Can the 12 Steps Work for Non-Religious Addicts?

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If you don’t consider yourself to be a religious person, you might be put off by the spiritual emphasis of 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). But you don’t have to practice any formal religion or believe in a traditional deity to benefit from the principles behind the 12 steps. The 12 steps are based on the belief that addiction is a spiritual as well as a physical disease, and that recovery is possible with the help of a higher power. However, this higher power is defined by the individual member, not by the fellowship, and 12-step programs are non-denominational.

Twelve-step groups have helped addicts around the globe achieve and maintain sobriety, even after decades of substance abuse. Whether or not you believe in a traditional image of God, these principles can be a valuable resource in your search for recovery. Attending a few meetings and talking to members of a 12-step group will help you decide for yourself whether this approach to sobriety is right for you.

Spirituality as a Stumbling Block

According to Substance Abuse and Misuse, the 12 steps’ focus on surrender to a higher power has been an obstacle for many recovering addicts. The journal identified spirituality as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to participation for many prospective members. In a culture that prizes self-reliance and secularism, a lot of addicts resist the idea of admitting that they can’t control their substance use or manage their lives without the help of a spiritual force. These principles are the basis of the first three steps:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to God as we understood God.

For newcomers who have no religious background, or for those who have suffered emotional damage as a result of organized religion, these first three steps may be hard to accept. Some will reject 12-step programs altogether because of their spiritual focus, preferring secular support groups that treat addiction as a learned behavior rather than a spiritual disease.

Other non-religious addicts are able to define God in a way that resonates with them personally. You might decide that your higher power is not a traditional deity, but nature itself, or your own consciousness. Even an atheist who doesn’t believe in God can find strength and hope through the 12 steps by surrendering to a non-religious higher power.

The 12 Steps for Agnostics

Since the inception of AA, the group has resisted the idea of imposing any specific interpretation of God or religion on the organization of a whole. In Chapter 4 of the Big Book, the defining work of Alcoholics Anonymous, the issue of agnosticism is discussed in detail. Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the founders of AA, firmly believed that it was possible for agnostics and atheists to get sober through the 12 steps if they were able to believe in a “Power greater than themselves.” This power did not necessarily have to be a widely accepted version of the divine being; in fact, step 3 asks the member to surrender to “God as we understood God.”

In reality, many 12-step meetings do involve references to traditional versions of God, and non-religious members may feel pressured to accept these definitions. Some AA groups have a distinctly Christian emphasis, in spite of the organization’s non-denominational orientation. If you feel disturbed or offended by a 12-step group’s approach to recovery, but you believe in the value of the 12 steps, switching to another meeting or finding a sponsor who shares your views may make you feel more comfortable.

Finding the Right Recovery Group

Twelve-step recovery isn’t the right solution for everyone who has a problem with drugs or alcohol. Secular groups like Rational Recovery (RR), Secular Organizations for Recovery (SOS) and Addiction Alternatives offer support to addicts who can’t accept the spiritual foundations of the 12 steps. When it comes to recovering from the disease of addiction, the most important “step” may be making that first phone call to a drug rehabilitation center.

admissions-pageAt Axis, we provide individualized treatment plans that can help you lead a healthy, sober life. We encourage diversity in our recovery programs and welcome clients from all walks of life into our residential treatment programs. When you’re ready to ask for help in recovery, we’re here to extend a hand. Call our intake number to start the process of healing today.