Staying Sober Without God
Review by Heather C.
Staying Sober Without God is an exciting addition to the growing body of literature which approaches sobriety from a non-religious point of view. Author, therapist and former addict Jeffrey Munn states the book’s main purpose in its subtitle: The Practical 12 Steps to Long-Term Recovery from Alcoholism & Addictions. In the space of 160 pages, Munn offers a thorough, practical program, clearly and concisely presented, with touches of personal experience and humour.
The book begins by listing The 12 Practical Steps.
- Admitted we were caught in a self-destructive cycle and currently lacked the tools to stop it
- Trusted that a healthy lifestyle was attainable through social support and consistent self-improvement
- Committed to a lifestyle of recovery, focusing only on what we could control
- Made a comprehensive list of our resentments, fears, and harmful actions
- Shared our lists with a trustworthy person
- Made a list of our unhealthy character traits
- Began cultivating healthy character traits through consistent positive behavior
- Determined the best way to make amends to those we had harmed
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would cause harm
- Practiced daily self-reflection and continued making amends whenever necessary
- We started meditating
- Sought to retain our newfound recovery lifestyle by teaching it to those willing to learn and by surrounding ourselves with healthy people
The heart of the book elaborates on these steps, beginning at Chapter Four. The first three brief chapters lay out the groundwork.
Chapter One tells of the author’s experiences in 12 step programs and how “the persistent message that recovery was impossible without a supernatural, intervening God wore [him] down” to the point that he would stop going to meetings. While acknowledging that a faith-based approach to recovery works for many, he has written this book “for those who see the benefits of the 12 step meetings and programs, but don’t know how to reconcile their need for support with their lack of belief in God”.
Chapter Two – What is Addiction? begins with a clear definition of addiction as, “the experience of not being able to stop using a substance or engaging in a behavior despite a genuine desire to stop,” and concludes with a discussion of the question, “Will I Always Be an Addict?”.
Chapter Three – Recovering Without God looks at three questions: 1) What is Recovery? 2) Will I Fully Recover or Will I Always Be Recovering? and 3) Why the 12 Steps? The final paragraph introduces us to the program:
Staying Sober Without God is an approach to the 12 steps that empowers the individual, reframes spiritual changes as real-world psychological events, and adds a few concrete actions that can aid in the lifestyle and personality changes needed to bring about lasting recovery. They are devoid of anything outside the realm of the natural world. Rather than requiring the help of the supposed creator of the universe, we are building confidence in our own ability to rewire our brains, establish new behavior patterns, and make the choice to live a better life. (p. 24)
Chapter Four – The 12 Practical Steps is the heart of the book, where the program details are laid out. It starts with a brief look as some preliminary matters: When Am I Done with a Step?, Important Considerations Before Beginning the Steps, Mental Health, Stopping Your Addictive Behavior, and Attending Meetings.
Each step is introduced showing the AA version followed by the Practical version. For example, here’s Step One:
An explanation of the step follows, focusing on the Practical version, as well as giving the motivation for the changes from the AA version. These changes go beyond the mere removal of references to God, as explained on page 25:
My goal is to provide a comprehensive guide to working these steps that offers the same kind of growth and discovery that the traditional 12 steps offer to theistic members of the recovery world. It’s also important to note that not all steps mention God. Even so, I have still adapted them in order to create a fully revamped and thorough program. Some of the changes that I’ve made to the wording of the steps change core concepts, while other changes I’ve made are just for the sake of clarity and simplicity.
The second part of the presentation of each step deals with how to do the work. Here we find clear, logical, detailed and concrete ways of doing the step. In steps that require making a list, templates and examples are given to motivate and guide the reader through the step. Here is an excerpt from the section Working Step Four, an example of a couple of rows from a resentment list:
Step Seven is worthy of some exploration. This is the step where the Practical version seems most distinct from the AA version. Here are the two versions side-by-side:
The Practical version of this step is refreshingly positive. There is a focus on healthy traits rather than unhealthy ones. It is pointed out that, “unhealthy character traits will naturally diminish when you start practicing behaviors that nourish your goal traits.” For example, when we practice generosity, we are less selfish. After consistently practicing a positive behaviour it begins to become our norm, our go-to behaviour.
In the Working Step Seven section, we are given detailed descriptions of some of these goal traits and ideas on how to develop them. The traits presented are Honesty, Humility, Skepticism, Generosity, Assertiveness, Responsibility, Compassion and Self-Care. Each of these is clearly defined, its value is shown, examples are presented and ideas on how to cultivate it are given.
The presentation of the steps concludes on page 131 of the book. The remaining thirty pages or so deal with other relevant topics not covered in the steps. Most of us will nod our heads in recognition of their importance.
Chapter Five deals with Relapse and includes sections on How Relapse Happens; Relapse Prevention Tools; Accountability to Others; The Personal Craziness Index (PCI); and Cutting Out Toxic People, Places and Things.
The title of Chapter Six is, “What the Steps Miss”. The topics discussed are: Physical Health (including Exercise, Routine, Light, Relaxation, Keeping the bedroom sacred, Trying less, Avoid stimulants, and White noise), Communication and Fun, Hobbies and Communities.
The book concludes with an epilogue which recognizes the value of AA to the recovery of millions. Stating that, “Atheists and agnostics deserve just as much of a chance at recovery as believers do,” Jeffrey Munn provides this group with that chance. It is a chance for those of us who have been struggling to find a way to do the steps without compromising our beliefs to finally get busy on the work. It is a great resource for sponsors in both traditional and secular AA groups. It is a tool to help us live up to the Responsibility Pledge, part of extending the hand of AA to “anyone, anywhere.” And for that, we are responsible.
Posted today on AA Beyond Belief is an excellent podcast about Staying Sober Without God. Wes B. and John S. discuss their impressions of the book while sharing their own personal experiences as atheists who choose to integrate the Twelve Steps into their program of recovery. You can connect to the podcast right here: Episode 112: Staying Sober Without God.
Heather C. is a member of a secular group in Ontario. At the age of 70, after multiple attempts to moderate her alcohol consumption, the Step 1 light bulb finally came on in May of 2018, even though she hadn’t ever been to an AA meeting. After a few weeks of driving a great distance to attend meetings with a Refuge Recovery group, the leader recommended the We Agnostics AA group she now attends. She is infinitely grateful for the support and friendship she finds there. She feels that ongoing sobriety would have been difficult, if not impossible, without the genuine caring, sound wisdom and positive example of the members of her group. She begins her second year of sobriety with the aspiration to continue learning and to make others aware of the option of recovery in a secular group.