A Pesky Problem With 12 Step Programs

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

An article appears in Addiction Treatment Magazine that addresses one of the major stumbling blocks for many people who need support for maintaining their sobriety but object to the religious message of programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. The article points out that fewer Americans than ever identify themselves with a church or religious organization. In point of fact, many of these people consider themselves to be agnostic. This refers to doubt that a higher authority or God exists or can ever by knowable. The focus is put on what we experience and nothing more.

More than a religious message, programs like AA often close their meetings with the Lord’s Prayer. The Serenity Prayer, synonymous with AA, asks the help of the Lord in keeping sober. Accepting the belief in a “higher power,” an important part of all twelve step programs, is too much for those who are agnostic and atheistic to accept. It goes against their fundamental belief system and how they identify themselves. They rebel against the insistence on the “higher power” and, even more, against the notion of “submitting” to this power. Yet, these programs really help people maintain sobriety. It is the camaraderie of fellow addicts that provides the kind of support that works. It is also providing service to others with the same affliction that helps maintain participants. So, what is an agnostic or atheist supposed to do?


The suggestion provided by Addiction Treatment Magazine is, if possible, to make the twelve step program work for you. In other words, it is the shared experience and sense of community that, in the end, really help. Therefore, they have rewritten the twelve steps so that they are more acceptable to those who do not affiliate with anything spiritual or religious.

The Twelve Steps Rewritten:

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1. Admit I need help to heal my addiction.

2. Come to believe I can heal.

3. Make a decision to trust my inner wisdom.

4. Make a fearless and wholly accountable search of every attitude, emotion, and behavior I create, past and   present.

5. Commit to speak honestly with another about these unhealthy attitudes, emotions, and behaviors.

6. Am ready to accept help.

7. Ask for the help I need.

8. Make a list of all the people I have harmed through my addiction, and be ready to make amends to them.

9. Make direct amends to the people I have harmed, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continue to monitor my thoughts, attitudes, emotions, and behaviors, and find someone to talk to when harmful patterns reemerge.

11. Seek meditation and calm contemplation to stay connected with my own inner wisdom.

12. Try to help others struggling with addiction, and to utilize these principles throughout all areas of my life.

Of course, there are those who reject AA and other twelve step programs as being cultist and ineffective because of the number of people who relapse. Of course, relapse is part of the illness called addiction. Nevertheless, countless numbers of people report being helped by these programs, especially when they remain involved.

What are your opinions about this approach to 13 step programs? Can someone comfortably attend these programs if they are non believers?

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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