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Can an Atheist Recover in a 12-Step Program?

Many atheist newcomers to 12-Step recovery programs are disheartened to hear words like “God” used so freely. Certainly, a belief in a higher power and experiencing a spiritual awakening are necessary to the 12-Step program of recovery. However, “higher power” and “spiritual experience” are not exclusively theistic terms and can be applied, too, to those who have no religious affiliation or belief in a “God” as commonly understood.

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous explains, “Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves.” At a superficial level, this seems to imply that we must believe in a religious deity. However, this “power greater than ourselves” can be entirely of our own understanding. Unfortunately, many people turn away from 12-Step recovery before realizing that terms like “God” do not have to mean any sort of divine or religious concept of a deity.

In the main text of Marijuana Anonymous, Life with Hope, states: “The program of recovery works for people who do not believe in God and for people who do. It does not work for people who think they are god. ‘Higher Power’ means different things to different people. To some of us, it is a God of an organized religion; to others, it is a state of being commonly called spirituality. Some of us believe in no deity; a Higher Power may be the strength gained from being a part of, and caring for, a community of others.” Some atheist member or 12-Step recovery programs go so far as to consider “God” and acronym for “Good Orderly Direction” or even “Group of Drunks.”

There is a growing number of 12-Step meetings catering specifically to agnostics and atheists. Jesse Beach, in a 2014 Pacific Standard article entitled Letting Go of God: How 12-Step Programs are Losing Their Religion, explains, “So change is happening—and not so slowly. Returning to the question, ‘Is AA religious?’ we might just as well ask, ‘Is America religious?’ Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. While the majority of members are religious, we live in a pluralistic society that must ensure that minorities are accommodated. Addiction doesn’t discriminate, they say. Now, thanks to an ever-increasing tolerance in and out of the rooms, recovery doesn’t discriminate either.” As in any group of people, religion will be a hot-button issue. There will be those who firmly believe that recovery requires belief in a type of God that is religious in nature, and others who believe that a “Higher Power” and “spiritual experience” can be entirely secular in nature. Just as addiction does not discriminate based on religious belief or lack thereof, 12-Step recovery should not be limited to only those with theistic beliefs.

Whatever your background or beliefs may be, recovery is possible. You can make the decision to seek help now and build a brighter future. Resilient House, located in beautiful Shreveport, Louisiana, brings together behavioral health and addiction specialists, spiritual guides, and holistic experts to address the disease of addiction from every possible angle. For information about individualized treatment options, please call today: (833) 242-6431