The Secular Wing of AA


By Bill White
Originally published on March 2, 2018 on the William White Papers

AA is so decentralized that in a very real sense, there really is no such single entity as “Alcoholics Anonymous” – only AA members and local AA groups that reflect a broad and ever increasing variety of AA experience. To suggest that Alcoholics Anonymous represents a “one size fits all approach” to alcoholism recovery, as some critics are prone to do, ignores the actual rich diversity of AA experience in local AA groups and the diverse cultural, religious, and political contexts in which AA is flourishing internationally.

All are self-identified alcoholics and go by many other names: agnostics, atheists, nonbelievers, skeptics, cynics, rebels, freethinkers, humanists, secularists, and rationalists. What they share in common beyond the experience of alcoholism is need for a personal program of recovery not dependent upon belief in any religious deity. Such needs have propelled the growth of secular alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and a growing secular wing within AA. The existence of the latter challenges AA critics who argue that those without religious faith cannot find a home within AA.

The growth of a secular wing of AA is evident in many quarters. The number of registered secular AA meetings in the U.S. has grown from a few dozen in the early 2000s to more than 400, and two international conventions of atheist and agnostic AA members have been held to date. Online secular recovery support resources for AA members (such as AA Agnostica, and AA Beyond Belief) have grown in tandem with the increase in face-to-face meetings. An October 2016 special issue of the AA Grapevine was dedicated to “Atheist and Agnostic Members,” and there is a planned Grapevine book containing previously published stories of atheist and agnostic AA members. Also of note are the  increased number of books on secular recovery within AA (see below) and the increased national media coverage of secular AA meetings.

Chronology of Secular AA & Related Recovery Literature

  • 1991 Martha Cleveland and Arlys G. The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery
  • 2010 My Name is Lillian and I am and Alcoholic (And an Atheist)
  • 2011 Marya Hornbacher Waiting: A Non-Believerʼs Higher Power
  • 2011 Vince Hawkins An Atheists Unofficial Guide to A.A.
  • 2012 Joe C. Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life
  • 2013 Archer Voxx The Five Keys: 12 Step Recovery Without A God
  • 2013 Roger C. The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps
  • 2014 John Lauritsen A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous
  • 2015 Adam N. Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous
  • 2015 Roger C. Do Tell: Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
  • 2017 Thomas B. Each Breath a Gift: A Story of Continuing Recovery
Don't Tell

For more information about the book, click on the cover.

Two recent books by Roger C. provide a fascinating window into the world of secular AA. Published in 2014, Don’t Tell: Stories and Essays by Agnostics and Atheists in AA is a potpourri of secular recovery stories, alternative wordings and interpretations of AA’s 12 Steps, book reviews, snippets from the early history of atheists and agnostics in AA, description of a secular AA convention, and discussions of some of the controversies triggered by the growth of secular AA.

Published in 2017, A History of Agnostics in AA provides engaging accounts of early secular groups within AA in the U.S. and Canada. Together, these books provide insight into the challenges and triumphs of achieving recovery without religiosity within AA. They are above all a celebration of the “multiple pathways of recovery” mantra that has gained such prominence in recent years.

Anyone wishing to learn more about the secular wing of AA and secular styles of recovery may do so by exploring the rich collection of stories, articles, and other publications posted at AA Agnostica and related websites or by reviewing the growing body of secular AA literature.

The secular wing of AA and the growth of secular recovery mutual aid groups beyond 12-Step groups are both cause for celebration. As the new mantra goes, “Recovery by any means necessary under any circumstances.”

8 Responses

  1. Thomas B. says:

    Yes, Bill, thanks so much for all the support your have given to a secular way of working the AA program, both in this article and in the work articles you wrote with Ernie, who is so sorely missed, and thank you Roger for posting Bill’s latest article.

  2. Ron van B says:

    I have been in recovery for nearly 33 years, I frequent AA and NA. AA is NOT a religious program, if it was it would not have worked for me, I am good to go with AA and other programs as they are.

  3. John F. says:

    Ernie was my sponsor for years. One day it occurred to me that he had never explicitly stated his religious beliefs to me, although we had spent countless hours discussing spirituality.

    (I had been thinking in terms of membership in the Catholic or other formal faiths. Ernie was an ex-Roman Catholic priest.)

    So I asked him what his religious beliefs were, and he replied, quizzically, “John, haven’t you read my books?”

    It was only then that my feeble brain realized that his actions and writings were all that was needed.

  4. life-j says:

    Bill White is a good man, it is nice when he goes out of his way to give us recognition.

  5. Joe C says:

    Great AA discussion starter. Our group last night discussed three topics: Secular AA and Mainstream AA, “What is Your ‘Program?'” and Things in day to day life that you associate with drinking life. All three discussion cues sparked great sharing but what was clear to me – like Kurtz and White say in the opening quote – there is no one AA group we can point at and call it “mainstream,” or any secular group that we’d agree is typical. Every group enjoys the status of being the highest authority in AA and whatever its members chose is AA. There are few “please considers,” “oughts” and suggestions but non-conformity is permitted, so whatever works, as Kurtz and White expressed.

    On that great list of books for a secular look at AA, there are a few overlooked books/booklets to add:

    Steve K’s 12 Step Philosophy of AA (see AA Beyond Belief podcasts)
    Philip Z (The Skeptics Guide to the 12-Steps (1991)
    Jon R. Weinberg PhD, AA: An Interpretation For the Nonbeliever (Hazelden 1975)

    Ernie Kurtz would reference Jon Weinberg’s work in Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous so if you’ve read Ernie, you know or at least have been influenced by Weinberg.

    The Hazelden booklet is out of print as far as I can tell but it’s worth hunting down for it’s historical significance. Here’s a sample:

    Contrary to what many professionals believe, the 12 Steps of AA are suggested, not mandatory. The only requirement is a desire to stop drinking. Individuals are free to interpret and practice the steps as they wish, if at all. However, since AA is basically a way of life rather than a social club, the 12 Steps serve as a framework upon which most successful members build their new existence. … many of the reservations about AA from both professionals and new or prospective members center on the content of the steps. Therefore, each step will be briefly analyzed from the authors viewpoint, which is secular and psychological, with the hope that other professions may utilize the approach comfortably with their clients…

    Charlotte Kasl’s Many Roads, One Journey: Moving Beyond the 12 Steps is also a secular/humanist view of AA philosophy along with a more modern psychology that gives a nod to the idea that men and women (because of socialization) ought to approach the AA process differently.

    There’s a number of Buddhist-influenced 12 Step narratives that many of us enjoy too. While Buddhism is non-theistic it’s a debate for another day as to “Is Buddhism a religion.”

    “Wing” is an interesting choice of words/titles. If the secular wing and the spiritual/not-religious wing are both helping AA fly, we best not try to eliminate the other. 😛

  6. Danny B. says:

    Try the SMART program, it’s right on point.

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