Staying Sober Without God

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.

  1. Admitted we were caught in a self-destructive cycle and currently lacked the tools to stop it
  2. Trusted that a healthy lifestyle was attainable through social support and consistent self-improvement
  3. Committed to a lifestyle of recovery, focusing only on what we could control
  4. Made a comprehensive list of our resentments, fears, and harmful actions
  5. Shared our lists with a trustworthy person
  6. Made a list of our unhealthy character traits
  7. Began cultivating healthy character traits through consistent positive behavior
  8. Determined the best way to make amends to those we had harmed
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would cause harm
  10. Practiced daily self-reflection and continued making amends whenever necessary
  11. We started meditating
  12. 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:

Step 1

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:

Step 7

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.

Staying Sober Without God

Click on the cover to access the book on Amazon.

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.


 

29 Responses

  1. John B. says:

    I’ve been sober 35 years and have read every book in the AA inventory of approved literature. None of them come close to giving us the utility offered by Mr. Munn. His book serves as an outline to achieve sobriety for agnostics, atheists, humanists, or the devoutly religious. All the religious person would need to do is continue to practice their chosen rituals and let Staying Sober Without God serve as chapter and verse for their recovery program. Even though Munn offers a pathway to sobriety devoid of reliance on God, nowhere does he ask a believer to discard their belief, nor does he contend that religious faith would prevent a person from traveling that same path. Munn is thus free of the hypocrisy that infects traditional AA. I’d be willing to bet there are some religious folks who can see that the God they believe in allowed them to get to this point in their addiction and conclude that some form of additional help is needed. I’m not one of them, but I know many sober alkies who combine AA and church.

    It is interesting to me how the author treats steps 7,8,and 9. In chapter 7 he devotes 15 and one-half pages to the development of positive character traits which will result in reducing “…the stress and drama in your life and in improving your relationships.” (p.81). The obvious assumption here is that the process of building positive character traits will automatically weaken the alcoholic propensity for behaving in self-serving ways. As many of us have experienced, that is a valid assumption.

    What piqued my interest was that the author followed these 15 and one-half pages of positive actions designed to improve the quality of our character with only 5 and one-half pages combined concerning steps 8 and 9 – the amends steps. I don’t know what Munn intended, but the message I take from this three to one coverage is this: what I do today to build a lifestyle worthy of respect is far more important than trying to amend past transgressions. Yes, some direct amends need to be made concerning past mis-deeds. Most of the time this is a one-off deal. This business of rebuilding our own character is the launching pad for making living amends – these amends have current value and also serve as an investment in the future-better personal relationships. Better personal relationships, which for me still serves as the foundation for my 35 years of continuous sobriety.

    This book is full of good stuff. Buy it!

  2. life-j says:

    Well, I just finished reading the book, and I have to say that for my kind of person, a non-believer in recovery, this is the best book I have read on the subject of recovery. Everything is so right on, I don’t even know where to start praising it, though I guess chapters 5 and 6 are something most other books miss entirely, and they, like the rest are really good. I guess I can’t heap much more praise on it, otherwise you’ll think I don’t really mean it, but I do. My worst complaint about the book is that the line spacing and font size got dropped down in chapter 6, and that is uncalled for – but that’s not much of a complaint, only something I noticed since I am in the final stages of making a book myself. Another thing I guess I could bring up is that this book is presuming a relatively high level of reading skill. This does cut out a fairly large demographic. Though I am aware, it is no worse than the Big Book in that respect, and overall it does make much better sense. The Big Book seems to aim at dumbing people down. This one aims at empowering the reader, which is the best thing a book could do.

    However it makes me want to look at a couple of issues which are not faults of this book, per se, but ought to be addressed. Mainly: Who is the book for?

    It obviously is for non-believers, and as such it is very good, but is it for anybody else? Well, it could be. It is so eminently sensible in every respect that it almost could work for the god people too. Anybody could benefit from this book. Trouble is, there is no way the god people would buy a book that promises Staying Sober WITHOUT GOD.

    If we are hopeful to help AA turn itself around, get out of the god-corner it has painted itself into, at some point we will need to look at how to write a book in such a manner that even god people would find it an attractive read.

    God people will not even pick up a book, much less read it, that says it is without god, or for atheists and agnostics, even if it also, like some, says “…and for everyone else”.

    We’d need to somehow point out that nobody asks god for help doing their dishes, and even if they do, the pile is still sitting there waiting until we actually do it ourselves. We can subsequently thank god for help doing the dishes, but the bottom line is that there really isn’t much evidence of god’s involvement. On the other hand, doing the dishes ourselves really doesn’t preclude thanking god for all kinds of other things, praying until the cows come home, or going to church on Sundays. If we could somehow get across that recovery is just like that, we’d have a home run.

    But we can’t do that by up front dissing and dismissing god. When we do that the book’s suggestions remain for ourselves. Which is of course still a good thing. The god people didn’t offer anything to help us with secular recovery. They just kept throwing god at us. So why should we try offer them anything? Well, if any changes to the program overall is going to come from anywhere, it will have to be from us. If we want future generations of alcoholics to not have to try to recover with the god nonsense, it will have to come from us. Granted, this may be too big a burden for us to try and lift, but we should at least have a look at the benefit vs. the cost. Make an informed decision about whether we should try, rather than ignore the elephant. I know some will say yes, some will say no, it’s always like that.

    But – but for the title, and a few other relatively minor issues – this book is really close. I don’t want to sit here and try to tell Jeffrey to re-write the book with this in mind, he has already done an amazing job, but someday we ought to consider something like that.

  3. John B. says:

    Why are we so obsessed with the number 12? Let’s keep it simple. Mr. Munn’s first three steps tell me precisely what I need to do to stay sober. Get honest with myself about the harm created by my drinking. Trash the idea that I can change course of my own volition. Seek support from those people who care about me and are willing to help me build a lifestyle worthy of respect If I do these things and refrain from drinking one day at a time, most of that other stuff will naturally evolve. By the way, I intend to order the book later today – as soon as my wife gets home and helps me with the computer. John B.

  4. Joel D says:

    It seems as though we secularist are always trying to appease the traditionalists. Offering books such as this one and other “alternate” 12 step based models. I for one am done with all of that. The fellowship of AA has kept me sober. Is there some merit to the 12 Steps as presented in the Big Book? For me yes. I’ve spent way too much time in the rabbit hole looking for rebuttals to the sanctimonious. The best I have found to date is from an Islamic Prophet Al-Maʿarri (973–1058). Al-Ma’arri wrote and taught that religion itself was a “fable invented by the ancients” and that humans were “of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”

    I’ll satisfy myself with that rather than argue with a zealot.

  5. Tim S. says:

    My lack of religion was the key obstacle in joining the AA community and receiving the benefits from such. I had to ‘set aside’ the core principle of Alcoholics Anonymous and somehow make it work. I was raised in a Baptist church which taught that gay folks like me were doomed to eternal hell unless we denied our core existence and abandoned the truth of who we really are.

    I ended up making the ‘group’ a higher power instead of the judgmental magical fairy being in the sky. I haven’t read the book yet, but after reading this review it seems like the perfect secular replacement for those like me, to not ‘settle’ on an alternative, inferior substitution of the AA program where most Christian group members tend to consider us secular members as disbelievers, doomed until we finally “came to believe in the real truth” of a religious way of life.

  6. Bernadette W. says:

    Try reading a book called How Alcoholics Anonymous Failed Me. Maybe 20 years old. I WAS SOBER 20 years then. It changed how I treated people in AA, my fellow alcoholics. I will have 40 years next month, and I expanded my horizons to be able to stay sober.

    • Barry says:

      We alcoholics are wired to be victims. Just another example of one who couldn’t trust jumping off the cliff!

  7. Jeffrey Munn says:

    Thank you so much for this review! This book was a passion project of mine after feeling like there wasn’t a large enough place for atheists in the program.

    This book was not intended to in any way, shape, or form bash or disparage people who find faith to be a critical element of their recovery. I’m a fan of everyone finding what works. If a person finds this book helpful and it helps lift them out of the cycle of addiction, should we really care what they attribute the success to? Whether it’s some supernatural being or their own actions, they’re getting better, and that’s what it’s all about.

    • Rob T says:

      Yeah, pushing the belief in “god” is what finally got me to get out of the 12 step fellowships. I started in 1980, when I joined AA and OA the same week, and it turned out to be a nightmare, and I was able to salvage something I guess, by leaving. I still read this site and I appreciate it, and my sobriety is good, but I gave up trying to read between the lines, etc.

  8. Kris S. says:

    No one does this on their own – set ego aside, turn to intuition, conscience, embrace AA’s spiritual principles, and you’ll find a power you can absolutely rely on, the great reality deep within.

  9. Rich K. says:

    I love this! I am not agnostic! I don’t care how someone recovers from this awful disease! One day at a time!

    • Mark C. says:

      Hi Rich, of course you are an “agnostic.” There is stuff one does not, nor cannot know. Join the human race. 🙂

  10. Barry says:

    An awareness came to me doing my turnarounds in the resentment part of the 4th step. Having a degree in the humanities I have delved into the psychological aspect of my personality as an alcoholic. Key words are “I have”. That’s puts limits on my finite self. When I began to let go and ask for help from an infinite source that I will not be able to comprehend from my limited mind, all kinds of wonderful newfound insights came through my pen on paper about what my part was.

  11. John P. says:

    WE of Alcoholics Anonymous do not have a monopoly on therapy for the alcoholic. If this keeps someone sober, that is WONDERFUL! Contempt prior to investigation, I subscribe to the moral teaching. I hope everyone that finds sobriety through this book and means, gives it away. THAT is the truth to the steps. We only keep recovery, by giving it to others. I personally almost died in the rooms of AA not doing the “GOD thing”, even though I was doing everything else suggested. My conception of GOD is mine, it belongs to me. That is my experience. Sobriety can be miserable, the 12 steps lead to recovery from a seemingly hopeless and helpless state of mind and body.

    • bob k says:

      From the 1930s, there have been alcoholics navigating to sobriety in AA without calling on God’s assistance – Jimmy B, and others. On the other hand, the majority of the pioneers connected with God, called themselves “recovered,” and yet drank some more. We humans inhabit a world that is mostly gray. There is little black and white.

    • Mark C. says:

      Hi John. I’m in AA, and you do not speak for me and thousands of others like me. We are atheists. I’m happy any damn fool gets sober.

  12. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, thanks Heather for a wonderful review of this important book for nontheists, such as myself, and Roger for publishing it . . .

  13. steve b says:

    Everyone who stays sober does so without god. Some of us realize this, and others don’t.

  14. I had been looking forward to this review since I heard it had been considered; thanks for this, Heather.

    Beyond Belief: Agnostics & Freethinkers Group in Toronto meets three times a week. Monday is our secular Step meeting. Sometimes we have a member kick off the meeting with 10 minutes on their experience with the Step-0f-the-Day. Most often we grab a reading. We tend to only use one book for 12 weeks in a row and then move on to another. It seems there’s a new one every 12 weeks or so.

    Jeffery Munn wrote the thoughtful, contemporary look at the from addiction to recovery process that any of us would have done, putting pen to paper or fingers to keys. Being a trained clinician he does add education and first hand experience working with people who go through addiction and find their way to recovery.

    There are other books we like and some members prefer one over the other. The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery brings a refreshing woman’s voice to the recovery process and has more of that spiritual – not religious look at addiction and recovery. The practical 12 Steps are just that, proactive and common sense.

    If you’re new to this book and want to know more about the California author, I did a Rebellion Dogs Radio podcast with Jeffery a while back and his insights were well received by those who gave me feedback.

    While plenty of AA members take a pass on the Steps and their sobriety doesn’t suffer at all, for many, the process is a right of passage within the 12 Step community and if you – like me – need a check up from the neck up – the Steps are like a training regimen for recovery. There’s nothing unique or counter-intuitive comparing the Step process to other psychological self-initiated reviews of our lives and coping mechanisms. The “thing” with the Steps for more and more people now is the “God thing;” we all know more and more people don’t subscribe to an interventionist higher power idea. That’s why our secular Step meeting attracts people who aren’t on a strict secular AA diet but, regardless of their worldview, traditional “God, take all of me as thous seeith fittist” AA narrative is a lot of double-talk. The Big Book or Twelve and Twelve serve many theists and there are countless atheists who have translated it themselves into practical language. But for many, turning it over and taking responsibility is one of many contradictions that are hard to reconcile. So we get people at our Step meeting that I don’t see at our other secular AA meetings through the week. Some come for a while, some are regulars. For others, it was the closest meeting in the time slot available to them. After all, we’re just another AA meeting. Our group is taking a second go-around with the Practical 12 Steps individual readings. We usually just read the first section on the Step and then open the floor to discussion. But the reading is intriguing enough to first-timers that the book is a popular choice from our literature table.

    On a personal note, I really like Jeffery’s Step one language: Admitted we were caught in a self-destructive cycle… The oft heard expression, Step One is the only one we take once and the rest is a blueprint for living” (or something like that), this idea doesn’t apply to me. My story is more than a battle with substance use disorder. “Replacement addictions” as some call them have provided a lifetime of new challenges to reign in and my bag of “self-destructive cycles” is deep. So, even in long term recovery, this Step One is present-day project – not a story long ago from a galaxy far away.

  15. life-j says:

    Heather, thank you for this review. Sooner or later it seems someone ought to write an alternative recovery book that is so good that the rest of the recovery community just can’t help itself, but feels compelled to use it. Could this be it? I’ll have to find out. Thanks.

    • life-j says:

      On that note though, I would like to add that no, this is probably not it – not because it isn’t a good book, it sounds like it is, and I just ordered one. But because this is still a book for “us”, just like most regular AA books are for “them” . If we can get to where *we* write a book for everyone, not just for us, then we’d really have something. So, Staying Sober Without God, that’s what we’re trying to do, but the “other” folks, they need to stay sober “without the need for a god” or “stay sober on their own effort while god is busy taking care of other stuff” or “staying sober with the help of their fellow alcoholics, since their fellow alcoholics is who helped them get in trouble in the first place, so don’t go bothering god with that shit, he’s got more important stuff to look after” – or whatever angle we can go at it from. We need to not just BE an alternative, we need to PROVIDE an alternative. We need something so secular and so good, and so non-anti-god, that the regular folks just can’t help themselves but come to us.

      • Roger says:

        It’s not just a book for “us”, life-j. It’s for “them” too. As a reviewer on Amazon put it so very well:

        As a Christian I came into reading this with an open mind… The author did not put down Christians at all – like some would expect. He wove an adaptation of the 12 steps to fit his (and others’) needs. I believe it was masterfully done. The detail and thought that went into the way things are worded is phenomenal. I learned so very much.

        • life-j says:

          Roger, yes, I believe that – everything about this book does sound good, it’s just the title – why would a Christian want to be sober without god? Yes, the few openminded ones of course may, but the rest? If we ever want to talk them out of leaning on god we will have to come up with something to convince them, and that god is not necessary probably won’t be enough. But maybe we can tweak it to that god has better things to do now than he did in 1938 or something. “Staying sober with each other’s help while not bothering god who is watching in the wings, just keeping a half eye on it all”. Bill was a good salesman. We need another sales job. Telling them they don’t need god is not enough, but maybe god changed his mind, and has decided that the drunks should just help each other, and learn to rely on each other, and only bring important stuff to god, stuff we absolutely cant solve with each other’s help. It will take some radical new thinking to convince regular fundies to start thinking for themselves again. Make sense?

  16. Bethany D. says:

    Thank you for your inspiring review Heather! You pulled out some poignant passages that make me want to explore further. I love your personal note in the last paragraph, encouraging “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.” I am one of those people. I also appreciate that you ended the piece referencing the responsibility statement. It all came together beautifully.

  17. Lance B. says:

    Thanks, Heather. Your review really inspires me to buy several copies of this book to present to my small secular AA meeting.

    I think I’ll try, one more time, printing out your review for possible use by the group for discussion this morning. Somehow that rarely turns out to be the topic of the day, but always becomes my personal meditation for the day and week.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *