The Five Keys – 12 Step Recovery Without A God

The Five Keys

This article is a question and answer session between Roger C. of AA Agnostica and Archer Voxx, author of The Five Keys – 12 Step Recovery Without A God and Alcoholics Anonymous – Universal Edition. The article focuses on Archer’s book The Five Keys.

A Discussion with Author Archer Voxx

Roger – Archer, can you provide us some background on yourself relative to your addiction and recovery?

Archer – I had a relatively ideal childhood until I was about eight years old. Then, things turned for the worse. My father, a successful business professional, lost his job due to alcoholism. At the same time, my mother succumbed to delusional paranoid schizophrenia and was institutionalized. My parents were smart, talented, and articulate people who were completely transformed into dark and troubled individuals by addiction and mental illness.

I spent the next ten years, until I went away to college, alternating living between my father, a struggling alcoholic, and my mother, a person seriously challenged by schizophrenia. There was no physical or sexual abuse; just a crazy, chaotic, emotionally-challenging lifestyle. I went to twelve schools between the 1st and the 12th grade; including three schools in the 7th grade. We moved twelve times during that period. Multiple divorces, evictions, relocations, police incidents, and other chaos were all a part of my experiences as a youth.

This dysfunctional lifestyle produced, in me, a self-centered, non-trusting individual (Yes! “The ego-maniac with an inferiority complex”). I didn’t know I was becoming this person. I can’t remember ever feeling disadvantaged or sad as a teenager. I just adapted and made it work. Looking back, I realize now that I went out into the world with my “dials all set wrong”. As a teenager and as an adult, I used mind-altering substances; unaware that I was using them as a coping mechanism.

Beginning at age thirteen, until I went away to college, I used hallucinogens, amphetamines, barbiturates, every form of smokable THC, freon, airplane glue, and many other mind-altering substances. I was introduced to alcohol in college and the alcohol, along with marijuana, became my “go-to” substances. These were easy to acquire and accepted in all my social circles.

During college, and then professionally, I worked very hard and was successful at my endeavors, but it was always accompanied by alcohol and drugs; in increasing quantities. Then, as they say, I “crossed the line” and lost all my decision making over my alcohol and drug use. Telling me to stop using was like telling me to stop breathing (there is science behind this statement). Then, I began to suffer very serious consequences from my addiction. I entered addiction treatment and began a recovery program following an intervention. I have been in recovery for 9 ½ years.

Roger – What were the experiences that led you to writing The Five Keys?

Archer – As a part of inpatient treatment and in my initial AA meetings, I was introduced to the 12 Steps, The “Big Book” and the other AA materials. I was very put-off by the Judeo-Christian sounding content of the AA program, but was very fortunate that I received some world-class coaching from my inpatient unit supervisor regarding how to deal with the religious-oriented content of the AA program.

Others are not so fortunate. Many people enter AA and are so “turned-off” by the content of the AA program that they abandon AA entirely. This is especially true for those individuals from the younger, and growing, secular segment of the population. After observing this, I decided to turn my professional research, analysis, and writing talents toward the development of materials for these people. The Five Keys is one of two books that resulted from this work.

Roger – There have been books published to help individuals who object to the “god” content of AA. What was the unique approach you took with The Five Keys?

Archer – My primary objective with the book was to provide information on AA that would help people to better appreciate the rich program of recovery that underlies the 12 Steps and fellowship. Armed with this additional information, a person who objects to the program based on personal beliefs might be capable of looking past the Judeo-Christian content and “work” the program effectively. It was also my hope that the same information could enhance the AA program for anyone with strong religious beliefs.

I had four major goals to support the broader objective:

  1. Provide information that is rarely discussed during the typical introduction to AA. Simply speaking, I wanted to put some more “meat-on-the-bones” for the person entering AA.

  2. Help the reader develop a better understanding of what the program is doing for you.  For example, the concept of “spiritual transformation” is critical to understanding what is going on in AA, but there is very little discussion in the program about what a spiritual transformation actually represents, in easy-to-understand, secular terms.

  3. Do not include any dialogue in the book about the pros and cons of “working the program” with one form of higher power or another; and no discussions about religion.

  4. The book needed to be short, easy to read, and designed with the struggling addict in mind. When I first walked in the doors of AA, I did not have any propensity for reading a “novel” about looking past the god-stuff in AA. I should not expect anyone else to do that either.

In the end, I believe that I have achieved these goals based on the enthusiastic feedback I have received from the AA recovery community regarding The Five Keys.

Roger – Can you give us a summary of each of the five keys?

Archer – The term “key” is used to describe the list of items, below, because I view these items as being helpful to opening the door to AA recovery for the people who struggle with the god-content of the program. The five keys are:

  1. An Objective View of AA
  2. Major Program Influences
  3. The Spiritual Transformation
  4. Universal Spiritual Principals
  5. Neutral 12 Steps

An Objective View of AA – The first key provides an objective view of where AA fits into the history of addiction recovery in the United States (U.S.). There were 200 years of attempts at addiction treatment in the U.S. prior to AA. Many successful elements of those programs were carried forward into AA. As an example, and prior to AA, mutual support groups were used as part of addiction treatment. Some support groups went as far as having secret handshakes, passwords, and other things to maintain anonymity.

Major Program Influences – The second of the five keys is designed to give the reader more information on the people who had an influence on AA. As an example, Bill Wilson read Varieties of Religious Experiences (VRE) by William James while in treatment. As it turns out, William James is no lightweight. He was a world-renowned psychologist. “Religion” in William James framework is any source of inspiration and “goodness” in a person’s life. Organized “religion” is only one, of a lengthy list, of possible sources of inspiration. I have read VRE and believe that Bill Wilson was greatly influenced by it.

The Spiritual Transformation – Moving on to the third of the five keys, the terms “spiritual transformation”, and its sister term “spiritual awakening”, are tossed around AA liberally and without much consistency. The third ‘‘key” is designed to give the reader a deeper, objective, secular understanding of what, exactly, a spiritual transformation represents.

Universal Spiritual Principles – The fourth key provides the reader with a set of secular universal spiritual principles. These are principles a person can look to as goals for themselves and as reference points for their character development and guidance in their recovery. These universal principles can be the individual’s secular Higher Power if they like, or as I like to call them, their lower-case “higher power”.

Neutral 12 Steps – Last, the fifth key is designed to provide the reader with a belief-system neutral, secular version of the 12 Steps. This includes a brief history of the evolution of the 12 steps.

Following a discussion of the five keys, the reader is provided some tips for working an effective secular AA practice with others who hold to a different set of beliefs.

Roger -Thanks so much, Archer. I very much appreciate your efforts to help make AA the fellowship of inclusiveness that it ought to be, especially now in this, the twenty-first century.

The Five KeysHere are links to both of Archer’s books on

The Five Keys – 12 Step Recovery Without A God

Alcoholics Anonymous – Universal Edition

41 Responses

  1. Maricica says:

    Ive been in and around AA philosophy since the mid 1980’s. I understand the concept of “God-Building” in which the early prominent Marxists co-opted existing religion into a meta religion in an attempt to harness the emotional components of religious flair for their own cause. They developed the new religion because they knew they couldn’t abolish religion outright. Many AA’ers have some kind of church background in which they may be angry about religion, maybe they were molested by clergy, discriminated against by church people, spiritually bullied, or otherwise turned off by religion. The Big Book makes reference to such unfortunacies. Scriptural readings and preachers piss off a lot of practicing alcoholics. Others have been there and done that. The Big Book of AA in their chapter to the agnostic demonstrates God-Building to such an individual. According to the Jelinek Scale alcoholics have vague spiritual desire when they nearly reached the end- I did.

    The spirituality of AA takes off in terms of the psychological and social effect of ritual, myth, and symbolism which is characteristic of a Spiritual / religious fellowship. They’ve tweaked a lot of mainstream dogma and belief to their own purpose (AA). The spiritual core to AA cultivates emotion, moral values, desires, and other aspects of life that are compatible to the sobriety movement.

    A bare sobriety movement devoid of a god figure and spiritual core would be too mechanically deterministic with regard to the suffering alcoholic and it alone would not have the thrust it does to inspire many for very long (1935 – present). The chapter in the Big Book A Vision For You goes on about a spiritual development and warns the recruit not to take his newfound spirituality to his mother who knows the true gospel and has been deeply religious her whole life. The AA Big Book differentiates its spirituality inasmuch as they encourage members to join a church if they wish and not hesitate to seek counsel from a ministry. They say to make use of what they have to offer.

    All in all I’m seeing just another spiritual movement among many which invoke a God figure and have a structural purpose.

  2. Los T. says:

    There are universal spiritual principles all through the Big Book.

  3. Fred W. says:

    I got some good advice when I first started in AA about the “god thing”: the only thing I had to remember was that I wasn’t god. That advice has worked for 30 years of sobriety and I am deeply grateful to every bible thumper and card carrying atheist that reached out there hand to me trying to help me in my recovery and in my opinion that is how AA works. I just ordered the book and stumbled on to this website can’t wait to read it.

  4. Joe K says:

    This book was instrumental in my deciding to stay in AA. My sobriety date is 11/3/2016. I was really on the fence about giving AA another shot due to its religious nature. When I got out of rehab I found the AA Agnostica website and I bought this book, Common Sense Recovery for Atheists and Kevin Griffins One Breath at a Time. If it wasn’t for Archer’s book and the other ones I mentioned and the fellowship of AA I don’t think I’d have been sober this long.

    • Archer Voxx says:

      Thank you for your kind remarks Joe. It is 6:33 AM here. Starting my day off hearing that from you is a wonderful gift; the promises coming true for me.

  5. Joel says:

    Unless you hope to convert the “heathens” why are you on an agnostic web page? I guess I’m just in denial that I’ve stayed sober without an imaginary friend. Or if we’re being honest, the Christian God that is constantly pushed down our throats by you supplicants.

  6. Archer Voxx says:

    I am a huge advocate of AA and fervent about a person’s right to their own source of spiritual enlightenment. The Five Keys and the Universal Edition are specifically targeted at those people who do not have a religious affiliation and might walk away from the program because of the religious-oriented content. (A large and growing segment of the younger population fall into this category.) The goal is to open the door to AA for these people by providing them a few “keys” that will help them embrace the wonderful AA program and the personal transformation it provides.

  7. Jimmy D. says:

    There is something greater than me and it is AA as a whole. The higher power is whatever motivates you to do the next right thing.

    • life-j says:

      Jimmy, but why call that a higher power? Why not just call it a co-operative effort?

      Bill Wilson said we need a god who could and would if he were sought. But other than Bill saying it, does it make any sense?

      We’re just doing together what we could not do by ourselves, alone.

      • Joe K says:

        Thank you for saying this is a co-operative effort, that’s how I look at it. I shared at a meeting that I use the term resource instead of power and for me that resource (the group) is what I can turn to for help. I was told those two things together was a power greater than myself. I wanted to make the point that those were just two independent things working together but kind of had a feeling where that conversation was headed so let it go.

  8. Paul says:

    There is an old saying in AA which fits this perfectly:

    AA works if you have a GOD and AA works if you don’t have a GOD. But it won’t work if you think you are GOD.

    • Mike O says:

      Except which rational people not in an insane asylum honestly think they are God? It’s the misleading straw man cliché AA as a group and individual members themselves have often propped up as a way of explaining away the many people who cycle through AA unaffected. “They didn’t WORK it”, “They took their will back”, “They tried to play GOD…”

  9. Pamela T. says:

    Overeaters Anonymous uses the same books and I’m an atheist. Needless to say I didn’t go back.

  10. Carole says:

    “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

    • Joel says:

      I am an atheist and have been in many foxholes. As well as a ship that sank and a helicopter that crashed. I’ve seen comrades in arms calling for God or their Mother when fatally wounded. Neither came to their aid.

  11. Cecilia O. says:

    Thank you for writing a book on recovery. if only one person reads it and it helps lead them to a sober-healthy life, then you have done well. I would not bother to waste time arguing beliefs when there is recovery work to be done.

    Sincerely, CC.

  12. Daniel W says:

    There’s a lot of pain and ego here. A lot of closed minded perspective hung up over a single concept to validate believing in coincidence. I hope you find what you’re still looking for soon.

    • Roger says:

      Already found it, Daniel, thanks anyway! And I didn’t have to accept the kindergarten / Sunday School beliefs that some try to impose on everyone else. Imagine!

    • Bobby Beach says:

      I see an outreach to an under-served portion of the total market. “Real” atheists are not well-understood in Alcoholics Anonymous.

    • life-j says:

      There is a lot of pain, to be sure. And some people hiding their egos behind a perceived need to impose their own belief in a deity on everyone else.

  13. Kurt W says:

    Dear Sherry M.,

    My life in recovery is quite adequate proof that AA indeed WILL work without God, for me – and I alone am responsible for keeping at it and making it work – “my side of the street” and all that. Fellowship and tradition and empirical science are only three of the things “greater than [me],” that I rely upon to help me for what has been my longest spell of sobriety since I was 11 years old – decades ago. It may well be true that, for YOU, AA will not work without God; but I wish you would develop a touch more tolerance for the successful variety of AA that I practice.

    Best wishes for your continuing recovery.

    Kurt W.

  14. Faye P says:

    Roger, can you provide us some background on yourself relative to your addiction and recovery? You know, your own What It Was Like?, What Happened?, What It’s Like Now?

    All we know from your four-plus-minute spiel at ICSAA 2018 was you started at about age 30, drank for about 30 years, and quit in a Guelph rehab at age 60 in 2010.

    What’s good for the goose …

    • Roger says:

      Ah, I share all the time at my home group in Hamilton, Faye! Come join us sometime:

      We Agnostics Hamilton

      It’s the honesty of all of the sharing that I truly love about our AA meetings for Agnostics, Atheists and Free Thinkers. No fake it ’til you make it…

      • Dan A says:

        Thanks Roger. I told my counselor and others at treatment that I was agnostic. They told me to “Fake ‘til I make it.” That is what I did for over 15 years. And I stayed sober from that time in treatment until today, over 21 years, but I never did “make it” the way they meant, which was to find Bill W’s and their God.

        As time passed, I grew increasingly “restless, irritable and discontented“ with the often militant evangelical religiously in AA and finally “came out of the closet” as an atheist when I realized how many people were rejecting AA because of the same attitudes that offended me. Thanks to the secular AA movement, I have found great satisfaction through working with others who are struggling in AA as I did in early sobriety, doing what I can to teach everyone that, whether they believe it or not, Bill Wilson said in 1995 that

        “It must never be forgotten that the purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous is to sober up alcoholics. There is no religious or spiritual requirement for membership. No demands are made on anyone. An experience is offered which members may accept or reject. That is up to them.”

        The problem with religiosity in AA is less due to the words of the literature of AA than it is to the the intolerance of its members.

  15. Sherry M. says:

    AA will not work without God. Why change something that has worked for decades? If you have issues with God as your higher power, then I’m sorry for you. Something HAS to be greater than you. Our thinking and actions got us here. So how can you think your fine mind can help You?

    • Johnny says:

      Antiquated beliefs – like the purpose of the Big Book which is to help you find GOD – is just horse shit IMHO… TWENTY-TWO YEARS now and I am living a life beyond my wildest dreams WITHOUT ANY CONCEPTION OF A LORD GOD. It’s simple: my higher power is my BETTER power.

    • Evan K. says:

      My spirituality is strong, however, I always believe that whatever method used, as long as a person doesn’t pick up, then it works. Remember: according to the Tradition our focus is sobriety and we do not engage in controversy.

    • bob k says:

      It’s simply a false dichotomy to set the only two alternatives as “God” or the “solitary self-will.” There are many help options in between. Secularists have been getting sober in Alcoholics Anonymous since before it had a name. I think Bill Wilson understood what was at the core of AA’s path to continued sobriety.

      “PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail.” (BB, p. 89)

      Nothing = nada, bupkiss, zip, rien, NOT A FREAKEN THING!!!

      Other activities = praying, seances, church, trying to follow “His” will, etc.

      So when those “other activities” fail, help your fellow humans. No God required.

      From Bill’s Story: “I was not too well at the time, and was plagued by waves of self-pity and resentment. This sometimes nearly drove me back to drink, but I soon found that when all other measure failed, work with another alcoholic would save the day. Many times I have gone to my old hospital in despair. On talking to a man there, I would be amazingly lifted up and set on my feet. It is a design for living that works in rough going.” (BB, p. 15)

      Bill kinda started the deal, Sherry.

    • life-j says:

      Sherry, thank you for joining us here today. It is possible you are right, and there is a god somewhere pulling my strings, even in spite of my not believing in any god. It apparently works just fine without my believing in any god, and without me including any sort of deity in my recovery program. I have been sober many years, my life is wonderful, my recovery is and has been good in every aspect. I will say it was a bit slow, mostly because in the beginning I tried to fit the round peg in a square hole, I tried to see if I couldn’t come up with some kind of higher power, like I was told to, but frankly, looking back, I would say I wasted a lot of good recovery effort on things that really were not necessary, such as a belief in any higher power.

      You have to remember that Bill was 3 years sober when he wrote the Big Book. He had no education in recovery, philosophy, religion, psychology, writing, medicine. All he had was the discovery that one alcoholic can help another alcoholic stay sober.

      But then he sat down and wrote a book, with practically no knowledge about anything.

      So he brought this idea of a higher power with him from the Oxford Group. In his later years he invested significant effort in telling how he thought his pushing god in his earliest years had been the wrong thing to do. Precisely because it turned so many people away – and it still does. Why change something that works? I agree, I wouldn’t either. It is because it doesn’t work, that it needs to be changed. So many have come to us, and for one reason or another the program didn’t work for them, so they left. Blame the victims of our 80 year old program? I guess we can do that instead of looking at where our program may be at fault.

      But I’m going to do my part to take a fellowship-wide inventory, and change some things that really need changing, not just a word in the third line of the second paragraph on page 114. We need some real change, if we really mean what we say in our responsibility statement.

      • Johnny says:

        Wow beautifully put. Love being a non believer. To thine own self be true… it’s that simple for me 22 years and living a life beyond my wildest dreams.

      • Joel says:

        I wholeheartedly agree. I also wasted many years struggling to find some form of higher power as it was impressed upon me that recovery and contentment were impossible without it. There is growing movement in Northeast Connecticut for secular AA. We have started 2 meetings with regular attendees. The Big Book is a valuable piece of our history, not a “how to guide” for sobriety or a content life.

    • Julian S. says:

      Why would you deny our ability to think and act? Whether someone believes in God or not, we are thinking and acting beings. Everything we do requires thought and action. Our thoughts and actions get us everywhere – flat on our back and addicted or successful in sustained recovery. We shouldn’t underestimate – or in your case altogether dismiss – the presence, purpose, and power of our minds and actions.

      Our mind is precisely what we most need when we set out to pursue recovery. Generally speaking, human minds are awesome. When someone is struggling with some sort of dysfunction or obsession – substance use or otherwise – it isn’t helpful or valid to tell em “your mind is useless. Its what got you here”. It would be wiser and truer to tell em, “the first step on a path to recovery will occur when you recognize and make use of your inherent wisdom and capable mind”.

      It is effective and inspiring to those who do not believe in God AND it is effective and inspiring to those who DO believe in God. I do believe in God, but I also respect and honor his handiwork – human beings. When you “decide” that human minds are useless and ineffective – you are simultaneously insulting the God or higher power you claim to so fervently believe in. We are here to learn, expand, and evolve toward our unimaginable potential. That’s why we make mistakes – even get caught up in some dysfunction like, among other things – addiction. If you’re actually enjoying the benefits of long term recovery – whether you acknowledge it or not – it is specifically a more exercised mind and improved actions that produce your sustained recovery. That’s a simple process called learning.

      Do us all a favor, don’t go around misinforming people that they have no abilities to think and act differently than they did yesterday. It’s a ridiculous premise – and an unGodly one, at that.

      • Johnny says:

        Sherry says “AA WON’T WORK WITHOUT GOD”. This is the root of the problem with the antiquated AA program…

      • life-j says:

        Julian, thank you. I want so badly for us all to just be one big family in AA, and lost that, well, most of it, 5-6 years ago. It is so nice to come across a believer who doesn’t go around telling everyone to check their brains at the door. Gives me a little of it back. And I enjoyed your argument for it, too.

  16. bob k says:

    Maybe if one of the keys had been Alicia, there’d be more comments.

    I have the book but haven’t read it. I was most impressed with the AA Beyond Belief interview. Archer seems like an incredibly organized guy. The Universal Edition is a worthy effort, reviewed on this site sometime back, if I’m not mistaken.

    • Roger says:

      Book reviews always get very few comments, Bob, because, well, very few have read the book. And the Universal Edition (a secular rewriting of the Big Book) has not yet been reviewed on AA Agnostica. Would you like to do that, good Sir?

      And readers can listen to the podcast about The Five Keys with John S on AA Beyond Belief by clicking on the image here:

      Five Keys

    • bob k says:

      With apologies, the review is alive and well, but at Beyond Belief, not Agnostica. Here it is:

      Universal Edition

  17. Robert says:

    There are universal spiritual principles all through the Big Book.

    • bob k says:

      I agree. We heathens can dismiss the book too quickly. It’s a mix of the weird and the wonderful, and I think the early chapters capture the somewhat irrational behavior of the active alcoholic. I definitely know what it is to be restless, irritable, and discontented. Early sobriety can be a bee-yotch!!

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