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Can atheists succeed in 12 Step?

June 2, 2014
by Brian Duffy, LMHC, LADC-I
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Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is not the only way to get or stay sober. Many people are able to stop harmful behaviors on their own, or with assistance from a therapist, a church, a friend, a change in lifestyle, etc. For many, willpower suffices to do the job.

But many others require a program with structure, an environment where recovery can begin, and a platform with which to sustain recovery in the years to come. 12-Step recovery often constitutes that platform at detoxes, rehabs, residential programs and outpatient centers.

This article will address how we, as addiction professionals, can help atheistic or agnostic clients who find themselves in such 12-Step programs. We’ll explore ways to help our AA-resistant clients to maximize the benefit of their exposure to 12-Step messages.

(This article is not about secular recovery programs, some of which include AA Agnostica, SMART Recovery, Secular Organizations for Sobriety/Save Our Selves, Rational Recovery, LifeRing, Quad A, and AA Agnostics. Volumes have been written about atheistic, agnostic and humanistic programs of recovery, and I encourage every addiction professional to become aware of those programs. This article presumes that our atheistic client is, for whatever reason, involved in a 12-Step program.)

Assessing motivation

Job #1 is to validate our client’s concerns, his resistance to “the God thing,” his fear that AA is a cult, his anxiety about being a hypocrite—being dishonest within a program that is based on honesty. At the same time, we must assess this client’s motivation to get and stay clean and sober. If he is in the precontemplation stage of change, he may simply claim to be an atheist in order to resist any and all messages of recovery.

If our client is motivated to get well and is sincere about his atheism, we must recognize and respect his opinions—even if they’re not in harmony with AA—and we must find ways to keep our client engaged, open to new ideas, and willing to challenge his assumptions and/or behavior.

For good reason, AA is a program of attraction and not promotion. Our best shot at getting our atheist client to keep an open mind is to meet him where he’s at. That is, acknowledge his secular views and focus on the parts of AA that are least likely to create debate. Here are the messages I deliver to atheist clients who are “forced” to get well in a 12-Step setting.

Keep an open mind. Try to identify with the speakers and don’t compare yourself to them. Take what you can use and leave the rest. Many newcomers, atheist or not, struggle with the “higher power” concept, but are comforted by focusing on the AA group as the higher power. Don’t try to figure out your disease—it’s too complex. Remain open to new thoughts and experiences.

Don't apologize, but don't debate. Atheists can indeed get sober in AA. They may have to find a sponsor who is willing to approach things “a la carte,” but it can be done. And atheists will have to accept that others will be more comfortable with (and vocal about) their spiritual journey. We’re all different.

Have fun. We didn’t get sober to not have fun. There will be fun without the booze and drugs, but we have to learn how (and with whom) to find enjoyment. Fortunately, most clients will agree that it is important to associate with safe, sober people, and that the old acquaintances will have to go.

You don't have to dance with everyone in AA. Your job (said to my client) is to meet one or two sober people in recovery you can get to know on a deeper level. Find just one or two “AA buddies” with whom you can grab a coffee, go for a walk, see a movie, etc. Over time, you’ll identify people you like, as well as those you’ll want to avoid.

Don't worry about it. If others are joyously talking about their higher power, their spiritual awakening, their knowledge of God’s will, their growth from having done the Steps, allow them those experiences and sincerely hope for their recovery. There are many ways to stay sober in AA, and let’s be happy for those who find comfort and strength in their relationship with their god. If they say the Lord’s Prayer at the end of a meeting, just bow your head and focus on gratitude.

Remember the pain. “Euphoric recall” is at the root of most relapses. This is our human propensity to remember pleasure (the euphoria of using) while forgetting the pain and consequences. Listening to the stories at an AA meeting will remind you of how sick you were and how much pain you caused yourself, family and friends.

Show up and get involved. AA doesn’t make house calls. Go to the meetings, show up early, sit up front, turn off your cell phone, do some service work such as making coffee, setting up chairs, helping with the cleanup, etc. None of this requires a belief in a higher power, but it will enhance the likelihood that you’ll make a connection with other like-minded alcoholics/addicts.

Delay the Steps. Some AA'ers believe we should begin working the Steps as soon as we’ve finished throwing up, while others consider a Step a year a better idea. Everyone is different, but my atheist client will be comforted by the “one Step a year” approach because that will at least delay any involvement with God. There’s no higher power mentioned in Step One.

Embrace the slogans. AA is a fountain of wisdom. Slogans such as “One day at a time,” “This too shall pass” and “Live and let live” help us to avoid resentments and disappointment. “We can do what I couldn’t” suggests the power of the group. “Remember when” reminds us of how bad things were for us. Even the serenity prayer, sans the word “God,” can help the atheist appreciate the importance of accepting the things we cannot change—which is just about everything in this life.




Excellent article! I totally agree with you!Addiction professionals should think outside the box, and revise programs for every client. We are each a unique person with unique beliefs.

Rather than force a "shotgun" marriage between an atheist and a 12-step program, an ethical counselor should meet the client where they are at and simply suggest a mutual aid group that does not require a belief in a higher power. SMART Recovery comes to mind immediately.

Rather than force a "shotgun" marriage between an atheist and a 12-step program, an ethical counselor should meet the client where they are at and simply suggest a mutual aid group that does not require a belief in a higher power. SMART Recovery comes to mind immediately.