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I Don’t Believe in God. Are the 12 Steps For Me?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

If you’re a teen who has struggled or is struggling with alcohol addiction, drug abuse, or other mental health issues, you’ve probably heard of the 12-Step approach to recovery.

The 12 Steps were originally founded in 1935 to treat alcohol addiction—hence the start of Alcoholics Anonymous. Now, myriad groups and organizations have adopted their tried-and-true addiction recovery method. For example, there’s Narcotics Anonymous, Heroin Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Crystal Meth Anonymous, and Marijuana Anonymous. Other fellowships support adults and teens with mental health issues, like Codependents Anonymous (CodA).

Are 12-Step Programs Religious?

The founders of AA, known as Bill W. and Dr. Bob, were Christian. As such, much of AA literature was inspired by their beliefs.

For example, you might be familiar with the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

And here are the official 12 Steps, originally created by 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. 

You Don’t Have to Be Religious to Attend 12-Step Programs

But I’m not Christian…you may be thinking. Or: I don’t believe in the whole God thing.

Are 12-step programs religious?

No. While the 12 Steps were inspired by spiritual ideals, a 12-step program itself is not religious at all.

Let’s repeat that. You don’t have to be religious in the slightest to benefit from 12-step programs.

At most, these principles can be considered spiritual in nature. They focus on the larger ideas of faith, honesty, humility, and repentance. In fact, in AA tradition, these twelve steps are known as the 12 spiritual, not religious, principles.

What’s the difference?

While the 12 Steps do invoke God several times, the very first mention is followed by the phrase as we understood Him, emphasizing that each member’s understanding of a Higher Power is very individualized and personal. Some members do believe in a traditional God, while others simply believe in karma. Others believe the “power greater than themselves” is Earth, science, Mother Nature, the universe, humanity at large, or even their recovery fellowship.

Spiritual, Not Religious

That’s why many who attend the 12-step programs are atheists or agnostic. Belief in a traditional God is not at all necessary to benefit from the 12-step program. No one in the program will ask you about any God, make you say any of the statements, or, heck – make you say or do anything you don’t want to say or do. The only requirement for membership, as AA states, is a desire to stop drinking (or, for other groups, engaging in unhealthy addictive behaviors). The support group is there for your benefit, and you can take from it whatever you like—and leave the rest.

To make its members even more comfortable, some 12-step programs have even decided to remove any mentions of God. For example, SMART Recovery groups, loosely styled after the 12-Step model, do not encourage any submission to a Higher Power. Other AA meetings forgo the Serenity prayer. At the end of each meeting, they instead state Live and Let live, in unison.

Attending 12-Step Meetings for Addiction Recovery

So, to be a thousand percent clear, Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs are not religious organizations. Even they say so, in their official pamphlet called “The God Word.” Agnostic, atheist, religious, secular: Everyone is welcome at 12-step programs. Always free, always confidential, 12-step programs offer support for teens’ addiction recovery in a nonjudgmental and open community of peers. There are millions of meetings in every location, so you can go to a different one every day and experiment until you find the one that you feel the most comfortable in.

You can benefit from 12-step meetings at any stage of your recovery—residential treatment (RTC), partial hospitalization (PHP), intensive outpatient (IOP), and outpatient. At a teen rehab center, staff often accompany adolescents to weekly meetings. If you are clinically ready, you may even be able to get a 12-Step sponsor while still in treatment (of course, only if your rehab center approves of it), so you can learn how to utilize this support appropriately. After discharge from a residential or outpatient rehab center, these 12-step programs help teens maintain their treatment progress. There are also 12-step support groups specifically for the parents and siblings of addicted teens, such as Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and Alateen.

So whether you’re currently attending 12-step programs at your drug rehab center or have already been discharged and are now trying to prevent relapse, rest assured that no one will be brainwashing you at these meetings.

There is nothing to worry about.

Or rather, there is one thing to worry about, and one thing only:

Your recovery from addiction.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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