This article belongs to Addictions Anonymous column.

The Steps, Traditions, and Promises of Alcoholics Anonymous have become important to millions of people throughout the world. In early chapters of this book, I looked at the philosophy that underlies the steps and traditions, a philosophy that is widely accepted and used in self-help groups. From the beginning, the steps stirred debate and controversy along with a remarkable number of good recovery stories.


The Twelve Steps are folk psychology, having been developed and offered by laypersons. Regardless of their origins, if they are good advice, we can learn from them. If they are not helpful, we should discourage their use. There is, of course, a middle ground that will involve revisions and updating from time to time as our knowledge and social traditions evolve. Clinical experience and follow-up studies, my own published studies among them, suggest that continued participation in self-help groups following professional treatment is beneficial. My version of needed updates can be found in my previous discussion of a universal, secular twelve steps.

I see two major problems that limit the potential and hamper the full development of this self-help movement, issues that now cloud the universal appeal and usefulness of the original Twelve Steps. The first is religiosity. The second is selective attention to one addiction at a time in spite of our recognition of multiple addictions, co-addictions and sequential addictions of all sorts. I have already discussed selective attention to one addiction at a time back in Chapter Seven and at other points in this work. A bit more needs to be said about religion and recovery.

Religiosity and the agnostic

Almost all of the different versions of the original Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Steps include references to God and imply a supernatural or religious higher power of some kind. This is true for Gamblers Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, Food Addicts Anonymous, and similar groups. The inclusion of primary religious concepts such as God in the official, approved literature of these organizations suggests that religious belief is part of formal organization policy. Agnostics may prefer a more earthly, non-religious version, something for which I certainly believe they have a right just as much as anyone has a right to religious freedom.

Group prayer is also usually included either at the beginning or the end of many Twelve Step meetings. Public group prayer was a common practice in American history but is now usually dropped from public gatherings because of objections from non-believers and from members of different faiths who might prefer to have their own special prayers said.

As I write this, it has been over seventy years since the original A.A. Twelve Steps were written. They were written by a desperate World War I combat veteran willing to do anything he could to stay sober during a time of a great national economic depression. It was a world very different from the one we enjoy today. We should also remember that their author humbly presented The Steps as a suggested program, not as some absolute set of immutable laws. He was experimenting, not writing a bible.

Apparently, William Wilson, an agnostic, bowed to the wishes of others in writing the Twelve Steps by included references to God and to higher powers. The inclusion of religious terms has been a source of discontent and controversy from the beginning, however. I was curious about why certain members feel it so important to bring their religion into groups devoted to helping addicts. Where does the evangelical mandate originate and why would they resist the elimination of group prayer and the secularization of the program steps?

In the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus is reported to have instructed his disciples to go forth and make disciples of all nations (Matthew28:19). Some Christians take this as a command for them to urge others to accept religion. Earlier, in the same Gospel, we see strong advice to worship in private without public show (Matthew 6:1-8). This can be taken to mean that Christians should not try to influence others to practice the beliefs of Christianity. As in most instances of theological debate, the question of preaching to others by lay persons can be answered in opposite ways depending on the interpretation of the scriptures. My conclusions are:

- The interpretation of scripture is not my job and is, in any case, futile and irrelevant to the goal of recovery from addiction;

- Debates arising from such interpretations serve to create bitter controversy between people who need to be united in common purpose;

- Some people just have a need to proselytize, so how one resolves questions based on biblical lore depends more on personal emotional needs than on logical reasoning.

There remains the question of the spiritual experience many think is vital to recovery. This, I think, is the realization, either sudden or gradual, that there must be a sometimes radical change in values, priorities, and behavior. One must be converted not to or from religion, but to a completely different way of thinking, living, and feeling. All of this, of course, is an awesome task for anyone to consider even without the complications introduced by religious controversy.

Social standards and customs have changed a great deal since Bill Wilson wrote his first version of the Twelve Steps. Since those early meetings, the presence of religion in secular affairs is less acceptable than it once was. It is, however, still a conflict that rages in the United States. This is not necessarily because people have lost religion or that people want to suppress religion, but that we have come to recognize the richness of our own cultural diversity and to respect the right of each individual to decide to what extend they will bring religion into their lives or, as a personal choice, exclude it.

Cultural stagnation and the oppression of individual freedom, especially for women, seem characteristic of countries controlled by religious clerics in a theocracy. For the United States, the separation of church and state has worked extremely well without suppressing anyone's religious freedom. Ours is a model that works in all of our secular and pubic affairs. It is a model that deserves to be employed in recovery groups.

I offered a version of The Universal, Secular Twelve Steps in my book In the Shadow of Chance that was privately published. This version of The Steps was designed to make important ideas about life more comfortable for agnostics since the ideas and concepts presented by the Twelve Step philosophy—a model for a sober, clean life, if you will—are and always will be, in my opinion, essential to normal living. Like it or not, however, if we insert God, organized prayer and a religious higher power into a self-help program, this does turn some people away. Members come for help in recovery from addiction, not for the religions trappings such as prayer and the acceptance of a god. That's what churches are for.

The desire to secularize meetings by removing references to supernatural higher powers and prayer is not in any way a condemnation of religious belief, the practice of religion or the religious person. It is merely recognition of the wide variety of sensitivity to religious proselytizing in our culture and of the divisive nature of religious discussions.

Many agnostics, keeping their silence on religious issues, have achieved recovery in Twelve Step groups, but the situation is made worse when a few dogmatically religious individuals assure the incoming agnostic that recovery is impossible if you throw God out of the program. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one is trying to throw God out of anyone's program. Tolerance for other world-views, however, is increasingly necessary. When religious terms are included in an organization's official literature, it is reasonable to conclude that religion is a matter of organizational policy, not a personal choice left to members.

A new member's acceptance of a god of any sort can never be taken for granted. It is always an option. Certainly, people should be free to continue a traditional format with prayer and the traditional steps as they please, but we may, I would hope, see new secular groups forming and having, if need be, their own national service office. We should not, I think, throw out the basic philosophy even if we champion a secular version of the Twelve Steps. Spirituality and religion are not the same thing.

The purpose of the Twelve Steps is to bring people together in the common cause of abstinence. If public self-help groups are to grow and flourish, religion should be a matter of private choice, not a formal policy. Such groups are public groups in that they welcome anyone with the simple desire to stop a particular addiction. A diverse public is certainly drawn to Gamblers Anonymous, for example, and it is foolish to think that some members will not be offended by the use of theology. If religious members of self-help groups will not change their literature and their official policies, then they must at least understand and accept the existence of parallel groups that look and sound very much like their own but which use a slightly different, non-religious literature. A future organization with some general name such as Addictions Anonymous might be the answer.

No one knows how many potential members have left self-help groups thinking them to be religious organizations that, of course, they are not. Our legal system, however, has decided that treatment programs supported in any way by government funds cannot mandate attendance in Alcoholics Anonymous because, the courts decided, it is a religious organization.

Tolerance and acceptance of diversity are, I think, hallmarks of spirituality whether your spirituality is religious or earthly in nature. Spirituality, of course, is quite possible without religious participation, and I think there is no recovery without a developing spirituality. However, spirituality and religion are hardly synonymous. In a secular sense, spirituality translates to noble character, and noble character can be a wonderful and necessary consequence of recovery.

The Gamblers Anonymous program wisely defines spirituality in its question and answer booklet as follows:

"As it is used in Gamblers Anonymous, what is the meaning of the word spirituality?  

"Simply stated, the word can be said to describe that characteristic of the human mind which is marked by the highest and finest qualities such as generosity, honesty, tolerance, and humility. Inasmuch as the Gamblers Anonymous fellowship advocates acceptance of these principles as a way of life, it can thus be said the Gamblers Anonymous is a spiritual fellowship." (Gamblers Anonymous, 1998, p.9).

This wonderful definition of spirituality is an earthly, real-world definition describing a way of living and thinking, not a dogmatic religious belief system. It clearly states that a spiritual fellowship can exist without being a religious fellowship.

It is interesting that the Gamblers Anonymous version of the Twelve Steps includes fewer uses of the word God than the Alcoholics Anonymous Steps. This, perhaps, is due to changing social values and standards over the period between the founding of A.A. in the early 1930s and the beginnings of G.A. in 1957. Since 1957, tastes, sensitivities, and values have continued to change, as, of course, has our extended list of other addictions.

Certainly the ideas underlying the Twelve Steps can make possible a better life in this world, in this life. If we take the slogan One day at a time seriously, then what lies beyond this life will not be a primary concern in dealing with an addiction problem. No one knows what lies beyond this life, but many believe in something. These beliefs, however, are the concerns of the church or temple, of religious professionals, not of the anonymous self-help group. The business of Gamblers Anonymous, or of any Twelve Step program, is to help those suffering with an addiction to build a better life; the goal is not to inculcate a religious belief system. Also, it should be clear, we no longer hold addiction to be a sin, and therefore believe it to be outside the scope of religion. 

If someone would prefer not to mix religion with secular affairs, and if he or she can extend a loving tolerance to those who do, they have made a major step in the right direction. True tolerance is an essential part of anyone's spirituality, whether for an agnostic or a religious person; tolerance and acceptance should be extended in friendship in both directions.

Unfortunately, many people of deep religious faith think they must persuade others to believe as they believe, pray as they pray, and preach as they preach. This is the evangelical calling, and is, to my way of thinking, a distortion of the mandate to carry the message to others that many religions have. Some compassionate people simply carry their message and present their ideas when asked. Some, however, insist on preaching a dogmatic gospel to any who come within earshot. Agnostics usually learn to accept this with tolerance, but excuse themselves from the conversation as soon as possible since debate is unproductive. For all these reasons, I would hope that Twelve Steps groups review their materials and be sure that all religious elements have been removed from organizational policy and publications. Failure to do so may only encourage the preachers and lead to unnecessary diversity of program formats. The alternative, as I have said, will be the development of religion-free (secular) groups.

By using the word addiction in place of gambling, eating or alcohol the Steps become universally applicable to all the different manifestations of a generalized Addictive Response Pattern. That much is the easy part.

In keeping a concept of higher power in the Universal, Secular Twelve Steps, I have tried to recognize the very troublesome and usually automatic rebelliousness of many people who have addictions. A higher power need not be a mystical god or supernatural force, and it certainly should not be trivialized as a door knob or coffee pot. If someone needs to curb a rebellious nature, he or she should look to all the higher powers in our earthly lives. The local town council, the deputy sheriff, the meter reader, the Congress of the United States, the law of gravity—on and on we go listing people, events, natural laws, and circumstances that control our lives and that we cannot change. So it is that we must all accept the fact that there are natural and often immutable higher powers operating in our lives here on earth, and then go on to offer these powers the respect they deserve, not childish rebellion and disdain. 

The idea is to learn obedience when it is needed for survival and to curb self-will in the name of future gain. The goal is to try to fit in with normal society, not to stand apart as unique and special. 

If someone disdains and rejects earthly higher powers, that person is still living in a dream world. One may hate politicians, but Congress makes the laws that we obey or go to jail. If one cannot accept the many earthly higher powers that control our lives, how is it possible such a person can set up some arbitrary, mystical higher power and claim obedience to that? A lawless, rebellious person who answers only to a religious authority is dangerous. History teaches us that.

The Steps, as worded in Chapter 13 are, at this point, merely rough suggestions that await the creative minds of interested agnostics. Before anything like these steps would ever come into use, the collective wisdom of many who seek recovery could suggest improvements and changes. Religion, I would certainly hope, would not be a part of those discussions. 

What is important is not the precise wording of any version of The Steps. We could argue wording for years without satisfying everyone, but these issues do deserve our most careful analysis and our best creative thinking. The highest priorities, however, are the ideas embodied in whatever wording we happen to employ. 

Here are the basic concepts I find in the Twelve Steps:

1. Admission of weakness and loss of control.

2. Humility, obedience and submission to reality.

3. Acceptance of guidance, concern, and help from others.

4. The determination to gain self-knowledge and understanding.

5. Confession and acceptance of past errors.

6. A passionate desire to set things right with others.

7. A willingness to work to change and improve.

8. Making actual, meaningful study of those harmed in the past.

9. Making actual, meaningful restitution in full.

10. Life-long self-study, growth, and positive change.

11. Study and awareness of all the forces that control life.

12. Compassion and service to others.

So, the goal is to learn to live a life based on obedience to an unalterable higher order of things, upon honesty, discipline, simplicity, compassion, humility, service, and abstinence. 

Nature itself, although always our higher power, does willingly reveal its secretes to those who ask simple, honest questions in the search for measurable results. 


Suddenly, when we reduce The Steps to basic ideas for living on this earth, we find a virtually unassailable prescription for a life that can transcend the limits imposed upon us by experience, training and social pressure. In following this prescription, a normal life becomes truly possible. And in such a unique and elevated normalcy, who knows what outstanding achievements the individual may reach? Real creativity seems always to require the strict discipline of study and practice before it can emerge.