An Increasing Number of Atheist and Agnostic Alcoholics Anonymous Groups Are Altering the Twelve Steps

As I alluded to yesterday, half of Alcoholics Anonymous’ famous Twelve Steps (PDF) include mentions of how you must look to a higher power in order to overcome your addiction.

One of the problems with that, especially in the past several years, is that atheists and agnostics who need a way to recover from alcoholism either don’t join or feel excluded from local AA groups that push religion on them. (They may be unaware of secular alternatives that are out there or simply don’t have any of those groups in their areas.)

G. Jeffrey MacDonald of Religion News Service points out that AA is going through a crisis right now, wondering how flexible they can be with the religion issue:

Has AA become too God-focused and rigid? Or have groups watered down beliefs and methods so much that they’re now ineffective?

“Some think AA is not strict enough,” said Lee Ann Kaskutas, senior scientist at the Public Health Institute’s Alcohol Research Group in Emeryville, Calif. “Others think it’s too strict, so they want to change AA and make it get with the times.”

With more than 100,000 local meetings and an estimated two million members worldwide, AA is grappling with how much diversity it can handle. Over the past two years, umbrella organizations in Indianapolis and Toronto have delisted groups that replaced AA’s 12 steps to recovery with secular alternatives. More than 90 unofficial, self-described “agnostic AA” groups now meet regularly in the United States.

Roger C. brings a different concern. Those who insist on doing the original 12 steps, he says, are apt to alienate nonbelievers, who might never get the help they need.

Some get turned off “when someone comes up to you as a new member of AA and tells you, ‘if you don’t find God, you’re going to die a drunk,’” Roger C says. “That rigidity is very religious, very intolerant and very hurtful to a number of recovering alcoholics who are looking for an avenue to get sober.”

The fact that Agnostic AA groups (sometimes called “We Agnostics“) exist was a surprise to me when I first heard about them only a few weeks ago.

I contacted Julio, a regional representative for Alcoholics Anonymous, to ask him about these groups a couple of weeks ago — how long they’ve existed, how they’re seen by AA, and whether the groups have AA’s “stamp of approval.”

In essence, he told me AA groups are autonomous so there’s really nothing stopping them from popping up and thriving:

A quick look at our A.A. directories indicate that we list atheist and agnostic groups, and some appear to have been listed for many years

The directories also note: “As embodied in the Fourth Tradition, the formation and operation of an A.A. Group resides within the group conscience of its members. While, hopefully, every A.A. Group adheres closely to the guiding principles of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, [Alcoholics Anonymous World Services] neither monitors nor oversees the activities or practice of any A.A. group. Groups listed in the directory are listed at their own request. A directory listing does not constitute or imply approval or endorsement of any group’s approach to or practice of the traditional A.A. program.”

Our shared experience indicates that for some members the subject of atheist or agnostic groups can sometimes be an emotional or controversial subject. Nevertheless, our accumulated sharing also reflects how atheist and agnostic groups have helped suffering alcoholics who would have otherwise found it difficult to stop drinking.

This is really the upside to AA and groups like it. While we would have a problem if, say, a court forced someone to attend an AA meeting and follow the (religious) Twelve Steps, there’s something great about the fact that non-religious people can alter the steps to suit their own needs, even if it’s not “officially sanctioned.” If it helps them, more power to ‘em.

In fact, it may even be helping them. In 2009, the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment published a paper showing that a controlled secular group abused fewer substances than a controlled spiritual group:

While both groups eventually benefited relatively equally from their treatment — abusing substances on fewer days — it took longer to see improvement among those in the spiritual group. What’s more, those who received spiritual guidance reported being significantly more anxious and depressed after four months than those who got secular help. Those problems abated at about the eight-month point, but because substance abusers are at high risk for suicide, some worry that it may not be a good idea to put them through demanding spiritual calisthenics in the early months of their recovery.

This isn’t to say AA’s method isn’t effective — it’s worked for a lot of people. But it would be beneficial for everybody if they were more explicit about the fact that God doesn’t need to be a part of everybody’s recovery plan.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • AshD

    I’m an addict. I am not powerless over my addiction. If that thought helps you then great, but for me i find it unhelpful and makes me out to be some weak individual. I am newly sober not because I think I am powerless but because I KNOW I am powerful. That little Addict Voice in my head can shut the heck up. Good luck to you, but please realise that perpetuating this idea we are powerless over our addiction doesn’t help everyone.

    This is why i dislike AA.