Agnostics Can March to Their Own 12 Steps

Posted on March 27th, 2013

 “…God seems to have a kind of laid-back management style I’m not crazy about.” – David Foster Wallace, fromInfinite Jest”

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released survey results in late 2012 that caused a stir. The results indicated continued growth in the number of Americans who mark “none” on surveys asking about their religious affiliation. The Pew Forum is referring to this group as the “nones.”

Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population is religiously unaffiliated, according to the survey. The “nones” are composed primarily of the millennials at 32 percent (which is a reference to Generation Y, people between the ages of 20 and 35); GenXers (roughly defined as anyone born between 1965 and 1980) at 21 percent; and Baby Boomers at 15 percent. More than two-thirds of nones say they believe in some concept of God (68 percent) with slightly over half (51 percent) indicating that they pray regularly. These individuals account for the “spiritual but not religious” contingent. Sixty-six percent of nones believe religion is losing its influence in America; half of them citing excessive focus on rules and dogma, and half citing inappropriate concern with power and money on the part of churches and congregations.

While the numbers parade can be a bit overwhelming, one thing is clear: although evangelical Christian churches continue to see growth worldwide, there remains a slow but steady irreligious trend in the United States. More and more people are pulling away from organized religion, and many have become dispassionate about talk of “God” as seen through the lens of the mainline or evangelical churches in which they were raised. Abuses by Catholic and Protestant church leaders—both financial and deeply personal—have been overlooked, obfuscated, and justified. Historical inaccuracies have been allowed to stand; legacies of slavery, torture, and persecution have been swept under the rug, and little to no accountability has been offered. A passive, mollified fog has settled over many congregations too stressed, busy, and easily appeased by promises of afterlife and spaghetti suppers to care about what happened to the church treasury or the generation that came before.

When Language is the Problem

For those addicts in recovery who have done their research and know that the support of other recovering addicts may be an essential component of maintaining sobriety, 12-step programs are often the lifeblood of their continued success. While there are no statistics to track the success of the programs—the anonymity inherent to group affiliation precludes reliable tracking of members—many people credit these programs for keeping them sober.

Having the support of a non-judging group; sharing “experience, strength, and hope” with others who have been or may still be where they are, and finding a trusted sponsor who understands the difficulty of their path, are all things recovering addicts can find in 12-step programs. But something else one encounters in the 12-step groups is the language of “higher power” and a lot of God talk. Often, groups close meetings with the Lord’s Prayer, which may begin with someone saying, “Who keeps us sober?” There is also the Serenity Prayer that  invokes the help of “the Lord” and which became synonymous with Alcoholics Anonymous, and is still widely spoken by other 12-step groups worldwide.

An addict who is a non-believer or an agnostic cannot simply decide to “just accept a higher power” and move along with the program for the sake of sobriety. Something as fundamental and important as one’s beliefs regarding the very foundation of reality cannot be dismissed or brushed aside in order to go along with the group.

Although naysayers, particularly those who take issue with the faith-based component, often decry the 12-step program and its adherents for cult-like thinking, for overuse of clichés and for the tendency of negative internal dynamics to arise (something that can occur in any group), the benefits appear to outweigh the risks.

So What Can an Agnostic Do?

Sticking with the idea that sobriety is what is most important in recovery is the first step. If 12 steps are likely to help, and everything suggests they do, (the support of fellow recovering addicts and developing community with those in recovery is so important) then finding a way to make 12 steps work for you makes good sense. As a non-believer, you’ve already gotten used to thinking differently than the tide of cultural and perhaps familial memes. You will use the tools you have developed for this, but in a more healthful, focused way. The important thing is not to allow your differing worldview to distract you from your purpose or to create a divide beween you and the group with whom you are sharing community in a 12-step setting. Everyone is there for the same reason: to stay accountable; to share experience, strength, and hope; and to fellowship around recovery and sobriety.

Rewriting the Steps

OK, so this can be problematic. But, don’t get stuck. Sit down and do some rethinking and rewriting, but stay with the basic intention and the original premise. These are tools that can and will help you, if you allow them to. Below is a revision of the 12 steps written for an agnostic or atheist.

  1. Admitted I needed help to heal my addiction.
  2. Came to believe I could heal.
  3. Made a decision to trust my inner wisdom.
  4. Made a fearless and wholly accountable search of every attitude, emotion, and behavior I created, past and present.
  5. Committed to speak honestly with another about these unhealthy attitudes, emotions and behaviors.
  6. Was ready to accept help.
  7. Asked for the help I needed.
  8. Made a list of all the people I had harmed through my addiction, and became ready to make amends to them.
  9. Made direct amends to the people I had harmed, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to monitor my thoughts, attitudes, emotions, and behaviors, and found someone to talk to when harmful patterns reemerged.
  11. Sought meditation and calm contemplation to stay connected with my own inner wisdom.
  12. Tried to help others struggling with addiction, and to utilize these principles throughout all areas of my life.

The 12 steps can be a safe and healing place for all addicts, regardless of religious affiliation. The “nones” are indeed a growing group and they do not have to be left out, or left behind, by language that does not conform to their understanding or worldview.

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