Can I Work a 12 Step Program if I’m Not a Christian?

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It would be hard to find a person who hasn’t heard of an anonymous 12 Step group designed to fight addiction. There is the obvious AA: Alcoholics Anonymous, but there are also a number of other programs, including:

Clutterers Anonymous

Debtors Anonymous

Gamblers Anonymous

Heroin Anonymous

Narcotics Anonymous

Overeaters Anonymous

Sex Addicts Anonymous

AA’s Heavily Religious Nature

The shared foundation of these programs is the 12 Step process, which is heavily dependent on a belief in a higher power that follows a Christian model. If you are agnostic, atheist, Buddhist, part of a monotheistic spiritual practice or have another barrier that prevents you from fully participating in the acceptance of a singular, Christian higher power, you will feel left out or may reject the program completely. More importantly, you will likely miss out on a proven program.

The solution is not to change the way you think or believe. The solution is to adjust the program to meet your needs and this solution has already been put in place by a number of groups. There are secular 12 Step programs devoted to getting God out of AA.

After all, the founder of AA, Bill W., wrote in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, “We must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made AA available to thousands who never would have tried at all, had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.”

Humanist Twelve Steps

Skinner, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, focused upon operant conditioning—the use of reinforcement to strengthen behavior. He dismissed the idea of free will and, instead, believed human action depended upon the consequences of previous actions. For example, if the consequences are bad, it is likely that the behavior will not be repeated. If the consequences are good, the likelihood that the action will be repeated increases.

In 1987, The Humanist published Skinner’s Twelve Steps:

  1. We accept the fact that all our efforts to stop drinking have failed.
  2. We believe that we must turn elsewhere for help.
  3. We turn to our fellow men and women, particularly those who have struggled with the same problem.
  4. We have made a list of the situations in which we are most likely to drink.
  5. We ask our friends to help us avoid these situations.
  6. We are ready to accept the help they give us.
  7. We earnestly hope that they will help.
  8. We have made a list of the persons we have harmed and to whom we hope to make amends.
  9. We shall do all we can to make amends, in any way that will not cause further harm.
  10. We will continue to make such lists and revise them as needed.
  11. We appreciate what our friends have done and are doing to help us.
  12. We, in turn, are ready to help others who may come to us in the same way.

The Medicine Wheel

This 12 Step interpretation was established by White Bison, “A sustainable grassroots Wellbriety movement that provides culturally based healing to the next seven generations of Indigenous people.” It is based on the Teachings of the Medicine Wheel, the Cycle of Life and the Four Laws of Change.

In the words of White Bison: “The Medicine Wheel is an ancient method for teaching important concepts about truth and life. Many Native American communities use a Medicine Wheel, although the colors and the symbols are different depending upon the culture. The purpose is the same in each culture. These teachings, when applied to one’s life, have the power to influence significant change in attitudes, behaviors, values and intent.”

The 12 Steps of White Bison are:

  1. Powerlessness
  2. Belief
  3. Surrender
  4. Moral Inventory
  5. Confession
  6. Willingness
  7. Fellowship
  8. Forgiveness
  9. Amends
  10. Daily Examination
  11. Prayer Meditation
  12. Service

Every group is different and it may take time to find the one that best fits you. Don’t give up. And, when you find a group that works, be active. Don’t let other people’s belief systems undermine your recovery and continued sobriety.