12 Questions about 12 Steps – #3, “I’m not religious, is AA for me?”

November 21, 2016
12-Step programs, which are, after 80 years, still a foundational component of many treatment programs for addiction, have come under fire of late. Over 12 months, we are trying to unpack the discussion in a helpful way with the help of “James.”

James Krah is a licensed drug and alcohol counselor at American Addiction Centers where he serves as Director of Desert Hope Outpatient. His direct, simple approach makes him an ever-popular 12-Step facilitator among those in treatment.   

4 Tips for the question: “I’m not religious, is AA for me?”

spiritual side of recovery
Step #3: “[We] made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him [it].”

The mention of “God” can be particularly thorny for those who do not consider themselves “religious,” even though contemporary 12-Step practice often addresses this by interchanging “God” with “higher power.” Getting caught on the terms “God” and “higher power” can be a distraction. Sometimes it says more about the practitioner’s relationship to addiction than about actual flaws in the Step. So a good dose of self-honesty is needed when asking this question.

For someone in recovery who believes neither in God nor a “higher power,” the challenge of Step #3 becomes to devise a definition of “higher power” that works. In other words, determine not to be distracted from the functional practice of Step #3: deciding (commitment) and surrendering the will or letting go of egotism.

Tip 1: Be Determined and Creative

Though the program grew in the 1930s out of a spiritual organization known as the Oxford Group, and its early members included a minister and a man who had experienced a “religious conversion,” 12-Step groups as practiced today typically leave the problem of defining higher power up to the individual. As a result, those committed to following the 12 Steps have embraced some creative definitions of “higher power.” For instance, well-known yoga instructor Tommy Rosen refers to yogic practice as his higher power. He looks at Step #3 this way:

“To turn our will over means to stay present… from the yogic perspective, the first thing that comes to mind for me is ‘get on your mat’… a funny thing is that when we get on the mat, we practice. We make that commitment every single day. Come back to the mat.” – Tommy Rosen

Giving up Control

In the phrase “turn our will and our lives over to the care of a ‘higher power,’” the actionable verb is “turn our will and our lives over,” not “higher power.” So if we find ourselves focused heavily on an argument about the existence of God or higher powers, we should make sure it’s not because what we are really resisting is “giving up control.”


The main tool we develop with Step 3 is one that loosens the vice-like grip we sometimes have on controlling things. The idea of having no control is a radical one.


Over the years, the disease of addiction has been stigmatized, and as a result we have been fed a lot of misinformation about addiction and control. This includes statements about our character that many of us have adopted, like “His addiction is about lack of self-control” or “Her ‘refusal’ to give up drugs shows ‘lack of willpower.’”  Neither of these statements accurately represents the real disease of addiction according to the latest science.

When we let these judgments rule, we fall down a rabbit hole where all the outcome options connect us to hopelessness. We say, “I can quit. I just have to summon the willpower.”  We fail time after time and say, “next time, I’ll really mean it.” In this vicious cycle we court failure, which leads to self-condemnation and loathing, which can easily lead us back to drinking or using. Failure thinking takes us to specious rationalizations such as, “If I have failed anyway, why not enjoy it?”

For Step #3, the 12-Step website features a video with Dr. Douglas Cook. Addressing those who have reservations about “God” and “higher power,” Cook suggests working Step 3 “as if.” In other words, follow the actions – the decision, the commitment – as if there were a God.

“All we need is a key, and there is only one key and it is called willingness…Ego and logic can be barriers to your spiritual development… The end result of believing in total self-sufficiency is self-righteousness and tunnel vision.” Dr. Douglas Cook.
Willingness is a lot more doable than will power.

As James recommends, “keep an open mind.” Even if 12-Step is not ultimately a good tool for a particular individual, experimenting with this tool by going to meetings and observing our personal resistance can give us valuable insights.
If you find yourself answering yes to any of the following questions, consider it a warning sign.

  • Am I attached to “terminal uniqueness”?
  • Am I afraid to “give up control” to “a method” or to “other people”?
  • Am I resistant to abstinence, even though I have failed at sobriety repeatedly?
  • Do I want to believe I can “manage” my addiction rather than stop using altogether? (Without genetic evidence, you should consider it a “belief” rather than a fact.)

Ideally, a person in recovery is undergoing a lot of personal growth. The psychology of addiction can throw up unique pitfalls. And resistance generally shows us areas where we need to grow. So resistance to 12-Step, or failure to gain value from 12-Step, can provide self-awareness and point to the issues that might make us vulnerable to relapse. Even if we ultimately decide 12-Step is not for us, the insight gained by trying with an open mind is all valuable feedback for those trying to safeguard their recovery.

What is “Terminal Uniqueness”

The expression “terminal uniqueness” is an example of the frank way of speaking often heard in 12-Step meetings. The term refers the temptation to think that one’s situation is unique. It is common among those seeking recovery. When someone comes along with advice, the bargaining alcoholic will say that his or her case is different or that the advisor doesn’t know what it’s like. Because 12-Step meetings are made up of others who struggle with addiction, people at 12-Step meetings don’t accept this reasoning. Those who find themselves resisting 12-Step meetings have to ask themselves honestly, am I attached to the idea of my unique situation? Or can I let it go?

I Can Manage This – Why Give It Up?

When drinking or drug abuse is at the core of someone’s social life – for example, when one belongs to a drinking culture or drinking is part of the socialization – giving up the substance altogether means a whole change in our social fabric and lifestyle. We may look forward to giving up the alcohol, but when we add in the loss of friendships, of the “happy” time spent under the influence with others, the thought can be frightening.
It’s hard to say never. And while it’s true that some of us don’t have to say never, we should be cautious and make certain that denial is not in play. That requires us to be very honest in our self-assessments. Sometimes we need an objective pair of eyes on the situation.  Those at meetings can provide the eyes.

Tip 4: Don’t Accept “Failure” – If 12 Steps Didn’t Work for You, Try an Alternative

Concept conceptual 3D male businessman on stair or steps over suIt’s not that there aren’t alternatives to the 12-Step programs for maintaining recovery. If you have tried many 12-Step programs, asked yourself the above questions with honesty, found no emotional reactions to point to addictive issues in play, and you still feel the 12-Step approach isn’t ideal for you, you are not alone.

What we didn’t know when the parent 12-Step program, AA, was invented was that genetics play a key role in addiction. And it wasn’t until a few years ago that medical professionals could actually isolate genetic profiles that have the highest vulnerability to addiction. Before this was possible, the tenets of AA made sense, along with members’ fear that “if you don’t work AA, you are going to relapse.” There was no way to tell who might succeed on an alternative path and who would not.

For those who still stumble over the “higher power” concept, the science-based approach known as SMART combines aspects of the latest therapeutic tools, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), while fulfilling recovery needs shown, by a number of studies, to decrease the likelihood of relapse: the need for community and the need for individual support. The SMART Recovery Program borrows many elements of 12-Step, minus the abstinence and higher power. It strives to emphasize empowerment of the individual as it focuses on four areas:

SMART Recovery

Anyone in search of a 12-Step alternative might find it interesting to study differences between SMART and 12-Step. For example, in survey response data SMART participants generally stress that the meetings are one of the most valuable aspects of the program. So in effect, you may be limited by a lack of meetings and groups in your area. Also, there is some data to suggest SMART attendees skew older.


12-Step programs are to be practiced “one day at a time.”


Self-honesty can be very hard to come by. It demands a kind of ruthlessness with our patterns of thinking. But if a person can cultivate self-honesty, then they are free to experiment with different programs, make a commitment, challenge internal resistance, and grow.

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