A Non-religious First Three Steps

By John B. 

 Step One: Admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

Step One combines simplicity with unadorned honesty. To begin the recovery journey all I had to do was make a decision; to admit something. I had to accept the undeniable fact that I had reached a point where the ability to resist the compulsion to take a drink had been destroyed. Quantity and frequency choices were no longer mine.

Here is how many of my days would start. We owned and I operated a restaurant and bar in rural Indiana. I mean rural — corn, soybeans, hogs, and dairy cows rural.  As experienced drinkers know, the standard shot glass is 2 oz. with a white line at the 1 oz. level. At six o’clock in the morning I filled the glass up to the line with whiskey, added a blurb of peppermint schnapps, dribbled in several drops of bitters, and tossed it down the hatch and chased it with black coffee. I repeated this three times in the space of five minutes.

Needless to say, my life needed new management. I suffered from alcoholic usurpation, a form of thievery that robbed me of the ability to apply reasoned judgment to the reality of my daily life. Alcohol had played the role of a skilled embezzler and I, the alcoholic, had played the role of co-conspirator, using denial, blaming, feigned ignorance, and other concealment tactics to cover the losses. Inevitably, bankruptcy occurred. The cover up was exposed. Confession time arrived.

In one sense, my admission of powerlessness over alcohol was motivated by a feeling of guilt associated with and derived from the consequences of my drinking. But more than that, the admission conceded total defeat and unconditional surrender. Life looked bleak.

My first experience with AA was part of a treatment program in 1980. By 1984, reliance on willpower had led to perpetual relapses; helplessness and hopelessness saturated my entire being. These two feelings combined with self-loathing drove me back into the rooms of AA where I was met with empathy and camaraderie, and, surprisingly, the realization that I had already done Step One.

Four years of intermittent AA attendance had not resulted in sustained sobriety, but it had not been a complete waste. I had seen the joy and heard the laughter, had enjoyed the self-deprecating humor, and had learned from the stories of success and the agonies of failure. I wanted what those people had; I wanted sobriety.

At first glance, Step One may appear to be somewhere between formidable and impossible to a still suffering alcoholic who had been beaten down to a near zero sense of self-worth. This is where reason and common sense finally came into play for me. Every AA meeting I attended presented evidence of successful recovery. All I needed to do was open my mind to the possibility that I too could succeed.

As distasteful as the concept of powerlessness may be, Step One restricts it to one thing, powerlessness over alcohol. Completion of this part of the step requires only one concession — a commitment to abstinence.  As the third tradition of AA states “ … the only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.” Pure simplicity! Well, maybe not so simple. One might ask, does doing Step One actually require a commitment to abstinence? Based on the wording of the third tradition, I think it does. If I state a desire to achieve something, the statement itself carries with it the implicit necessity for commitment. My stated desire to stop drinking carries with it a commitment to abstinence. In this context what else could the word stop mean?

The second suggestion in Step One is also a limited request. It does not say that we alcoholics have always lacked the competence to manage our lives. The implication is clear that my powerlessness over the mind-altering effects of alcohol caused the unmanageability. More simplicity — remove the cause then rebuild a lifestyle based on reason and common sense. I was told repeatedly that compared to a life based on alcoholic fiction, reality isn’t that bad. In retrospect, I now understand that the intense pain created by my addiction motivated two significant changes in attitude. Four years of ambivalence toward the seriousness of my addiction had been replaced with the belief that sobriety was both necessary and doable.

The completion of Step One primarily required honesty, but it also suggested the immediate need for some humility and gratitude. Four years of failure to stay sober had taught me that reliance on my own volition was not a winning strategy. I needed outside help. And I already owed a debt of gratitude for the “welcome back” support I had received. Eleven more steps to go.

Step Two:  Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 

The completion of Step One afforded me a temporary sense of comfort because I had finally gotten honest with myself. I had engaged in the rational assessment of evidence and accepted reality; in my case the acceptance of the necessity to quit drinking. How this newfound honesty came to prevail over the denial of truth was due to the persistent mentoring of two sober alcoholics, friends in the fellowship who themselves had struggled with the uncertainty of early recovery, and who now exhibited the rewards of sober living. I wanted what they had.

I heard early on that the “insanity” from which I wanted to be restored was not a psychiatric condition but the insanity of continually engaging in behavior that violated my own value structure, damaged my most precious personal relationships, eroded the financial stability of the family, and in general prohibited me from flourishing as an adult human being.

The literal structure of Step Two posed a problem for a secular thinker like me because Wilson had chosen to capitalize the word Power, and the message I kept hearing was that I must find God, a God as defined by revelatory religion. If this was to be my only option I knew it would be extremely difficult for me to integrate myself into the AA community. Various terms are used to describe people like me: skeptic, agnostic, secularist, humanist, even atheist.  I simply refer to myself as non-religious. Somewhat stymied, it seemed to me that without some special dispensation my ship of recovery was facing some strong head-winds.

The needed clarification came quickly. Significant latitude for folks like me to define our own version of a “power greater than ourselves” was described by Mr. Wilson himself. On Page 27 of the book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, our co-founder portrays a hypothetical sponsor telling a sponsee, “You can if you wish make A.A. itself your higher power. Here’s a very large group of people who have solved their alcohol problem. In this respect they are certainly a power greater than you, who have not even come close to a solution. Surely you can have faith in them.”

I bought into this option without reservation.  Later, on the next page, Wilson states that eventually “ . . . most of them began to talk about God.”  What was noteworthy to me is he did not say “all of them.”

From Bill Wilson himself, I as an alcoholic am accorded the option to designate AA and the people in it as the “power greater than myself” that will guide me back to sane living.  I chose that option in August of 1984. Thirty-four years later I am still an active member of A.A. and still sober. For me the maintenance of sobriety has been uncomplicated.

The principles for living outlined in the 12 Steps, coupled with the friendship and mentorship given to me freely by sober alcoholics, filled the role of a power greater than myself.  How this works is explained in a single sentence by Ernest Kurtz on page 61 of his book, Not God:  A History of Alcoholics Anonymous. “The therapeutic power of this process of identification arose from the witness it gave, a witness to the healing potency of the shared honesty of mutual vulnerability openly acknowledged.”  Fortunately for me, a substantial amount of support (power) also flowed my way from people outside the recovering community. The quality of my personal relationships superseded the need for me to seek a source of power outside the human community.

There are many powers that exist outside the realm of human control, even outside the realm of human understanding. Reason and common sense have taught me that my only viable option concerning these powers is conformity. Early in my AA experience I heard the acronym HALT: “If you expect to stay sober don’t let yourself get too hungry, too angry, too lonely, or too tired.”  Ingest proper nutrients, engage in emotional self-control, invest in quality personal relationships, and after fighting the law of gravity all day, get some rest.  For anyone to ignore these rational dictates is to risk life itself.  For an alcoholic the risks are magnified.

Step Two moved me closer to intuitively understanding “situations that used to baffle me.”  AA was “doing for me what I could not do for myself.”

Step Three: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him. 

Newly emergent honesty enabled the completion of Step One, and the beginnings of humility led to the completion of Step Two. In both cases the necessary self-appraisal was enhanced by suggestions and self-disclosure from my two sponsors. The real-life example of sobriety they portrayed was the evidence I needed to shove aside doubt and uncertainty about the possibility of my success. Neither of these steps had required me to add anything new to my value system. I didn’t have to re-invent honesty, I just needed to let it re-emerge. After decades of playing and coaching basketball I had a clear understanding of humility — superior opponents and the game itself frequently taught me that lesson. Honesty and humility were now trending upward and the desire to drink had never been weaker. I had made progress!  Step Three now demands a deeper and more comprehensive commitment to the task.

Step Three presents a monumental challenge for a recently dried out alcoholic to contemplate.  I have already admitted powerlessness and unmanageability and accepted the need to rely on outside guidance to return to sane living. But an alcoholic of my type has to continue to deal with egotism, arrogance, selfishness, and the tendency to allow self-will to dominate.  Entrenched propensities this powerful won’t dissipate on their own, and left unaddressed will destroy any chance for sustained sobriety. This step sounds simple. All I have to do is turn my will and my life “over to the care of God.”  If left to stand alone this “over to the care of God” phrase would automatically disqualify a secularist (agnostic, free thinker, atheist) like myself from making a claim to have honestly done Step Three.

Bill Wilson immediately diluted the implied power of the capitalized word “God” with the qualifying phrase, “as we understood Him.” I choose to use the present tense, “as I understand it,” but there is a reason Wilson wrote in the past tense.  In 1938, when he was writing the Big Book, he regularly handed out his latest writing to the early AA’s and asked for feedback. He got plenty!  Three viewpoints emerged. One group wanted no mention of God in any fashion, another accepted references to God but rejected any reference to organized religion, and a third pushed for a purely Christian approach replete with biblical references. With no consensus in sight, Bill was accorded the right to write whatever he felt was appropriate. Thus the phrase, “as we understood Him.”

I am keenly aware that the word God with a capital “G” is ubiquitous throughout AA literature and that a majority of the sober alcoholics I know believe the word refers to a supra-human entity that is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. I concede that AA literature can be used to support this line of thinking. What many sober alcoholics fail to realize, or possibly choose to ignore, is that the same body of literature also grants substantial latitude to rationalists (God skeptics) like myself to define God “as I understand it.” 

As we addressed Step Three, one of my two sponsors insisted I study the chapter “We Agnostics” in the Big Book. To me the most meaningful statement Wilson makes in the chapter is that” down deep in every man, woman, and child is the fundamental idea of God” (p. 55). We need to look no further than ourselves to find a fundamental understanding of god. Personally, I discovered the basis for a spiritually grounded higher power by following the thought paths l followed in the first two steps of AA which led to reliance on sober alcoholics for support. A human power was serving me effectively.

The words “over to the care of” deserve special attention. Most importantly, these words do not tell me I have to totally and permanently relinquish all efforts to influence the course of my own life. After all, the promises on page 83 and 84 of the Big Book present an extensive list of changes that indicate I will regain much of the self-control that was destroyed by alcoholism. Look at it from a rational, common sense perspective. In the course of regular living all of us have periodically relinquished control over things we consider to be our most valuable or most cherished possessions. For convenience, or sometimes due to necessity, we trust others with our children, for safety we deposit our money in banks, and we place our health and sometimes our lives into the hands of medical specialists we have never seen until the need arises for their expertise.

We make the “over to the care of “decisions based on the assumption that our valuable asset will be properly cared for and returned to us in good condition. Step Three can be used in this same fashion. I can use it when I need it. But I don’t ask my higher power to do anything I can do for myself. Recovery presented me with a steady stream of challenges that required help from an outside source. Invariably what I needed was help from another human being, and for help concerning any question about alcoholism my best resource has always been the fellowship of AA.

In the chapter, “We Agnostics,” Wilson states what the Big Book is for; “Its main object is to enable you to find a power greater than yourself which will solve your problem” (p.45). He goes to some length to describe how challenging this quest for a higher power may be and helps to ease possible frustration by adding, “Much to our relief we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God,” (p. 46)

He further adds, “When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God” (p. 47).

Throughout his writings our co-founder used various creative terms to denote possible personal conceptions of a higher power.  According to him, we can develop a relationship with a creative intelligence, a Spirit of Nature, a Universal Mind, the Spirit of the Universe, the Realm of the Spirit, the Great Reality, or a Supreme Being. Take your pick.

Although Wilson suggested this wide range of choices from which to select a higher power, he was unequivocal concerning the role of formal religion. In response to a magazine article that questioned AA’s relationship with religion, he acknowledged that although he and Dr. Bob had their own beliefs, “Nothing, however, could be so unfortunate for A.A.’s future as an attempt to incorporate any of our personal theological views into A.A. teaching, practice, or traditions”  (Language of the Heart. p. 346).

Bill Wilson made it clear to me that I was on solid footing. AA and the people in it were solidly established as the higher power I needed to achieve and maintain sobriety.  Thirty-four years later, that handful of early supporters is now supplemented by a large, reliable sober support network from both within and outside the recovering community.

About the Author

John has been married for 52 years and has three adult children. After two years in the army he spent 17-year teaching and coaching. He was also a restaurant and bar owner for 17 years and an addictions counselor for 9 years. He reports an “interesting” six-and-a-half-years as the office manager for the AA intergroup in Ft. Wayne, IN. A former college basketball star, John, at 82, still goes to the gym several times a week to shoot 200 three-pointers.   

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Maricica S
Maricica S
1 year ago

The 12 step community, by their own accord states their overall success rate is only 10–20%. Success being defined as maintaining continuous sobriety. To me that indicates 80–90% are not finding any success in the program. AA tells members and prospective members that their organization is the only way to sobriety. The addiction treatment industry uses a 12 step format stating that the 12 step model is the only way to achieve sobriety. The very first inpatient treatment was the begining of the development of the business arm of the 12 step organization. This industry grew and has flourished up… Read more »

2 years ago

John, thanks. A very sensible interpretation of the steps from a non-believer’s perspective – insofar as that is possible, or even necessary or desirable. Well, to some it is, and I think sometimes this can be helpful when I have to justify my 30 year membership in AA to a believer, such as today, when someone asked me how I can be sober without a higher power. We eventually settled on that to him he group was my higher power, and to me a higher power is not needed. It is one alcoholic helping another, or a group of alcoholics… Read more »

Chris P.
Chris P.
2 years ago

John, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.  I am most definitely the only non-religious member in my home group and articles like these help show me that there is a place for free-thinkers in AA as well.  Your article reminded me of a comical interview I once saw with Steven Colbert interviewing Russel Brand.  Russel has been sober for a number of years and is most definitely not a spiritual chap.  As Steven Colbert read off steps 1 through 3, Russel gave his translation (pardon the language): Step 1.  Are you f*&^ed? Step 2.  Can you get un-f**^ed? Step… Read more »

Chris C
Chris C
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris P.

Stephen Colbert & Russel Brand  talk recovery: https://youtu.be/nPJ3Sg_Uz4Q


Thomas Brinson
Thomas Brinson
2 years ago

Thanks John for posting this excellent, down to earth explication of AA’s first three steps from a secular, non-religious perspective. I note that he has no need to excoriate believers or those of us in secular AA who tolerate the spirituality of traditional AA, such as some of the “determined atheists” in our midst angrily do.

Chris P.
Chris P.
2 years ago
Reply to  Thomas Brinson

Agreed Thomas!

Wouldn’t it be a cruelty to try to take away a spiritual belief that has helped our friend in the program maintain sobriety?  Also, I find the feeling to need to change people’s beliefs is predicated on judgment, a quality that is not in harmony with the principles of AA whatsoever.  Acceptance of our lives as they are and finding contentment in that is only part of the journey.  Acceptance of the same in others is another step on the same path.

John S
2 years ago

For me everything that I do in recovery is practical action that I myself took with the help of other people. There was nothing supernatural about it. My first three steps are simple and are the basic processes that any human being undertakes in a rational way to deal with any problem. 1) I recognize there is a problem, 2) I understand the problem can resolved, 3) I make a decision to take the action to resolve the problem. It seems that a lot of people when interpreting the steps focus so much on figuring out a higher power. In… Read more »