Addiction isn’t a problem that only affects the religious, so why do the vast majority of recovery programs rely on the belief in a higher power? It’s incredibly alienating for those of us who don’t believe in a god to have to attend Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Al-Anon and sit through prayers and testaments to higher powers we don’t believe in. It feels like a hollow pursuit, something with very little promise of success if we lack one of the major prerequisites. It’s not like we can put it on, you know? We can’t just pretend to believe for the sake of our sobriety. This leaves atheists in recovery kind of in the lurch. Where do atheists in recovery go? Who do sober agnostics turn to?
I’ve had a lot of experiences with addiction in my life, with several close friends suffering from serious narcotic dependencies. I lost one to her heroin addiction, another to meth and another ended up in prison for nearly a decade as a direct result of his addiction. I also worked in an addiction recovery facility for a while and lost one of the folks in recovery to a drug-related homicide. My grandfather was an alcoholic until the end and I’ve watched my family deal with the trauma that came as a direct result of that every day of my life. My dad had an extensive career as a crisis counselor and worked closely with those suffering from addiction. My entire life, I’ve been acutely aware of how desperately we lack services all over the world for those who experience narcotic dependency. When you’re an atheist, it’s infinitely worse.
Recovery from addiction should not come with conversion, and yes, I know that AA and NA don’t require you to convert to any specific religion. But when these programs include a step that requires you to “turn your will and your life over to the care of God as we understood Him”, that doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for nonbelievers. Further, when you’re recovering from addiction, you’re vulnerable. Like missionaries and door-knockers and the obvious caveat that comes with a lot of religious charity, this part of AA can be abused.
That’s not to say that these recovery groups haven’t been effective for atheists and agnostics. From the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, William Griffiths Wilson,
We have atheists and agnostics. We have people of nearly every race, culture and religion. In A.A. we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a common suffering. Consequently, the full individual liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy whatever should be a first consideration for us all. Let us not, therefore, pressure anyone with our individual or even our collective views. Let us instead accord each other the respect and love that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way toward the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive; let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of A.A., so long as he or she declares.
Of course, this is the vision of the founders but in practice, it’s not always as kumbaya as that. It’s easy to say that atheists and agnostics are welcome, but when God is baked into multiple steps of a 12 step program, an atheist can feel as though they can’t truly complete them. Step 5 is, “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” and step 6 is, “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”
So, while AA literature insists one can choose the Universe as their “god”, one must see something as god. A personified god who can act to improve our lives, as implied by, “ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” If a nonbeliever decided to see the universe as god, he must then believe that the universe has the ability to “remove all these defects of character,” which is, of course, absurd to any freethinker.
For some atheists and agnostics, this doesn’t bother them and that’s fair enough, but for someone like me, I wouldn’t be able to sit through meetings centered around the tenet that there is some all-powerful force out there who cares about my behaviour.
So, while it works for some nonbelievers, AA, NA, and Al-Anon are simply not the answers that many atheists are looking for. I want to make clear, I am not shitting on these programs. If they worked for you, I’m so proud of you. Wherever you find success in sobriety is a place you should be and I support you wholeheartedly. But, like we recognize that these programs were successful for you, you need to reciprocate by recognizing the fact that for some of us, they are not the answer. So, here are my suggestions for those of you who don’t believe in god, don’t particularly like religion but need someplace to go to for help with recovery, and freely be yourself.
I will preface this with a disclaimer: my recommendations should never, ever take the place of seeking professional assistance with medical and mental health issues. If you or someone you know is suffering from a substance abuse problem and you’re seeking help, please see the following pages:
If you are in crisis, please find a crisis line near you and speak with someone equipped with the tools to help you: Crisis Line Directory.
Alright, my sober sinners, getting help with recovery is a brave, responsible and mature choice that you should be proud of. I have thrown together some resources for you to help you with your recovery and do not require you to hand yourself over to some nonexistent higher power.
Secular Recovery Programs:
Lifering: LifeRing Secular Recovery is an abstinence-based, anonymous organization dedicated to providing a safe meeting space where you can experience a non-judgmental recovery conversation with your peers. We do this through the lens of LifeRing’s 3-S philosophy of Sobriety, Secularity, and Self-Help. Lifering Canada is also available.
SMART Recovery: Self-Management And Recovery Training (SMART) is a global community of mutual support groups. Their mutual support meetings are free and open to anyone
seeking science-based, self-empowered addiction recovery.
Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS): a nonprofit network of autonomous, non-professional local groups, dedicated solely to helping individuals achieve and maintain sobriety/abstinence from alcohol and drug addiction, food addiction, and more.
The Secular Recovery Group: The Secular Recovery Group offers online meetings each day of the week and in-person meetings all over the world. Get support and share your stories of sobriety with an international community of interesting people.
Secular Recovery Reading:
Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life: finally, a daily reflection book for nonbelievers, freethinkers and everyone
A Secular Sobriety: Including a secular version of the first 164 pages of the Big Book
Staying Sober Without God: The Practical 12 Steps to Long-Term Recovery from Alcoholism and Addictions
30 Challenges To Overcome Addiction Healing Journal: Prompted Sobriety and Addiction Notebook | A Secular Diary for Guided Reflection to Aid Recovery and Promote Transformative Self-Help
The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide To Recovery
Twelve Secular Steps: An Addiction Recovery Guide
Other Secular Sobriety media:
Podcast: My Secular Sobriety
Smart Recovery YouTube channel
Recovery From Religion: Secular Addiction Recovery
Lifering Youtube Channel: Lifering Secular Recovery
The Thinking Atheist: 12 Steps and Beyond
Beyond Belief Sobriety Youtube Channel
I’d love to hear your stories of secular sobriety and please let me know if there are any resources I missed in the comments. I’m going to leave off by telling you that I believe in you. Recovery is possible, and you don’t need a god to accomplish it.
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