Are There Alternatives?

If you’re having serious problems due to your drinking and have a sincere desire to get sober, Alcoholics Anonymous can offer a fairly effective method. It’s not perfect, but it has worked for probably a few million people. (It’s an anonymous program, so there may be no reliable statistics.)

What you’ll soon find if you go there is that AA is firmly rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It’s a religion-based program of recovery. For many people this is not a problem — and it’s almost certainly the case that harnessing the widespread human tendency to embrace religious belief helps people get sober. Unless, of course, you’re among the minority who want nothing to with religion. For some people, religion is toxic. And I’m on their side! Religion creeps me out. Some people may want desperately to stop drinking and stay stopped, but the religious nature of the AA program may be a huge obstacle for them.

People in AA will tell you, in all sincerity, “It’s a spiritual program, not a religious program! You can have any sort of belief you want. You can make a doorknob your Higher Power.” Sadly, this is bullshit — and they’re in denial about it. The AA Big Book quite clearly advocates a traditional view of “God,” and does so in language that is both flagrantly manipulative and downright delusional.

The good thing about AA, and it’s very good indeed, is that if you become a member, you’ll have a lot of support from friendly, caring people who have gotten their lives back together by putting the plug in the jug and will be able to offer practical tips on how you could do the same. Even so, there’s still this nasty undercurrent of traditional religion. It’s less prominent than it was 50 years ago, and it’s more prominent in some geographical areas than others, but it’s still there. The approved AA literature is slathered with it, and the literature is never going to change, even though it’s increasingly outdated.

You will meet people who really do believe the Big Book was divinely inspired. Pathetic, but they’re staying sober, so it would be impolite to argue with them.

Happily, there are alternatives. Not in the way of meetings, however. There are a few isolated atheist/agnostic AA meetings here or there, but they’re hard to find and not always well attended. Nobody has yet come up with a viable secular organization for sobriety that has had widespread success, though a few people have tried. With respect to the AA literature, however — oh, my, yes.

If you’d like to get sober and stay sober, but for reasons either intellectual or emotional you just can’t stomach the religious angle, here’s a quick list of books you may want to track down. Some are more readily available than others. Just to be clear, you won’t find any of these on the literature table at an AA meeting. We’re trafficking in heresy here. None of these books is perfect, but each of them has some ideas that you may find very helpful.

How to Stay Sober: Recovery Without Religion by James Christopher, Prometheus Books, 1988.

The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery by Martha Cleveland and Arlys G, Health Communications, 1992.

Twelve Secular Steps: An Addiction Recovery Guide by Bill W. (no, not that Bill W.), Beowulf Press, 2018.

An Atheist’s Unofficial Guide to AA for Newcomers by Vince Hawkins, no indication of the publisher and Hawkins’s name is not on the cover, 2011.

Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12-Step Life by Joe C., Rebellion Dogs Publishing, 2014.

Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power by Marya Hornbacher, Hazelden, 2011.

A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous by John Lauritsen, Pagan Press, 2014.

The Small Book by Jack Trimpey, Dell, 1989.

Many Roads, One Journey: Moving Beyond the 12 Steps by Charlotte Davis Kasl, Harper Perennial, 1992.

Understanding the Alcoholic’s Mind: The Nature of Craving and How to Control It by Arnold M. Ludwig, Oxford University Press, 1988.

I have some fairly complex opinions about how AA works and where it falls short. This is not the place to go into that. All I’ll say is, it’s not a magic cure: You have to want to stay sober, and you may have to work hard at it. But if you don’t care for the religious angle and you also can’t be bothered to track down any of these books, booze is probably going to keep right on running (and ruining) your life, and nothing I can suggest is likely to change that.

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