My Simple and Secular AA Program

By John S.

A few years ago, after concluding that I’m an atheist, I started to think about my experience in Alcoholics Anonymous and how I would approach the program going forward. Line by line, I went through the Big Book with a black magic marker, redacting all references to a god or other supernatural phenomena. As I did this, I realized that the religious language in the book was irrelevant to the practical action of the Steps, and it was evident to me that what I do is far more important than what I believe.

As part of my effort to understand the program from this new secular point of view, I rewrote the 12 Steps in my own words. I found this was a useful practice because it allowed me to think more deeply about my experience and what I had done. The Steps were now more meaningful to me. No longer were they merely words on a page written by people from long ago.

I have since found that working a secular AA program to be personally more satisfying. Thinking logically about my recovery removes the mystique and confusion of spirituality, and the entire process is more clear, simple and practical. It’s as if I’ve been jarred from an extended period of intellectual lethargy, and my imagination has been reignited.

Today, my approach to AA is more straightforward. I’ve abandoned the archaic language of the Big Book, and instead, I communicate in my own way. After having examined my experience, I concluded that community and connection with others have more to do with my getting and staying sober than perhaps anything else. This conclusion made perfect sense. After all, AA is first and foremost a Fellowship. It is a Fellowship with a suggested program of recovery.

I’ve come a long way from those days of rewriting and interpreting the Steps and searching for answers from an 80-year-old book. I’m no longer concerned about comporting my experience with that of people from the past. Not that I can’t learn from their history, but when it comes to my recovery, I’m more interested in learning from my own life experience, as well as from the experiences of others who I meet in AA.

I prefer to keep my program simple and secular and to focus precisely on what happened, what I did to get sober, and what I do to stay sober.

This is what I do:

  • I ask for help.
  • I go to AA meetings.
  • I am honest.
  • I make friends who support my sobriety.
  • I am involved in service to others.

I ask for help

At first, asking for help was the hardest part of the process, in large measure because of denial— a defense mechanism I use to deal with something that I might otherwise find unbearable.

Looking back, I can see my drinking was out of control early on in my life, but no matter what anyone said, and regardless of what should have been obvious to me; I simply couldn’t or wouldn’t admit that I had a problem. It ultimately took an overwhelming personal crisis before I would ask for help. Those were bleak days indeed. Everything was crashing down around me, and in stunned disbelief, I came out of denial, realizing that I had been lying to myself for years.

Though it was frightening and painful at the time, today I recognize that period of crisis as a turning point, and I feel fortunate. Many if not most who experience Alcohol Use Disorder never ask for help, and a good number die prematurely from their addiction.

In my case, asking for help started with a call to my local AA Central Office, followed by attending an AA meeting.

I still ask for help after many years of sobriety. It’s now a way of life, and I can no longer live in denial of any sort of problem. I must acknowledge the truth, deal with it, and ask for help when I need it. This has become a personal strength, and it’s a relief that I no longer live in isolation or hide from my troubles.

I go to AA meetings

My recovery began at my first AA meeting where I found the hope that I could overcome this thing. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to the other people in the room who told me a little about their drinking and what brought them to AA. I could identify with those people, and how they felt about their drinking. It also seemed that they understood what was going on with me, and they genuinely cared. I sensed that these people had it together, that their drinking and the associated problems that came with it were a thing of the past.

In those early days of not drinking, the meetings were essential. I was worried and afraid to deal with the consequences that I was facing as a result of my drinking, and the one sure cure I knew for worry and fear was alcohol. That was a guaranteed way to shut my mind off, and there were many nights during the first few months of my sobriety when I desperately wanted that escape. The meetings gave me the strength to face my fears without drinking.

Soon, I would find myself looking forward to attending AA. Everything seemed new and exciting. People from all walks of life were speaking honestly about what was going on with them, and I could relate. I listened, and I was comforted in knowing that I’m not so unique after all. With every meeting, it seemed that I was gaining a little more self-confidence. I was coming out of my shell. It was an exhilarating and liberating time.

Going to AA is still helpful to my recovery and to my personal growth. After almost three decades of sobriety, I still go to about three AA meetings a week, but I do so more out of joy now than I do from the desperation that I felt early on. There are now plenty of secular AA meetings where I live, and I also attend secular AA meetings online, which I enjoy a great deal.

I am honest

Emboldened by others who opened up to me, I learned to open up as well. Honesty is one of the more important qualities that I’ve developed since I’ve been sober. Being honest with myself and others is critical to my recovery and my growth as a human being.

AA is a great place to practice honesty. I’m not judged, I don’t get odd looks from people, nobody gives me advice, and no one tries to fix me. They just listen and sometimes that’s all I need. It also helps for me to hear myself when I speak at a meeting. I often find the answer to whatever dilemma I’m facing, simply by listening to my own words.

Speaking honestly in meetings about what is going on with me, helps me to learn about myself. It also helps me connect with other people. After a meeting, it’s common for someone to tell me how they can relate to something I said. Soon enough, without even trying, I find that I am bonding with others through the sharing of common experience.

It’s still important that I be honest at meetings and talk about what’s going on in my life, to share my struggles and triumphs with others. Doing this over the course of time has helped me to build an expansive network of support that I find invaluable.

I make friends who support my sobriety

Perhaps nothing has contributed more to my remaining abstinent from alcohol than having people in my life who support my desire to stay sober. There is something to be said about having access to a support network that counterbalances those in one’s life who might not necessarily understand the importance of not drinking. In AA, I found people who knew what I was going through and who were in my corner.

In a relatively short time, I started to make friends in AA. What began with a few words after a meeting and coffee at the local diner evolved into meaningful relationships. I started seeing these people outside of the meetings just to have fun.

There’s almost always laughter during an AA meeting, and I find that laughter is a valuable tool. My friends in AA help me to laugh and enjoy myself in sobriety.

Although I have friends from all walks of life, I probably place a greater value on the friendships that I’ve made in Alcoholics Anonymous, and I’m in touch with a fellow member of AA almost daily.

I am involved in service to others

People were there for me when I needed help, so I try to be there for others. It’s no great sacrifice. I enjoy every minute of it. Nothing is more satisfying than to see another person find hope at their first AA meeting and to watch them over time as they rebuild their lives.

Maybe the single most important thing I do to help others is to contribute to creating a safe and welcoming place for a person to find recovery. Anytime a new person makes their way to our meeting, I want to be sure they are greeted warmly and feel at home. Though I enjoy attending meetings, it’s also a great way to be of service to others. I can participate in the support network that helps someone else stay sober. There are many ways to be of service, whether in AA or not, and when I focus on that, then I feel like I am living a more rewarding and fulfilling life. In any case, at the very least, I am content and I hardly ever think about drinking anymore.

About the Author

John S. is from Kansas City, Missouri where he attends meetings at his home group We Agnostics Kansas City.

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Jill Jackman
Jill Jackman
2 years ago

Wow, this is so simple, honest, direct and to the point.  Really refreshing!  I am 10 weeks sober and am searching for my new path.  Going to AA meetings is essential and is helping me get through this hard beginning part.    Already I am feeling stronger, healthier, more clear-headed than I felt even nearly 3 months ago.    Of course, taking away the alcohol now also means really looking at the issues that lie underneath. It means trying to understand oneself and examine why lubricating was part of that picture.  Interesting stuff and a daily progression – one day… Read more »

2 years ago

Wow, thanks John! Me too, I re-wrote the steps early on and just exactly like yours, except that I’ve stuck with the prayer and meditation, but I pray entirely without belief in a god. Otherwise, just about exactly the same. And I love how your Step 11 clarifies the Serenity Prayer: we seek serenity, we do not seek acceptance.

Robert Bohanan
Robert Bohanan
2 years ago

Thanks John and thanks for your service, especially AA Beyond Belief. Your ‘redacted Big Book’ reminds me of Jefferson’s Bible. When I think of the age of the Big Book and what we knew about addiction then, even biology then, I’m reminding that I would never consider using a late 1930’s biology textbook as a primary source in my biology classes. I might well reference something in it about the emergence of an idea, and as a historical reference, but the best of what we knew then that is fundamentally true today is rife with inconsistencies, incomplete models and even… Read more »

3 years ago

John, thanks, this is good. It is time that we start talking more about what works, and less about what doesn’t. much easier to help the newcomers that way. This is nice and practical.

3 years ago

Thanks John, I love your practical, workable sensible interpretation of the program. When I first got sober I thought ‘program’ meant TV program and I was looking around the room for a TV set. Like you it is the practical actions I take that are the nub of it all in order to bring about a change for the better in my sobriety. Asking for help and participating in AA have saved my life (many times over). Realising I was an atheist at 18 years was a major dilemma for me, no longer quite fitting in to theistic AA and… Read more »