Why are 12-Step Fellowships so God Centric?

By Dave W

Sobering up in Toronto in 2018 gave me the luxury of sidestepping the grief a lot of addicted drinkers face when desperately reaching out to AA for the first time. I finally summoned up the courage to walk into a meeting and admit I was an alcoholic in May of 2018.  This was something I was loath to do initially, having to admit I had become what I most detested in my father.

I’m so grateful that I didn’t have to add to that emotional burden by pretending to believe in a male humanoid interventionist god who loves me and only wants me to give myself over to him and allow him to lighten my path to sobriety and bliss. I rapidly bonded with people in the Beyond Belief group as well as two other local secular meetings, stumbling, slipping, relapsing for about six and a half months before finally putting alcohol down for good (hopefully) in December of 2018.

The clarity of sobriety made me realize, David, you have other obsessive/addictive issues. Father was an alcoholic? Try Adult Children of Alcoholics. Trauma based sexual dysfunction? Perhaps Sex Addicts Anonymous would help. Coffee addiction? Check out Caffeine Addicts Anonymous. Even though narcotics are not a personal issue for me, detox and an in-patient facility exposed me to Narcotic’s and Cocaine Anonymous meetings and literature.

I don’t pretend to have made an exhaustive study of all 12 step fellowships but the one thing that is clear to me is that many if not most have used the traditional AA god based program laid down in the Big Book in creating their own programs. The same blocks and impediments non-believer alcoholics face are encountered in these other programs.

Apparently in order to be free of sexual obsessions in Sex Addicts Anonymous, you require “a loving higher power” (yes that is in their Big Book equivalent, The Green Book). Their ultimate authority in tradition two is a “loving god” babysitting the group conscience. The steps and traditions are almost verbatim to what is in the Big Book. The first edition of the Green Book was published in 2005. Their tradition eleven requires them to maintain personal anonymity only at the level of press, radio, TV, and films. Interesting how no one with a sex addiction had heard of the internet back in 2005.

As in AA, higher power and god are interchangeable entities in SAA literature. It talks of surrendering control on one’s life to same. Identical “I’m powerless and I need to call on a mystical being to fix me” that you find in AA.

Another generic requirement is sponsorship and a requirement to work your way through the steps in the beginning. I am not dismissing the benefit of sponsorship and step work, but it is presented as a requirement rather than an option to be commenced as soon as possible. I don’t know if I would have hung around AA in the early days if I was bullied into finding a sponsor and doing the steps in the beginning. In attending the few traditional, sponsor based meetings that I did early on I had a sense that the message was if you do not commit to getting a sponsor and work on the steps you best find the door. Some meetings have a way of running people off without actually asking anyone to leave. Do it our way or get out is the unspoken message. As a personal note, I am over twenty-two months sober with never having had a sponsor and not formally doing the step work. What I am most grateful in the beginning was being able to take my time to get my bearings without anyone pushing me in a direction I was not ready to go in. Addicts frequently have trust issues due to past trauma and it is so easy to scare off or piss off a new person by making demands that they follow a rigid path.

Caffeine Addicts Anonymous on their website currently offers up three on-line reading/discussion meetings. Remarkably in one they actually do read from a book on caffeine addiction. The other two meetings however are readings from the Big Book and the Twelve and Twelve. Drinking too much coffee? Read from an eighty-year-old book on alcoholism, pray to god and you will be free.

Marijuana Anonymous’s service manual has a How It Works section presenting the traditional version of the steps along with a statement that probably no human power can relieve their addiction, but their higher power can and will if sought.

Both Narcotics and Cocaine Anonymous preach from the same traditional 12 step hymn book with instruction to give yourself over to god for guidance ad-nauseum. The overriding message is you better get god, or you are operating in a vacuum with nothing else to guide you.

Staying Sober Without God

I am aware of several alternative non-god centric twelve step renditions and books devoted to overcoming addiction. In its Monday step meeting, Beyond Belief is currently using Jeffrey Munn’s wonderfully helpful book Staying Sober Without God, The Practical 12 Steps to Long-Term Recovery from Alcoholism and Addictions. The book offers a program of personal empowerment rather than abdicating responsibility for your life to a mystical force.

In visiting the various websites of the 12-step organizations mentioned, I see no effort being made to make people aware of alternative versions of the steps. In 2020 the internet is often going to be the first point of contact for a person with an addiction seeking help. In visiting websites, one would rapidly conclude that a belief in god is a prerequisite for joining 12-step groups. Makes me wonder how many people have been turned off without even physically ever walking into a meeting.

David is a sixty two year-old agnostic alcoholic whose drinking career began late in life after growing up with an alcoholic father. After twelve years of daily drinking, he came to believe that a substance greater than himself trapped him in the same addictive cycle that had trapped various members of his family on both sides. Desperate for outside help, he found secular AA on-line in 2018 and was able to avoid the conflict with religion and a mandatory belief in god that traditional AA insists on imposing on members. His home group is Beyond Belief Toronto and he will be two years sober in December 2020.


18 Responses

  1. Bullwinkle says:

    I try not to stereotype by “not shooting the messenger”. Everyone has something I can learn, sometimes it’s a lesson in what does not work. The divisive types in the AA fellowship claiming one can’t achieve sobriety without God, don’t realize that the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery program is suggested. They either haven’t read the book or don’t comprehend, or they’re in denial. This site wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the divisive AA types. Some religions have divisive types and not just the Abrahamic religions. Those that abuse, do so, because they have been abused; that’s how they learned their behavior. For some abusive addicts this applies. What one believes is valid, unless it is harmful to others.

    As an atheist, the Alcoholics Anonymous text which is the 12 Steps, is a program of recovery that worked for me. The 12 steps is a variation of a 2000+ year old Judeo-Christian self-examination tenet. I know it works for some that are faith based, and I knew an atheist who was an AA founder. There were other atheist AA founders and agnostics. Some of my friends that recovered are faith based, others aren’t, all have critical thinking skills, two are members of Mensa.

    Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller who was a genius wrote, “God is an action don’t oppose force use it. God is a verb, not a noun”. I like this because Alcoholics Anonymous is a program of action. Chapter 5 is a misnomer, it isn’t HOW IT WORKS. Chapter 6 INTO ACTION and Chapter 7 WORKING WITH OTHERS is how it works.

  2. David thank you. If you develop a proclivity to writing about your recovery journey I think others would join me in saying you’d be a welcome addition to the solution to tired old writings. You bring something new to AA Agnostica as it tends to be AA-centric here. It seems you’ve started a good discussion; good on you. And for others, David isn’t inclined to toot his own horn, but what he lacks in step-work he makes up for in service, as the current General Service Rep for Beyond Belief Agnostics & Freethinkers and co-founder of Tuesday’s Queen Street West secular (after)nooner.

    I too have “problems other than alcoholism” and I’ve consequently found myself in a variety of struggles from persistent bad habits to behavioral disorders. A few compulsions sufficiently overwhelmed me that, I too, sough and found the help of other mutual-aid groups. You touch on this, but someone in need can be overwhelmed by the choices. In food and sex/intimacy disorders, anorexia (food, sexual, etc) is as equally unhealthy as compulsive indulgence. So the solution isn’t as obvious as, say, just stop drinking; we need food and we need intimacy. We can “just say no” to cigarettes or drugs. So some fellowships bear splinter groups because of differing approaches to what healthy bottom-line sobriety looks like with our relationship to food and intimacy. Some encourage the newcomer to define their own bottom-line behavior and others come with their own forbidden substances/behaviors deemed by the fellowship as relapsing from “the path.”

    The number one reason so many of these fellowships are 12-step oriented is their founders were AA members. Persuaded that the AA approach worked, and maybe compounded by the urgency of desperation, there doesn’t seem to time and energy for trying new thing on for size. One exception, Noah Levine had already written Dharma Punx when he was encouraged to draw up a Buddhist based recovery plan which became Refuge Recovery and then Dharma Recovery. James Christopher started SOS (Secular Organizations for Sobriety) and he was an AA member. But most founders of 12-step fellowships were raised in Christian Judeo cultures. It’s a curious culture fact that America is birth of almost all self-help and in the context of “average American” ethos, “God of one’s understanding” doesn’t seem or sound exclusive. Less than 10% of Americans are candid atheists and faith is touted from church/temple/synagogue to state legislatures. My personal view is that 12-step communities aren’t trying to inflict their worldview on me; they are oblivious to their own implicit bias regarding theism. Therefor, they don’t see the problem for some of us.

    For nonbelievers who seek out the help without the hallelujah, many are unfazed by religious talk or theistic self-help. To some, religious people as being as harmless as someone who believes in horoscopes or that their sports team are the heroes of their sport and all others, villains. Some of us, be it trauma or our nature, are adverse towards monotheistic approaches to substance or behavioral disorders. So what to do? Accept or change?

    Change is a lot of work. It’s likely to happen but it who do we think will be the agents of change? I may unfairly label 12-step fellowships as religions in denial, but if the more religious members don’t see what the problem is, it won’t be them that makes the change. Sincere wishing won’t be a catalyst. More people sincerely wishing won’t start the needed change. Try righteous indignation… is that any better? More than likely this is something that can change if members take the initiative,

    Beyond Belief in Toronto is an open meeting (alcoholics or anyone else can attend). There were several reasons why we consciously chose to not restrict attendance to people with “a desire to stop drinking.” In the beginning (lol) we were a face-to-face meeting in a University of Toronto classroom. We welcomed curious medical and social work students, faculty, further teachers etc. Also, we knew Al-Anons and other substance and process addiction sufferers out there would feel that the higher-power talk in their meetings was a drag. We have no interest in telling people what to do; but it’s nice to be an example of how to take the God out of 12-step approaches.

    Thanks again for a great conversation starter.

    • David W says:

      Thanks Joe for your kind words. What’s exciting about secular AA is we’re not shy about breaking down suggested norms about how to run a meeting. We often use non-conference approved literature in our readings. We’re tolerant of people discussing the dreaded “outside issues”, although it’s interesting how these so called outside issues seem to be connected to our addiction to alcohol. I’ve been aware since doing service of a fear that if we don’t keep AA static and run meetings based on historic (and often dated) literature and practices, we’re going to lose the fellowship. We get pretty creative and free flowing in secular AA, but we never lose sight of why we’re gathering. We’re all dealing with a vile life threatening problem. The precariousness of addiction won’t let us deviate from our purpose.

  3. Leonard L. says:

    Love the Munn book. I’ve handed out several copies. He summarizes the 12-step process quite well in one simple paragraph on page 23. No need for supernatural imaginary friends.

  4. Leonard L. says:

    Love the Munn book. I’ve handed out several copies. He summarizes the 12-step process quite well in one simple paragraph on page 23. No need for supernatural imaginary friends.

    • David W says:

      Jeffrey Munn has written a book that is very adaptable to all addictions. It sidesteps the mental gymnastics that a suffering non-alcohol addict has to play when reading the Big Book and Twelve and Twelve. Given the lack of non-god based 12 step support groups I hope it can help dispel the myth that you need god to overcome addiction.

  5. Landon K. says:

    Thanks for the post. AA suffers from the “We’ve always done it this way” fallacy, and the religious dogma is a large part of that. I was talking about the Lord’s Prayer closing after a business meeting once and another member remarked that the prayer wasn’t Christian because “it’s said all over the world.” At 35 years sober, the Eightfold Path of Buddhism keeps me right side up these days.

  6. bob k says:

    Why are 12-Step fellowshipS so God-centric? Easy-peasy. Because that’s the nature of the beast. AA was born as a subset of a religious group. Bill’s friend Ebby brought the message of what had relieved him of his obsession for alcohol — “I’ve got religion.”

    It’s worth noting that medical, psychiatric, and psychoanalytical efforts had brought little in the way of long-term results with alcoholics. The churches and missions did a least as well as science. The Salvation Army got some low-bottom drunks to put down their bottles. Most of the medical folks were content to leave churches and ministers to try to rehabilitate drunkards. We’re not an appealing demographic.

    Bill Wilson only moved a limited distance from the religious roots. His great vision was the endless chain of alcoholics he saw “in the mind’s eye,” each helping the next. He chose to focus exclusively on alcoholics. His own drinking and failed efforts to quit, as well as his education at the hands of Dr. Silkworth, led to the understanding that alcoholism was a good deal more complex than mere “sin.”

    AA’s spiritual approach has worked with millions. It’s been a success, God and all. Copycat 12-Step groups have mirrored AA’s approach and took on other problems. They replicated what they believed was working. Fundamentalists have convinced the 12-Step masses that altering the winning formula is fraught with great peril.

    We are fortunate that AA is large enough that a secular faction has developed. The other 12-Step organizations are too small to start dividing.

    Why are churches so God-centric? It is what it is.

    • David W says:

      There does seem to have been an element of brainwashing the masses over time. Sex addiction 12 step groups seem to have divided. I have found no less than five twelve step fellowships devoted to sex addition.

      1) Sex Addicts Anonymous
      2) Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous
      3) Sex Compulsives Anonymous
      4) Sexaholics Anonymous
      5) Sexual Recovery Anonymous

      Guess what? All five use the traditional program laid down in AA. The deeper one dives into the world of twelve step recovery, the lack of alternatives to a god based approach is stunning.

  7. Thomas B. says:

    In January, I moved from a tiny farm-town in central Illinois to Tucson. In Illinois the meetings were not nearly as GOD-centered as I find the meetings in Tucson. However, under the aegis of our code of “love and tolerance,” I simply translate all the GOD talk to my favorite translation for God, “Gratitude Over Drama” !~!~!

  8. Dan L. says:

    Thanks for the essay. At this stage of my life in sobriety it is my opinion that those people who have a belief in some “god” or “God’ or “Higher Power” should incorporate this belief into their sobriety or living program. It seems obvious to me that believers would believe they can get sober with the approval and assistance of their favourite deity. Others do not feel that way. Those believers who invest in a directly interventionist deity can feel that AA doesn’t give god enough to do. I find these church based groups to be really weird and creepy. Others believe but do not think their program is based in anything other than practicality.

    Personally I find the introduction of “magic” thought is the antithesis of sobriety. My “higher power” is reality and the ability to recognise it. No room for gods here. I have a general idea of what practising my version of AA does for me in a psychological and medical sense and that is quite enough.

    One of the things my counsellor told me in treatment that I found was most valuable was, “Make this program – the AA program – give you what you need. Make it work for you and move you toward your goal. The rest falls into place.”

    • Eric G. says:

      Thank you Dan. I appreciated your comment, well said. Reality, and being honest about it, has changed my life.

  9. Juju says:

    With 36 years sober, I’ve spent a great deal of time having to translate the 12 steps into my non-male deity belief system. I still run with the good orderly direction premise that somewhere in me is the knowledge to repeat actions that will help me stay sober.

    The belief in use of the classic Judeo-Christian God is an easy short cut premise and step and familiar premise to recognizing and trying to tap into certain kinds of control using prayer and rituals and illusion that we can affect outcomes that we have no real power to affect. It takes a long time living in sober reality to figure this stuff out. So the God in the 12 steps makes it a lot simpler for a lot of people. It works for some and leaves other feeling disconnected and like failures if they can’t do it. That’s sad when the personality change that can happen for working steps may be invaluable to staying sober.

    • David W says:

      In twelve step literature god and higher power are often used interchangeably. When evaluating a 12 step program people are going to focus on the foundational literature of the fellowship. It’s absurd to force people to have to play mental gymnastics with the parameters that rigid language imposes. Individuals invent acronyms like good orderly direction to deal with the fact they don’t believe in god. The steps can be re-written on a more inclusive basis without sacrificing the underlying messages and wisdom. Making the steps more inclusive would also relieve people of the need of explaining why they reject god-based AA. We spend a lot of time in secular meetings discussing what doesn’t work for us rather than what does.

  10. Thomas K. says:

    Why are you so afraid of a higher power? If you have a way to help folks. Why waste time and venom on someone else’s method? AA doesn’t attack your beliefs.

  11. Doc says:

    Reinforcing the mythology of supernatural aid seems to be a common thread and with it comes a pattern of discouraging any real thought. My recovery from alcoholism has not required any intervention, help from, or belief in a supernatural being. My sobriety is not about faith, but about physical and psychological actions.

Translate »