A Heathen Looks at the 12 Steps

Why does Refuge Recovery exist? Why is there SMART? SOS? Addiction counselors? Women in Sobriety? Secularized versions of AA’s 12 Steps? Why is there an Alan Carr book on quitting drinking?

The simple answer is: “Quitting drinking is not easy.” Corollary: “I need help — some kind of help.”

I’m no absolutist. There are indeed many paths to sobriety. I’ll even concede that some people do it on their own. There is a qualifier to that though. We really don’t know what resources the people who quit on their own called upon, in order to quit on their own. So to speak.

At this very second, there are people driving automobiles on the streets of the United States and Canada without insurance, driver’s licenses, or up-to-date car registrations. Some have been getting away with that for years! A small percentage of a percentage will never be caught! However, the math is bad — there’s a low probability of not eventually being captured by the police, and/or paying a huge price for a minor fender-bender. A few people getting away with those things don’t make them good ideas.

Try to quit drinking on my own was a tricky business. Even up to the end, there were only minimal symptoms of physical addiction, so I could stop abruptly with little difficulty. At some unpredictable time after stopping abruptly, I would start abruptly. I was pretty good at stopping drinking. I was even better at restarting. The stop-start cycle was repeated many, many times. I never quit for really long periods — the periods just felt REALLY long! Getting 19 correct answers out of 20 on a test at school garners a very nice mark. Ending 19 days of sobriety with some drunken episode on Day 20, unfortunately does not produce a 95% life improvement.

An old AA adage proclaims: “There’s more to quitting drinking that quitting drinking” 

In Carl Jung’s reply to Bill Wilson’s 1961 letter, the psychoanalyst compared the craving for alcohol to the “thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in mediaeval language; the union with God.” The implication is that “union with God” would be described as something else in more modern terms. Many secularists in today’s AA community talk of “connectedness.” A lot of us felt connected at parties, or at bars, when we were floating on “just the right amount” of liquor. Others of us drank in isolation, awash in a sea of the most negative self-talk. I think there is a sober thirst for connection. That does not stop some of us from fearing the bonding with our fellows, at the same time as wanting it.

There’s a lot in Alcoholics Anonymous that is grating to the ear of the freethinker — fingernails on a chalkboard. Is it worth taking a look beneath the religiosity in a search for useful information? I would argue that it is. I have a tricky problem — something of a conundrum. I can’t drink, and I can’t not drink. That doesn’t leave much.


There was a glorious time when even the damned fundamentalists could wait until the Second Step to start talking about God. Step One talk then was purely about the problem. An admission of powerless over alcohol has two components:

  1. I have a lousy OFF switch once I start drinking. That tends to become progressively worse over time. In my case, there is substantial evidence of a genetic causality, albeit that my brother and my sister are non-alcoholic. The OFF switches of alcoholics are often, but not necessarily, defective from the start.
  2. After years of drinking and making every imaginable excuse to continue drinking, even in the face of increasingly severe consequences, I experience tremendous difficulty in either stopping, or in staying stopped. Seeing addiction purely in terms of physical dependence is an “old idea,” a dated way of viewing the alcoholic dilemma. The “mental obsession” is what makes quitting drinking such a slippery business.


The confession of an unmanageable life opens the door for the book thumper to jump right into his, “We need a new Manager” talk. The new Managers of the fundamentalist variety are the ones, I mean Ones, that come with capital letters. The exalted, dark blue book confirms the need for a “new Manager with a capital ‘M'” position.

So what? 

I have two big problems — I can’t drink as the consequences become continuously more debilitating. I can’t not drink because that at times becomes so unpleasant that I say “F$%# this!!” and take my chances with drinking. As that cycle repeats itself, time and again, over and over, does that constitute an unmanageable life? As I said earlier, I’m not an absolutist, but a friend used to say “It’s close enough for government work.”

Step 2

Easy-peasy. AA has helped millions of people; maybe it can help me. BOOM!! Next!!

No need for a lot of Higher Power talk. I need new resources.

Step 3


“Made a decision to give the process (albeit an altered version) an honest try.”

No need to pay much attention to the hyperbole saturating the original language.

Steps 4 & 10

While I pay scant attention to priests, preachers, bloviators, sponsors, and the like, my intellectual snobbery has a fondness for philosophers. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” 

“Cool, Man — that’s deep!” 

Alcoholics Anonymous is all about self-examination. The newcomer still suffering the ravages of a deluded brain struggles to see his situation for what it is. He has been wading for months and years through the bovine excrement of “I’m not that bad,” or “I need to cut back on my weekday drinking.” After coming to AA, he may have moved on to “How did all this happen to a nice guy like me?”

Well, I really hate that this terrible day has finally arrived. I am ready to place myself on the sacrificial altar that is AA, except for Tuesdays, that’s darts night. Anyway, I REALLY, REALLY, REALLY need to quit drinking . . . for a while, at least. I’d hate to lose my wife — she has a REALLY good job.

Most alcoholics will admit that they have real troubles apart from the ones directly attached to drinking. Step 4 focuses on fear and resentment. Who wouldn’t like to have less worry, frustration, bitterness, anxiety, proneness to anger, self-pity, etc.? Some of us have excessive ambition, others a lack of it. Do I choose to live in reality, or a world of fantasy? The removal of alcohol doesn’t remove my tendency to see some things in a warped way. There’s no need to see any of these traits as sins. If the terms “character defects” or “shortcomings” are offensive, change the words. “The words won’t mind,” as my friend Joe C. is wont to point out.

Step 10 asks me to make up with people I’ve had collisions with. It asks me to own up to it when I’ve behaved badly. Hard to argue with that.


“Bless me father, for I have sinned . . .” There’s no need to drag out the rosary. “Confession is good for the soul,” if you’ll pardon a metaphorical term. People pay $175 per hour to confess. In AA it’s free. If I’m uncertain about all this, I can try a little bit at a time, and see how it goes. My new friends have some terrific self-revelatory, and self-deprecatory stories. I’m free to just listen for a while.


AA language gets in the way of some good ideas. “Let go, and let God.” Who knew this information was so wise? I only need to lop off the last part.

Justice and Self-Esteem

I expect Socrates and Plato would be all over Step 9. Early on in my AA life, one of the oldsters had some wise words. Wilf had the doubled credibility that comes from white hair, and a calm, gentle demeanor. “As far as the ninth step goes, I chose to concentrate on my family and my employer.” That made sense to me. I wasn’t losing sleep over some kid I threw a rock at during Grade Two recess. Or, did he throw a rock at me?

I was very good to my parents the last two years of their lives, and I’m very glad that I was.

Step 11

I’m not a prayer guy. Surprisingly, some atheists are. Meditation is something that I got by without for a long time. My venture into it the past few years has been positive, but not life-changing.

Step 12

It’s a great joy to help others to get back onto a decent life pathway, even I’m my contributions are not huge.

About the Author

Bob K. is the author of Key Players in AA History. He is working to get two new books into print by Spring — The Road to AA: Pilgrims to Prohibition, and The Secret Diaries of Bill W.

He recently celebrated 28 of years of AA recovery as an out-of-the-closet atheist the entire time. In late 2013, along with Craig C, Bob cofounded the Whitby Freethinkers Group, just east of Toronto.

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1 year ago

I’m so lucky to be a ‘first-nighter’ in ‘83. Have often had trouble comprehending the experience of those who’ve had to really struggle to ‘get’ it, felt sort of inadequate at helping. Your light-but-pithy touch has helped a lot. (So does Al-anon for some reason!). Thanks.

David Poirier
David Poirier
1 year ago

Thanks for this straight forward, “Bob”s take” on staying sober. As per usual, you have a knack of knocking me into THE place I should be in my sobriety. Timely read as I am just back from a 14 day sunshine break, and in need of some AA!. See you tonight my friend at WFT.

1 year ago

Great article using the reasoning of Occam’s razor. If my sobriety is due to following straightforward, practical actions, why drag in mystical explanations that add nothing but confusion and magical thinking? I discovered 41 years ago that going to meetings, hanging out with sober people, asking for help, cleaning up my act, and giving back kept me from picking up that first drink. Keep it simple!

Bobby Freaken Beach
Bobby Freaken Beach
1 year ago
Reply to  Glenn

I’ve been an Occam’s Razor fan since I was a little shaver.

Dean W
Dean W
1 year ago

Thanks Bob for sharing your eminently sensible, nonreligious approach to AA. The fact that it has worked for you for 28 years speaks volumes. And as usual, thanks for the humor. Like many of us, I tend to take myself (and things in general) too seriously. A good laugh helps.

Lance Bredvold
Lance Bredvold
1 year ago

Very nice, Bob. Since you spent time writing out your thoughts which are much like what I regularly say in AA meetings (and to myself) you expressed yourself better. I’ll borrow some of the verbiage at the meeting coming up.

And I too liked and identified with the much improved treatment of my parents (and brother) during the last years of their lives. My sister is an ongoing opportunity.

Bob K
Bob K
1 year ago
Reply to  Lance Bredvold

We affectionately call my sister “THE EVIL ONE.” Well, we would if any of us ever talked to her. Sadly, we have all failed to live up to her high standards, even her own children and grandchildren.