I began attending AA meetings early in my career. It wasn’t entirely voluntary- as a junior staff member I was assigned by supervisors on the psych unit to accompany patients to meetings, to protect them from who knew what (sobriety, probably…) My preconception of AA came from the docs and the University-trained psychologists: A quasi-religious organization irrelevant to the majority of alcoholics but useful for those dependent types who needed to surrender control of their lives to others.

But at the meetings I found the opposite: Far from being a haven for the devout, AA included many of the most skeptical folks I ever met. There was nothing slavishly conformist about their attitudes. They challenged every statement that wasn’t directly, factually obvious. They argued vigorously among themselves over right and wrong responses in situations I would have taken for granted. I can’t count how many times I heard the equivalent of “Hello, my name is Mike L., and I’m an alcoholic, and I think you’re full of…”

Members enlightened me. “You can’t think of AA as a religion,” one told me. “It’s more like the Chamber of Commerce. We come out of self-interest and stay because it’s mutually beneficial. And cheap.” Another explained, “I see AA as the antithesis of organized religion. Most of the people here bombed out of the churches they were raised in. They left because they don’t like the ritual, the rules, being told what to do. ” Over the years I encountered some amazingly altruistic, principled, mature people in AA who happened to be atheists and agnostics (and plenty of the opposite sort showed up sporting religious symbols and bumper stickers.)

In California during the 1980s, I watched James Christopher’s Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) get its start. Other support networks have emerged since then, groups like SmartRecovery and LifeRing. One of my clients, a nonbeliever and a physician, made a particular impression on me. Although he’s an active atheist, working against prayer in the schools, he claims he owes his sobriety to the Twelve Steps of AA. I asked him how he reconciled the contradiction.

“It’s not contradictory,” he told me. “The Steps aren’t commandments, they’re suggestions. Nobody’s saying they were handed down by God; they came from the experience of a group of drunks, like me. They’re a proven method for staying sober, and they work.”

“But what about the references to God in the Steps?” I asked.

“It’s always ‘God as we understand him,’ and as far as I understand, God doesn’t exist.”

“So… what do you use for a ‘Higher Power?'”

“The group. And my own better nature, as I make contact with it during the meetings.”

Eventually he began attending Secular Sobriety meetings, and now considers himself a member of both organizations. “Sometimes people from one group or the other will pressure me to choose between them. But I don’t see why I should. I get something from both. Besides, I consider myself a freethinker, and going to both is something I freely think I should do.”

I’ve been watching nonbelievers recover from addiction for more than thirty years, and I’m grateful for what they’ve taught me about success. But there are still plenty of addicts and alcoholics starting the journey of recovery from addictive disease who can’t bring themselves to accept the spiritual program that’s helped so many. It’s nothing to worry about. There are other options.

This series will look at some of the basics of successfully building a sober, recovering life, even without “God.”

One important stipulation: Many of the nonbelievers I know are in fact, quite spiritual people- an illustration of the difference between spirituality and religion. Spirituality is expressed in many ways. A rescue worker who puts himself at risk to save someone in a crumbling mine shaft isn’t doing it for the salary. Likewise, while many religions do a great deal of good, we’ve all seen how the idea of religion can be twisted to serve selfish ends- it’s no accident that the Traditions of AA were designed to prevent charismatic individuals from exerting undue influence on the organization and its members.

This post belongs to Recovery Without God