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12-Step recovery relies heavily on the concept of a Higher Power, but people in recovery are also encouraged to use one “of their own understanding.” People of many faiths and outright nonbelievers can succeed in recovery. Belief in a particular God or Gods is not required. Further, people of faith aren’t required to change the nature of their faith, the form of prayer, or their beliefs. 

Today, we will be discussing how people of all faiths, spiritual inclinations, and even devout atheists can make use of and understand the Higher Power concept without compromising their beliefs or values. We will also address misconceptions about various steps and workaround ideas for those attempting secular 12-Step recovery.

You May Select a Higher Power of Your Own Choosing

When we look at 12-Step recovery literature, Step Two states quite clearly that members place faith in “a power greater than ourselves.” While many members do elect to worship the Judeo-Christian God of Abraham, this is far from a requirement. 

12-Step culture embraces people of all faiths worldwide. If you catch a meeting in Riyadh, more people will be talking about Allah. However, all people of faith are welcome to continue practicing their existing religion. The Higher Power concept doesn’t require monotheism or any particular belief. It is simply something outside of yourself that you believe in. Some examples of non-deity Higher Powers include these:

  • Nature
  • Love
  • A light or good within
  • The Universe
  • The Great Spirit, a concept originating in indigenous cultures
  • The wisdom of the support group
  • The belief that the program can help you

12-Step recovery discourages using another person or yourself as a Higher Power. The problem with using other people is that this can create an unhealthy level of codependency. Many people who use substances are already prone to unhealthy relationship patterns. While family and loved ones are fantastic motivations to get sober and maintain your recovery, we need not lionize them.

If you place your hope for 12-Step recovery success entirely on your spouse, this isn’t fair to them. Further, doing so may sabotage your recovery in the event of the person’s death or the end of the relationship. West Coast Recovery Centers has some more tips for pursuing spirituality in recovery you can use to find a connection or a Higher Power concept that works for you.

Options for Agnostics and Atheists in 12-Step Recovery

12-Step recovery texts stress that the program is “spiritual“ rather than religious. Indeed, the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) devotes an entire chapter to agnosticism. Note that the meaning and implications of this word have changed significantly since 1939. Even then, one of the founding members of the program was a staunch atheist and, at one point, anti-theist. 

Agnosticism and atheism are commonly misunderstood in 12-Step recovery on all sides. An agnostic is any person who isn’t factually certain of the existence of a deity. Many people of faith are agnostic theists. Theism concerns our choices, while agnosticism addresses what we know. Given the factual evidence, do you choose to believe in a God or Gods? Answering “yes” to this question would make you a theist. Atheists are not anti-religion or unhappy by definition. An atheist simply holds no religious affiliation or belief in a deity. 

You can modify 12-Step recovery into a secular-friendly program. Don’t allow distaste for the original authors’ language to be a distraction. If the word “God” is confusing your understanding of literature, keep in mind you can mark up your books. Some folks suggest scratching it out in favor of “Higher Power” or your specific concept if the word alone is off-putting. The point is not to allow the language to obscure the messages or their value. 

Steps Six and Seven involve prayer, but godless 12-Step recovery is still possible. The goal is personal and spiritual development. While people in recovery will suggest asking a God to remove our character defects, we can accomplish the same goals. We can commit to parting with our maladaptive patterns and making the positive changes necessary to overcome them. 

The latter is simply a secular reframing of Steps Six and Seven. If you find 12-Step recovery helpful, you may also look into agnostic or atheist 12-Step groups. Fellowships like Beyond Belief and Children of Chaos are not a bait-and-switch: you will be among fellow nonbelievers succeeding in the program.

12-Step Recovery Principles Anyone Can Practice

For each of the Steps in 12-Step recovery, there is a corresponding principle. These are ideas most people can vibe with: love, justice, and more. Though derived from Judeo-Christian ideals, these are values most reasonable people share or can learn. 

It can be helpful to focus your intentions on these, whether you choose to view them as spiritual or moral concepts. Step One’s principle is honesty, for instance. Anyone can set an intention to practice more honesty, integrity, or perseverance as a daily practice. The Steps help frame these suggestions.

The spiritual principle behind Step Two is hope. We can summon the hope of recovery, even absent a grasp of or commitment to the Higher Power concept. Those of us who are abundantly logical may find hope in our peers and supportive professionals. 

The point is to acknowledge your life can be restored and that you can recover. At West Coast Recovery Centers, we don’t consider people in recovery powerless. If the Twelve Steps do not help you regain personal power, alternatives such as SMART Recovery and Refuge Recovery may be better for your tool kit. The advice to take what you find helpful and leave behind what doesn’t work applies to any recovery program or treatment.

The 12-Step recovery model is popular and enduring. Many of our clients choose this mode of recovery. However, at West Coast Recovery Centers, clients have many therapeutic and program options. We embrace our clients who wish to work the Twelve Steps. However, we don’t dictate the path of your recovery. Some of our clients do 12-Step recovery alongside conventional tools and evidence-based medicine. Others find the program isn’t suitable to their needs, and that’s okay. We allow other programs too. When you partner with West Coast Recovery Centers, your individual treatment plan is as unique as you are. We offer an array of tools and show you how to use them to build your new life. Call (760) 492-6509 today.

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