The Separation of Religion and Recovery
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.
Chapter One Summary
The purpose of this chapter is to advance the idea that if we separate the faith-based language from traditional Twelve Step recovery literature, there remains an incredibly valuable and logically structured program. If you work through a simple (but not easy) plan, use the support of fellow addicts, and are honest with yourself and others, you are likely to achieve recovery in Twelve Step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA).
The first part of this chapter briefly outlines the evangelical Christian origin of Twelve Step recovery, explaining how faith-based components were incorporated into the literature and practices. The second part of this chapter delves into the “why” and a little bit of the “how” one might choose to work a secular adaptation of the Twelve Step approach.
You are not required to hold religious beliefs to recover in Twelve Step programs. Since their inception, AA and NA have helped many addicts recover regardless of, or even in spite of, their religious beliefs (or lack thereof). Their only requirement for membership is the desire to get sober or clean. But the religious perspective, which remains a prominent feature in Twelve Step literature, may initially cause you to think you’re in the wrong place. Relax. If you’re struggling with addiction, you’re in the right place.
The Origins of Traditional, Faith-Based Twelve Step Recovery
Twelve Step recovery was publicly introduced in 1939 when Bill Wilson (Bill W) published a primary text for a self-help recovery group—AA. This book, titled Alcoholics Anonymous and often called the “Big Book,” is currently in its fourth edition.2 The first 164 pages—which include AA’s Twelve Steps, a chapter describing alcoholism, a chapter regarding agnostics, and Wilson’s narrative on “How It Works”—have remained essentially intact in every edition. What is updated with each new printing is the selection of personal success stories in the latter part of the book.
The creation of AA was profoundly influenced by an evangelical society called the Oxford Group. Wilson, AA cofounder Dr. Bob Smith, and many of AA’s initial 100 members were active Oxford Group members. It seems then that Dr. Frank Buchman, founder of the Oxford Group, deserves a share of the credit for various attributes of Twelve Step recovery. Indeed, AA took nearly all of its core components from Buchman’s movement, including: an emphasis on a structured conversion based on Steps (“Practices” in Oxford literature), the importance of “selfishness and fear” as the root of personal problems, the need to inventory and confess one’s personal transgressions as part of the conversion process, and the dogmatic creed that the solution to personal problems comes through a complete surrender to, and direct conscious experience with, a loving God.3 Submission to the will of God allows Him to orchestrate the details of the convert’s life. AA even adopted Buchman’s doctrine that the convert need not worship a specific God; they should freely use their personal conception of God. Finally, AA also inherited its decentralized organization from the Oxford Group, which had an informal, nonhierarchical structure derived from that of the Quakers.
Wilson’s initial introduction to the Oxford Group came through a friend who had, for a time, achieved sobriety as a member of this society. He recruited Wilson to do the same. Not long after joining the Oxford Group, Wilson had a profound religious transformation while hospitalized for alcohol withdrawal. As an inpatient, he was undergoing treatment with belladonna (a hallucinogen) when suddenly he perceived a bright light, experienced an overwhelming sense of truth and serenity, and accepted God as “the solution.” He never drank again. In AA, this burning bush transformation is referred to as Wilson’s Moment of Clarity through which he achieved God-consciousness.
After his release from the hospital, Wilson became quite active in evangelical work for the Oxford movement in New York City. He concentrated on fellowship with, and testimonial to, alcoholics. He soon concluded that this intensive effort to share the message with other alcoholics was critical to maintaining his own sobriety. While struggling with the temptation to drink during a business trip to Akron, Ohio, Wilson felt a pressing need to seek out and help a suffering alcoholic, at least in part to safeguard his own wellbeing. He made a few phone calls and was introduced to a seemingly hopeless alcoholic, Dr. Bob Smith. Smith soon got sober, their friendship grew, and their efforts went outward to even more alcoholics. AA was thus born.
Below are the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Later, these same Steps were adopted with very slight modifications by offshoot addiction recovery groups such as Narcotics Anonymous. In its version of the Steps, NA replaces the word “alcohol” in the first Step with the word “addiction,” and “addicts” replaces “alcoholics” in the final Step.4 Other than these two changes, the Steps and underlying faith-based philosophies are identical.
The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous
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 the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
11. 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.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Working these Steps occurs in roughly three phases. In the initial phase, we admit our problem (Step 1) and find the solution: God (Steps 2 and 3). In the second phase (Steps 4 through 9), we examine our faults and “clear away the wreckage from the past.” We first analyze and overhaul our inward defects in character (Steps 4 through 7), and then we look outward and repair our relationships with others (Steps 8 and 9). Steps 10, 11, and 12 make up the third phase through which we maintain our sobriety and devotion to God, while also fulfilling the group’s mission to help others.
Below you will find a secular version of the Twelve Steps that closely resembles the one I used in my early recovery. In the Big Book, Wilson makes it clear to readers that AA’s Steps form a “suggested” program of recovery. I will follow his example and present these agnostic Steps as a suggested framework as well.
Twelve Secular Steps (An Adaptation of the Traditional Steps)
1. I admitted that I am an addict, and that my life had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that through honesty and effort, combined with the help of others, I could recover from addiction.
3. Made a decision to actively work a Twelve Step recovery plan to the best of my ability.
4. Completed a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself.
5. Honestly admitted to myself and to another human being the results of my inventory, including my defects of character.
6. Became willing to change defects in my character.
7. Accepted responsibility for my actions.
8. Listed all persons I had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when I was wrong, promptly admitted it.
11. Sought to improve my conscious awareness of ethical principles and values, and to use them consistently as standards for my decisions and actions.
12. Having recovered as a result of these Steps, I acknowledge my commitment to help others and to continue to use these principles in my daily life.
These secular Twelve Steps can be worked in the same three general phases as the traditional Steps. The significant difference in the secular Twelve Step framework is that we emphasize a rational plan, teamwork, and the addict’s active role and responsibilities in their recovery. The secular rewording deemphasizes a dependency on the direct actions and responsibilities of God (or a supernatural Higher Power).
This secular point of view is not a rejection of religion or spirituality; it is simply a recognition of the realities of the world in which we live, and the observable process by which we recover. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Your actions speak so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.” This wisdom is echoed in the observation that the best predictor of a newcomer’s success is not how strongly they profess their acceptance of—and dependence upon—a God or generic Higher Power. Neither is it how confidently they claim, “I’ve got this!” The best indicator of a newcomer’s future success is the observed willingness of that person to show up and take an active part in their recovery.
To further emphasize this personal accountability, and to help addicts visualize individual goals in this process, I have replaced the “we” found in the traditional Steps with “I.” But I reluctantly make that substitution because the experience and support of fellow addicts is so important to success in Twelve Step recovery. If I had my way, “we” would appear in the official version of the Steps presented to the public, and addicts would use an “I” version to work their personal recovery.
Steps 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, and 11 in the traditional AA Steps are sometimes referred to as the “God” Steps because of their references to a deity or Higher Power. When we compare these Steps to their secular counterparts, we see a philosophical divide between Twelve Step traditionalists vs. secularists that somewhat resembles the division between creationists and evolutionists. Traditionalists emphasize The Miracle (an intense, remarkable event that creates God-consciousness and God-derived recovery), whereas secularists emphasize The Process (a recovery that evolves and develops over time). The secular approach promotes recovery that is primarily learned and earned.
In the Beginning, What Everyone Needs Is a Plan
It may seem as if all of this is just trivial babbling about wording, but it isn’t. In early recovery, during that time of crisis, clarity is essential. Many newcomers need a clear, simply structured plan through which they can jump start their first days of sobriety. This plan should be free of contradictory messages stating on one hand that only through the actions of God can one achieve sobriety, then a little down the line the newcomer is told that the responsibility lies squarely on them. Do we wait on God’s intervention, or do we roll up our sleeves and get to work?
Such contradictions arose in traditional Twelve Step texts because the founders attempted to achieve two separate goals: a practical path to sobriety and a covertly Christian salvation of the addict. Secular recovery deals only with the practical path to sobriety; it is neutral on issues of spirituality and religion. This neutrality mirrors the modern-day outlook on the treatment of cancer, diabetes, mood disorders, and pretty much any other physical or psychiatric malady.
If we look at the diversity of addicts seeking recovery, secular adaptations of Twelve Step literature make sense. Indeed, the last few decades bear witness to a growing body of secular literature and groups. But more is needed to meet demand.
I sometimes see newcomers come into the rooms of NA or AA just to try out a few meetings, yet they quickly make their exit after a brief exposure to the traditional Steps and literature. They lose hope when faced with a literature that emphasizes faith healing. By chance, they don’t stick around long enough to get to know the experienced members who could have guided them around this. Should even a single human life be lost to active addiction because of the issue of religion in recovery?
There is a short passage near the end of the AA Big Book that addresses the agnostic perspective, and, in summary, it pretty well dismisses it as a lack of open-mindedness. The same occurs in the Big Book chapter titled “We Agnostics.” We who consider ourselves agnostic or atheist have never had, and likely never will have, conscious contact with a God. This is not due to the “closed-minded” character of skepticism and reason; it is due to the character of supernatural entities. We agnostics tend to see reality in terms of what the five senses can confirm. It’s a genetic thing, maybe.
Agnostics and atheists (sometimes I’m too lazy to write out both but I always mean both when you see the term agnostics), believe that people rely on each other, and we feel it is important that experienced members within Twelve Step groups extend to every newcomer not only their genuine support, but also an unconditional acceptance regardless of their views on religion. I found in my early recovery that this sort of support and acceptance was freely given in AA and NA. And so, in my initial weeks of recovery, I ignored the “God talk” at meetings and in the literature. I kept coming back daily, as suggested by experienced members, because their friendliness and openness gave me a feeling of hope.
When the time came to engage in Step work, I began to express my doubts about a spiritual awakening or turning my life over to God. To my relief, agnostic members identified themselves and became part of my recovery network. They taught me how to work a practical program.
Many of the religious members were also very supportive. They addressed my spiritual reservations with such well-meaning maxims as “borrow my God till you get your own” or “use the Group as your Higher Power until you are ready to accept a God of your understanding.” I am grateful for their encouragement, but I continue to perceive the group as just that—the group. They are fellow addicts providing support, guidance, and experience, and I call them by their names. As for God, She continues to be an elusive and inscrutable mystery beyond both my observation and my understanding. I am not closed-minded to religious possibilities. But the deeper I search, the more I am drawn to divine ideals and less so to anthropomorphic Gods. If these divine ideals—such as faith, hope, love, and justice—are to become real, it is our responsibility to make them so. I do not ask myself if I have given my life and worship to the right God (there are many Gods); I ask myself if my actions today bring to life the right principles and values (like the Golden Rule, which is universal).
I have never gently, yet persistently, pushed a religious beginner to abandon their beliefs and become agnostic as a requirement of their recovery. Why would I do that, and create an unnecessary and irrational barrier to their progress? Likewise, there is no need to pressure agnostic and atheist newcomers to give up their views.
In truth, how many of you reading this page have, during the lowest moments in your addiction, desperately pleaded “please God, keep me from doing this again”? Though you were sincere, and trust me I know you were, what good was it if the next day found you unwilling to act, or to ask for help, or to accept at least a little responsibility for your part in recovery? Perhaps we all become realists on our first day of sobriety.
Skeptics Are Successful in Twelve Step Programs
The success of agnostics and atheists in AA and NA stems from the fact that the founders of Twelve Step recovery—as a result of careful examination of their personal experiences—incorporated some very effective tools into their program. These tools include honesty, a support network of fellow addicts, commitment to a structured plan (working the Steps), and a focus on living life one day at a time. The dysfunctional addict recovers through more than just abstinence; we learn how to live. As part of this process, we rebuild (or build) character and learn to use simple, ethical principles as a guide for making decisions.
“Without a Plan, I Haven’t a Prayer”
Those were the very words I told my sponsor one evening after I had been sincerely and intensely engaged in formal (written) Twelve Step work. I went on to tell him that I had to reword the Steps; I had to remove their religious (or spiritual) aspects in order to work them. There was no other way. At first, he seemed annoyed, and he remarked, “What are you going to do, cut out the God Steps and work six Steps instead of twelve? The road to relapse is paved with reservations; why can’t you just let go and let God?” I pushed on and talked about my “moment of clarity” that had occurred a few days before.
The moment of clarity I spoke of was special because it was the first time I fully and completely admitted to myself that I was an alcoholic and an addict, and that I absolutely was not in control. I surrendered, and it was a complete surrender to the FACTS. In that moment, I completed the first Step pretty much just as it was meant to be done. In current Twelve Step doctrine, the first Step is to be followed quickly by the second and third Steps, and these instruct us to “turn our will and our lives over to the care of God” in order to be “restored to sanity.” Even in those days, I knew there was only one voice in my head. For me, it was crisis, a baptism of pain, that moved me into action. If you cannot remember the final days of despair and anguish that forced you to seek a different way to live, be vigilant, for that time may not yet have come.
Crisis Creates the Willingness to Work for Recovery
My moment of clarity occurred one morning as I was about to shave. I froze when I looked into the mirror, for I didn’t recognize the face looking back. The veil of denial was lifted, and I saw clearly what I had become: a pathetic addict, slowly killing myself day by day. I realized that the problem, truly, was ME. And, God help me, so was the solution. I told myself, several times, YOU are an ADDICT, not GOD. YOU must do something, not GOD. If there was a God, She/He was doing their part just fine in running the universe, I guess. I honestly don’t know.
What I did know with absolute certainty was that I was screwed. I lost all foundation and direction, as though I had stepped off an edge and was now in a freefall through a surreal nightmare. I thought of that fetus wandering about the universe in a space pod at the end of Stanley Kubrick's movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. And I just could not make a psychological leap to some sort of firm ground. I certainly could not find, force, or create within me the belief in, and dependence upon, an active and personified God that would take over from there. There would be no Santa that Christmas.
Repeatedly, there at the mirror and all during the next few days, I asked myself, What do I do now? This doubt and desperation consumed my insides like acid. It occurred to me that I might have to leave the Twelve Step groups because I did not have their God with me. He was not my plan. I even went to a PhD clinical psychologist, an addiction specialist, who ran some simple activity and writing tests and told me during a little chat afterward that I was very brain damaged, and likely would never be as functional as I once was. He advised me to find the best work I could, or get on disability, and stick with AA. He even encouraged me to find God through AA.
He didn’t offer any follow up. I didn’t want any. More than ever I felt numb, hopeless, like I was not quite yet—but soon would be—dead. I remember thinking to myself, a few blocks down the street from that appointment, Damn it, the time when I most need to help myself is the time I’m least able to do it.
Sometimes the world falls apart because it should fall apart. The good doctor did the right thing. A conscious contact with crisis is what I needed. And so, in the end, the negative consequences of my addiction motivated me to stick it out in AA and NA and do my best. I had nowhere else to go. I knew I was caught in the cycle of addiction like a lab rat caged into a circular exercise wheel. I was constantly giving all I had to chase a high, while at the same time running from the shocks and consequences of active addiction. Nearly every thought and effort of mine just kept the insanity going. I knew I couldn’t break that cycle alone. I was exhausted, yet at the same time truly ready to accept help and work on a solution. But where was this solution, and who would help?
AA and NA came through with the help, and with a plan of sorts. After several weeks of going to meetings and talking to addicts, I started to use the practical advice these Twelve Step members gave me. And progress occurred as I followed their simple, candid suggestions, like “make a meeting every day,” and “don’t drink or use today no matter what.”
However, when it came to formal (written) Step work, I had to commit Twelve Step sacrilege and reword them. My sponsor was, overall, supportive of these adaptations. My new agnostic friends were immensely encouraging and instructive. But there were other group members who strongly disagreed with my blasphemy. Many of these fundamentalist Twelve Steppers resembled—and often were—fundamentalist Christians. They believed in a hardcore and very literal interpretation (their literal interpretation) of the AA Big Book or NA Basic Text. They seemed to prefer that someone should suffer failure rather than one day sing out, “I did it MY WAY.” That is not my refrain of recovery, by the way. “I get by with a little help from my friends” is more fitting.
I am a reluctant agnostic. I am an admirer of faith, of forgiveness, and of the humility to see that I am not the center of the universe. These qualities are achieved by many agnostics, and are also quite strong in people I consider religious or spiritual in a positive sense. These faithful are modestly, usually quietly, devout. The precious mettle of their character is evident in their actions—actions that have a natural adherence to the Golden Rule. They don’t thump upon and habitually quote whatever they consider to be the book of books. They are not forceful with their beliefs and judgments. They are not afflicted with a spiritual narcissism that places them in the center of a universe where a personified God continually busies Himself with their petty needs, wants, addictions, situations, judgments, and problems. Come on, that’s what family and friends are for . . . until we learn better and grow up a little.
I will again point out that you don’t have to be an agnostic to use this book or work these secular Steps. As they say in AA, you can always “take what you like” from this work and then add the strength of your spiritual faith to it. God or no God, the moment comes for every addict when we must take responsibility for our recovery. The burning desire for a God to manage the duties and difficulties of life, and of recovery, seems to me a hopeful—but misplaced—fantasy for an all-powerful, enabling parental figure.
Yet faith—in God or in a plan—is good because it can give you the peace of mind of feeling like you’re on solid ground. It is an emotional foundation that leads us to visualize and believe in something better, greater, even divine. Without that emotional foundation, without faith in something, motivation and willingness dissipate into thin air, and we are left in paralyzing despair. I sincerely appreciate that faith in an active, loving God is a powerful and hopeful vision. It is a very hopeful vision, for if this God exists then we’re not alone in our struggle. And in the late stages of our affliction, so many of us find ourselves increasingly alone.
By the time we hit bottom, most of us simply can’t do this recovery thing on our own. And “we don’t have to” is the message AA and other fellowships have sent out since their inception. When we study the actions that lead to successful addiction recovery, a common pattern appears. Day by day, we learn to make reasonable, simple decisions to do the right things. Like the decision to go to a meeting or pick up the phone and talk to a fellow addict, rather than pick up a drink or a drug. It’s possible that the Creator did its part when we were endowed with a brain that could create options, make reasoned decisions, and cooperate with others. Yes, from that point on, chance and choice would carry the day: we are on our own, and heaven help us if we lack the will to help each other.
A Common Path to Recovery: Willingness to Do the Work
Let’s look at two theoretical people in early recovery. Our first, “John,” uses suggested recovery tools, works the traditional AA Steps and program, and in a year or so declares that by “the grace of God” he has become sober and clean through a “spiritual awakening.” It sounds grand, and his words echo the traditional literature and sayings.
Well, perhaps “Jane” does pretty much the same work, yet after a year or so, in a moment of self-appraisal, she realizes that at forty-something years of age she is finally “growing up.” No spiritual awakening. No Saint Jane of the Miraculous Recovery. Just Jane, plainly growing up after some delay. A humbling, yet honest assessment. She makes better decisions now.
Almost universally, while in active addiction, we addicts behave very selfishly. We act immaturely, and we make impulsive decisions (Wilson nailed these descriptions in the Big Book). A process resembling “growing up” is part of recovery for many addicts. Through this process we either develop, or restore, important skills such as taking responsibility, using healthy coping and interpersonal strategies, and making good choices. Developing these skills is a sufficient goal of recovery. It is recovery.
It seems that the process, the essential work, for both John and Jane is the same, despite the superficial differences reflected in their words and religious perspectives. John declares that it is his faith and the grace of God that created recovery; Jane believed in a plan. The fact is they both worked a reasonable program because they were motivated by, and driven away from, the pain and crisis that active addiction brought into their lives. Both discovered the initiating truth embedded in the first Step: the honest admission that there is a serious problem, and that it’s out of control. Why should one seek to hinder the Twelve Step recovery of the other because of cosmological views?
John believes there were no coincidences; every Step went according to a divine plan and the actions of God. The Big Book and other official Twelve Step writings will validate his view. From Jane’s standpoint, this is all a journey created by the combination of circumstances and the choices we make when faced with them. And choices have their consequences, same as fate. Jane looks both ways before she crosses a street because it is prudent to do so. In the end, Jane is empowered by the recovered skill of making good choices. Through these choices she brings both recovery and contentment into her life, one day at a time.
John fully agrees with the importance of living this way as well. Out there in the meetings, the Johns and Janes can, and do, help each other to recover and to live better lives. Is there any significant relevance to the fact that Jane may never in her lifetime develop a conscious contact with a supernatural entity or God? “Let go and let God” might always be shortened to “just let it go” for her.
The overall body of literature sanctioned by AA and other Twelve Step groups should be as inclusive as their memberships already are. I say this with the deepest respect for AA, NA, and other groups, and point out several times in this book the fact—a very big fact—that the secular program outlined here is not original. This little guide rewords and updates a plan of recovery that AA and other sources created. It suggests that small but important adaptations be added to an evolving Twelve Step philosophy. Adaptation can lead to positive change over time, and thus it is a useful concept to embrace.
I conclude this chapter by mentioning one immutable component that Wilson, Dr. Smith, and other founders introduced into addiction recovery. This component is perhaps the one most accountable for the success of Twelve Step groups.
It is love.
How else can one describe the “power of one addict caring about and helping another”? And this other will, in turn, care about and help yet another. Love inspired the program, the fellowships, the AA Big Book, the NA Basic Text. Love breathes life into recovery. Love is compassionate, and constructive, and a powerful force to have on your side in dark times.
1. Holy Bible, New International version. Biblica, Inc., 2011.
2. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism, 2001.
3. Buchman, F.N., Remaking the World, 1961.
4. Narcotics Anonymous World Services, Narcotics Anonymous Basic Text, 2008.
 The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are reprinted and adapted with permission of Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (AAWS). Permission to adapt the Twelve Steps does not mean AAWS has reviewed or approved the contents of this publication, or that AAWS necessarily agrees with the views expressed herein. AA is a program of recovery from alcoholism only—use of the Twelve Steps in connection with programs and activities which are patterned after AA, but which address other problems, or in any other non-AA context, does not imply otherwise. Additionally, while AA is a spiritual program, AA is not a religious program. Thus, AA is not affiliated or allied with any sect, denomination, or specific religious belief.