12 Step Program for Atheists

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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Everything You Need to Know About 12-Step Programs for Atheists

Since 1935, one of the most well-known methods of dealing with addiction has been 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. With their focus on progress and community, this group can provide a valuable sense of support. However, some people in recovery find that certain parts of 12-step programs don’t work for them. For example, if you are an atheist, it can be hard to find the right style of 12-step program because many of them include a religious aspect. Here’s what you need to know about navigating the world of 12-step programs while being an atheist.

Understanding the Link Between 12-Step Programs and Religion

Have you ever walked into a 12-step program and been confused to realize that you feel like you’re in a church service? This happens because all 12-step programs have a common origin. All of the modern 12-step programs you might encounter were inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous.

This early addiction treatment program was revolutionary at its time. Instead of seeing addiction as a personal failure, Alcoholics Anonymous treated it as a disease that could be managed by following a strict routine. However, in addition to this helpful approach to addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous also included a lot of religion.

The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous met while they were part of the Oxford Group, an organization of Christians interested in improving their lives. This self-improvement community allowed Christians to meet with like-minded individuals and discuss ways to tackle their vices and live according to God’s rules. 

Ultimately, a lot of the basic structure of Alcoholics Anonymous was inspired by the Oxford Group. Both organizations were free to join, did not require any formal membership, and had no strict leaders. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Alcoholics Anonymous also copied the heavily religious nature of the Oxford Group. 

In the long run, the religious beliefs of Alcoholics Anonymous’ founders ended up becoming a part of many 12-step programs. Many 12-step routines encourage people to reach out to God for assistance, and many meetings start or end with prayers. Even though most modern 12-step programs are not purposefully created to be religious programs, they tend to automatically include these religious elements because their predecessors also included them. 

Do 12-Step Programs Always Include Religion?

Even if religion was originally a core part of 12-step programs, it’s not always inevitable. Alcoholics Anonymous started attracting non-Christian members fairly soon after its creation. Since anyone can start their own 12-step group, many of these members chose to start hosting their own meetings that better conformed with their belief systems. 

There are now a variety of types of 12-step programs that do not focus on Christianity. Some choose to substitute all mentions of God for vague, spiritual terms. Others may focus on a different religion, such as Buddhism or Islam. There are also 12-step programs that entirely remove all mentions of religion from the program. 

In modern times, religion is not a core part of 12-step addiction recovery. This makes it much easier for atheists to seek help for addiction.

The Difference Between Religious and Non-Religious 12-Step Programs

The main difference between a religious and non-religious 12-step program is whether or not it mentions religion in its routine. However, since religion is so closely intertwined with the 12-step system, this simple difference results in a lot of big changes. 

The 12 Steps for Atheists

Several of the standard 12 steps used in programs like Alcoholics Anonymous directly reference God or a “higher power.” Removing these references can make it hard to follow the program, so instead, they must be replaced by different concepts. Every atheistic 12-step program uses its own rendition of the 12 steps. According to the atheist activist organization AA Agnostica, some common changes include:

  • Believing you deserve to be healed instead of believing in a higher power
  • Directly apologizing to others for harmful behavior instead of seeking atonement from God
  • Make changes to get your life back on track instead of asking God for assistance
  • Seeking to improve yourself with positive habits instead of prayer

Other Major Changes

With atheistic 12-step programs, it’s less common for the meetings to be held in churches. Instead, they are often in neutral spaces like community centers or rehab clinics. Furthermore, the people leading the meeting are usually not pastors or other religious leaders. Most atheistic programs prefer having a therapist or other professional as the group leader. The other big difference is the motivational mottos you hear to encourage you on your journey to sobriety. In atheist programs, they will not include options like Bible verses.

How to Handle 12-Step Programs If You’re an Atheist

If you’re an atheist, many different options are available to you. Check out these useful details on how to get help from a 12-step group as an atheist.

Do Religious 12-Step Programs Allow Atheists?

The first and most important thing to know is that no 12-step group will turn away atheists. Even if it’s a traditional 12-step program that includes prayers and mentions of God, you are still welcome to attend. Being open to all types of members is one of the key tenets of any 12-step program. 

If you do go to a religious 12-step program, you are usually encouraged to participate in all steps of the program. However, most groups will not insist that you actually follow any religious practices. Instead, atheists are usually advised to view themselves as the “higher power” that others in the group will try to seek. They are also typically allowed to skip prayers, hymns, or any other events that have overtly religious themes.

Should You Attend a Religious 12-Step Program If You’re an Atheist?

Even if you are not religious, some research shows that 12-step programs can still be very useful. Even though Alcoholics Anonymous promotes a spiritual approach to addiction, mental health experts report that its social connections and behavior-focused approach are actually the reasons the program is beneficial. 

Many atheists report that they go to religious 12-step programs but still get valuable lessons and insight from the experience. Since it allows participants to skip religious steps if desired, you can easily customize the approach to give you the benefits of 12-step programs without the religious focus. 

However, this attitude does not work for everyone. Some atheists will find religious 12-step programs to be very distracting. If you are not able to focus on your sobriety because you’re busy thinking about the religious aspects of 12-step programs, they probably aren’t going to be beneficial for you. In some cases, religious 12-step programs can even be actively detrimental. If you have religion-related trauma, these sorts of programs can trigger mental health problems and harm your sobriety.

Tips for Finding Non-Religious 12-Step Programs

When you’re looking for a new 12-step program, doing your own research is very helpful. Many people like to start by asking for 12-step program recommendations from their rehab centers or from an addiction hotline. Once you have a list of possible groups, you can check with each one to see how religious they are. Make sure you don’t rule out a group just because it meets in a church; even some atheist groups will use churches for their free meeting spaces. Instead, try to talk to some group members directly. Call or email the group leader and ask how religious the group is. Some groups may also specifically say they are atheistic or secular in the title so that you can narrow down your search.

Don’t forget that online 12-step programs are becoming more and more popular. If religious organizations run all the 12-step programs near you, it can be useful to go online instead. This makes it easy to get into direct contact with like-minded individuals. Some atheist organizations even host their own online meetings where you’re less likely to encounter any other religious members. 

Another option is starting your own 12-step group. Alcoholics Anonymous says any two people who wish to recover can call themselves a 12-step group. You might want to start your own if you like in-person communication and don’t have an atheist program near you. Though this can involve more effort, it also allows you to offer a unique service to your local community. You could potentially end up helping many other atheists in a similar situation. 

Are 12-Step Programs Really Necessary?

Keep in mind that 12-step programs are not a requirement for sobriety. Though they’re helpful to many people, others find that 12-step meetings do not suit their lifestyle or approach to recovery. If you cannot find a 12-step meeting that you are comfortable with, you do not have to attend one. Some other options to consider include:

  • SMART Recovery: Like 12-step programs, SMART recovery involves a series of meetings with fellow addicts. It is a secular and research-based program that focuses on finding effective ways of tackling addiction triggers.
  • LifeRing Secular Recovery: This nonprofit provides peer-run therapy groups for those dealing with addiction. Unlike some other recovery programs, it also supports those trying to moderate use instead of stopping altogether.
  • The Sinclair Method: This recovery method focuses more on medication instead of peer support. It involves taking naltrexone to reduce the urge to drink or abuse drugs.
  • Group therapy: A lot of rehab clinics also offer their own version of group therapy, where you discuss topics with your peers while a mental health professional guides the conversation. This can be a useful substitute for 12-step programs.

Defining Wellness Centers Is Here to Help

Defining Wellness Centers focuses on providing appropriate medical care, no matter your belief system. Our team is happy to help you find atheist-friendly 12-step programs or other secular treatment options. We also provide a variety of other personalized addiction treatment services in Mississippi.

Located just outside of Jackson, our clinic focuses on providing evidence-based care in a relaxing and supportive environment. We offer detox programs, residential inpatient programs, and outpatient programs. Our team is trained in everything from high-tech therapies like EMDR therapy to holistic treatments like equine therapy. To learn more about our programs, contact the Defining Wellness team now.

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If you are ready to take the step towards a new life, call Defining Wellness today and learn more about how we can help you.