• The God of the 12-Steps

    This is a guest post by Danny Boylan. Danny is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Georgia and a member of the Secular Therapy Project. Learn more about Danny at his website.

    The God of the 12-Steps:

    A request for understanding and compassion from substance abuse and mental health professionals.

    by Danny Boylan, MS, NCC, CRC, LPC 

    Preface and Disclaimer:

    Please know that this blog posting is not meant as a negative critique or assessment of AA. I have many friends who would honestly say that “AA saved their life,” and I personally have surely gained some things from 12-Step Programs. AA has helped many people develop a sober lifestyle and my intention here is not to bad-mouth the program in any way. More is said on this below…

    As a humanist in recovery from substance abuse, I witnessed first-hand how very invalidating and lonely being in recovery as a non-believer can be. There is a strong misconception floating around what I will call “the recovery industry” that AA and other 12-Step Programs are a perfectly acceptable treatment method for everyone, regardless of their personal belief system.

    This is simply not true.

    The 12 Steps, while definitely not linked to any specific god or gods, only make sense when viewed from a belief system that includes a god that has certain characteristics. It is the point of this brief essay to simply walk through the 12-Steps (no further reading of materials is necessary) and pick out the characteristics of god that they point to, as a way of explaining why this program isn’t a good fit for everyone.

    While going through my own recovery, I was told over and over again by (seemingly) well-meaning people, and even by mental health professionals, that there was essentially something wrong with me for not buying into 12-Step theology. This essay is a request to mental health professionals to PLEASE STOP DOING THIS.

    When I have a Muslim come into my office for assistance with depression, I do not tell them that they need to attend a Christian program in order to get better. This would be considered HIGHLY unethical and inappropriate. Yet this is what many people do EVERY DAY to non-believers who are seeking help with getting and staying sober. We tell atheists, agnostics, humanists, and non-theists of all sorts that their only solution is to attend a program that is entirely based around a god (yes, “higher power,” but please read further to understand what attributes that higher power must have) that will save them from their addiction. And if they flat out tell us that they don’t believe in a god that listens to prayer for example, we tell them to just “make it work for them.” This is pure invalidation, the opposite of meeting someone where they are, and is behavior that should be frowned upon by every counseling ethics seminar ever presented.

    As noted in the disclaimer above, let me be very, very clear though that this article is not a condemnation of AA. I have personally attended over 300 AA meetings and undoubtedly received some help from AA while getting sober. I also have many friends who are active in AA and who would even say that AA saved their lives. These are good people and I am thrilled that there is a program available that has helped them so drastically. As a therapist, I even sometimes recommend that my clients at least check out AA, if I find that it meshes with their belief system.

    So again, my purpose here is not to bad mouth AA. My purpose is to dispel the myth that 12-Step programs are the right program for everyone. I also want to discourage therapists and other providers from telling people that they can use “the group” or some other non-spiritual entity or object as their “higher power,” because (as we’ll see) this truly just doesn’t make sense when we consider the powers that the “higher power” must possess.

    The Steps and Their Implied God

    So, let’s just jump right to it. I’m simply going to go through the 12-Steps, exactly how they are written, and point out the obvious implications of what someone’s “higher power” must look like, at a bare minimum, in order for this program to make sense.

    Step 1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

    • No implied characteristics of god.

    Step 2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

    • Still no implied characteristics of god, since at this point a “power greater than ourselves” still makes sense to be something like “the group,” or “direction from others.”

    Step 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

    • This step makes several assumptions about the nature of god. It implies that god must be an active entity that would actually extend “care” to people. It also assumes that god is an entity that would accept “our will and our lives” being turned over to him or her in the first place. Basically, this step implies that god must actively care about people and can have a sort of transactional interaction with human beings.

    Step 4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

    • No implied characteristics of god.

    Step 5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

    • This step implies that our higher power must be a god that not only can listen to human beings, but does so and cares to do so.

    Step 6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

    • This step obviously implies that “god” must actually have power to remove our defects of character. It also implies that he or she not only has this power, but wants to use this power to help us in this way. Again, we are looking at a very active, personal god here.

    Step 7: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

    • Again, our higher power must be able to and want to hear prayer (spoken or unspoken requests) and must want to and choose to respond. Let’s just ignore that AA chooses to refer to god as Him with a capital H, which of course has its own implications.

    Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

    • No implied characteristics of god.

    Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

    • No implied characteristics of god.

    Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

    • No implied characteristics of god.

    Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

    • This is a big one. Here we are presented with a god that we can actually be in conscious contact with. This implies that god can, wants to, and does listen to our prayer and meditation, and in turn communicates back to us in some way. This also states that god actually has a will for us…as in a plan and path for our lives. It implies that god can and wants to give us power to actually follow that path.

    Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

    • No implied characteristics of god.

    So, as can be seen from the actual 12 Steps, AA absolutely allows its members to take a great deal of liberty in holding onto their existing conception of or even developing a new conception of god. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous even has a chapter entitled “We Agnostics,” which is essentially an appeal and welcoming statement to people who might have previously been highly turned off by religious themes.

    However, the fact remains that in order for AA to make sense at a basic level, a person’s god or higher power must:

    1. Be an active entity that cares for human beings.
    2. Be an active entity that can accept a human being’s life being turned over to it.
    3. Have the ability to, want to, and choose to listen to and respond to prayer.
    4. Have the ability to remove a person’s defects of character, and wants to and chooses to do this.
    5. Be an entity that has a pre-existing plan for individual human beings and wants to and chooses to impart power to a human being to follow that plan.

    Therapists and mental health providers, please know that many of your clients don’t believe in an entity that has a single one of the above characteristics, much less all them in conjunction. Also, in my personal case and in the case of many other human beings, a great deal of trauma and psychological abuse has been experienced at the hands of groups using verbiage similar to the above. Please keep in mind that you might actually be perpetuating a very real trauma by sending someone to a program that asks them to “turn their will and lives over to the care of God as they understand Him.” This is very, very heavy language to individuals that had previously been indoctrinated into fundamentalist belief systems and should not be disregarded as something to just move past.


    First, I want to reiterate my point with writing this blog post. As I’ve already stated, I mean no disrespect to AA or AA members, and I am not attacking the AA program. I am however hoping to show here why it makes sense to stop insisting that AA and other 12-Step Programs are a perfectly acceptable treatment method for everyone, regardless of their personal belief system. I especially hope that treatment providers, therapists, and helpers of all types will at the very least attempt to first understand someone’s belief system before pushing a program on them that at the very least is a bad-fit and at worst would be a complete invalidation and possibly a re-traumatization.

    Category: FeaturedMental HealthPsychologyReligionSecularism


    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com
    • Mark P Warkentin

      Thanks, great write up.

    • westernwynde

      Not to mention the fact that 12-step programs help a small minority of those who attend them in the long term – and blame participants when they “fail.” Kind of like Christianity.

      • S.t. Thomas

        I had 15 years of bitter experience with Wesleyan-Arminian pentecostalism, and what you assert is absolutely true, with respect to that particular school of soteriological thought. Now, as a pre-Millennial Dispensational Calvinist, I’m no longer haunted by the demonic lie that I’ve “failed”, and that it’s “my fault”.

    • autodidact

      I don’t think this critique goes quite far enough. AA has helped many, but it has also served to evangelize thousands of vulnerable people into Christianity, essentially replacing one addiction for another. Agreed, secular medical professionals should discuss this fact openly with clients before referral, and it should never be mandated by the courts.

      • My mum swapped booze for christianity, although not via AA – I sometimes wondered whether she should’ve just stuck to drinking. A few decades on though, I admit that it’s been positive for her. I think she’s now come out the other end of the worst of the evangelical brainwashing, & we can relate to each other better, but geez, it took awhile…

    • Peoplejustdon’tgetit

      In my small town, the local court sometimes requires people convicted of an alcohol or drug related crime to attend AA in lieu of a more severe punishment.
      I’ve felt that it’s like requiring them to attend a semi-religious based treatment program and that seems to be in conflict with separation of church and state.
      Most of the local AA meetings in my town are even held in churches.

      Well-written article. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

    • S.t. Thomas

      When I checked myself into a 90 day treatment centre run by the Salvation Army 14 years ago (for alcohol addiction), the book I found to be most helpful during my stay there was “Rational Recovery”. It was not part of the treatment regimen, but was lent to me by a guy also in treatment there. As a Christian, I found it to be the most insightful overview of the way in which demons and/or one’s own chemical dependent mind operate to perpetuate addiction. I’m 100% serious and sincere about this. I’m not some troll who has never been addicted to anything harder than caffeine. Contact the Paetzold Centre in Mission City, British Columbia, Canada, and ask security about the time Parliament Hill phoned asking about “a guy writing letters to a member of Parliament asking her to send him pictures of herself”.