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AA for atheists, can it work?

Updated on June 30, 2008

God and AA

Although AA is explicitly and intentionally non denominational, and accepts that every one needs to have their own interpretation of "a higher power" the fact remains the AA is very close to a Christian organization. AA is in fact so religious in nature that the Supreme Court recently ruled that courts could no longer mandate that people participate in meetings as this constitutes a violation of the separation between church and state.

So can an atheist get any benefit out of AA?

It depends…and many can, and many cannot. AA was begun about 80 years ago by a couple of very religious guys, and it's remarkable that they had the forethought and tolerance to try to help people of all religious backgrounds. But it still is a religious organization, and a belief and a reliance on a higher power is essential for a proper working of the 12 steps.

So how can an atheist get any benefit out of AA?

People without a traditional belief in God can sometimes come to a personally acceptable alternative arrangement, and find a higher power that they feel comfortable working with, and that does help them to achieve sobriety.

One example of a higher power that some atheists have used is a form of "mother nature" or science; something unexplained and bigger than themselves.

Another way that some people can work through the steps is by using the guidance of a now dead ancestor as a higher power, and through their spirit and memory accepting guidance and praying for help.

But it has to be authentic, and you have to really believe it for it to work, and some people just can’t make the metaphysical leap to do so; and for them, unfortunately AA offers little recovery assistance.

The lesson though is that AA and other 12 steps support groups meeting are not necessarily out of the question simply because you do not share a traditional belief in God.

Give it a try

AA works very well for some people, and a lot of people either find it ineffective, or are turned off by its "cultish" feel. I've never found it cultish, but I respect the opinions and perceptions of those that do, and recovery is not something that you can force. If it doesn’t feel right…try something else until you find something that does.

But I think that because AA and other 12 steps organizations have helped so many, they are worthy of consideration, and worthy of a least a couple of investigatory meetings. You lose little by trying it, and even if you have no traditional conception of God, you may be able to find a personal and authentic alternative.


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