The twelve steps:

  1. Admit you have a problem.
  2. Admit you need help from a higher power. This need not be the Judeo-Christian God.
  3. Make a decision to turn your life around through help from the above higher power.
  4. Make a detailed personal moral inventory. As in write it down, and actually analyze yourself, item by item.
  5. Admit to yourself and to another human being the exact nature of your wrong.
  6. Become entirely ready to have your higher power remove your shortcomings.
  7. Humbly ask your higher power to remove said shortcomings.
  8. Make a list of every person you have harmed, and become willing to make amends to them.
  9. Make direct amends to the people on the aforementioned list.
  10. Continue to take a detailed personal inventory to root out your shortcomings.
  11. Seek through prayer and/or meditation to improve your relationship with your higher power as you understand it, asking only for knowledge of its will and the power to realize it.
  12. Carry the message to other sufferers of your affliction, and live out the spirit of the 12 steps.

People criticize 12-step programs as being a kind of psychological cult, and they do make some valid points, but the program is a proven method for many people to get off and stay off alcohol and drugs, and generally change their lives for the better.

I see it as a kind of prosthesis for the soul: Through the abuse of drugs, the addict has burned out their soul and lost control over their own life, becoming a machine for the consumption of more drugs. Like getting a synthetic heart, attending a 12-step program replaces the lost soul with an inferior model that doesn't do everything the original did and requires constant maintenance to keep in working order.

The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:

  • 1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-- that our lives had become unmanageable.
  • 2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  • 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  • 4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  • 5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  • 6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  • 7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  • 8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • 9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  • 10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  • 11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  • 12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
"The relative success of the A.A. program seems to be due to the fact that an alcoholic who no longer drinks has an exceptional faculty for "reaching" and helping an uncontrolled drinker. In simplest form, the A.A. program operates when a recovered alcoholic passes along the story of his or her own problem drinking, describes the sobriety he or she has found in A.A., and invites the newcomer to join the informal Fellowship.
Newcomers are not asked to accept or follow these Twelve Steps in their entirety if they feel unwilling or unable to do so. They will usually be asked to keep an open mind, to attend meetings at which recovered alcoholics describe their personal experiences in achieving sobriety, and to read A.A. literature describing and interpreting the A.A. program.
A.A. members will usually emphasize to newcomers that only problem drinkers themselves, individually, can determine whether or not they are in fact alcoholics.
At the same time, it will be pointed out that all available medical testimony indicates that alcoholism is a progressive illness, that it cannot be cured in the ordinary sense of the term, but that it can be arrested through total abstinence from alcohol in any form."


The above information is from   Having only attended one Al-Anon meeting, I don’t have much personal information to add. I did learn, however, that participants in Al-Anon Family Groups also follow the twelve steps, and each person will have a sponsor, just like in AA. The only difference in the twelve steps of Al-Anon is the wording of step 12, where they say “carry this message to others” rather than “to alcoholics.”

Notice that the twelve steps are in the past tense; the point here is that there are many, many people who have already successfully worked through the steps, and reclaimed their lives.

Many of us exclaimed, “What an order! I can’t go through with it.” Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.1

1 Alcoholics Anonymous, First Edition, pages 59-60; quoted on , 2/18/03.

The official website for Alcoholics Anonymous is The official website for Al Anon Family Groups is


There are principles that go with each of the steps; they are as follows:

Personal commentary: step one | step two | step three | step four | step five | step six | step seven | step eight | step nine | step ten | more to be added later...

I would like to offer some insight onto this discussion, being a member of Alcoholics Anonymous myself. One of skongshoj's strongest arguments against AA is step Nine, in which alcoholics are made prepared to start amending their past. As Dutchess pointed out in the previous post, the actual reading of the 9th Step text is "Made direct amends to such people possible, EXCEPT when to do so would injure themselves or others ," and not a suggestion to walk blindly back into a harmful or frightening situation. Thus, if the wound was too grievously dealt, it is recommended that the person find an indirect way of making amends, such as writing a letter or paying back charities. Often times the person you harmed is dead and there is no physical way to make direct amends. Or, as in the instance that skongshoj quoted, one might write a long unsent letter. The point of making amends is to clear your own soul, to "clean your side of the street", to make you become aware of your actions as to avoid the worst of them again.

Alcoholics Anonymous, nor ANY 12 step program claims to "cure" an addiction. Addiction is not something that can be cured, i.e, a heroin addict will not learn to use heroin safely, nor would anyone in their right mind suggest they try, lest the chance of failing to control their usage kill them. Alcohol has the same principles when abused, and even the medical profession is in agreement. Addiction is a disease than can be curtailed and held off by the process of simply not diving back into the physical addiction of alcohol.

The "moral" inventory mentioned in the 12 steps speak to the reasons behind the addiction. It is all good and well to stop drinking, but if you do not attempt to resolve the issues behind the drinking then the balm and oblivion of drinking starts to sound good and before you know it, you are back to the abusive cycle of drinking. It is well known that in order to stop the symptoms you need to reach the root of the problem. Medically speaking, stopping drinking IS enough. For a human being to stay out of an abusive cycle, they need to be working on the reasons WHY they were in that cycle to begin with.

The Big Book was written in 1932 originally, with revisions coming out roughly every 10 to 15 years. As such, the spiritual side of Alcoholics Anonymous has also changed. Alternative religions were not a part of the program when it first started, but today in any room across the world it is made very clear that Christianity is NOT the only Higher Power to choose from. The reason that alcoholics are suggested to find a Higher Power is because the force of addiction often goes beyond a person's rational ability to think and something just as strong is needed to counter-act that force.

I am a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I am an alcoholic. I will not say this program has "saved" me, nor that it has "cured" the "demon alcohol". It has given me something else to believe in than the continuation of death and depression that alcohol brought me.

The 12-step program Metanode

A catalogue of twelve-step-related material on E2. Please feel free to /msg me with addictions -- I mean additions -- or corrections.

Twelve-Step Fellowships
These are peer-led support groups which use tools including the twelve steps and the sharing of experience, strength, and hope to deal with a particular issue shared by the members. There are many others that are not noded here. Below each one are some related and explanatory links.

Twelve-step groups are usually communities with long histories and shared culture; here are a smattering of concepts found there and noded here.

Each twelve-step fellowship has its own literature. This can include the welcoming messages read at each meeting, the fellowship's "Big Book" telling members how the program works, the steps themselves, or various other booklets, meditations, and personal stories.

Specific Steps
Several E2 members have shared their experiences working specific steps, or just written about the step itself. Here is what we have so far.

These are some of the little phrases that people rely on to quickly summarize bigger concepts. A friend of mine likes to comment on how humbling it is that trite phrases such as these save people's lives.

A list of these and many more twelve step groups can be found at

An Atheist's Guide to Twelve-Step Recovery from Substance Addiction


You’re a thoughtful and well considered atheist.

And you've noticed recently that you might be dying from the crap you put in your body. A little. Maybe that's just the hangover or the dope-sickness talking, but the shit has been hitting the fan a lot lately and drinking and/or drugging is playing a leading role in all the drama. You've heard of 12-step recovery and you want to try it out. You know there are other programs, but this one is everywhere and it's free.

You've also heard this AA stuff has something to do with God. Having given the God hypothesis a fair shot over the years, you found it doesn't fit your honest experience of the world. You'd kind of like to believe it, it would make some things much easier, but you know in your heart that the universe doesn't hear or answer prayers. Not the way most religious people you've ever met think of it anyway. You may have played around a bit with Buddhist ideas, but never very seriously. You were busy getting loaded and trying always to feel better than--well, than however you might have felt at the moment. Good bad or indifferent. It's tough work and it's been keeping you fairly preoccupied.

You figure you can fake your way through the God part and get to whatever's actually useful, so you make a call and get a meeting time and place for the program that seems to deal most directly with your favorite mind-altering hobby.

The second you walk in, God is everywhere. God is on the walls. God is in the opening prayer. God is in the book. God is in the steps. They even close the thing with the Lord's Prayer. What the hell? 

It's okay. You can do it without the God concept. Many have. Many are.


So how do you approach this 12-step thing as an atheist?

First of all, expect that you probably won't be well understood by many of your fellow AA's, NA's, CA's, whatever. Not all of them will know you're an atheist, of course, unless you insist on wearing your "God is dead" Nietzsche T-shirt to every meeting. But simply by being honest in your speech you'll reveal yourself often enough. You'll frequently be put in a box marked "UNWILLING TO BELIEVE," and all the ingredients are listed on the outside--

CONTENTS: close-mindedness, self-will, arrogance, resentments against God, too smart for own good. 

Many of the most orthodox 12-steppers you meet--the ones who have memorized dozens of quotes and their associated page numbers in the literature--will feel no need to look inside the box. At you. It's all on the label, after all. Often as not you'll get a condescending "Keep coming back," with an unspoken, "You'll eventually get it if you don't die first," from these sorts. In that ubiquitous blue book they use there's a whole chapter dedicated to describing what lunkheads some alcoholics had been (and by extension, you are now) for resisting the quite logical idea that there's a God running things. The man who wrote that chapter fancied himself something of an Aquinas at the time. Forgive that, he's really not a bad guy. He was just doing the best he could, same as you.

Despite all this, you will--if you look around a bit and stay open--find someone unbigoted enough to accept your sincere atheism without judgment. And you will discover in that person a caring friend who will show you the ropes. There are people like that here. Also, you will learn that being fully understood and accepted by everyone is not the be all end all of life. That's a lesson that could help immeasurably as you move on without the old numbing tools, the ones that helped take away the sting of unfair judgments. Life's not fair. Life is all sorts of things that aren't pleasant. That has not been the problem.


Why hang out with these starry-eyed believers?

You're not expecting to have some kind of conversion experience and suddenly find that God has lifted away your obsession to get loaded (after all, AA's very religious co-founder spent his first two and a half years sober craving a drink). And, of course, you're not asking God to fix you either. Hell, even the people here who do believe in intercessory prayer, and who've asked Him to take away their various human frailties fully accept that for reasons unexplained He can't quite pull it off. That particular aspect of the program, the part about the so-called defects of character, requires a lifetime of constant work. There's a lot of trust in Allah, but tie up your camel going on there.

So what's the point of being here?

They have something, these people. You can feel it, and you can see it in the smiles of the best of them. Some of their stories are a lot worse than yours, and they're fat and happy now. They have a solution to this endless, insane habit of eating yourself alive for emotional sustenance until you're gnawing away at your own heart. They're not getting loaded and they're not white-knuckling it. They just don't need it anymore. You're pretty sure there's no God up there, so what in the world is at work here?

Here's the nut of what they have going on in a quote from their literature:


"This is the how and why of it. First of all we had to quit playing God. It didn't work."1


They stopped playing God.

You don't run the world, so stop trying. You can't alter the law of cause and effect, especially when the cause is a drink or a drug, and the effect is the need to drink and use even more. Wishing, hoping, pretending that you can change the things you can't--this could be described poetically as "playing God." The folks here have quit that position. It was a suck job anyhow.

I'm referring only to the people that are actually practicing the principles represented in the steps. There are plenty of poor bastards here too who are just following their herd instinct and are staying dry because they couldn't bear the disapproval of their new friends. For the most part they're a miserable lot. Some of these people will get loaded again and eventually die of their addictions because they can't bear to come back through those doors minus the badge of however many years they had without a drink or a drug. That pride in their clean and sober time was in essence their new drug. They're not your concern.

But the people who really have decided to stop playing God, they have something you need. They have a willingness to live life on life's terms. And the most important of those terms is that if you’re an alcoholic or an addict, you can't get loaded recreationally. For people like us the consequences of getting loaded are disastrous. Jails, institutions, death--they will tell you. And you can see it's true from the arc of your own experience.

Most of these people gave up playing God because they came to believe there is a God--and so of course they accept that they can't possibly be Him. Perfectly logical. You can do it for the simple reason that it just doesn't work. That's enough, isn't it? Maybe it's time to say enough of doing what doesn't fucking work. That you're not God means quite simply that you don't dictate the laws of reality. It doesn’t really matter who or what does. That's what the 12-step program has for you.


You can accept reality as your Higher Power.

You'll be told you can choose your own Higher Power. In the AA literature this is very clearly just a placeholder for God, a way to get started on the path to finding Him. But in the rooms things are generally much more lax. You can accept as your higher power the reality that you can't get loaded safely, no matter how much you wish you could. The reality that your actions are never divorced from their consequences. The reality that whatever you feel or think this moment about getting loaded must come after the certainty of what always happens when that shit gets in your body. You may have seen the truth of this quite clearly at times in the past, but there was always something lacking in your relationship to that truth. That was the problem all along. Putting yourself above the truth. Playing God. You'll be hearing a lot about humility in these rooms. This is what they're talking about.

To accommodate using reality as your higher power, you will have to bend the steps some from their current and now canonical wording. You can't pray to reality, but you can form and express your intention to live by its rules. And you can meditate in order to cultivate mindfulness of what's real. This won't necessarily please all those orthodox 12-steppers, but then it's unrealistic to expect literalists to be open-minded. And getting real is the whole idea here.2


How about the inventory stuff? Sounds like the confessional.

Yeah, that's what it started as in the Oxford Groups, the practices of which made up much of AA's six original steps. Confession and restitution, they called it. But the principles involved are practical and ethical not religious. Before you can set off in the right direction, you need to know where you are just now. Even a compass and a map can't tell you which way to walk without the "YOU ARE HERE" part. And then practicing some form of ethical living, which this can help with, is a better painkiller in the long run than what you've been using. It all goes to clearing up much of the crap you used to get loaded over. Consider this part of the program a kind of navigational tool to steer you away from creating more wreckage in the world. Because the heartbreak of that wreckage is just goddamn impossible to bear sober.


For the atheist, those twelve steps on the wall and in the book represent four things in essence:

  1. A recognition that you haven't been able get loaded in anything approaching moderation and without consistently creating havoc.
  2. A surrender to the fact that this is a kind of law of nature for you, and that fighting it has been insane.
  3. A willingness to let reality be the guide of your actions henceforth in this and in everything else.
  4. A commitment to try and stop hurting yourself or others, and to help where you can.


It does get better along this path. Your chances improve if you keep at it with some kind of daily practice that keeps you mindful of reality--especially the reality of your addiction--and of your place in it. Service from within a sober community helps immeasurably there. That's my personal experience and that of many other atheist drunks and addicts who are walking up this road as best they can. You'll find them in the 12-step rooms and other recovery networks, and they can show you what words can't teach.


1Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 62

2Keep in mind that AA was midwifed by a small group of men who believed in mystically revealed wisdom. But those men were also humble enough to admit that their book should be suggestive only, and to predict that more would be understood over time. With the continuing recovery of many non-theist AA's over the years, this prediction has been realized.

 What Do 12-Step Programs Involve?

  • Free peer group support from people who share what has worked for them;
  • The sense of safety and self-esteem-building experience of an organization in which everyone’s voice and work is equally important;
  • Unique tools for setting boundaries, increasing self-awareness, managing money, releasing anger and guilt, planning meals, and strengthening relationships;
  • Ongoing, life-long support in transforming our lives.  


What Do People Get Out Of 12-Step Programs?

I've been working the steps in a wide variety of 12-step programs for close to 10 years at the time of this posting. (No, there's no "12-Step Addicts Anonymous." For the same reason that there's no... I don't know... "Getting Really Good Massages Anonymous.") I am lucky enough not to have any substance addictions, but there seem to be no limits to what else I can use to mess my life up, avoid my feelings, avoid having real relationships with other human beings, run my finances into the ground, run what relationships I do manage to have into the ground - and cetera.


"Addiction" just means, essentially, something that you compulsively use in a way that harms you. (I would say "it means not being able to stop fucking up your life by yourself", but that's not so formal.) There is a program out there for very nearly anything you can do that with, sometimes several. Overeaters Anonymous, Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Codependents Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, Procrastinators Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Underearners Anonymous. There's something for every substance you can be addicted to as well, including Nicotine Anonymous and Marijuana Anonymous.


And there are plenty for the ways that other people can mess up our lives. Dysfunctional and abusive upbringings can dent and warp our defense mechanisms so that we careen through life with the same basic problem: having a dysfunctional relationship, ourselves, with food, other people, drugs and alcohol, money, work, and so forth. Hence: Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families, Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, Survivors of Incest Anonymous, Families Anonymous, COSA (like Al-Anon but for people affected by sex addicts), and on and on. In these programs, 


Healthier Relationships With Ourselves & Others

Twelve-step work makes it very easy to see what things aren’t our responsibility to change, and what we need to fix on our own side of the street. When people see that we are interested in supporting them in fixing their own problems, instead of trying to fix those problems for them, and that we are interested in taking responsibility for our mistakes and setting healthier boundaries with them, they become able to be more honest with us. Instead of seeing us as authorities to rebel against, our children start to see us as role models. They start to share their problems, feelings, and successes with us, instead of shutting us out in favor of peer pressure.


I sometimes find myself in a never ending circle of dealing with the problems of living.  I deal with my life as I saw my parents deal with theirs, and they dealt with their life as they saw their parents. Until I am willing to break the circle and forge a new shape to my life, I will remain stuck. By working my 12-step program, I stand a chance of making changes that can lead to a better way of life for my family and me.” – Families Anonymous member


Powerful, Healthy Boundaries

A twelve-step program involves more than just going to supportive meetings. The core of the program is working the steps with someone we trust who can show us what helped them. One of the many benefits of working the steps is discovering where we’ve given our power away without realizing it – and what we can do about that.  


Freedom From Anger & Resentment

Every parent whose child has run into a busy street without looking, or come home hours late without calling, knows that anger comes from fear. The tools that we learn in twelve-step programs free us, over time, from our fear and our anger.


Instead, we get to learn what we have the power to change in our lives, how to change it, and how to heal the roots of our rage – and as we and our loved ones practice those skills, all the old worry, fear, and resentments that were eating us up start slipping away.


Healthier Relationships With Food, Work, Money….

Many people have gotten into twelve-step programs to support (or get support around living with) an addicted family member, and then found tremendous help in areas they had struggled with for years. Of course, there are programs like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, Families Anonymous, and Codependents Anonymous that help people understand a loved one’s behavior and needs in more depth, and set stronger boundaries with them. These are often great places for parents who don’t understand why their children are drinking or doing drugs, or how that may tie in with seemingly unrelated problems at school, problems with anger, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and other issues.


But besides that, there are also twelve-step programs for people who struggle with:


·         control issues, isolation, “fixing” or caretaking others, dysfunctional relationships, or shame (Codependents Anonymous),

·         overspending, underearning, or credit card debt (Debtors Anonymous),

·          anorexia, bulimia, and overeating (Overeaters Anonymous, Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous, and Eating Disorders Anonymous, among others

·         work avoidance and overworking (Workaholics Anonymous),

·         sexual abuse (Survivors of Incest Anonymous) or any kind of abuse at all (Abuse Survivors Anonymous),

·         being unfaithful to their partners, addictions to pornography, or other compulsive sexual behavior (Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sex And Love Addicts Anonymous)

·         loved ones’ difficulty with those behaviors (COSA, Codependents Anonymous)…

·         and on and on.


Attending meetings in these programs, working the steps, and using other suggested tools in each program, can offer a new lease on life. Best of all, they’re free! (After working with talk therapists for years who couldn't see through me, figure out how to get me where I wanted to go, or even figure out where I could be going, all for sixty dollars an hour... that "free" part is a pretty big deal to me.) 

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