Back to the Basics” of their Christian orthodoxy, which they sometimes proselytize is the only true and authentic way of working the 12 steps.

    Thank you for making this important testament to non-religious recovery without the “God-bit” available to those of us who don’t believe.

  4. Joe C says:

    More books is more better (sic). Who reads one book in a lifetime and sees the whole world through the eyes of a single author or vantage point? I am doing a podcast that should be up soon about some of the books in my collection, kind of a book club episode to Rebellion Dogs Radio. I just thought that it’s good to share with each other, what has been useful for us. Who of us doesn’t, when watching a movie or reading a book, think, “SO-and-SO would love this!” It’s fun to share with others. It’s both giving as well as helpful to us, in a reinforcing way. Articulating what we liked or what we learned has somewhat of a transformational affect on us.

    AA has over 2 million members and that’s likely hundreds of thousands of ways of accepting (and/or rejecting) the Twelve Steps. Then there’s all the other Fellowships, too. For each of these millions of practitioners, they have, as Tommy has quoted, found that “if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink (or whatever their ‘ism’ is) and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.”

    New book good. More books gooder.

  5. Mike P. says:

    Being “entirely ready” is a really challenging prospect. I quit smoking “cold turkey” on Sept 21, 1992, but giving up my anger against my mother has been a process of many years duration. Thanks for the post.

  6. Tommy H says:

    When my fellow A.A.s get godly, I go back to the forward of the 12&12 and remind them what it says about the Steps: “A.A.’s Twelve Steps are a group of principles, spiritual (My note: psychic, emotional???) in their nature, which, if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.”

    It’s hard to put it better and doesn’t leave much wiggle room.

  7. Christopher G says:

    What a wonderful intro to the book, Roger. Thank you. I’m thinking it would be a great meeting ‘starter’ topic for this week’s meeting.

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