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Letting Go of God: How 12-Step Programs Are Losing Their Religion

We atheists and agnostics in AA have faced a long struggle for acceptance. But newer 12-step fellowships are leading the way to a more tolerant form of recovery—despite a "Back to Basics" backlash.
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(Photo: STILLFX/Shutterstock)

(Photo: STILLFX/Shutterstock)

“AA is spiritual, not religious—now hold my hand while we pray.”

This was the kind of message Barry Hazle faced at a California 12-step-based treatment program he was ordered to attend in 2007 as part of his parole from drug charges. Alcoholics Anonymous encourages prayer to a “God as we understand Him” for help getting and staying sober. As an atheist, Hazle asked for alternatives. He was given two: Buy into the 12 Steps as written or go back to jail. He objected and a California court agreed that Hazle’s First Amendment rights had been violated. Hazle will receive a settlement of almost $2 million.

An estimated 69 percent of Americans believe in some form of One God, according to the 2012 Pew Research “Nones” on the Rise survey. But atheists, while still a small minority, increased from four percent to seven percent since the previous Pew survey—there were 12 million self-identifying American atheists in 2007, increasing to 22 million in 2012. It varies by region: If you live in the Northeast, 54 percent of you believe in a personal higher power. In the South, 86 percent of y’all do. Elsewhere, one in four Canadians don’t believe in God and half of Brits are non-believers. And under-30s are everywhere more agnostic or atheist than their elders. Although there’s plenty of life in God yet, especially in the U.S., the trend is clear: AA must become more accepting of non-believers or shrink.

None of this would surprise James Christopher, who got sober in AA in 1978, then broke from the pack in 1986 to found Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS). “AA is a religion in denial,” says Christopher. Interestingly, AA itself was born half a century earlier of several Oxford Group members—who themselves broke away from the Oxford Group, because they found it too religious.

"Seek the help of someone qualified in counseling or someone that we trust from experience to be capable of helping us." Maybe the wording is strained but it gets an A+ for inclusivity.

Several U.S. courts at state and federal level have at different times agreed that AA is religious in nature. Part of the New York Court of Appeals’ ruling in 1996, for example, stated: “[A]dherence to the AA fellowship entails engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization.” As such, inmates and parolees cannot legally be ordered to attend AA (although as the Hazle case shows, it frequently happens).

Now, if you’re an atheist or agnostic AA member like me, the point isn’t whether or not others say the 12 Steps are religious. The question is: If I want recovery from addiction, can the 12 Steps work for me without my having to accept someone else’s beliefs or deny my own?

To answer this, I could blow the dust off my Big Book, open to page 59, and wait for the words in the Steps to appeal to me more. Or I could see what more modern 12-step fellowships signal in terms of a broader change in the recovery movement’s relationship with God.

As AA itself has grown, the 12-step modality has also morphed from one substance/process to another, with many more recent fellowships modifying the Steps to their own purposes. For instance, Teen Addictions Anonymous, started in 2008 holds meetings in public schools. Their website states:

The conflict of church and state, prayer in schools and entrusting in God as a form of education, were obvious conflicts that students understood needed to be resolved. Therefore, the students adjusted the 12-step program to fit their own interpretation.

“God” is replaced in TAA’s Steps by the more universal “Higher Power.” The popular Serenity Prayer becomes a Godless Serenity Pledge.

Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous was started back in 1976. Ten years later, the text of the same name was written, in which “God as you understand Him” was replaced with a “God of our understanding.” Readers are told:

The simple act of explaining a current temptation or situation to someone else who understood seemed to help us stay honest with ourselves. As we realized how helpful this network of support was, we sensed that a belief in any specific God or divinity was unnecessary. Our need for faith could be answered with affirming hope, a sense of the possibility for spiritual guidance that was already apparent in the experiences of the SLAA members who preceded us....

Marijuana Anonymous, founded in the late '80s, would point out that recovery is living by faith, not necessarily with a faith. MA’s main text, Life with Hope (1995), states:

The program of recovery works for people who do not believe in God and for people who do. It does not work for people who think they are God. ...  "Higher Power" means different things to different people. To some of us, it is a God of an organized religion; to others, it is a state of being commonly called spirituality. Some of us believe in no deity; a Higher Power may be the strength gained from being a part of, and caring for, a community of others. There is room in MA for all beliefs. We do not proselytize any particular view or religion.

But SLAA and MA are so last century. What about another new-millennium fellowship for a modern addiction?

None of the 1930s 12-step pioneers could have imagined an addiction to online gaming. But Online Gamers Anonymous (2001) describes a 21st-century problem and solution with contemporary lingo. Step Three—which in AA is, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we  understood Him”—becomes something very different in OGA. It reads: “Seek the help of someone qualified in counseling or someone that we trust from experience to be capable of helping us.” Maybe the wording is strained but it gets an A+ for inclusivity. Likewise Step 11 (AA version: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out”) instead, becomes: “Find and study something that we find amazing. Realize that there are ways of living that can bring us a deeper degree of personal fulfillment.”

Back to Basics fundamentalism sees its purpose as rescuing AA and our misguided newcomers. The villain that B2B’s Bishops and Cardinals point to from their pulpit is "watered-down AA."

Sign me up—that sound like a great value to live by, regardless of one’s beliefs.

Back in AA, we can put our copy of Alcoholics Anonymous away if its antiquated language is bothering us. There’s lots of other literature around. AA’s General Service Conference liked and adopted the British AA pamphlet A Newcomer Asks in 1981. It describes AA today as people for whom willpower alone was insufficient for sobriety. Help was found in differing interpretations of power(s) greater than ourselves: “Many people call it God, others think it is the AA group, still others don’t believe in it at all,” it states. “There is room in AA for people of all shades of belief and nonbelief.” This attitude is reinforced in other pamphlets and in AA’s 1975 book, Living Sober, which is full of secular experience that can offer an attitude adjustment without God. Maybe I can take what I like and leave the rest.

AA may be change-resistant compared to its counterparts partly because of the influence of the Back to Basics culture. Wally P.’s Back to Basics (B2B) book was written in 1997. This revisionist view of AA’s good ol’ days emerged from the same conservative culture that brought us the Moral Majority in the 1980s. It wasn’t enough that the Moral Majority wanted to live by their own values; they bullied those who didn’t comply with their moral code, accusing the rest of us of ruining America and poisoning our children.

Back to Basics fundamentalism sees its purpose as rescuing AA and our misguided newcomers. It comes with a “hero-to-the-rescue-of-AA” story. And stories need villains. The villain that B2B’s Bishops and Cardinals point to from their pulpit is “watered-down AA.” The B2B website describes itself as “dedicated to saving the lives of alcoholics.” Michael Marks, one of many B2B promoters, gives this typical pitch in his YouTube seminar:

Because there’s been an unbelievable watering-down of our basic message, there has leaked into our rooms an immense amount of misinformation about three concepts: what’s your problem; what’s the solution; how do you bring this solution to light. That misinformation, that erroneous information ... serves to more than just be a deterrent to you; it may serve to assist in killing you.

“Watered-down” seems to mean anything that strays from a literal interpretation of the 75-year old 164 pages of the Big Book. An obvious downside to restricting your recovery diet like this is that you miss out on some useful historical perspective. In the 1950s, Bill W. himself calmed the same literalist alarm when Buddhist groups adopted a secular version of AA’s Steps. His Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (1957) states:

To some of us, the idea of substituting "good" for "God" in the Twelve Steps will seem like a watering down of AA’s message. But here we must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them, as they stand, is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made AA available to thousands who never would have tried at all had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.

Today there are about 200 B2B meetings in AA. Curiously, there are about the same number of atheist/agnostic AA groups. In some of them we find the antithesis to Wally’s Back to Basics. Roger C.’s The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps (2013) contains 20 variations of AA’s Steps—Buddhist, CBT, humanist, and atheist versions—that have been used at different AA groups for over 40 years. In some AA groups for non-believers they simply don’t read the Steps. After all, Steps are suggested, not sacred. For some members, that means optional.

The last four years have seen a 40 percent increase in listed agnostic/atheist AA groups; AA-without-prayer is the fastest growing segment of the fellowship. Conservative B2B stewards’ attempts to oust agnostic groups ousted from local AA directories have mostly just brought more attention to this Godless recovery option—ironically accelerating its acceptance into AA’s mainstream.

As a sign of this, the very first We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Conference took place from November 6-8 in Santa Monica. Marya Hornbacher, author of Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power spoke, and was joined by AA General Service Trustee Reverend Ward Ewing and GSO General Manager Phyllis H.

So change is happening—and not so slowly. Returning to the question, “Is AA religious?” we might just as well ask, “Is America religious?” Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. While the majority of members are religious, we live in a pluralistic society that must ensure that minorities are accommodated. Addiction doesn’t discriminate, they say. Now, thanks to an ever-increasing tolerance in and out of the rooms, recovery doesn’t discriminate either.

This post originally appeared on Substance, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “Letting Go of God: How 12-Step Programs Are Losing Their Religion.”