Working the Twelve Steps of NA… Without the “God Part”

By Don M

I have been an avid reader of AA Agnostica for several years now and even attended the Toronto ICSAA conference in 2018. Yet I have also been a committed member of Narcotics Anonymous for over 30 years, working the steps and recovering not because of, but in spite of the “God part.” I had been unable to contact or even identify any “secular” NA groups (I’m sure they must exist) in order to learn from their experience.

Several years ago, a dozen or so English-speaking Montréal NA members met to explore forming a “secular” group. However, we were unable to reach a consensus on an approach or format and this ad hoc group disintegrated. A couple of us soldiered on, concentrating on developing a pamphlet based on our experience of successfully working the steps “without the God part.”

When this was finally completed, we found a meeting space in a community centre in the Pointe-St-Charles neighbourhood, choosing the group name Get to the Point. Flyers were distributed to other groups in the area and our first meeting opened in October of last year. Then the shit hit the fan.

At the following Area Service Committee meeting, I presented a 3-page report which stated in part: “While we expected a few eyebrows to be raised when forming an ‘agnostic/atheist friendly’ group, it was somewhat disappointing to be denounced on Facebook by a member who attended the first third of our opening meeting and then left, slamming the door.” (In fact, this Facebook post had provoked a frenzy of rumours and outrage by dozens of members.) “Is this the NA way to resolve differences of opinion? … Diversity allows our groups to complement one another; it need not be a source of conflict.”

Attached to this report were excerpts from nine NA publications describing what group autonomy and other relevant Traditions really mean. It concluded with an offer to calmly discuss any concerns other groups might have: “However, our starting point should be actual NA principles and facts, mutual respect for group autonomy, and not superficial interpretations of our Traditions, rumours, gossip, speculation and fear.” At the end of the report there was a stunned silence…and then most of the participants burst into applause! Since then, we have heard nothing more about banning us from the meeting list and the hysteria has evaporated.

So what does Get to the Point actually do differently? And why? Firstly, there are no prayers. We open the meeting with the “We serenity statement”: “We seek the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can and the wisdom to know the difference.” We value the wisdom in this prayer, but simply acknowledge that this is something we strive for, rather than requesting that a deity grant it.

Secondly, in the How it works reading, we do not read the actual text of the Twelve Steps. We say simply, “The principles that made our recovery possible are the Twelve Steps of Narcotics Anonymous.”

Thirdly, in the Tradition Two reading, we say “For our group purpose, there is but one ultimate authority – a loving group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.”

We have one other new feature: a 12-page pamphlet produced by the group called Working the Twelve Steps of NA…without the “God part”. It repeats each of the “official” Twelve Steps and suggests ways that agnostic and atheist members can understand, interpret and work the steps openly and honestly by identifying the key spiritual principles embodied in the steps that are useful in doing so. The booklet concludes with the Atheists Recover Too story from the NA Basic Text.

So that’s it in a nutshell. Get to the Point is not a special interest group for “non-believers”; it is simply “agnostic/atheist friendly”. The guiding spirit of the group is not “anti-God”. We make it clear that all addicts are welcome, regardless of their personal beliefs, and should feel free to share honestly and openly. We just don’t want “God” in our face as part of our regular meeting format and we don’t want to tell newcomers that their recovery necessarily depends on “God.” Rather, we concentrate on one addict helping another and learning to live clean by applying the “spiritual, not religious” principles of NA.

Ironically, several of our regular members are “believers” who were attracted to the group because of its warm and respectful atmosphere. We have also drawn the attention of several French-speaking NA members in the city who are interested in developing a similar project.

I appreciate this opportunity to share our experience on AA Agnostica. When Roger first invited me to submit an article, I was hesitant about the “other fellowship” barrier. Roger replied, “Addiction is addiction is addiction.”

Have a good twenty-four!

Don M. is a retired labour union organizer who was active in the Alcoholism and other addictions committee of the Québec Federation of Labour in his early recovery. He remains active in NA Hospitals and Institutions service in the Montréal area.

For a PDF of his article, click here: Working the 12 Steps of NA.


19 Responses

  1. Bobby Freaken Beach says:

    That is a FREAKEN awesome quotation, Ray Baker. As a semi-hippie from the sixties, I have an affinity for civil rights issues.

    To go a little bit, but not entirely in a sideways direction, several activists for the rights of women were also involved in the Temperance Movement. The anti-alcohol folks were open to the idea of women voting because most favored national Prohibition.

    In about fifty or seventy-five years, we may even see the chapter title “TO SPOUSES”!!
    But don’t hold your freaken breath.

  2. Bob K says:

    In keeping with the AA slogan “First Things First,” let me first congratulate Don for an excellently crafted essay. I’m a fan of clarity of expression, and that is present here.

    Secondly, it’s interesting to me to see the almost identical default reaction of horror at anything different rearing its head in other environments. Calmer thinking sometimes quells the initial defensive reactions. That seems to be what happened in Montreal.

    In other cases, the realization of being on the brink of losing a Human Rights complaint brings clearer reasoning to minds befogged by that great bugaboo — fear of the unknown. That’s what happened in Toronto.

    I’ve been involved with AAAgnostica from very nearly the beginning. Although the bulk of the articles over the years have been directly related to Alcoholics Anonymous, writers have ventured outside of the box a few times to bring other stories of interest. I’m sure there have been pieces on SMART, Women in Sobriety, the science of addiction, etc. I wrote an essay on Moderation Management. The most viewed essay on our sister website, AAbeyondbelief addressed the Sinclair method.

    This isn’t an AA meeting. Further, if it was, my experience with secular AA is that there is a distinct lack of singleness of purpose rigidity.

  3. Roger says:

    I love the Pauli Murray quote shared in a comment by Dr. Ray Baker: “I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods. . . . When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them”. At our We Agnostics meeting alcoholics / addicts are welcome. Addiction of all kinds (including alcoholism) is science and research described these days as “substance abuse” and while it is unique to every individual, it is all the same problem. As someone once put it, “Addiction is addiction is addiction”.

  4. Scott M. says:

    Right! Right to the point.

    Discussions, and trading ideas, about how to do “life” is a whole lot of fun.

    I was about done being programmed in nut licking. That’s for dogs!

    Thanks All !

  5. Jim D. says:

    Yes, indeed, OA! We started a secular OA meeting in May inspired by this and other secular sites. There are three other in person (prior to COVID) OA meetings in the USA: upriver from NYC, near Boston and the Bay Area. Also two phone meetings. All listed on See you here at the Convention in Bethesda in Oct! Love to have a session there devoted to us other fellowships.

  6. Pat N. says:

    Thanks, Edward, for revisiting this issue. I’m 85, and never smoked pot. However, I’m now using CBD products for various issues, and am thinking of adding THC to deal with anxiety. Many of my elder peers in longtime sobriety use various cannabis products for their various pains.

    This is not addiction. This is using cannabis medicinally. Too bad better medical guidance isn’t available, but we all know why.

    To those who say such use will lead to relapse into addiction, I say:

    Prove it.
    And how is it your business? If you’re afraid of it, don’t use it.

  7. Vince P. says:

    Excellent on all counts. Thank you so much, Don. Please keep sharing here, there and everywhere. I draw courage from your work. Thanks too to those who have posted responses. I find your differing perspectives encouraging and beneficial.

  8. Edward C. says:

    I am both excited and happy to see the “god” issue given some thought. I do have a current problem with NA – to be honest to myself and others is something I have worked on since my first 12 step meeting where I really wanted the deal (early 1981). I didn’t fully surrender or work a serious program until 1992 at which point I quit pretty much everything except eating, going to meetings and finally gave up nicotine in middle of 92.

    OK now the rub – I’m 80 yrs old and couple yrs ago I had a near fatal car wreck – shortly after – I will not do an opiate even if Doc sez I should – I have a legal cannabis and have smoked “pot” again for the past 3 years – for me I consider it a herb with good about it if used properly – therefore I cannot attend NA and live within the 8 fold path I choose to follow. I do expect that cannabis will be looked at for its benefits.

    Shalom, Eddie C.

  9. Pat N. says:

    Thank you for the article, Don, and thanks for starting a secular NA group. I especially like your group’s self-identity as atheist/agnostic friendly, not anti-god. I read somewhere recently that there’s also a secular Al-Anon group somewhere. The bottom line is that we need to widen the gates into all our fellowships.

    When I first came around, there was rigorous attention paid to the supposed differences among alkies and druggies, with separate treatment programs, separate certification for counselors, separate gov’t. departments dealing w/ addictions, etc. As newer drugs became popular and more people became “dually addicted”, I’m glad this distinction has faded. I’m also glad that secular AA is leading the way toward greater tolerance. There’s nothing special about being hooked on any chemical(s), just different neighborhoods in Hell.

    I usually refer to myself as a former addict, even though I never used any drug other than ethanol (a matter of market availability when and where I grew up, I’m sure). I’ve heard hundreds of personal stories from folks who injected, snorted, or popped their drug to know that they had similar motivations to use, leading to similar miseries.

  10. Roger says:

    At our We Agnostics meeting we have a booklet with six secular versions of the Steps. At the beginning of the meeting the booklet is passed along to one of those in attendance who chooses and reads one of the versions. Lately the most popular version is The Practical Steps from the book Staying Sober Without God.

  11. Joel D says:

    Collectively, by group conscious, we leave the 12 Steps as written up to the individual to use as they see fit or not at all. Nowhere is it written in AA doctrine that the steps are a must. That said, we have members with 40+ years as well as some who stumble in still reeking. Most of us have found that without some form of self-evaluation, forgiveness, atonement, and helping others (the steps minus God) we may be dry but far from sober and happy. That is what we openly discuss. How we are doing that.

  12. Marty N. says:

    I agree with the idea of no god stuff at the beginning of the meetings. However, it’s OK with me if it is mentioned as part of someones’ story of recovery. We here in NE Conn. and South Central Mass. don’t get very hung up on the steps. We seem to understand that personal changes must be made to have a satisfying life. We are not going to re-write the steps. What ever happened to the 24 hour plan?

    Good stuff in the article, but may I suggest we stick to our primary purpose?

  13. Susan Vogel says:

    Yay! Super share! I will download and print the NA pamphlet and share it in Billings Montana.

  14. Ray Baker says:

    Good work, Don. Great attitude! In 1945 Pauli Murray, who would later become an influential black civil rights activist, wrote: “I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods. . . . When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them”. Like AA, NA needs you and your efforts. Keep it up!

  15. Mark P. says:

    Great stuff Don, I’ve been considering starting something in Birmingham UK, but to be honest as AA is very tolerant of atheism in the UK it’s probably not necessary really, but it’s great to have access to this website as a committed atheist. As I’ve said before, traditional AA even with all its god stuff got me sober where all other methods failed. In fact I’m grateful that it opened my mind to spiritual matters – its much easier being an open-minded atheist rather than an angry embittered anti god crusader like I used to be. As a scientist its important to be open to all possibilities. However, on weighing up the evidence it is, in my humble opinion, highly unlikely that any kind of god, higher power or whatever actually exists.

  16. Joel D says:

    I’ve been rigorously involved in getting 3 secular AA meetings started in NE CT and now southern Mass. Originally, this site motivated me as I found out I am not alone. The spate of rewritten steps had really been turning me off lately. I can self-edit and “read” the steps to suit my purpose; after all they are only a “suggested program of recovery”. It seems to me there are some entrepreneurial types out there who, not unlike Bill W. see a way to make a few bucks by publishing a “book” of their own. So, secular groups either are a part of AA or not. We can’t have it both ways. The square peg of secular recovery can’t fit into the round hole of traditional AA.

    Now you are advocating for NA. Dilution of AA’s primary purpose will surely lead to the demise of Secular AA. “Shoemaker stuck to thy last” What’s next OA, GA, etc. ?

  17. Denise says:

    Thanks, good article. So, your group decided not to re-phrase the 12-steps at all? Is that correct?

  18. Mark C. says:

    Cool beans, Don. Be the change. Hat’s off to you man.

  19. Doreen says:

    Thank you for for this article… breaking barriers. As a member of a number of A groups… I have gleaned wisdom from all of them and come up with a made for me recovery that works… for me. Evolving beyond the god concept has been a growth experience… and will continue.

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