One Agnostic’s Use of the Steps

By Galen T.

I have attended dozens of meetings at which one or more steps were analyzed, but few that zeroed in on how to do them. This is my focus here.

I have read numerous articles and a couple books about the steps. But what I have learned about working the steps comes mostly out of years of practical experience guiding sponsees and others through them. I have learned through trial and error, by observing what helps and what doesn’t. I distribute written guidelines to my step partners and as I learn more I revise and tweak them. Because my focus is on doing the steps rather than thinking about them, I will keep analysis to a minimum. But first, several preliminary remarks.

I don’t present my method as the best, only one of many possibilities. I adapt my guidelines for each person, depending on their length of time sober, their circumstances, and their personality. But whatever the person and situation, a rigorous go at the steps pays dividends both in staying abstinent and laying the foundation for a satisfying recovery.

There are numerous sets of alternate steps in circulation. You can find several at AA Agnostica. Although I work with my share of agnostics and atheists, I use and adapt the original steps, introducing variations when needed. I suggest to step partners that they read about each step in the Big Book and 12 & 12. When we arrive at a step containing religious/spiritual content, I suggest to my partner that he rewrite it in a way that suits him.

AA Beyond Belief is dedicated to agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers. In order to avoid repetitious verbiage, I use the term agnostic inclusively. Since as a guy I work with guys, I use the male pronoun.

At the heart of step work is open and unfettered conversation. The person providing guidance should listen to his step partner carefully and attentively and focus on asking sensitive questions rather than burying him with commentary and advice. The steps are most transformative when we discover their truth for ourselves. Thus, effective step work can’t be rushed – crammed into four hours or four weeks. Several months of mostly weekly meetings is a better norm.

At the beginning of Step One I ask my step partner to tell me his story, from childhood to the present. Conversation — speaking and listening — are at the heart of the program and the steps. Through constant sharing in all of the venues AA provides, we slowly heal ourselves through story telling and dialogue. We process and integrate our past traumas and create for ourselves a new identity. This begins with step work, where we can reveal all of ourselves without fear of judgement or censure. A first step story should be told with detail and specificity. Vagueness and generalities do not heal.

After he tells his story, I ask my step partner to highlight three notable instances of powerlessness and three of unmanageability. I clarify that powerlessness refers to a loss of control over the when and the how much of our drinking. Unmanageability describes the negative life consequences of our drinking.                    

Our childhood years are important because here many of us incur the wounds that fuel our later drinking and then hinder us from full recovery. I have seen many people relapse because they repeat patterns of thinking and behaving that they adopted early in life to defend themselves against pain. Most of us arrive at the gates of AA in a state of major or minor trauma and the more quickly we give this verbal expression the better.    

Steps Two and Three introduce us first to a “Power greater than ourselves,” which is then defined as “God as we understood Him.” Since “higher” connotes the medieval three-story universe, I open these steps by asking what “other powers,” apart from alcohol, a person has had. Answers include God, but more often humane ideals, nature, the AA fellowship, crystals, science, the vibrations of love thrumming through the universe, a sense of oneness with all beings, and Charlize Theron. How, then, can these and other powers be deployed in the cause of sobriety and recovery? How can support from new other powers be cultivated?  

The key insight for most people at this stage is acknowledging that they are, to borrow the title of Ernst Kurtz’s book on AA, “not God.” This does not require turning one’s life and will over to the care of anybody or anything. But it does suggest that we adopt a posture of greater humility than what we cultivated before coming to AA and that we “actionize” this new posture by relying on identified other powers for help in getting sober. What are these powers and how will they be tapped for help?

The source of help most commonly identified is the fellowship. This can lead to a fruitful exploration of the necessity for forming connections with others and how this can be done. In the context of new connectivity, we are restored to a sane condition in which we can face the true nature of our relationship with alcohol and the calamitous ramifications of this relationship. We can begin to build a different life, one that relies on honest and vulnerable relationships with others. This counters our shame, one of the most potent hinderances to our sobriety. Especially when we are working with a sponsee, these steps and the conversations around them begin to ease people away from all the negative voices chattering in their brain.

In Steps Four and Five we encounter another doublet. I find the Big Book’s instructions for Step Four lucid or useful and have tried several ways of both simplifying and amplifying inventory taking. For the time being I have settled on organizing an inventory around past harms done others, resentments presently held, and current fears.

The list of past harms begins with childhood. The reason for this is to enable the identification of long lasting patterns. Each harm is recorded on a piece of lined paper. Under each entry the step partner writes the likely motivation for the action, then its consequences for others, and third the underlying character flaw at work.

A second list names those who are presently resented and the reasons for each resentment. Thirdly, current fears and their possible causes are recorded. All of this is written out prior to the next step.

Step Four should not take more than a week. Step Five should follow within another week, though, because of the wide-ranging conversation it stimulates, it usually requires several sessions to complete.

Occasionally a step partner will dismiss the significance of his fourth step contents. More often, he is in danger of descending into an unhealthy morass of self-condemnation and despair. Sponsors should be alert to this risk and ready to introduce palliative care by reemphasizing self-compassion and hope for the future.      

The third doublet of Steps Six and Seven in their original formulation don’t work for agnostics, who can be invited to reformulate them in a way that advances their own sobriety. Responses to this invitation vary, but often come with wording like this.

Step Six: Were entirely ready for these defects to be removed from me.

Step Seven: Took actions toward removing them.

Some people combine the two steps in a more activist formulation: “Were ready to work on these defects of character and got right to it.”

Others are briefer still: “Began removing my character flaws.”

I ask my step partner to be specific about the defects that will first be targeted and the methods employed. Statements like “Try to be a better person” are all but meaningless. “Be more patient with my spouse and my son” is an improvement. Better yet is for the step partner to describe situations in which patience will be demonstrated and in what ways.  

Steps Eight and Nine are probably the most arduous and should be carried out under close guidance. The parameters of the eighth step list should be broad and include those harmed only slightly and only possibly harmed. The list is then reviewed and decisions made about who makes the final cut. Any unwillingness is examined and resolved.

Before Step Nine is carried out the list should be reviewed person by person. Several issues may come to the fore. First up is the “wherever possible” clause. The Internet age makes it possible to track down folks we could not have found 20 years ago and this means of locating people, along with all others, should be fully exploited.

The next potentially restricting factor is the “injuring them or others” clause. In this case, an overly generous understanding risks letting the step partner off the hook on account of embarrassment and other justifications for reluctance. Some amends will be embarrassing and hard to make and these are the most important ones to carry out.

Next up is to weigh the nature of the amends. When more than an apology is called for, the circumstances should be carefully weighed. In most cases an apology is the most that can be rendered, but excuses to evade these should not be entertained. There is much talk these days about living amends. These are a proper follow-up to an apology, but not a substitute.

Last comes the question of how to make the amends. The more direct the encounter the better. An email or phone call should not take the place of a personal encounter. An email is rarely warranted in substitution for a call. An exception is when the party on the other end may not appreciate or respond well to a more personal approach. In some cases, though, an email can test the waters in preparation for an in-person meeting.  

Two final matters come into play. First, contrary to the directions in the Big Book, the making of amends should not be described as a requirement of recovery. This makes it sound as though the person is merely following orders or is actually acting only out of self-interest. Second, a potentially painful part of making amends includes listening to the response of the other person. While many responses will be favorable, ninth steppers should be prepared for anger and the withholding of forgiveness. Partly for this reason, it is important for ninth steppers to check in regularly with his sponsor/partner to debrief amends after they occur.

This brings us to a gap in the steps. While we take great care over the harms we have done and the resentments we harbor, little attention is devoted to the reasonable anger we feel toward those who have harmed us. The Big Book recommends that we see such people as “spiritually sick” and cultivate an attitude of benign tolerance toward such benighted souls. But this advice may not take us very far with people who have done us substantial harm. For these, the only satisfactory response is forgiveness. Such people should be discussed and avenues toward forgiveness explored.

Therefore, after the completion of Step Nine, I ask step partners to list all persons with whom they are angry. We then explore avenues to forgiveness, recognizing that these paths can be long ones.

Steps Ten, Eleven, and Twelve are often referred to as those that maintain the gains won through working the first nine. This is a misunderstanding, because these steps actively advance our recovery.     

Step Ten is the ongoing application of the fourth and fifth steps. It raises several questions that steer our step partner toward practical implementation. First, when and how often is such an inventory taken? What is meant by “take inventory?”  What, in this context, does “when we were wrong” mean? Finally, to whom should we admit being in the wrong? The recipient of our wrong? Our sponsor? Or both, being the best answer?

An entire article could be written on the ins and outs of Step Eleven. Agnostics will dispense with prayer in favor of meditation and self-reflection. Although God’s will shall not be sought, we can thoughtfully contemplate our measure of success in building our lives around important program values like compassion and gratitude. I personally make these, along with humility and honesty, the focus of my morning meditation. Our methods may vary, but step partners should explore how they can regularly affirm their identity as recovering alcoholics and apply specifically identified program principles to their lives. Instead of asking for knowledge of God’s will, we orient ourselves to “these principles.” Daily disciplines and habits that reinforce our commitment to abstinence and recovery are helpful.

Finally, we arrive at Step Twelve. Agnostics vary in their responsiveness to the term “spiritual awakening.” Some are comfortable with the popular distinction between religion and spirituality. They define the latter term broadly to include a reorientation away from one’s past self-absorption, toward other people and a generosity of heart.

Step Twelve, like many of its predecessors, raises questions. For example, what does it mean to “carry the message?” Furthermore, it is not obvious what principals we are exhorted to practice nor just what “practice” means. These questions do not necessarily have definitive answers, but our step partner should be encouraged to formulate tentative responses along with ideas about how they are going to implement this step. For example, even those early in recovery can introduce themselves to those brand new to the fellowship.  

About the Author

Galen spent most of his career in the ministry, and in mental health and career counseling. He has published numerous articles as a career consultant. He is now an independent writer focusing on the application of personal narrative to addiction recovery and life generally. He has been sober since 1995 and is active in several of his local AA groups.

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Galen T.
Galen T.
3 years ago

I am glad to hear about the success of your meetings. The beginners meetings I attend a couple times a week has everything to non-theist believers in God/higher power to strong-minded atheists, but we are all tolerant of what works for the other person and are united by our common goal of staying free of booze and drugs and recovering from the damage we did to ourselves.

marty nieski
marty nieski
3 years ago

Looks to me that you are addicted to the cure.  Maybe a few control issues too. Keep it simple.

Galen T.
Galen T.
3 years ago
Reply to  marty nieski

I am not sure what you mean by “addicted to the cure.” Say more.

Megan F.
Megan F.
3 years ago

Thank you for outlining this practical approach.  I’ve had difficulty interpreting Steps 2 and 3 over the years because of the not-so-subtle message to find God or else.  As a non-believer, the idea of doing God’s will sounds ludicrous.  Being open to the collective wisdom expressed in the groups (as well as a number of other resources) is much more tangible.  This I can do.

Galen T.
Galen T.
3 years ago
Reply to  Megan F.

Steps Two and Three are tough ones for us. I recently said at a meeting that I declined to turn my life and will over to the care of anything or anyone. I already tried that with alcohol and it didn’t work out well.

John H
3 years ago


I would like to invite you to my presentation in Toronto in August, “The Relevance of the 12 Steps: An Atheist View”. You will be most welcome in the room though, I do have to let you know, you may find it to be a rather “challenging” hour given what you have written here.

Galen T.
Galen T.
3 years ago
Reply to  John H

Thanks for the invite, John. I am sure I will learn from your perspective.

Lech Lesiak
Lech Lesiak
3 years ago

‘Raises many questions’ is somewhat of an understatement.

This, to  me, a faith based approach rather than one defined by logic.

My doubt about the validity and effectiveness of of the steps began shortly after my first meeting.


Galen T.
Galen T.
3 years ago
Reply to  Lech Lesiak

I suppose all of us place our faith (commitment) in something; even the nihilist’s rejection of all values embraces a meaninglessness that is itself beyond verification.