The Steps Cafeteria-Style

Sunflowers at Sunset

The 12 Steps are so formed and presented that an alcoholic can either ignore them completely, take them cafeteria-style, or embrace them wholeheartedly.”
(from the Conference-approved pamphlet, A Member’s Eye View of Alcoholics Anonymous)

When I was editor of “Share”, Britain’s AA magazine, I commissioned this article by Anthony K., an atheist member who attended the same meetings as me. It appeared in the June 2006 issue and was reprinted in “Share and Share Alike”, the book which I also edited to mark the fellowship’s 60th anniversary in Britain in 2007.
Laurie A.

 By Anthony K.
 Essex, United Kingdom

It is routinely suggested in AA that recovery is dependent on developing a working faith in a higher power. I have not found that to be the case and would like to record the experience I have gained in sobriety. I began this period of sobriety, my second in AA, in January 1999. I was convinced of my alcoholism and willing to do what was necessary to recover. From my first time around  I had a rough idea that that would involve finding a way to live sober through the 12 Steps.

I spent a short period going to meetings and looking around for people who had what I wanted. I found them, and soon after I took part in a Big Book study and went through the Steps. The major downside of this approach to recovery is that the reverence it can inspire for the text sometimes leads to fundamentalism and intolerance, but its upside is better quality of life for many of those who complete it, and that is what I got.

Whilst I had been an atheist for as long as I could remember, I was willing to believe. The importance of this was impressed on me strongly by people I liked and respected. Motivated by sincere convictions formed by their experience I picked up a daily practice of Step Eleven and made a sincere effort to acquire faith, but it did not come. Quietly, and quite soon afterwards, I stopped seeking and reverted to my former position of non-belief.

I had a period of keeping my own counsel, feeling that there was still pressure on me to conform in regard to spiritual matters and wanting to be sure before speaking up in AA. After a while I decided to be clearer and more open within the Fellowship about my views and experience, partly out of a wish to be myself, but mostly because of the following reason. I’m still in AA – mainly to help the suffering alcoholic – and especially anyone who is led to believe that they will drink and die if they don’t adopt a set of beliefs and practices that they cannot accept.

I have been met with acceptance and/or concern from some members and a mixture of surprise and enthusiasm from others, particularly among the newer ones. I have been patronised, too, though there has been no outright hostility. The most common response has been to let me get on with it and I think that’s a good sign that we probably aren’t a religious organisation.

Instead of trying to rewrite the Steps to reflect my beliefs, as many atheists and agnostics seem to try to do, I have come to some pretty simple conclusions – among them the fact that Steps Two, Three, Six, Seven and Eleven can’t be part of my life. I am quite happy with that.

I know I am powerless over every drink but the first one, so I stick to the decision to remain totally abstinent that I made after my last drink. My life had obviously become unmanageable, so I manage it differently, rather than placing it under “new management”, as Step Three would have me do, according to the Big Book.  I am not, and never have been insane and I do not believe in a “power greater than myself” as it is meant in AA. Taking inventory, discussing it with someone else and making amends are the tools I have used to manage better and the state of my life and the ease of staying sober suggest that it is working.

I live a very normal life these days, being happily married, professionally successful and socially active, and I don’t believe I’m really any different from the non-alcoholics with whom I spend most of my time, except that they can drink. Being married to a social drinker and moving in wider circles than when I was drinking has helped me to see the similarities.

I don’t subscribe to notions in sobriety of  “typical alcoholic behaviour”, or of the stereotypical alcoholic who is unable to think straight. I think these concepts are open to a great deal of abuse and often seem to diminish the self-esteem of those who buy into them. Powerless, when applied to matters other than alcohol, will come to mean useless or hopeless for some people and since low self –esteem appears to be a common trait in many alcoholics, this can cause serious problems, rather than being part of any solution.

I prefer an approach that allows the individual to build that esteem by giving her/himself credit for any success they might have. People of faith will doubtless say that their belief in a God who loves them helps them feel good about themselves, and I would not argue with that. I have no wish to convert anyone to my beliefs or to equate faith with self-abasement.

When I sponsor people now we go through as much of the Big Book as is consistent with their beliefs. The results have been the same with atheists, agnostics and believers. They have retained their earlier belief, stayed sober and become happier in their sobriety.

I don’t know whether “faith without works is dead” or not, but to my delight and relief, I have found that works without faith can be very much alive.

23 Responses

  1. Joe C. says:

    I really enjoyed this point of view. I have been asking others in meetings how they feel about the idea of not being powerless over the first drink; it’s the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, drink that we have no power over once the first has passed our lips.

    This resonates with me. I don’t feel unsafe in drinking environments. I’ve had bottles of wine that a business associate gave me (without knowing me well enough) for months before I found someone to re-gift it to. However if I drank the contents of that bottle, I don’t know if that would be the end of it. Would I be back the next day with my tail between my legs? Would I be off on a tear that lasts months or years. Not to be melodramatic but having a drink is like playing Russian roulette. I might get a scare, I might end up dead.

    But I found that others don’t feel so powerful over the first drink. If a bottle is around, it’s a ticking time-bomb that will or could, for them, eventually lead to the rationalization that it’s a good idea to drink it. So we’re each different in this regard, which I find fascinating. Some are confident, some are hyper-vigilant. None of us have a free pass.

    The point is that Anthony K’s essay is thought provoking. I’ve been chatting about it with others all week.

    • Suzanne T. says:

      Joe C.

      Listening to our stories you are right: we are not all alike. I like the Big Book description of the different types of drinkers including the hard drinker vs the “real alcoholic”. There are definitely both in AA meetings.

      I’m a real alcoholic so I WAS powerless over the 1st drink. I was drinking against my will. Every morning I would swear off and every afternoon by 3 pm I was convincing myself that “one drink wouldn’t hurt and today I will limit myself to 1 drink”. I truly had the obsession of the mind that convinced me to take the first drink despite all logic and previous experience.

      Once I take the first drink that stimulates my allergy of the body, where I just can’t stop. I have the true demand for more and will drink until I pass out.

      Thanks to my total surrender, turning myself into a treatment hospital and then working the steps (17 yrs ago), the obsession to take that first drink disappeared along with my resentments and rage.

      So I am not powerless over alcohol today, unless it gets in my body. I am not cured as I still have the allergy of the body. But I don’t have the obsession of the mind, the insanity of thinking I could have one drink and stop.

      I know lots of fellow alcoholics in AA who are hard drinkers. They can choose not to take the first drink based on will power and knowledge of the consequences. They attend AA meetings regularly, stay sober and many of their lives improve.

      What unites us all is our common desire to stop drinking.

  2. Scott A. says:

    Thanks for another great article and buffet comments including Pat N., Andy, and Adam N. for the varied prisms on the principles of recovery.

    With the “Taco Bell Theory of Spirituality” I would claim that whatever name is used (enchilada; burrito; taco), the core principles (tortilla; meat; salsa; cheese / honesty; willingness; hope; love) will be included in any program of spiritual recovery. The devil, of course, is in the details of whether you are sacrificing a goat to Zeus or simply meditating to the sunset (one man’s guacamole is another man’s rice&beans (?)).

    In our little Saturday Skype meeting (3 P.M. east coast; 9 P.M.-ish European time(?) … contact “aafreethinker”) we used Pat N.’s recovery principles as they are TODAY for our “literature” to inspire the sharing today. FYI, the Tuesday Skype meeting (contact “aafreethinker1”) will persist at its earlier time (10 P.M. east coast; 7 P.M. west coast) despite the daylight savings time shift this weekend.

  3. Dan L says:

    What if the first step read: Step One – We realised that God had made us powerless over alcohol and this together with an accompanying obsessive compulsive disorder made our lives unmanageable. Step Two – Came to believe that although God really screwed us over in making us love alcohol and yet be unable to function under its influence we could totally abase ourselves before Her for a sin we were not at fault for and somehow doing some kind of double standard magic she would fix things so we couldn’t drink ever again but could work really hard at something else to relieve the obsession. Step Three – Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of the entity who had made such a mess out of everything the first time around in a firm belief that this time since we wouldn’t drink She would do a better job. ETC., etc.
    Remember “God is everything or HE is nothing”. I will take “nothing” thank you.

    • Joe B. says:

      Thanks Dan for your comments on the possible position of Mr/Ms God in relation to the steps. I guess it’s also possible that a God that would create the steps might be a cunning, baffling but not supremely powerful deity.

      It is in specific monotheistic religions that the deity is supremely powerful (i.e. would be the ‘everything’ in the statement ‘God is everything or HE is nothing’). There are plenty of religions (ancient Greek and Roman, for instance) where there a lots of minor Mr, Miss and Mrs God ferreting about, doing nasty little tricks on us unsuspecting humans, and often cocking-up their own plans in the process.

      To be fair to religion as a whole, therefore, I would take the liberty of adding the possibility that, whichever deity might have created a universe in which the steps are created as a means of us hapless, boozed-up sinners finding our sorry way to redemption, He/She/It may either not have been able to control all the factors involved in its creation or might have simply messed up on the execution of the plan.

      And a final thought – maybe this deity has His/Her/Its own psychological hangups and simply did not want to make things conform to our rationality or sense of fair play. Maybe they woke up on the wrong side of their heavenly bed and decided to infect our reality with virtual gremlins whose job would be to cause exactly the type of frustrating Orwellian mind games in which we find ourselves, where we can feel like we are exposed pawns on an insanely configured chess board.

      Occam’s Razor could, of course, cut through all of this and suggest a somewhat simpler and, as it happens, much more elegant and beautiful explanation… but, then again, my superior intellect, which destroyed so much of my short life’s potential by, for so many years, finding the solution to all these earthly and heavenly conundrums in the bottom of a vodka bottle, does not really qualify me to think I know better than those believers who, at least, have not spent years lying in gutters, looking down on everyone else like I have done.

      • Dan L says:

        To paraphrase the one of the great atheists, I can’t remember this second if it was Hitchens or Dawkins, if god has a plan it looks a lot like the plan of someone who doesn’t have a plan.

  4. Suzanne says:

    Anthony K., thank you so much for writing about your experience working the steps. I have worked and benefited so much from the steps in a non-theistic way. So I hope you’ll consider adding Mindfulness (part of Step 11) to your cafeteria options. Non-theistic meditation practice is so common.

    • Joe B. says:

      I would like to echo Suzanne’s comment about mindfulness as part of step 11. Sam Harris is an excellent introduction for those new to it, as is Jon Kabat-Zinn who helped to introduce it in the 1970’s to western science in the form of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.

      The scientifically-authenticated double-blind tests have demonstrated its effectiveness for a whole range of medical conditions, from PTSD, psoriasis, high blood pressure, etc to treating addictions and clinical depression.

      It is worth looking into if you are interested in meditation without the woo-woo often associated with it.

      One of the greatest problems I have had is the 20 radio stations playing away in my head: thoughts that absorb me and whisk me away to regrets about the past and fears about the future. Mindfulness meditation had helped me to still the mind and identify just how active and all-consuming the head can be, mostly without my permission and usually at my emotional, physical and spiritual expense.

      Just my experience. Hope it is of some use to someone out there.

  5. Dan L says:

    Thanks for the essay. I really enjoyed it. It is my opinion that the AA Taliban and the “164 Pager’s” have done incalculable harm to suffering alcoholics and addicts and have surely killed some with their noble and self righteous efforts. If it wasn’t something I know to be true first hand I wouldn’t believe some of the stories I have heard newcomers and outsiders recounting about their AA experience. I find it almost impossible to sit still when the newcomer is solemnly instructed…”Get a big book and study it like a text, it has all the answers. Get a sponsor who has done the steps ‘properly’. Do the steps with your sponsor as he directs going to any length required. Do them in order and do them ‘properly’ and ‘thoroughly’ with your sponsor. Do this all ASAP. Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth. Do as you are told for a change.”
    I am mystified that otherwise sane people really think this is what made them sober. I was fortunate when I went to treatment as I was informed quite frankly that I would meet some really crazy people in AA, that I could expect to meet alcoholics of every kind. Well I haven’t met every kind yet but they exist in great numbers. Strangely enough they are almost all believers in a god of their own (totally whacky) understanding.
    dan L.

  6. cron says:

    I have adopted a “re-write” of the steps, as the author of the article describes it, though I like to call it my own “interpretation,” heavily influenced by Buddhist approaches to the steps and later by other Buddhist writings. I will add the “cafeteria-style” approach to the options available to the new person struggling with all the discussion of God.

  7. Andy says:

    Thanks, Anthony! There are many similarities between your story and mine, although I had to leave AA a few times (religious bullying was involved) before I finally settled in with an easier-going group.

    I cafeteria-ize the steps by ignoring them in favor of one version of the original six steps (big AA history fan here):

    1. We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol.
    2. We got honest with ourselves.
    3. We got honest with another person, in confidence.
    4. We made amends for harms done others.
    5. We worked with other alcoholics without demand for prestige or money.
    6. We prayed to God to help us to do these things as best we could.
    – Bill W., Grapevine, 07/53

    Naturally, I make a minor alteration to that last one – I have to assume that daily meditation counts, so that’s what I do instead. If circumstances are right, I can do all six in the same day!

    In my experience, it’s the first one (in either the 12 or the 6) that really makes the difference. One of the early versions of step one was “We admitted we were licked,” and I really wish they’d kept it that way – too informal, I suppose.

    • Adam N says:

      I am always surprised that we do not make more of the much clearer, less theistic six step version found right in the Big Book itself (He Sold Himself Short – 263):

      1 Complete Deflation
      2 Dependence and Guidance from a higher power
      3 Moral Inventory
      4 Confession
      5 Restitution
      6 Continued Work with Other Alcoholics

      This nicely focuses on some valuable core principles, and the higher power reference to me is easily secularized, as in, for me, the tribe of recovering persons.

      • Mark In Texas says:

        I’m with you guys here. It is interesting that if one looks at the 12 Steps, then eliminates those Steps which presuppose Theistic belief, and practices arising out of those starting beliefs, we are left with the original set of “steps” minus the one original “step” that refers to a belief in God.

  8. Marnin says:

    During my first year of sobriety I was fired by 3 sponsors for not listening to their “suggestions”.

    They said that I was incorrigible, did not listen and was likely to get them drunk.

    I think they failed to realize I had taken the first step in earnest!

    Somehow I stayed sober, found an Agnostic sponsor and have stayed sober now since 1970.

    The key to my sobriety was learning from my Agnostic sponsor that I did not have to work the program the way the Oxford Movement members did it!


    • Duncan says:

      Well said Marnin. I was the same as you. I just wanted to stay with people who were sober because that was what I wanted. I learned early on in my sobriety that those who drank got drunk and I wanted to stay sober.

      Eventually I took no notice of the Steps, Traditions etc etc and in fact have never even had a sponsor. In fact I find that many AA ways are ways of keeping themselves in a drunken state of mind. I wanted to be one of the “normal” people. – Duncan

  9. Tommy H says:

    Well said.

  10. pat N. says:

    Thanks for expressing some of my thoughts in ways I hadn’t thought of.

    I’ve ditched the original 12’s language, and have held onto what I consider their essence:

    —I can’t drink
    —I can’t do it alone
    —I need to change some of my behaviors to stay sober.
    —I need to make amends.
    —I need to keep growing.
    —I need to help others.

    These aren’t the exact words I used yesterday or may use tomorrow, but the center holds.

  11. Jan A. says:

    It’s very liberating to be able to skip steps 2,3,6,7 and 11 rather than attempt to rewrite them. Seven steps is a satisfying number. I think that’s the number of steps used in Sweden, too.

    I’d like to think that I consistently remain in a period of openness because I believe that allows me to be receptive to new ideas and insights. But that doesn’t mean that I am without commitment to my own thoughts and beliefs. Like the author, I continued to attempt to fit my belief system into all 12 steps, or rewrite them, but at this moment, I am less inclined.

    Thanks to Anthony K for writing this and to Roger C for posting it.

  12. bob k says:


    There’s a lot of genius here in a very small amount of words. You’d think I’d learn something from that, but I probably won’t. 🙂

    One of my atheist internet buddies and I (semi) joke about how the 7 and 2/3 steps have saved our lives. We’re considering marketing our streamlined program at the very reasonable price of $89.99

    Although TALKING about a rigorous application of the steps is quite common in some circles, the ACTUALITY is almost invariably something less. Even the fundies are at the cafeteria; they just lack the integrity to admit it.

    Thanks, again. An OUTSTANDING essay.

    bob k

  13. Lisa says:

    I love this article! Thank you for supporting me without even trying. Just sharing your experience was great!

  14. larry k says:

    Good article… thanks for posting it.

    The 12 steps are a process that leads from A to B. B is nothing more than where we are at the moment we pause to look back and reflect upon where we have come. In the tens of thousands of versions I have heard of what the steps “mean” to members, I have yet to hear exactly the same definition or expression of the personal meaning to each phase. The only possible exception to that is by those who recite by wrote their own script…and that script is still with unique inflections.

    The usefulness for me with the steps was all about doing introspection on myself while waiting for what turned out to be “time” to pass. Healing takes time. Course corrections take time. Being busy in Mind, Body, and yes, Spirit, is helpful. (By spirit, all I mean is attitude or feeling of well being.)

    We are a work in progress, the steps to recovery involve a journey… I have picked my path and I am still alive to write about it. Somewhere between A and the grave.

  15. Joe B. says:

    Thanks Anthony. I, like you, also decided to try the way of faith in a supernatural parent while I was going through my steps with my sponsor who strongly believed in the supernatural.

    Also, like you, I then quietly dropped the effort since it was not proving possible for me to force myself to believe in that for which there is insufficient evidence or reason to take seriously.

    Since then, I have continued to attend AA meetings and do lots of service, locally, nationally and internationally. I have no interest in leaving AA or even of telling people (especially newcomers) of my personal beliefs unless, that is, the revelation of such beliefs would be of clear benefit to that person or that group of people.

    It was useful for an opinionated drunk like me to be open to the possibility of a divine power that can rule my life for me, hence obviating the need for any person will or opinions; but time has shown me that the period of openness was useful as an exercise and no more than that.

    I now can happily say that there may well be a divine power actng behind the scenes, just as I can say that there may well be angels, pixies and leprechauns. However, the key word is ‘may’, and that word allows me to keep away from arrogant expressions of my beliefs as being some form of fundamentalism of their own.

    Live and let live, I guess, is a pretty healthy item on the menu these days.


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