The 12-Steps De-coded

By Iryna Gavrysh, Simone Arbour, and George Ratnanather.

The 12-Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and Religion

Our clients come from all walks of life and while some people identify with a particular religion, others describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, humanists or freethinkers. One question we are frequently asked by clients relates to the 12-steps aspect of Alcoholics Anonymous. People often wonder: “Do I need to believe in God or religion to benefit from the 12-Step process?’ or “I am not religious, is AA right for me?”.

While it is true that six of the original 12-Steps refer to ‘God’ or a ‘Higher Power, it also true that Alcoholics Anonymous is the most common self-help source for individuals dealing with alcohol addiction in North America.

Although it is an undeniable fact that the original 12-Steps were based on Christian teachings, today, AA has grown into a spiritual program. Spirituality being much broader and more encompassing can be defined as “that which gives people meaning and purpose in life” (Puchalski, Dorff, & Hendi, 2004). This ‘purpose in life’ can take on many forms. For some it could involve god, a creator or a deity, while for others it could be a philosophy, an inner divinity, a belief, or absolutely anything that gives life a sense of purpose.

At Bellwood, our rehab program is not based on the 12-Steps. Our treatment programs use a holistic approach with includes counselling, psychotherapy, addiction education, medical care, nutrition and fitness amongst other tools. Though not 12-Step based, we encourage our clients to attend 12-Step meetings during and especially after treatment as an additional support mechanism when they complete residential or out-patient treatment.

The shift from religion to spirituality occurred during the early years of AA. Bill Wilson (1957), the founder of AA, explains that the 12-Steps were rewritten after much debate. For example, “god” has been changed to “god as we understand him” and it has been emphasised that the steps are to be taken as suggestions for recovery and not as the ultimate truths.”

In more recent years we have seen more visible variations of the 12-Steps. Atheists, agnostics, humanists and other groups have developed their own variations while keeping the essence of the 12-Steps in place. Below is a sampling of some of these ideas. What is important to keep in mind, is that the underlying essence of each step is what is helpful for recovery – not necessarily the language. That way, it is possible to find meaning in the 12-Steps regardless of your particular belief system or understanding of spirituality or religion.

Agnostics AA 12 Steps

Roger C. (2012). The Little Book. A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps, (11)

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe and to accept that we needed strengths beyond our awareness and resources to restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to entrust our will and our lives to the care of the collective wisdom and resources of those who have searched before us.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to ourselves without reservation and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were ready to accept help in letting go of all our defects of character.
  7. With humility and openness sought to eliminate 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 meditation to improve our spiritual awareness and our understanding of the AA way of life and to discover the power to carry out that way of life.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Humanist Twelve Steps

Roger C. (2012). The Little Book. A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps, (13)
Renowned behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner’s 12-Step version first published in “The Humanist” (1987).

  1. We accept the fact that all our efforts to stop drinking have failed.
  2. We believe that we must turn elsewhere for help.
  3. We turn to our fellow men and women, particularly those who have struggled with the same problem.
  4. We have made a list of the situations in which we are most likely to drink.
  5. We ask our friends to help us avoid these situations.
  6. We are ready to accept the help they give us.
  7. We earnestly hope that they will help.
  8. We have made a list of the persons we have harmed and to whom we hope to make amends.
  9. We shall do all we can to make amends, in any way that will not cause further harm.
  10. We will continue to make such lists and revise them as needed.
  11. We appreciate what our friends have done and are doing to help us.
  12. We, in turn, are ready to help others who may come to us in the same way.

The Twelve Steps of Self-Confirmation

Le, C. Ingvarson, EP. & Page, R.C. (1995). The Twelve Steps of Self-Confirmation. Journal of Counseling & Development, 73 (6), 603-609.

  1. I realize I am not in control of my use.
  2. I acknowledge that a spiritual awakening can help me to find a new direction.
  3. I am ready to follow and stay true to the new path I have chosen.
  4. I have the strength and courage to look within and to face whatever obstacles hinder my continued personal and spiritual development.
  5. I commit to become fully aware of how my use hurt those around me.
  6. I am changing my life and developing my human potential.
  7. I am proud of my strength and ability to grow.
  8. I will do all I can to make up for the ways I have hurt myself and others.
  9. I will take direct action to help others in any way that I can.
  10. I will strive to be self-aware and follow the new path I have chosen.
  11. I will continue to develop my potential through helping others and strive to become fully conscious of myself and life around me.
  12. I will continue to develop my own human potential and spirituality and will actively help others who cannot control their use of alcohol.

There are many more versions of the 12-Step process and groups. Some include a ‘higher power’ and others don’t. It is important to keep in mind that The 12-Step process may not be a right fit for everyone. While some find immense benefit in attending meetings and going through the 12-Step process, others find alternative support groups and healing practices. In our experience, over the last 30 years we have seen many who have benefited from the 12-Step process; whether through Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous or a similar group. Our own research has demonstrated that attendance at continuing care supports such as AA significantly increases an individual’s chances of being in recovery six-months after residential treatment (Arbour et al., 2011). As such, we continue to encourage our clients to attend meetings while in treatment and beyond especially considering that such supports are free and available almost everywhere, including online.

The best way to know if the 12-Step process is right for you is to attend a meeting yourself. Try a few different meetings and groups to see which one best fits your needs and personality. Some helpful sites to discover meetings in your area are:

We Can Help You

If you would like to learn more about the treatment programs provided by EHN Canada, enrol yourself in one of our programs, or refer someone else, please call us at one of the numbers below. Our phone lines are open 24/7—so you can call us anytime.



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