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  • 12-Step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and many others exist to bring those suffering from substance use disorders together, helping them maintain their recoveries through mutual support, encouragement, and accountability.  

    While these programs vary, those that are most closely related to Alcoholics Anonymous have roots in Christian tradition and practice. 

    This has led to friction between 12-Step programs and atheism, or those who do not believe in God or a higher spiritual reality. This has sometimes kept those who would benefit from these programs away.

    However, many atheists, freethinkers, and humanists have found AA meetings and 12-Step programs to be beneficial, despite the spiritual terminology.

    Alcoholics Anonymous & Spirituality

    Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was founded in 1935 by men associated with the Christian-affiliated Oxford Group. 

    These men were intimately familiar with alcohol addiction and the difficulty of getting sober and staying sober. They helped popularize the view that addictive behaviors are diseases, not defects of character. 

    They also worked to develop practices that encouraged sobriety through spiritual surrender and mutual support.

    This approach was successful and the organization grew quickly. Today, AA remains a non-religious, non-denominational, non-political organization with the only requirement for membership being that a member desires to stop drinking.

    Religious Elements

    However, there are notable religious elements in the organization’s beliefs and practices. 

    God is specifically mentioned several times in the AA 12-Steps and other AA literature like The Big Book, though facilitators are quick to point out that the term can be freely swapped for any higher power or principle. 

    Meetings also typically include prayers at the beginning and end. AA attendance has also been associated with increased spiritual awakenings in participants along with decreased alcohol use.  

    The 12 Steps For Atheists

    The twelve steps at the heart of AA and many similar programs are only guidelines intended to help direct a participant’s recovery, and participants are not required to accept or follow them if they are unwilling or unable to.

    Atheists and agnostics who aren’t comfortable with approaching the 12-Steps in a religious or spiritual way are encouraged to define their own higher power as they see fit. 

    These powers may be forces or concepts like:

    • love
    • family members
    • the beauty of nature
    • the laws of science
    • consciousness
    • the weave or flow of the universe
    • creativity
    • human potential

    No Spiritual Requirements

    Individuals attending AA and other 12-Step programs are never required to pray if they do not wish to, much less to direct their prayers to any specific religious figure or concept. And they are free to reinterpret and work out their recovery however they wish.

    According to Bill W., the co-founder of AA, “There is no religious or spiritual requirement for membership. No demands are made of anyone. An experience is offered which members may accept or reject. That is up to them.”

    Why Mutual Support Groups Work

    While everyone’s experience is different and the spiritual elements included in AA meetings certainly have value for many participants, some experts have hypothesized that the success of AA and its offshoots has more to do with two very specific factors:

    • time spent with others who support one’s efforts
    • increasing confidence that one can abstain from substance use in social situations

    Because these two benefits have more to do with actively participating in an open and motivated community than the finer details of the 12-Steps themselves, participation in any group can provide the same benefits as AA for those without spiritual inclinations.

    Other Support Groups For Atheists

    If traditional 12-Step programs don’t work for an individual due to religious or spiritual elements, there are alternatives to consider.

    Alternate 12-Step Programs

    Many 12-Step meetings today omit the spiritual elements and language found in AA and other programs. AA Agnostica, for instance, was developed as a non-religious alternative to other 12-Step programs. 

    This group has published a modified version of the 12-Steps and Serenity Prayer that does not include the word God.

    Secular Organizations For Sobriety

    This group, also called SOS, was created specifically for people who are not comfortable with the spiritual aspect of 12-step programs. Spirituality is something that isn’t addressed during meetings but spiritual people are still welcome.

    SMART Recovery

    Smart Management and Recovery Training (SMART) is a global community of no-cost mutual-support meetings for addiction treatment. 

    But unlike 12-Step groups they do not encourage individuals to surrender to a higher power. Instead, participants are encouraged to create and build the motivation to change themselves.

    SMART Recovery uses a four-point program of recovery featuring elements of motivational enhancement therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.

    Online Support Groups & Forums

    Subreddits, discord channels, Facebook groups, and a variety of other free, web-based communities can connect those struggling with substance abuse with others going through a similar experience. Live-streamed online meetings may be available as well.

    To learn about our substance abuse treatment centers, please contact us today.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2024 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.
    Medically Reviewed by
    Kimberly Langdon M.D.
    on May 25, 2022
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