Modernizing Secular Addiction Recovery

By Roy Speckhardt

This article was first published on

Men and women of all ethnic backgrounds and religious or nonreligious affiliations suffer from debilitating addictions, which have detrimental effects on millions of lives. Addiction recovery treatments shouldn’t discriminate either, but Alcoholics Anonymous does. AA’s Toronto administration recently removed two of its affiliate groups in the area for not holding to its religious standards, which include a belief in God, as stated in the organization’s “Twelve Steps” to recovery.

For AA members, the Twelve Steps dictate a lifestyle code, a strict roadmap away from addiction. If you want to recover from addiction through AA, it’s imperative to treat the program as a “higher power,” says The Fix, a magazine focused on recovery issues. Members are encouraged to recite the Lord’s Prayer during meetings, to follow the steps meticulously and without deviance, and to abstain completely from their abused substance. AA insists that recovery be a lifelong process, maintaining that even an addict who has been clean or sober for ten years should continue to come to meetings.

So when secular Toronto-area AA meeting groups Beyond Belief and We Agnostics were unceremoniously kicked out of the organization by the regional chapter association, there was no question that straying from the original God-centric tenets of the Twelve Steps was the driving factor. Both groups had adapted the Twelve Steps to their worldview, which didn’t require a supreme being. Instead, they removed all references to God, and utilized a more humanist-centric method of group recovery. And the religious organization retaliated by removing them from directories, their website, and existence under the AA umbrella.

Humanists and other atheists and agnostics suffering from addiction now have more modern alternatives. Rather than join a group that actively blocks membership by those without a belief in God, nontheists can seek out other programs that not only accept them, but empower them to overcome addiction by helping develop tools and encouraging mutual support among members. SMART Recovery (Self Management And Recovery Training) is a program that pioneered an individualistic approach, free from proselytization and ethical requirements for people of any or no religious background.

Joe Gerstein, the SMART Recovery founding president, describes the program as “science-based, incorporating validated approaches,” as opposed to the Twelve Step program used by AA, which makes the individual dependent on God, faith, and the meetings themselves. AA, he says, is “abstinence-focused,” whereas SMART Recovery meetings aim to help people regardless of their stage of addiction and recovery. He also notes that several legal cases in the United States have unanimously ruled that Alcoholics Anonymous is “pervasively religious,” and as of 2007 judges and parole offices can no longer court-order that particular program as once was frequently done.

What truly makes SMART Recovery stand apart from the Twelve Step program is their 4-Point Program. Aside from the cosmetic difference of having a third of the guiding tenets, any mention of God is conspicuously absent. The 4-Point Program emphasizes that recovery is in the hands of the person with the addiction. Only he or she can follow through on recovery, by self-motivating, restricting urges, problem-solving, and adapting to a sober lifestyle. Gerstein stresses that the program works to empower the individual, and most importantly, assist him or her in moving beyond the addiction, and eventually move on from the program. It doesn’t seek to ensnare anyone for life, which might only remind someone of past addiction.

SMART Recovery isn’t designed for nontheists alone. Gerstein estimates that approximately a third of participants are atheists, agnostics, or humanists of some sort. Another third are “passively religious,” or spiritual in some sense. The final third he says are actively religious. The diversity in membership speaks to the success of its approach. Rather than a strict path toward recovery, SMART emphasizes an approach tailored toward each individual’s needs, based on scientifically proven methods and cognitive behavioral psychology. A prescription-drug addicted mother of three in Wichita, Kansas would not pursue sobriety the same way as a crack cocaine addicted individual in prison in California, or an anorexic teenage girl in upstate New York.

By removing meeting groups from the Alcoholics Anonymous umbrella, AA has shown that unquestioning subscription to a belief in God and maintenance of strict religious code are more important to their organizing principles than providing a safe and accepting place for people to recover from addictions. Programs like SMART Recovery provide an alternative for those looking for self-empowerment, unbiased support, and scientific approaches to overcome addictions. Recovery can be a difficult journey, so if you need it, pursue it with a group that doesn’t discriminate.

Roy Speckhardt is the Executive Director of the American Humanist Association. He is also a board member of the organization providing Humanists leadership training, the Humanist Institute, and an advisory board member of Secular Student Alliance. Follow him at