Facebook Twitter

The God of 12 steps

Spiritual component in recovery programs is essential to some, irritating to others

SHARE The God of 12 steps

We are a nation of unnamed soldiers in the war against our own appetites — a nation of chemically dependent and co-dependent, gluttons and gamblers, sex addicts, porn addicts and credit card abusers who look, anonymously, to one 12-step program or another to get out of the mess we're in.

Alcoholics Anonymous was the first 12-step program and is the most famous, but there are at least a dozen others, from Cocaine Anonymous to Vulgarity Anonymous. Anonymity, group support, an inventory of past mistakes, a willingness to make amends — all these are part of the 12 steps. But the core of the program, the landing from which all the steps rise, is the addict's connection to — and his surrender to — God, say many of the people involved in 12-step programs. Humans are powerless and alone in recovering from addiction, they say.

This spiritual component is what makes AA, NA, OA and all the other alphabet of A's work, say the people who champion the 12-step approach. It's also what rankles 12-step detractors, who see the recovery programs as too religious, maybe even a "stealth religion" all their own. Still others argue that the 12 steps aren't religious enough.

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in the 1930s by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith — known more anonymously as Bill W. and Dr. Bob — who in turn based their ideas on an evangelical movement known as the Oxford Group.

Bill became an alcoholic after serving in World War I and spent Prohibition drinking two or three bottles of bathtub gin a day. Unable to quit, even after being hospitalized, he turned his life around after a visit from an old college friend. The friend credited his own sobriety to God, who "had done for him what he could not do for himself," Bill later wrote in "Alcoholics Anonymous," the AA Bible known among AA faithful simply as the "Big Book."

At that time, Bill himself was not a religious man, and in fact, "the word God still aroused a certain antipathy," as he put it. When Bill balked at the notion that he might need God's help, his friend made the suggestion that changed everything: "Why don't you choose your own conception of God?"

And so, today, five of the steps in all 12-step programs mention God, but the first reference, with its qualifying addendum, is the most telling: "God, as we understood Him."

It is this tentativeness that keeps many people from running the other way, says the anonymous man who answers the phone at AA headquarters on Main Street in Salt Lake City. "A lot of people who come in are hostile to religion," he says; some are agnostics and others are atheists. So, faced with the 12-step encouragement to rely on a higher power, they sometimes pick something a little more vague.

"I would think if you had a group of 15 people and were to ask them what their higher power was, you'd have 15 different answers," he says. "For some people, 'God' can be 'Group Of Drunks.' " Their higher power might be a doorknob, he says. Doorknob, in fact, is an example often offered by 12-step members trying to sort out what it is people believe and why such a higher power might be enough.

He himself, he says, was raised in the LDS Church, found it stifling and came to AA "with a chip on my shoulder about organized religion." But he's sure now, he says, that what he calls "a power greater than I am" has taken away his craving for alcohol, when his own willpower and other recovery strategies could not.

"Whether it's acting 'as if' or whether there's some cosmic force, I don't know. . . . I don't have to understand it. I know it works for me."

The higher power addicts turn to can be "a bottle of ketchup, a rock, the group, music, God or Buddha," says a man who attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings three times a week. "If you're going crazy and all you can think of is doing drugs," he explained, "and you look over and see a bottle of ketchup, you know that the ketchup isn't doing drugs. It has more power than you do over obsessions. So you say, 'I'm going to allow my problems to go to the bottle of ketchup.' It's a way of relieving your stress." Later, he says, "you oftentimes develop a more complex sense of the higher power."

The notion of powerlessness — the idea an addicted person is always "recovering" rather than cured, that only a power greater than themselves can keep addicts on the path of recovery — frustrates people like Jim Christopher, who runs what he calls "the world's largest non-religious alternative to the 12-step."

His California-based organization known as SOS, or Secular Organization for Sobriety, asserts that AA helps thousands of people but that not everybody feels comfortable with or responds to a spiritual approach. Abstinence should be the first goal, he says, and "you don't have to get good to get sober."

There needs to be "separation between church and recovery," he says.

Lois and Jack Timpey, who run another California-based secular organization called Rational Recovery, agree and go a step further. "AA is a religion, but it is a false religion which tells everyone they must deny free will!" wrote Lois in an e-mail to the Deseret Morning News. Their group, on the other hand, has "no mandate that one must believe in a higher power or supreme being in order to exercise self-restraint."

But turning your life and addiction over to a higher power doesn't mean you don't also still have responsibility for making lifestyle and behavioral changes, says Lisa Mountain, coordinator of the Alcohol and Drug Education Center at the University of Utah.

For many addicts, she says, spirituality "fills the void left when they stop abusing substances." For others who are spiritual to begin with, "they tap into spirituality as a source of strength."

Twelve-step groups, she says, are one of three empirically validated forms of treatment (the other two are "motivational interviewing" and "coping and skills training"). All three are equally effective, she says; the trick is to pick the style that best suits the client.

Because AA is religious in nature, when courts order addicts to attend AA they violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, according to the rulings of two federal appeals courts and two state supreme courts in the past decade.

Still, says Charles Bufe in "Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?" the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on the issue, "so government coercion into the religious institution of AA continues throughout most of the country."

Divergent religious philosophies have led a Buddhist group and a pagan group to modify the 12 steps to their own liking.

At www.Buddhist12steps.com, Step No. 3 has been changed from "We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him" to "We vow to allow our true self to manifest." A pagan Web site has rewritten Step 3 to read "realign the power within and the power without such that each served to enhance the other."

But to Rob Ferris, pastor of a post-prison ministry known as Disciple's House in downtown Salt Lake City, there's no point in having a 12-step program that doesn't involve complete surrender to God. In fact, he says, even standard 12-step groups are too lax in this regard.

The AA precursor, the Oxford Group, was established by Christians, Ferris says, and was re-written by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith to tone down the Christian emphasis. "We've taken it back," he says, because "there is no recovery without Christ."

"The most important thing is Jesus," he argues, "and there has to be total submission. 'In our weakness, He is strong,' the Bible says. It's his strength that strengthens us. We can't change ourselves." Support and encouragement can come from other people," he says, "but the willingness to change only comes from God."

Without submission to God, he argues, "you just have a bunch of dry drunks, people who are living one day at a time without victory." A dry drunk, he says, is self-focused. "Having God involved makes us aware of those around us."

Once an alcoholic himself, he says, he is now "not in recovery but in transformation."

E-MAIL: lee@desnews.com