Addictions Anonymous, 13: A Universal Secular Twelve Steps

This article belongs to Addictions Anonymous column.



There are two important thoughts to keep in mind when we consider what have been called the Twelve Steps of Recovery. First, each step is really an important idea that can be incorporated into every aspect of life. These ideas are intended to make abstinence easier. A step is not like a move in a board game, something you simply take and then leave behind. Life-changing ideas require more than contemplation, they take time and practice. The second important thought to keep in mind is that the steps do not cure anything. We are by now so imbued with medical thinking that we tend to see the steps, and the whole self-help movement, as some kind of cure that, once taken, should hold for life. So, the steps are ideas, not specific, isolated moves, or assignments. And, the steps are not to be considered a cure so much as they are an education. They demand participation and practice. In this sense, then, the program never fails and need not be subjected to some kind of evaluation; what fails so often is the student who will not work at the task, follow directions, attend class, or do the homework.


The original steps of Alcoholics Anonymous made free use of religious elements, and that is something I think needs to be changed if the program is to help more people. I have been accused of hating religion. I don't hate religion. I'm just not interested in it, and I don't really believe religion is a necessary part of recovery from an addiction although spirituality certainly is. Religion is an option many will want to include in their personal lives, but self-help groups open to any addict are public forums. People of all religions and of no religion are welcome so long as their goal is abstinence and recovery. No religion, not even a vague and very general reference to God or a short prayer, is appropriate because we cannot take for granted that each new member coming into a group will accept and be comfortable with elements of religion. Some, in fact, will have had bad experiences with organized religion and will be driven away by certain group rituals. It is simple arrogance if members disregard the feelings of new members. My position would be quite different if religious practice and belief had ever been shown to advance individual abstinence. There simply is no scientific evidence to support this idea. So, if religion causes conflict and has no real positive effect in achieving the goals of the group, let's just leave it out and let the individual find whatever religion he or she needs in other situations.

Few subjects are a divisive as religion, but the purpose of a self-help group is unity around the common earthly goal of abstinence. Addiction is an earthly problem, a problem acquired and practiced on this earth. We are well past the level at which people thought addictions are moral defects. In like fashion, recovery and normal living are affairs of this world in the here and now.

Our form of government in the United States was a radical development; it was intended to be a secular or non-religious government. The founders had some very particular reasons for avoiding a theocracy; they did not want a government that combined religious beliefs with governing principles. They did not want a king with divine rights, and they did not want a leader who was also the head of a state religion. The purpose of forming a union of the states was unity, and nothing is so divisive as arguments over religion. A true political union would be impossible if it favored one religion over another. Our laws do not, of course, forbid, regulate or promote religion of any kind. It certainly was not the intention of our founders to prohibit or suppress religion.

The United States Constitution does not stipulate that anyone seeking government office be a member of any religious sect or denomination. Anyone, with or without religious convictions, can run for office. Also, anyone can vote without having to express a particular religious preference. Our laws apply, at least in theory, to everyone of any religion, and to anyone of no religion. Self-help groups for addiction problems would do well to follow this model for the separation of religion and worldly affairs.

There are good reasons for separating church affairs from government business. The separation protects the people from any possibility of persecution or exclusion because of their personal beliefs. It also protects religion itself. The government does not tax religious organizations so it cannot repress or abuse a religion financially. Government cannot force religion to change its beliefs or support a political party.

Freedom of religion also includes freedom from religion. Addicts coming into self-help groups want help for their addictions. They are not there to be converted or educated in matters of religion. They are not there to help others practice their religion by joining in prayer. The sole purpose is abstinence or sobriety. Self-help group members should keep their expression of their religion at home or in their houses of worship.

In the United States the courts have recently ruled that Alcoholics Anonymous (and, by extension, all similar groups) is a religious organization. Thus, treatment programs that get any part of their monies from the government may not mandate attendance by their patients at A.A. meetings. This is a direct result of the failure to keep religious practice out of the meetings.

Immediately, some will say that if we exclude religion, we exclude spirituality. This is nonsense. Spirituality and religion are not the same. One part of the meaning of spirituality is spiritualism, the belief in spirits, gods and supernatural forces. A more important part of the meaning is noble character, and this will be the subject of much discussion later. Noble character, in fact, is the highest goal of abstinence from addictive behavior; no court can take exception to that goal, I hope.

With the separation of religion from a recovery program as a goal, and wanting to preserve the fundamental and valid philosophy of the original Twelve Steps, I offer a somewhat different version.

The Universal Secular Twelve Steps

Whereas all addictions to substances or activities are but manifestations of a single, underlying problem in human development, we adopt and recommend the following Twelve Steps of recovery for any and all persons who suffer with addictions of any description:

1. We admitted we were powerless over addiction--that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that The Program, as a power greater than ourselves, could help us toward normal living.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care this program and to the loving care of this group.

4. Made a searching and fearless inventory of our character for ourselves.

5. Admitted to our group, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our faults and misdeeds.

6. Were entirely ready to practice the program in order to remove our defects of character.

7. Humbly asked the help of others in the removal of our short comings and resolved to work to remove these faults ourselves.

8. Made a list of all persons we harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people whenever 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 study and meditation to improve our awareness of law and of the natural forces that govern life hoping only for knowledge of right and wrong and the strength to follow that knowledge.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Great thinker and pioneer that he was, William Wilson was not trying to write a bible and would certainly never have viewed his writing as a sacred, unalterable text. The basic goal is always personal change and growth. The means of achieving that goal is personality change brought about by new values and habits of living.

Although the goal is to keep the steps as close as possible to the familiar version, further changes may be appropriate so long as the basic philosophy of each step is retained.

Next, I will offer a series of chapters devoted to the exploration of one of the above steps. These twelve discussions are separated into different units to discourage rapid reading and to encourage readers to pause at each step spending as much time on each as it takes to make the step a part of their thinking, their lives, and their program.

Assignment: write what you think is the big idea behind each of the steps above.

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