Recovering Without God

Staying Sober Without God

Staying Sober Without God
Chapter Three:
Recovering Without God

What is Recovery?

Before we start getting into the secular approach to recovery, it’s probably a good idea to talk about what the term “recovery” even means. As far as this book goes, “recovery” is defined as the life-long process of improving your overall mental and emotional health so as to minimize the harm and suffering you inflict on yourself and others. While the goal for many of you is likely to stay sober, I want to emphasize that the absence of destructive behaviors is just one point on an otherwise endless journey of self-improvement. If all you care about is not using, these methods can get you there, but just know that they can continue to benefit you for the rest of your time on Earth, far beyond just achieving a state of not wanting to get high.

Recovery is not an event or a finite process; it’s a lifestyle. It requires fundamental changes to be made to the way you look at and interact with the world and the people in it. Knowing this, it’s understandable to see why so many people think that a drastic spiritual experience is a necessary part of recovery. A spiritual awakening usually changes a person’s priorities, self-image, and beliefs about the world in one fell swoop. Unfortunately, such spiritual experiences often require an act of faith, and even people capable of such acts of faith don’t often experience the “white light” spiritual awakenings that create big change in a short amount of time.

More often, this type of transformative experience takes place slowly as one continues to make small, incremental steps towards improving themselves. It often starts through interaction with healthy people, which is why meetings have a lot to offer. That being said, you can certainly start this work on your own. All it takes is a willingness to try something new and make a small effort every day to engage in new habits and behaviors. Though I believe the 12 steps leave some important things out, they are actually a great place to start, which is why I base this book on them. In the following chapter, I will explain the basic purpose of each of the 12 steps along with the principles that make them effective.

Will I Fully Recover or Will I Always Be Recovering?

If I had a dollar for every time I heard 12-step members arguing about this, I’d have a fair amount of dollars. I’ve overhead (and been involved in) a few arguments about whether recovery is a life-long process or a finite process that we can finish. Some will insist that recovery never ends, while some will tell you that working the steps will get you fully recovered. As you might have guessed, the answer to this question is not so black-and-white. The members of AA who state that we can fully recover are referring to recovering from what is described in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous as “a hopeless state of mind and body.” The members of AA who state that recovery is everlasting are referring to the fact that we are constantly striving towards abstract ideals that we will never achieve perfectly.

If you think about it, both of these things can be true. We can get to a point in our recovery where we are no longer experiencing certain kinds of suffering, in which case it makes sense to say we’ve recovered from a certain state of mind. We can also never get to a place in our life where we have achieved perfection and have no more room for improvement, in which case it makes sense to say we will always be recovering. The argument of recovered vs. recovering is an unnecessary source of disagreement in the program. We can recover, and we will always be recovering. It’s not as complicated as some people make it out to be, so don’t get caught up on it.

Why the 12 Steps?

You may be wondering why I would choose to stick with a 12-step format rather than just creating my own program from scratch. Despite the problems with 12-step programs and some of the messages in the meetings, the original 12 steps actually have a lot of wisdom in them. The truth is that very few of the ideas outlined in the 12 steps were genuinely new ideas at the time. Many of them were adapted from a group known as The Oxford Group. The steps even share some very common-sense principles with the eightfold path in Buddhism. The psychological and “spiritual” concepts that evolved into the 12 steps have lasted for as long as they have because there is something in them that works. While the religious and supernatural aspects of the 12 steps are not a good fit for many, it’s important not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. If you’re able to look past the less desirable stuff, you’ll see there’s quite a bit of material in the original 12 steps that makes practical sense.

The basic path of the steps goes something like this: you start with admitting you have an issue that needs fixing. Afterwards, you accept that you can’t fix it all by yourself. You then commit to seeking outside help. Once you do that, you begin doing some inner work, starting with looking at all your resentments, fears, and guilt. You confess these to someone you trust, who then helps you look at what personal qualities enable you to engage in these unhealthy behaviors. The undesirable qualities are listed, and you make efforts to be rid of them. After you’ve made peace with yourself, you then make amends to those you’ve hurt. You maintain the results of this process by engaging in regular maintenance behaviors like meditation, self-reflection, and service.

That doesn’t sound so crazy, does it? The foundation of the classic 12 steps is fairly solid. There’s a reason it seems to have helped so many people. Unfortunately, it comes with so much baggage that it turns a lot of people away. In addition to that, it frames some of the changes it creates in a way that is disempowering rather than empowering. The wording of the steps often leads to people believing that all good things in their lives are a result of God, and all (or most) bad things are a result of them not being in line with God’s will for them. It’s not uncommon for people to grow resentful of this message and rebel against it, and I don’t particularly blame them.

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.

For an excellent review of the book, click here: Staying Sober Without God.

Staying Sober Without God

Available on Amazon.

Jeffrey Munn was born in Southern California where he still resides with his wife and daughter. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has been working in the field of mental health since 2010.

Jeffrey works as a therapist in private practice and specializes in addiction, OCD, and anxiety disorders. In addition to his master’s degree in clinical psychology, Jeffrey earned a degree specialty in co-occurring disorders.

Click here to access the book on Amazon: Staying Sober Without God.

To visit Jeffrey’s website, click here: Practically Sane.

39 Responses

  1. Dan L says:

    Thanks Roger for your book review. It was helpful and I will get a couple of copies of that book. As for the “Recovered vs recovering” debate I have met some very frightening “Recovered” people who were very defensive and shrill in addition to being very rigid and not very good examples of sobriety.

  2. life-j says:

    Yes, this is a great little book, probably the best there is at this point, and yes everyone, even the god people ought to read it, but they won’t with THAT title. As I also mentioned when the review was originally posted. Well, the real fundies will not read anything which isn’t conference approved, but there are a lot of people who WOULD read a secular book, one which is simply secular, one with a title that perhaps wouldn’t make such a big deal about it being without god, but simply would be without god, and have a title that wouldn’t have an axe to grind in the title. So can’t Jeffrey re-publish it in such a way that it will appeal to a wider audience? Very little would need to be changed on the inside, it’s just the book’s title mostly. Seems like a waste to limit such a great book to be read only by non-believers.

    • Garry U. says:

      I have to agree with Life-j. The title is problematic. The description of how the steps work for an individual reflect my experience and observations. I could not tell from the review whether or not participation in fellowship is encouraged but it is my feeling that is an important catalyst for recovery.

      • Roger says:

        I totally disagree with both of you about the title of the book. For eighty years now there has been an insistence that “God” was a necessary and an essential part of recovery. Nonsense. Today as a result of experience and science and research we know that personal resources and the support of others is what works in recovery. Given the controlling “you need God” behavior of the last eight decades, it was essential that a book – and especially this extremely well written book – be published with the title Staying Sober Without God. Maybe in another eighty years or so a similar book could have a different title…

        • John B. says:

          Your naysayers concerning the title of Munn’s book need to engage in some logical thinking. The big book thumpers I have ran across in my 39 years of AA attendance (35 yrs. of continuous sobriety) don’t read books – there is no need to make any effort to appeal to them. The folks who might be attracted to a book with this title are precisely the ones who have been driven away from AA due to all the God goofiness. This title clearly implies that sobriety is attainable without divine intervention by God – this is the message all of us in the AA Agnostica “fraternity” stand for. Let’s not quibble with Mr. Munn.

        • Ginger M. says:

          I grew up in a Christian home but with very little or no faith in God and only because I was told God would punish me if I didn’t obey my parents.

          In AA I learned of a loving caring God no matter what, in spite of myself. In AA everyone has the right to choose any God of their own understanding. I agree with the author: It is a lifestyle whether you drink alcohol or not; life is going to happen anyway. The difference today is instead of me reacting by drinking away the problem, I have the solution. God never promises you your life is going to be roses. I find in many years in AA my life is different and I wouldn’t have it in other way.

    • Jeff Munn says:

      Hi life-j. I appreciate the feedback. I thought long and hard about the book title. I went with something a bit more “in your face” because I wanted it to be very clear to my target audience what the book was focusing on. Yes, it can help agnostics and even believers, but I feel that’s a different book. If the title was geared towards too broad of an audience, many of my target audience may have overlooked it.

    • Diane I says:

      Yes life-j I agree. It is one of the best books I have read on addiction, recovery and the 12 steps and I know many people who would benefit from this book, but will probably never read it because of the title. I understand why Jeffrey gave it that title, but another title I think would appeal to more people.

  3. Janice C. says:

    Life itself can be overwhelming due society making people think wise having a drink is wise: socializing, getting together, dancing, dinner together, big corporate meetings, etc. Having alcohol is a part of it and you can’t have fun without it. So, common sense: don’t rely on drinking, enjoy your surroundings without the alcohol.

    But you do need God in your life to help guide you and give you the hope you need. God has the power to help trying to do it without God: well good luck. Satan will tempt the person who is the alcoholic in order to destroy the person and the people around them. This is my opinion. Life is hard to deal with and you need Christ in your heart for all the things that come your way. Christ makes you stronger and helps you walks away from temptation.

    • Danielle says:

      Not all who believe in God are Christian. Not all Christians are godly. The 12 steps also state “take what you like and leave the rest.”

  4. James Larry D. says:

    I believe in God and attribute my 12 years of recovery in Narcotics Anonymous to my belief and my working and living the 12 Steps. I do not believe it is my business to require anyone else to believe the same. In NA we say that ours is a program of attraction rather than promotion, and I believe this also. Having said this, I believe this book will be very helpful to many. I would love to read it because I know people who avoid recovery simply because of their disbelief or disavowal of God and its necessity for getting and staying clean. It is always good to understand why people think and act the way they do if we want to be understood ourselves. I think this book would be an interesting read.

  5. Milena P. says:


    • Stacey S. says:

      Amen! Amen!

    • Jeff Munn says:

      Your claim that people can’t recover without God has already been proven factually incorrect. Many people recover without God and many have even recovered without AA. There are multiple paths to living a healthy lifestyle free from addiction and compulsion. I’m glad you found yours.

      • Debra S. says:

        In seeking out a recovery program, it is important to find a group that can allow everyone there to connect with the whomever/whatever they personally consider their higher power/ purpose. All of the positive energy of group work gets destroyed by those that are so faithful to their own beliefs that they think they have to defend the honor of their God to the others (or it will mean they are not faithful enough). That becomes the goal instead of personal recovery. Work for the recovery, experience goodwill toward yourself and others. That will be the proof of your faith. Let others go through their own process without interference. God can take care of himself.

        • bobby beach says:

          I have to side with Milena on this because her comment is ALL in capital letters. I don’t think you can argue with capital letters–they-re very bold.


          I would have slapped on a couple of exclamation points to completely lock the deal up!!

  6. Gail says:

    Read the book, Not God by Kurtz. Keep it simple (and stay out of the mire of rhetoric) is basic to recovery.

  7. Victor K. says:

    I just can’t get my head around people (Atheists, Agnostics) coming to a program and almost demanding changing it. “If you want what we have to offer…” For the love of God, go start your own 3 or 4 step program. What would a salesman at Honda say if I continually went to there and kept arguing I want to buy a Volkswagen? It does not make basic sense, period. People want to change something that works, strange considering this is to save lives.

    • Jeff Munn says:

      I suggest you read the book. Nowhere is anything mentioned about changing the program for others. It’s an alternative path for people who want to work the 12 steps but don’t believe in a supernatural God. Unfortunately, starting one’s own program is not so easy. The size and amount of support available in AA is unmatched, and the fellowship has a lot to offer.

      My question to you is, why would you want to exclude people from a program and fellowship that works simply because they want to take an alternative approach?

    • Roger says:

      Try to respect the Third Tradition, Victor: “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking”. Your respect for it would not only help others but I suspect would help you too, to actually care about other people. As Bill Wilson put it: “In AA we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a universal suffering. Therefore the full liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy should be a first consideration. Hence let us not pressure anyone with individual or even collective views.”

    • Wendy says:

      The word god is a concept of the best humans can be. Man made god in his own image. Why else are there so many gods in our history? The higher power we reach for or look to is what our imagination decides it is. Please open your heart to imagine others have different manifestations of higher power.

      • Bullwinkle says:

        Many an atheist or agnostic has come to the AA fellowship to learn about the “suggested “ 12 Step recovery program, some remain atheist or agnostic, others don’t, some recover, whether they believe in a deity or not, I’ve known 100’s.

        I attempt to live my life by this, Wendy, “All belief is valid, unless it is injurious to others”.

      • bob k says:

        I find it interesting when people drop the capital letters from “God,” and “Power” in the context of conversations about the Twelve Steps. It would have been helpful had those capital letters NOT been included in the AA literature, but they are INCLUDED. “God” big “G” and “god” small “g” are different things. Let’s not pretend that AA talks about small “g” god.

  8. Jeff Munn says:

    Reading the comments further confirms how needed I think this book is. The fact that believers will go through the trouble to come to an agnostic/atheist AA website and impose their beliefs on people who are looking for an alternative path is a testament to how pervasive this toxic behavior is in AA and other 12-step programs.

    Everyone deserves a path to recovery that fits their beliefs. Theists and deists already have their path. Recover in a way that works for you, and let others recover in a way that works for them.

  9. Dinah L M. says:

    The Great Way is not difficult for those not attached to preferences. When neither love nor hate arises, all is clear and undisguised. Separate by the smallest amount, however, and you are as far from it as heaven is from earth. If you wish to know the truth, then hold to no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind. When the fundamental nature of things is not recognized the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail. The Way is perfect, as vast space is perfect, where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess. Indeed, it is due to our grasping and rejecting that we do not know the true nature of things. Live neither in the entanglements of outer things, nor in ideas or feelings of emptiness. Be serene and at one with things and erroneous views will disappear by themselves.

  10. Jon C. says:

    Whatever works best for whoever it works for is just fine with me…

    I couldn’t care less about someone else’s belief system, if it helps them grow and flourish…

    The sole aim is to stay sober and then become sound minded enough to be free from King Self…

    Obviously if I were to judge somebody else, I’ve already judged myself (!) and found myself lacking…

    I, myself, am programmed to believe in a higher power (called God) and it works great for me… But I can’t say definitively that there’s no other way to recover…

    To put it differently…

    If the number 10 is the answer, then, the numbers I use to add up to 10 mean very little… i.e. 5+5 equals 10 ; 6+4 as well, 7+3 as well, 2+8 as well, 1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1 also equals 10… And just because I used 5+5 to get the Truth of the equation doesn’t mean the person who used 7+3 is wrong…


  11. Christopher S. says:

    I’ve purchased the book, read it thoroughly and ordered 10 more copies to offer to newcomers to my secular Without a Prayer Group of AA in Santa Rosa, CA. Jeffrey Munn gives the first secular 12 Step template I’ve read that succinctly walks the newcomer through the steps in a friendly conversational fashion. I love the way he shares his personal experience which oozes empathy to the newcomer. Hopefully, this additional tool in the toolbox of universal recovery will offer hope to those who desperately need and will find help from the helping hand this book offers. Thank you so much, Jeffrey!

  12. life-j says:

    Yes, toxic indeed how some Christians would come and try to crash the discussion here. I do appreciate the couple of believers who joined us and had something positive to say about finding alternative paths. Those are the people who will help make our tent larger. The term “open-mindedness” doesn’t only mean open-mindedness toward the idea that there is a god and you must narrow your mind so that you can come to believe in Him. Open-mindedness is open-mindedness toward everything. The world is full of possibilities, and there are many paths we can take.

    It has always seemed to me that people who are really adamant that their way is the one and only right way hold that point of view because they deep down are scared that it is not so, and the tighter they hold on to their perceived truth, the better they can avoid looking at all the possibilities life has to offer. Denial, denial…

  13. Mike O says:

    Yikes, looks like the God Squad found our site and are telling their friends. Look, that’s great you believe in God/Higher Power/Spirit of the Universe/whatever. There are those of us who don’t and have stayed sober anyway. We’ve LITERALLY put into practice the principle of “take what you want and leave the rest”. Let us be please.

    • Jon C. says:

      Why not just let it go?

      • Roger says:

        Because you can’t, Jon. The Squad makes every effort to impose their dogmatism on you. That’s why. So yeah, “let us be”.

      • Mike O says:

        “Let it go” is what I say to orthodox God-fearing AA people who seem to think that their interpretation is the only “real sobriety” and that anything else is merely (and insultingly) only “dry time”. I found my voice as well as my sobriety in secular recovery. I’m not “letting it go”.

  14. Duncan says:

    I think a major problem here is that we are comparing recovered with recovering. Why bother? Maybe alcoholism is an illness and maybe it’s not. If I don’t drink I don’t have any problems concerning drink or drunkenness. It is that simple.

    • Bullwinkle says:

      It’s not a bother for me, because I have no problem Duncan, understanding the distinct difference between recovery which is the path to being recovered.

      My alcoholism was a mental and physical addition to alcohol and my drinking alcoholically was the symptom (indicator) of my problem, which was mental illness. Abstinence for me wasn’t recovery or sobriety. It wasn’t until I looked at my mental illness via my participation in self-examination through psychotherapy that I was on my road of recovery from my mental illness, which is why I drank alcoholically. Recovered means a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.

      For going on 5 decades, I’ve known many that were abstinent for years, but due to the fact that they hadn’t addressed their mental illness, they returned to drinking alcoholically. It’s similar to a junkie and a pain management patient, where both become addicted, some pain management patients after being weaned don’t return to their addiction, where junkies frequently do. The reason a junkie returns, is they are psychologically addicted, where some pain management patients aren’t.

      • bob k says:

        I think it’s extremely naïve to think that the alcoholic’s only serious problem is drinking–that he/she is “fixed” by stopping drinking. When I stopped drinking I was left with the inner churnings that produced an obsession to drink.

        There are various ways to deal with that sort of existential angst, but of those who just stop drinking, a very high percentage of them seem to return to drinking.

      • Mike says:

        I think addiction is mostly physiological, and not a mental illness. So many people acquire painful physical conditions, lets say due to a knee replacement surgery. They get pumped full of addictive pain killers and can’t get off of them when they go home. Most don’t, but enough do. They are physiologically more susceptible to certain drugs. They didn’t suddenly become mentally ill in the hospital, requiring years of soul searching, and confession of sins to get off the drugs. They just need to get off the drugs and back to their regular lives. I got hooked on alcohol the first time I got that feeling. It was marvelous, fun, relaxing, etc. I was not seeking to drown my sorrows, I was enjoying it and it had little kif any negative consequences for years. Fast forward to my end times and I did “need” it for relief. I did need to escape. But that’s the nature of a beast that took up more and more of my time either drunk or hung over which supplanted many of the other things I used to enjoy for stress relief, boredom relief etc. I don’t think I became more mentally ill, just snookered by the addiction.

        • life-j says:

          Mike, your points are well taken, but that much said, I would say that people with a mental illness, be it the heavy duty ones such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, or the milder kinds like OCD, ADD, PTSD or whatever other neurotic disorders there may be, have a much higher chance than the average human being of becoming an addict, simply because they need to self medicate, and the health system generally is too difficult to navigate to provide adequate support, and anyway most of the medications offered by the health system have undesirable side effects.

          Add to this Gabor Mate’s assertion that most of his skid row addict clients, almost without exception, he says in In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts have had serious trauma in childhood.

          The addiction itself can, also according to Gabor Mate, be explained in physical terms, all that stuff about endorphins and other happy hormones, but that doesn’t mean it is just a physical thing.

  15. Thanks Roger, great review. I read the book, to be honest – I liked it. We are not the first to seek a middle ground between our own desires and the desires of other organs. Before our ancestors tried to do this, but alas … A formula that would say how much to drink for fun and that there was no reckoning in the morning does not exist. Some advise you to choose the right strategy: after each shot, drink a glass of water or drink slowly, stretching the pleasure of each glass. So I think a person should come out of this state consciously, God has nothing to do with it. Good luck!

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