If you’re dealing with struggles with alcohol or drugs or currently struggling with an addiction that’s causing problems in your daily routine, you’ve likely heard of the 12-step approach to recovery. The 12-step program was founded in 1935 to help individuals overcome an alcohol addiction, which is where the name “alcoholics anonymous” stems.
Today, various groups have adopted this approach of tried-and-true addiction recovery. Some of these groups include Heroin Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, and Crystal Meth Anonymous. Other groups exist to support adults and teens with their mental health issues, including Codependents Anonymous.
The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Dr. Bob and Bill W. were Christian. Due to their beliefs rooted deeply in Christianity, much of their literature is inspired by these beliefs. For example, you may know the Serenity Prayer, which is extremely common and goes as:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference.”
These are the original 12 Steps created by Alcoholics Anonymous, and they go as follows:
While faith in the 12-step program is strong, you don’t necessarily have to be religious to attend the program. It is open to those wishing freedom from drugs and alcohol. Although 12-Steps are beneficial and change lives, it should not take place over traditional rehab. The 12-step program is helpful once a person completes rehab to stay sober, but does not get to the root of addiction or treat drug or alcohol withdrawal like conventional treatment.
If you’re not Christian or Catholic, or maybe you don’t believe in God, you may wonder if the 12- Steps are right for you. Fortunately, the program itself isn’t religious at all, and you don’t have to be religious to take part and benefit from the 12 Steps. At the very most, these principles are rooted in spirituality, and they focus on the bigger ideas of faith, including humility, honesty, and repentance. The AA tradition is known as the 12 spiritual, not religious principles. So, what’s the difference?
Although the 12-Steps invoke God several times throughout, it’s essential to understand that the very first mention of God is followed by the phrase “as we understood Him.” It emphasizes that each member has a different understanding of a Higher Power and that it’s individualized and personal. While some of the members believe in God, traditionally speaking, others believe in karma. The others believe that the “power greater than themselves” is Earth, Mother Nature, science, the universe, humanity, or their recovery fellowship.
Since the 12 Steps are considered spiritual and not religious, many who attend the program consider themselves agnostic or atheist. While you’re in attendance, don’t expect anyone to ask you anything about God, force you to say any of the statements, or make you do or say anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. There is one requirement to membership, and as AA states, it’s a desire to stop drinking, or for other groups to stop engaging in unhealthy and addictive behaviors.
In an attempt to make the members feel comfortable within the program(s), some 12-Steps have decided not to mention God at all. In SMART Recovery® groups, which are loosely styled after 12-step models, they do not encourage submission to Higher Powers. Another example is that some AA meetings will not practice the Serenity Prayer, and at the end of each session, they say Live and Let Live together collectively.
To be clear, AA and other 12-step programs are not considered religious organizations. Although their official pamphlet is called “The God Word,” atheist, agnostic, religious, secular – everyone is welcome at 12-step programs. The 12 Steps is free, confidential, and programs also offer support for teens in need of addiction recovery. The meetings are nonjudgmental and provide peers with an open community. Fortunately, millions of meetings exist in each location, so it’s possible to attend a different one each day and experiment until you find the setting you are most comfortable being around.
You will benefit from 12-step meetings at any stage of your recovery, including residential treatment, partial hospitalization (PHP), intensive outpatient (IOP), or outpatient. Teen rehab centers provide staff to accompany young adults to weekly meetings. If you are deemed “clinically ready,” you could get a 12-Step sponsor while you’re in treatment. However, your rehab must approve of this. Once you’re discharged from traditional therapy, 12-step programs help you maintain the progress you’ve made. Other 12-step support groups exist for parents and siblings of addicted teenagers, including Nar-Anon, Alateen, and Al-Anon.
If you’re currently attending a 12-step program at your rehab center or you’ve been discharged, and you’re working on relapse prevention, now you understand that support groups will not try to force religious beliefs on to you. The only thing you should worry about is your recovery from addiction, which 12-Steps aim to make more comfortable. The program has the power to change your life for the better and introduce you to exceptional people in the community. Why not attend one meeting and form an opinion on the topic?
NCBI (September 2020) Chapter 4. Services in Intensive Outpatient Treatment Programs. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64094/
SMART Recovery® (September 2020) Scientifically Supported Recovery. from https://www.smartrecovery.org/scientifically-supported-recovery/
AA Cleveland (September 2020) 12 Steps from the Original Manuscript. from https://www.aacle.org/12-steps-original-manuscript/
CDC (September 2020) Alcohol and Public Health. from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm
Alcoholics Anonymous (September 2020) Welcome to AA. from https://www.aa.org/
NCBI (September 2020) Chapter 4 – Twelve Step-Based Programs. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64351/