Alcoholics Anonymous struggles to stay relevant as secular programs gain momentum


On Wednesday nights, the basement of Boulder’s Pine Street Church fills to capacity for the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) open meeting. Facilitators lead the group in an opening prayer or statement, before members go up one by one to the podium, usually introducing themselves with the phrase, “I’m an alcoholic,” before sharing their thoughts and experiences with the crowd — the largest AA group in Colorado.

Denver LifeRing meetings, which serve as an alternative to AA, are much smaller. Around 10 people sit in a circle on the second floor of St. Barnabas Church as meeting coordinator Kathleen Gargan reads the opening statement. The discussion that follows flows freely between members, who don’t pause to introduce themselves. In this circle they are well acquainted with one another. There are no prayers, no mention of God.

Historically, AA’s success has been unmatched by other sobriety programs. But more recently, while AA attendance has seen an overall decline, newer programs like LifeRing are attracting increasing numbers in Colorado and throughout the country. Also on the rise — in what has been called a “public health crisis” — is alcohol consumption.

The percentage of people who drink at all surged during the 1990s. But since the start of the new millennium, high-risk and problem drinking have spiked as well, according to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry.

The study classified high-risk drinking as four or more drinks a day for women and five or more drinks a day for men, on a weekly basis. While drinking in general increased 11 percent, this type of high-risk drinking rose by 29.9 percent between 2002 and 2013.

Problem drinking — consuming alcohol to the extent that it causes periodic and serious problems in one’s life, or the inability to stop drinking — also rose substantially, by nearly 50 percent.

Despite the high number of new drinkers — the study classifies one in eight adults as an alcoholic — AA continues to lose members while secular programs are starting to grow.

Gargan has been sober since 1981 and went to AA meetings for 25 years before switching to LifeRing. Gargan, who identifies as an atheist, eventually grew tired of the religious content she heard at AA meetings.

“[AA] really helped me stay sober and I made a lot of really good friends, but it was never very well suited to my worldview,” she says.

Since its creation in 1939, AA’s traditional 12 steps have always mentioned God or a higher power. Take step three, for example: “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” These steps have not been revised since, despite culture’s changing relationship with religion over the years. During the past decade, the number of people who say they are “absolutely certain” God exists has dropped by 8 percent, according to a report from the Pew Research Center. The number of adults who describe themselves as being “religiously affiliated” has shrunk by 6 percent.

In an effort to avoid alienating non-religious members and to keep up with the changing religious climate, some AA meetings have replaced all mentions of God with the term “higher power.” But some members, like LifeRing attendee Tom Jarrell, couldn’t quite shake the program’s deeply rooted religious undertones.

“Although I appreciate the fact that AA was there, and it really did save my ass, I never bought the higher power thing, and after about 12 years it became a real problem so I sort of drifted away,” he says. “After a bad experience where I was challenged as being a speaker at a meeting I decided I didn’t need any more of this and I just quit.”

Leaving AA seems to be a growing trend. While membership peaked in 2001 with 2.2 million members worldwide, 2016 numbers show a 6 percent drop in global attendance and a 10 percent drop in attendance in Canada and the U.S.

Membership at secular programs like LifeRing, on the other hand, is growing. Since 2012, the number of worldwide LifeRing meetings has increased by 300 percent. Gargan has been with LifeRing since 2003 and, anecdotally, has seen attendance increase steadily at her weekly meetings.

SMART Recovery is another successful treatment program that takes a secular approach to drug and alcohol addiction. Paul Horvath joined a Denver group after being imprisoned for 16 years following a crack cocaine addiction.

“NA [Narcotics Anonymous] and AA didn’t work for me because I don’t feel like we’re powerless over our addictions,” he says. “Spirituality and religion is all fine and good for a lot of people in a lot of ways but it really has nothing to do with whether you stick a crack pipe in your mouth or suck a drink down your throat.”

Religion aside, Horvath appreciates the way programs like SMART Recovery and LifeRing encourage crosstalk. Unlike AA meetings, where one person speaks at a time and everyone must wait their turn, SMART Recovery meetings take on a round-table format.

“That’s what makes the group as lively and dynamic and powerful as it is,” Horvath says. “You can have a back-and-forth discussion among a group of individuals as opposed to one person talking and everyone else hanging their head down low.”

Whether due to its secularity or unique meeting format, SMART Recovery has grown rapidly since its inception in 1994. The number of worldwide meetings has increased from 42 to 2,500, 1,000 of which are held in the U.S. From 2014 to the first two months of 2016, SMART Recovery launched 900 new meetings. Other secular programs available in Colorado include Women for Sobriety and Moderation Management.

While the success of recovery options like these is undeniable, many AA members see no problem with their program’s inclusion of a higher power. In fact, one member at the Pine Street Church group in Boulder, who wishes to remain anonymous, interprets the existence of a higher power as a secular notion.

“People just kind of find their own path with it and their own relationship with it. I’ve spoken to a few atheists that find the higher power to be kind of the internal truth, the authenticity itself,” he says. “So they’re still able to maintain the secular self in the room.”

Secular or not, the emergence of additional recovery groups marks a shift in a realm that has been historically dominated by AA. And these options are increasingly important considering Colorado’s drinking reputation. According to a 2014 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Colorado and other mountain-region states have the highest rates of alcohol-related deaths in the country. Pitkin and Summit counties lead the nation in overall drinking, with approximately 78 percent of drinking-age adults having at least one drink per month.

Whether it’s AA, LifeRing or SMART Recovery, those dealing with addiction have more options than ever before when it comes to recovery with meetings all over Boulder County and most parts of Colorado. 


  1. I have read that AA doesn’t actually have great success, with some sources reporting that the AA lifetime recovery rate is only 4%. Most inpatient and residential programs are based on the AA model, which may not be acceptable to many patients as the author notes. Now there are newer effective treatments, including medications like Naltrexone which reduce alcohol cravings.

    • Jane, alcoholism is not about the alcohol, it is about the “ism”. The spiritual sickness and self-loathing that is characteristic of almost all alcoholics. You must be on the outside looking in.

      More importantly, everyone needs to be able to seek help, stigma free, from wherever it fits them best.

      • Don’t you dare tell me my alcoholism has nothing to do with alcohol but it is instead some banal & condescending “spiritual sickness”! What right do you have to tell another they have some bullshit, amorphous character defect? I do not metabolize alcohol like others. Period. Enough with your pious judgements.

        This is why AA is slowly becoming less of a factor, it’s not just the higher power aspect but the holier than thou, personal attacks on people & their own core beliefs.

        I don’t need your god, your steps & certainly not your degradation of my character to stay sober. I did it without any of that & I’ve been sober a very long time.

        • I guess I have to ask where Chris is even addressing you. Most people find it to be true that booze is really just a symptom of something else. Mine came out in my fourth step and I sought appropriate professional help.

        • It’s preposterous to claim that alcoholism has nothing to do with alcohol. Why we drank enough in the first place to become addicts, that’s a different question – usually it comes down to trauma, baggage we carry around, the ways we were raised, and the ways we learned to cope at an early age, low self-esteem, there is a long list. But once we become chemically dependent, it’s all about alcohol – which is why the one and only solution for nearly all alcohol addicts is to stop drinking alcohol. AA recognizes this truth, too, as an abstinence-based organization. Most of us don’t need spiritual guidance, we need tools that really work, and we need to make deliberate permanent changes in our lives.

      • Nothing like AA to increase your self-loathing exponentially! I am so glad I left AA before drinking myself to death. Once I realized that I had the power–I began to get better.

      • “Jane, alcoholism is not about the alcohol, it is about the ‘ism’. The spiritual sickness and self-loathing that is characteristic of almost all alcoholics.”

        Even if this were true of everyone who’s ever had a drinking problem, it in no way naturally follows that A.A. is superior to other sobriety avenues.

        The notion that alcoholics are fundamentally flawed people, more so than non-alcohol abusers, is what’s sick. The Big Book simultaneously emphasizes that alcoholism is a medical disease while portraying it as a moral failure that only God can remedy, thereby trying to have it both ways. This tenet creates a situation in which the sober person relies on some imaginary celestial overlord for survival and emotional sustenance rather than a substance.

    • it has been around for a long time. What I am discovering in helping a woman with Naltrexone is that she is just doing everything I did before I just concluded that giving it up completely was the best choice. Non-compliance is the biggest issue. Now…if you take a pill an hour before drinking and you set three as your limit but have six, you haven’t complied and the pill didn’t do it job.

      I could have done that without a pill. In fact, that is exactly what I did.

    • It’s my guess that the 4% that succeed with long term Sobriety are the people that practice to the fullest of what is outlined and described in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.

    • AA, like religion in its purer forms, is of a lot more use to people who can convince themselves that there is in fact a sky-fairy who gives a rip about their lives and their sobriety. For those unable to buy into this quaint concept, it can still help. The Atlantic Monthly and Slate have both run pieces in recent years about A.A.’s longstanding unearned reputation as a panacea beginning to crumble, and how it’s not the only game in town anymore.

      It’s hard to trash an organization like A.A. wholesale — any gathering place that uses a common goal of trying to survive as a starting point has to be a good thing. But A.A. is composed of humans, and humans are imperfect, so A.A. goes off the rail in various ways, some of them obvious.

      Unfortunately, there is no clinical data supporting the idea that naltrexone can reduce alcohol cravings. Research does exist that suggests that the oral form, taken prophylactically, can reduce the subjective effects of alcohol. Vivitrol, on the other hand, is a full-fledged scam, although I suppose the weak placebo effect some users experience still counts as an effect.

  2. AA offers fellowship and sponsorship (taking members through the 12 steps for free). Do these other programs have a support system? What do they cost? There is no cost to AA. But you have to give it away to keep your recovery.

    • Sure they do. They have a facilitator who stands in front of you with a pointer so you feel as if you are being taught something. Before drinking, part of the program is doing a cost/benefits analysis. For me, I get that my simply remember how it was then and how it is now. I don’t need a worksheet. Both serve as a distraction. In SMART, you do a worksheet. In AA, you call a person in your support network or your sponsor, if you have one. 18% of people in AA don’t use sponsors. There can also people other people hosting a meeting who read from a prepared script. that doesn’t seem to differ too much from any AA meeting I have been to. People are encouraged to buy their workbooks and other publishing. Christopher has a publishing company as does SMART.

      • Lifering Secular Recovery doesn’t work that way…

        Check it out:

        Full disclosure, Lifering has also published recovery materials that help finance the organization (kinda’ like the Big Book, etc. does for AA) and also sells one of the most definitive, comprehensive books about recovery available; “Empowering Your Sober Self” written by one of our co-founders…

        • Yes, I point out that they all have publishing companies because the antis often point to having your own materials as some sort of basis for a cult. Thank you for thehead’s up. I would like to read more about it.

  3. The foundation of AA is anonymity. I find the article interesting however save one AA “member” there is not much substance here. While I agree that many who try AA have an issue with God or a Higher Power there are many groups and individuals withing the AA program that share the same views and commonality breeds discussion, understanding and recovery. AA is certainly not for everyone. I have been attending meeting for many years and in many places around the USA and The World. I find the program to be transformation and have no problem with others that seek other programs that help them achieve sobriety and a better life. It is too bad you started with such an eye-catching headline I an not sure that you can deduce from your piece that AA is not relevant or that ‘membership’ is declining. Frankly I have never been a part of an AA census, nor have I ever attempted or been asked to keep track of whose here and how many. Given the lack of any commentary or substance from AA, which you would not be able to get due to our 11th Tradition, your piece leaves too much room for subjective interpretation. BTW I attend the Weds. night meeting at Pine St often and would like to know how you arrived at the concluding that this is the largest AA group in Colorado…

    • Based on AA’s own numbers, AA had 2.5 million members in 1992, and 400,000 less today. Ignoring the stats in the article about a rise in problem drinkers, population is up 25-30%, so, as a percentage of population, AA’s decline is much more severe.

      • Bob i saw that and i guess if you take the all time high then it is down however that’s manipulating the statistics for the author to prove a point. Although i have not seen her weigh in on this board. I suspect this was a last minute thrown together by the “reporter” sitting at her desk googleing AA.

          • You mean that membership has fluctuated from time to time? That 400k could also be meted out as about 17k annually. 24 years is a long time. People could have died, gotten what they needed and left… Whatever, really. The title of the article says that AA is struggling and information about meetings was included to make a point. What that point is can be anyone’s guess.

          • The POINT IS that in spite of massive media propaganda for decades that pretends that AA/12-steps is the ONLY way to get Clean and Sober there are other effective methods that are gaining in membership without the early/mid 20th Century religiosity and authoritarianism of AA…

          • What matters is why and no one has been able to establish that, including this article. I would imagine that loss of members can also be attributed to natural death as much as anything as I said. According to the triennial survey, most people come into AA at close to 50.

          • Are you saying then that people have ceased reaching 50 and that is why the numbers have declined?

            Let it go, the numbers are down, period.

          • It matters to you more than it does AA. What I am saying is that some of the loss can be to something as usual as dying a normal sober death.

            One thing I can safely say is that it is far easier to find an AA meeting than any of the alternatives.

          • I think it matters more to YOU. Hold on to the excuse that people die and ignore the question of why new membership does not increase or at least maintain the roles.

          • Now you are getting into something to discuss. it isn’t as if 400k members left AA just last years which was always my point. memberships will fluctuate and always have. That is true of the alternatives. Remember that Christopher’s SOS almost closed a few years ago. He is trying to pump up its numbers by catering to eating disorders now.

            The fluctuation in AA’s membership numbers could be for anything but nothing is covered in this article. SMART is 30 years old but those members weren’t going there. Until 2012, there were something like 500 SMART meetings in this country. Most were in places that the average joe couldn’t access such as jails, VA hospitals or limited to practices by counselors with seating for 8. They weren’t going to Women For Sobriety because despite being 40 years old, there are fewer than 100 meetings nationwide. That program has been changed to include men. Moderation Management has redeveloped to include a program for sobriety other than just how to try to manage drinking. It too is decades old. These have all tried to reformulate. AA isn’t changing and does choose to. I doubt it would agree that it “struggles to stay relevant.” It simply wants to be and stay what it has been for 80 years. If you don’t want to go to it, then fine.

            I don’t know why AA’s numbers change throughout the years from a few thousand, but it could be anything from simply dying to finding another choice, to realizing that AA isn’t the A you need to be in (Marijuana Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous started gaining ground starting at about 1992). Could be anything.

      • Where are these 2016 figures cited in the article? Not by AA.

        I would also think that the figures would change simply due to the increase of additional twelve step programs geared for specific problems. There are people who go to AA whose problems are other than alcohol. In 1992, for example, there was no such thing as marijuana anonymous, etc.

  4. There are now over 400 secular AA meetings around the world. These are AA meetings without group payers. Many secular people in AA have written their own version of the steps that don’t mention god or a higher power.

  5. Nice article; a fact-full article. James Christopher, who founded Secular Organizations for Sobriety in the mid-1980s, told me that at the time, he saw “AA as a religion in denial.” Even while SOS was being formed, for ten years there had been – as has already been referred to (John Sheldon et al) – secular AA meetings that don’t pray, don’t talk about a prayer-answering, sobriety-granting supernatural power and (in some cases) disregard the “big” book or at least don’t treat it with the authority that AA’s more religious members may do. These are legitimate AA groups.

    Chicago’s AA for Atheists and Agnostics meetings have been meeting in North America since 1975. Going back two more decades, there is a shout out by co-founder Bill W in AA Comes of Age to Buddhist members who took the word “god” out of the steps in order to meet their non-theistic worldview. These godless AA’s were doing their duty (according to Bill W) by arranging their meeting and approach in accordance with the need of their members. There is no universal AA creed; no obligatory rituals or beliefs.

    Back in the 70s when I first found sobriety in AA, I would sometimes hear AA referred to as “the last house on the block.” Maybe that was true then; I don’t think it was meant literally. But to say such a thing today is ignorant. If AA was ever the last house on the block, an entire subdivision of alternatives presents itself. As the article so sincerity depicts, today’s addict/alcoholic has many options in both abstinence and harm-reduction.

    In light of the online, face-to-face, one-on-one, peer-to-peer, facilitator led and/or individual programs, a Canadian survey (CCSA 2017) shows that the average addict/alcoholic in recovery today use not one, but seven resources to get/maintain recovery from addiction.

    Many paths has replaced “the last house on the block.”

    • I am not sure it has replaced anything but augmented it. I view most of these methods as things people try before conceding that abstinence really is the best course for many people with alcohol related issues. Many paths LEAD to the last house on the block, which is how the saying originated. And that is fine with AA. Harm Reduction can be as little as not driving after a Tuesday happy hour but it doesn’t alter your drinking. That and Moderation Management are a couple of others who are just really steps downward until people begin to see that life without alcohol can certainly be both blessed and a blessing.

      Christopher almost had to close his doors a few years ago, there was so little interest in SOS despite being decades old. It has taken to increase its position by including eating disorders. AA remains true to it singlesness of purpose.

      • Susan even after 2003 when it was outlawed Government Funded Rehabs and Sober Centers have been force feeding AA to Clients, when by law secular self-help groups are the only self-help groups Government Funded Organizations should be promoting. Think if State Drug Agencies had Secular Self-Help Facilitation instead of Religious based 12 Step Facilitation like AA and NA…..

        • when I started blogging on recovery sites in 2012, I told the antis just what to do to make something happen. It would appear that SMART finally listened to me as it languished for 25 years before changing strategies in 2014.

          I personally would love for the language of the law to include alternatives to AA and I always wished that AA hadn’t been specifically mentioned. But there weren’t options. 2003? In 2012 alone, there were 500 SMART meetings nationally and even fewer where I would qualify to go to. Most were in closed facilities or associated with practices where I wasn’t a client. One meeting in St. Augustine that was proudly pointed to by the antiAAs had a group limit of 8 people. I told them they had their foot in the door but that they had to do more than blog and bitch. Become the change you want to see and train to be facilitators, conveyors or meetings hosts for whatever method you want to support. I told every one of those antiAAs that if they really felt as they did, they should build something and a change would come. Without it, there was no incentive to change the language of the law.

          I got what I came for when I went to AA. There are many long term members who feel rehabs are unnecessary and what they teach end up polluting the rooms. Same is true with court mandates (despite the fact that SMART dug deep roots in the corrections field in Europe). AA was for those who sought it out, not who were forced to be there.

          • William, the focus of the article is on how AA is struggling to stay relevant, which would be a surprise to AAWS.

            Why don’t you write an article on what appears to be your beef?

          • Susan when you talk about the struggles of AA to stay relevant and the struggles of other Self-Help Groups to catch up with AA and NA than you have to factor in the unethical practice of Substance Abuse Counselors who funnel thousands of pre-programed fresh members into AA and NA each year.

            If it was not for the Substance Abuse Industry, AA and NA would be dead or dieing already….

  6. AA would be less dominating if HHS and SAMHSA Providers would follow the law and not expose clients to AA materials and activities beyond a initial presentation where all Self-Help groups are talked about.

    Federal Funds are NOT to be used for Rehabs to be holding AA Meetings or buying AA Material….

    • Actually the meetings are voluntary and in many cases the groups pay rent to use the space. Studies show recovery can have a better result when connected with AA or other support groups. Incidenty, at a Boulder recovery center there are weekly meeting of all the groups mentioned here.

  7. I participate in a 12 step group, not AA, but I have never felt like belief in God was required. We have had numerous discussions about understanding our “higher power” and understanding that what it means is that we do not have all the answers, nor do we have to. I have never felt forced to believe in God or to participate in a serenity prayer or any other kind of prayer. I do not believe in God, but the belief in a power greater than yourself is required for the 12 steps to work. It’s about giving up control. I am saddened to find that others are feeling forced to take on a religious component at AA or other affiliated 12 step groups when that is simply not within their mandate. They use the word God because so many people understand God as a higher power. But we have had very civil debates about a higher power meaning community, meaning science, meaning philosophy, meaning anything that anyone feels it means. I find it sad that that is being misrepresented in some groups.

  8. I attended AA in the past.

    I have also been deeply involved in Lifering Secular Recovery (LSR) since its official start.

    Other than the overt (or at best thinly disguised) religious nature of AA there is another very important difference between AA and major secular recovery organizations like LSR, SOS, Women for Sobriety, etc.

    Crosstalk was briefly mentioned in the article. But the crosstalk aspect is a reflection of the basic difference between AA’s authoritarian, compartmentalized, top-down framework and approach (Thou Shalt) and secular recovery meeting’s egalitarian, peer approach (with the group’s support, I Shall).

    The secular group’s approaches more closely mirror the best science that informs professional approaches to successful recovery from substance abuse – small group process and healing the entire individual not just dealing with the one obvious symptom.

    However, it’s a two-edged sword. AA is based on a “one size fits all” cookbook (Bible) set of “steps” (proscriptions) it’s easily implemented and suits authoritarian personalities (both “leader” and “follower”) which in our socioeconomic swamp is how most people are conditioned to behave. On the other hand the level of personal responsibility and initiative required of members in a peer-led group and the need for a very light touch from convenors makes the secular meetings a bit harder to propagate.

    And of course, we never got the huge financial support and connections that AA has benefited from from the 1940s. If Lifering had a couple of movies out like “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Come Back, Little Sheba” and constant, unquestioning support from most of the major media and the public were showed how we work, we’d have a whole lot more meetings as well..

    • Some meetings permit cross talk. It is up to each meeting to decide that.

      It helps to remember that AA didn’t make those movies or ask for any of that. SMART got a half million from the government in its early days. AA didn’t get that sort of thing other from people who believed in it.

      • When nobody had ever heard of them, AA got a boost from the Rockefellers along with the equivalent of $4 or 5 million in today’s dollars along with some massive, national positive press from friends of Rockefeller. I would suspect because AA’s heavily religious and authoritarian approach appealed to the point 1 of 1% in the 30s and 40s…

        The entire structure of the 12 Commandments, Big Book and Leader and Followers in the reality of 99.999% of the meetings supports my analysis…

        • I agree with that as well. I don’t care how someone does it as long as they do if that is what they want.

          But Bill Wilson getting a private donation from an individual differs from what was originally posted. AA didn’t benefit from government funds or grants. SMART has.

        • More young Americans are dying from heroin ingestion now that it is being laced with fentanyl, causing 100,000 deaths per year. It is the only effective cure for drug addiction. Rehab is not a cure, but a get out of jail card that just postpones the inevitable.

          • Drug overdoses are a tragedy, that have been inflicted on many young Americans and their families by both the the pharmaceutical industry and the CIA, who supervise the export of 90% of heroin now coming from Afghanistan. Who is behind the fentanyl is not known to me, but its major use is as an anesthetic in hospitals and is imported from China.

            Drug overdoses are also a form of suicide by those who are in despair due to unemployment.

          • And they can be directly related to the deadly neoliberal capitalist socioeconomic system and the forever wars for corporate profits…

        • That isn’t true. According tot he Department of Labor, 5k in 1939 has the same buying power as 88k in 2017 dollars. Where did you get your figure?

          • You’re correct. My memory was faulty…

            Although I’m sure Lifering would LOVE to receive a donation of $88K ($2200 per month) to help with growth at this time… 🙂

            Although my main point is that with the further connections AA got through Rockefeller and his friends they got millions of dollars of free publicity over the next few years in the equivalent of the main stream media of today which led to their promotion in movies, etc. as the “Only Way”…

            Alas, we live in a culture where the billions being wasted on the phony drug war are much more profitable than spending on effective treatment…

          • Without question, but I have spent since 2012 coaching the antis on how they could improve the numbers of the alternatives, and they haven’t listened. All y’all should be looking at the alt you like best and do something to expand it in your area. Most antiAA SJWs simply respond to articles such as these with a mishmash of facts. Build it and they will come! You cannot convince lawmakers, rehabs and the like to support what isn’t there. If AA is the only thing in your town, that is what it is going to be. If the only thing in your town for support is AA, rehabs will push toward that. I think if you gave BOTH something to work with, there would be changes.
            And I would be glad. Any number of AAs feel the same. I don’t want mandates and my groups didn’t accept them on the basis of the third tradition. People needing signatures will go to other AA meetings where they can get them. I was able to persuade members at business meetings to my POV. It took a lot but you will notice on any number of meeting legends where groups say “no papers”. All of the alternatives are in that bag, too, although I haven’t seen anything on a SMART meeting schedule where they do the same.
            Sent from my iPad

          • Well, in my town (and the entire 9th Federal Court District) it’s unconstitutional to force people into AA without any alternatives… 🙂

            It would be nice if instead of spending billions of government money on criminal-injustice based “solutions” the money went instead to provide effective, science-based recovery treatment on demand…

            I used to sign the slips for dozens of folks in an AA based live-in rehab down the street until the Salvation Army wouldn’t recognize them any more.

            Just to be clear I’m only anti-AA for ME personally, I have never tried to push my own personal antipathy to religion or the AA Program at anyone else in a meeting or needing help…

          • Yet the antis say it continues to happen despite the ruling. I also think it will continue to unless the state itself has some sort of dui school, also popular and available for years in many states.

            I think if you commit a crime, do the time. What started as a benevolence has turned into a madness.

      • I’d prefer that ALL treatment and recovery organizations get the bulk of the billions in government treasure wasted on the militarized phony drug war!

        I’ve convened numerous Lifering meetings (1000+) over the years and one of the most effective deterrents to people who wish to seek recovery has been the demonization and stigma attached to substance use by the propaganda that promotes that basically racist enterprise and the fear of incarceration engendered by it…

        And, alas, Lifering hasn’t benefited from any government or institutional money…yet… I wouldn’t mind it if no strings were attached…

  9. What always interests me is that SMART never can just promote itself without some sort of lead in about AA. All these articles serve as advertising for a method that has been around for close to thirty years and has only recently been picking up steam.

    AA doesn’t struggle to be or stay relevant. It is what it is and if you want something else, go find it. AA said that in the beginning and says so now. Nothing has changed.

      • Can you qualify this? AAWS position is that it isn’t the only path to sobriety. Many people in AA have found it was the only way where they found sobriety despite trying everything else. Two different things.

    • Other Self-Groups have to attack 12 Step Groups because AA and NA have thousands of 12 Members working in the Substance Abuse Industry who are illegally and unethically only exposing clients to 12 Step Groups.

      • I don’t buy that. All of these pieces have to involve AA somehow or it has no clickbait.

        How about if someone just wrote an article on a method to get sober and left AA out of it? You know, let the method stand on its own?

  10. I am trying to remember now if Paul Horvath is the son of Tom Horvath, one of the founding people of SMART when it broke apart from Rational Recovery… The fact that he spent 16 years in prison for crack addiction and still needed some support says something about addiction in general. I don’t think anyone maintains power over their substance of choice if they are an addict. That is the difference between recreational use and addiction. Why the need for meetings of any kind after a 16 year break from them when he was in prison? In the event that Paul is who I think he might be, that should be disclosed.

    SMART made radical changes in its program in 2014. For 25 years it basically languished. When I looked at its site in 2012, there were 500 meetings, most of which I couldn’t attend had I wanted to.

  11. Yes, but the largest problem with AA isn’t just that it has the religious bent, it is that it is more religious cult than helpful cure. The key is in the 3rd Step. What exactly is one supposed to turn their will and their life over to if it isn’t God? In practice it is one’s Sponsor and one’s Old Timers at the meetings one attends. Turning your will and your life over to anyone and chanting over and over again how “powerless” you are over you’re addiction tends to create feelings of helplessness and dependency and the idea that one will die without the AA organization. To state the obvious it isn’t any emotionally healthier to be an atheist in AA and is probably less healthy than if one actually is religious and goes to church in addition to attending AA or other 12 Step meetings.

    Also in keeping with AA being a religious cult that atheists can attend but not really being a cure for “addiction” is the fact that AA and other 12 Step groups only have a 5-10% success rate for alcohol and an even lower one for opioids, so low that an “addict” is more likely to die immediately after leaving a 12 Step Rehab than if the addict had continued to use drugs on their own.

    I would also suggest including HAMS in the list of other helpful free self-help groups for addiction. What many people find most useful about HAMS is that it isn’t an abstinence only program, but allows an individual to develop either a self-guided program of moderation or abstinence. Of course, AA and 12 Step teaches that once one has become an “alcoholic” it is “jail, institution, or death” if one doesn’t adhere to strict abstinence and also attend AA or other 12 Step meetings for the rest of their life, which is again another symptom of AA and 12 Step being more religious cult than helpful cure.

    • Atheists are welcome to attend Christian churches just as much as they are AA–like AA the Christian churches also hope they will convert through osmosis

  12. AA does not own the definition of “alcoholic” or “alcoholism” or “sober,” but it has innunadated our culture with dramatic tropes that make members pretend it does. The truth is that people stop drinking when they have had enough alcohol. All any of these groups do is help reenforce that initial decision as the person learns to walk through life without the crutch of intoxication.

    Do whatever works for you. If nothing works, drink until alcohol makes the decision for you. It’s a much better teacher than any of these groups.

    • Sure they do and some of these people need help. That is why these groups exist at all.

      AA has not claimed ownership of the words you cite. I have never seen where it has.

      • It’s in the name, it’s in the pamphlets, it’s in an essay written to doctors, etc.

        It’s exactly what Bill Wilson, the ultimate promoter, wanted when he wrote the book and tried to talk his fellow members into establishing a chain of “AA hospitals.” It’s a little ridiculous to talk about a group that lobbies courts, jails, doctors and hospitals for meetings to say that it isn’t trying to define a concept.

        If you really think that, I very strongly suggest that you look into the history of how the book was written, read ALL the pamphlets put out by General Services, look at the incorporation papers in NY, and review the many lawsuits over the use of the text of the book.

        It was originally set up as a stock scam to help Bill get on his feet, and, of your argument is that Bill Wilson had little to do with current AA, I suggest you clip what I wrote, and come back and look at it a few years from now.

        • But alcoholic is an old term and I have read those things, Cheeky. AA didn’t coin the phrases and I haven’t seen anywhere where it claims to. It was used prior to the creation of the name. You are confusing a word with a trademark, which was permitted to lapse. That is what the suit were about. It has been renamed as intellectual property.

          I think you are also adding to my comments to just argue. As for prisons, jails, doctors and hospitals, you are overlooking that the alternatives cited in the article engage the same.

          AA was also not used as a stock scam to help Bill get on his feet. Given how long it took for them to recoup any money, it would have made more sense to just get a job.

    • Yes AA DOES own the definition of the word “alcoholism.” Science abandoned the word “alcoholism” in 1980 with the publication of the DSM-III. “Alcoholism” is a meaningless word outside the religious dogma of AA.

      • Not true, Kenneth. The word has been in use since 1850, long bor Alcoholics Anonymous was even a thought.

        Polish it up anyway you might want to, but get help.

        • Dissemble any way you wish but there is NO medical diagnosis of “alcoholic or Alcoholiism” to be found in the DSM, is there?

          • It used to be but now we have to have “special phrases” to appease people. Not worried about it.

          • “it used to be” , plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, eh?

            As I stated there is NO medical Diagnosis of ‘alcoholic or alcoholism’. Your “used to be”, rather than admitting the obvious, is yet another example of you dissembling.

            Oh. happy new year.

          • I am not really interested in what you think of it, frankly. I never cared what it was, just that I had to deal with it in an appropriate fashion. I am not one of those people who needs to be en vogue with terms. What was good enough to describe in in 1849 is good enough for me today.

            Have a good day , ez.

          • How do you feel about Bleeding as a treatment for various ills? Good enough for George Washington, wasn’t it?

            BTW, you care or you wouldn’t have half the comments in this thread. Have a nice day as well.

          • I care about the misleading headline that simply serves as clickbait.

            You are deliberately misconstruing my posts for your own purpose.

            Have a good day.

          • No, I just wonder how someone who promotes a program that demands ‘rigorous honesty’ can dissemble so well.

            My work here is done.

  13. The problems with the 12 step cult religion far outreach the religious aspects. This is yet another pussy-footing article thrown together to create reaffic to a website. If this “reporter” really cared, they would have done a far more thorough job. Start here:

    • While I agree with your assessment of the article, aren’t you doing the same thing by directing people to your own self published site? You aren’t here to add anything else.

      • I think that the fact that employees of HHS /SAMHSA / Most State Substance Abuse Agencies and the Providers they fund have been illegally including 12 Step Activities as part of their treatment shows just how much a cult these Self-Help Groups are.

          • I am saying that the Religious/Cult aspects of 12 Step Groups and its members is pertinent.

            It is unethical for Substance Abuse workers to be pushing 12 Step Groups onto their clients.

            The 12 Step Cult makes Substance Abuse Workers think that it is Professional to let 12 Step Groups come in off the streets and bring a meeting into their Facility………….Now for
            spouses, Family, Friends and other Contacts clients have to sign release forms before they are even allowed contact, but magical/mystical 12 Step Members are allowed to waltz right into most Facilities.

            We should not have cult members employed in Treatment Centers.

          • You do know that Counselor Chick became an addiction counselor because of her success with 12 step, don’t you?

  14. I have several issues with AA. First is that you have to completely give up alcohol. Second is that you have to attend meetings religiously, rather than finding a way to bringing drinking under control. Third is that you have to admit that you are an alcoholic which I find abhorrent. The problem with the third is that it defines you. I have alcohol use disorder which studies have proven is often genetic. I have high cholesterol as well, partly from genetics and partly from poor eating habits, but I don’t have to have to get up in front of a group of people and tell them I’m a cholesterolic. My fourth problem with AA is that I have introversion, and sitting in a group of complete strangers spilling my life story… let’s just say I’d rather have my fingernails pried off with a rusty knife. The fifth problem is that I’ve been sucked in by a “cult” like religion in the past, and I NEVER want to go back to something like that again.

    The best thing I ever did was learn about the Sinclair Method and using Naltrexone. The only person I’m accountable to is me. I found out that I’m not some horrible drunk with no willpower. I have an disordered which CAN be cured. AA wants us to believe that we never can be cured. “Once and alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” What a dismal outlook. It makes one want to drink.

    • I guess I can look at it this way. AA is a program where the goal is to b free from alcohol. If that isn’t for you, then find something else. While it is suggested that you attend meetings for support, those are not the program of AA. Those are the 12 steps, something I use today although I don’t attend meetings for the most part. If you aren’t an alcoholic, then don’t go to a program designed for alcoholics. AUD? To me, that is you say tomato, I say toMAto. I would agree there is a genetic component to it all, but there are those who would disagree with us. I could not care less about what I view as semantics. I had a problem I needed help with and AA is where I got it. I don’t have to say anything in a meeting I don’t want to disclose, if I want to share at all. AA doesn’t claim that we are horrible drunks without willpower. I also have no problem with the notion that I may not ever be able to drink normally. I have reached not wanting to drink at all nor having any interest in it.

      I am working with a woman in AA who is using The Sinclair Method. I wish I could say that she follows that program and its suggestions without fail, but I can’t. It is very far from what gets promoted in the press as take a pill and your problems with alcohol are over. In fact, compliance is the biggest fail in TMS.

      • And that is why TSM gets a bad rap. It isn’t all about take a little pill and life is great. It goes so much deeper than that. Keeping a drink diary is part of the TSM “program” if you want to call it that. Understanding the triggers that make you want to drink is another part. One size does not fit all with people suffering alcohol use disorder. Some people have great success with AA, and I applaud those who have had that success. But to say that the AA model and total abstinence is the only way is erroneous.

        • AA literature adresses types of drinkers. AA is only for one of the four. For them, abstinence is the only way. I don’t understand the reluctance of the part of AntiAA people to accept that. AA doesn’t say it is the only way and never has.

          • Susan, I know people who were shunned from AA because they didn’t want to totally abstain. They just wanted to bring their alcohol consumption under control. I know many people who have wanted to try TSM, but were told by recovery counselors and / or physicians that total abstinence was the only way (the AA model). Naltrexone rewires the brain so that the desire for alcohol becomes extinct. The AA model cannot claim that. The AA model says to draw on a higher power. So um… how is that higher power going to rewire the brain? It is like asking a higher power to take away depression or schizophrenia. AUD is a mental illness just like any other mental illness. If I had a heart disease, I wouldn’t go to a meeting, tell people I have a heart disease, and depend on will power and a higher power to take it away. I would take medication.

          • Absolutely it does. Extinction another way. I don’t desire drinking. If you don’t seek the goal of what AA does, then I can see why people would spend their time with people who want what thy have. People don’t come into AA not drinking.

            AA would tell you to go to a doctor. The BB references medical help.

          • Yet Rehabs, even federally Funded Rehabs and Treatment Centers are full of employees who themselves are AA members and only offer AA Facilitation to Clients.

            Can you imagine if these Facilities also had Facilitation for SOS, LifeRing, Smart Recovery and etc.?

          • Those things are available in facilities. Look at the advertising for them. You do know that one of the board members of SMART has his own
            recovery center, don’t you?

            What do you think would happen of facilitators and conveners went into rehabs? You should be asking them about it, not me.

            Employees take direction of their bosses.

          • Susan no other Self Help group other than AA/NA have the number of members working in Rehabs and coercing clients into joining a 12 Step Groups. Religious Self Help Groups are the only Self Help that the majority of Facilities in the USA should not be promoting.

            I have been talking to HHS/SAMHSA, but trying to get a honest answer out of them is impossible. They have known since 2002 when congress clearly stated that 12 Step Activities were not appropriate to used in Federal Funded Facilities (most facilities in the USA).

      • I read the book and I accept the statistics. However, most people who try the Sinclair method screw it up. I know someone who almost lost her job twice when she went this route early in her sobriety, both times because she — imagine this — drank without taking the naltrexone first, exactly what the author tells you to never ever ever do.

        I would be among those who fucks it up. If I wanted to drink, I would either go all-in and just get wasted without taking the pill or find another way of dealing with the associated feelings, perhaps in addition to taking the naltrexone. In other words, given the prickly realities of my own psychology, the chances that I would take a pill and proceed to drink in anything resembling a controlled manner

        There’s just too little margin for error for the likes of me.

        • For me, had I wanted to drink in a controlled manner, I would have done it. If I drank, it was to get drunk and I don’t really see the point of doing otherwise?! But I don’t see a reason for her not to try it. Perhaps it will help her concede that she is one of the few form whom abstinence really is the better way to live.

  15. i am grateful for Smart Recovery, LifeRing Secular Recovery , Refuge Recovery (Mindfulness &Self Compassion) , My Psychotherapist , Group therapy , MBRP (mindful based relapse prevention) ,Charlotte Davis Kasl, Exercise , Yoga , Buddhist Meditation, Good Nutrition and Supplements , Acupuncture , Neurofeedback Therapy etc. That makes my Recovery and Sobriety real strong

  16. You gotta love Bill Wilson. He wrote, “When a drunk shows up among us and says that he doesn’t like the AA principles, people, or service management; when he declares that he can do better elsewhere – we are not worried. We simply say, “Maybe your case IS different. Why don’t you try something else?””

    That’s from 12 Concepts for World Service”, p. 73.

  17. In my opinion the biggest problem with recovery support groups, including but not limited to AA, isn’t the philosophy, or the religion or lack of it, or the way people sit around the room, or how they open the meetings. It’s the people who cling to the groups forever and never move on, and therefore never recover. You see this all the time in AA, the long-sober gray beards, but you see exactly the same thing in Lifering. AA is sometimes thought of as a cult, but if you want to see a cult, have a look at (avowedly secular) Rational Recovery and some of the posts on their forums. Most of the antagonism towards other perspectives comes from these individuals, not so much from the organizational philosophies. But unfortunately those individuals influence every person who walks in the door, and drive away many who might otherwise be helped.

    What’s really important, I think, is choice and freedom from being compelled (by an outpatient treatment center, say) to accept a philosophy that does not fit your world view. But that has nothing to do with secularity, it has to do with choice. The proliferation of small addiction recovery support groups is fantastic for people with substance abuse problems, all over the world, and the reason it’s fantastic is because more people have more choices and more opportunities to find something, or some combination of things, that really helps them stay clean and sober. That shouldn’t be seen as a failing of AA or any other particular support group, it should be seen as a consequence of a growing understanding that people are different, and have different needs.

  18. I like this piece as it’s a good survey of the present state of group recovery.

    If I have any quarrel with the article, it’s that it presents traditional 12-step meetings and secular meetings as dichotomous. For a lot of people, these secular groups are not a complete alternative to A.A., but an adjunct. (I’m sure someone below me has noted this already, but I don’t have time to scan the whole thread.) People who don’t buy into the God concept can get a lot out of A.A., and conversely, people who are more motivated by the supernatural aspects of A.A. can still get a lot out of a secular meeting (and I know of two in and near Boulder). If you really need a meeting, ideally, you’re not going to quibble over the philosophical particulars, but on the other hand I know how vital it is to feel generally welcome.

    I doubt there are many real addicts out there who are best served by *any* one method. I do know people who have gotten sober through A.A. alone and display every outward sign of thriving and happiness. I know people (e.g., my dad) who just flat-out quit when given an ultimatum one day and never showed signs of being a “dry drunk” (he’s still a sarcastic bastard, but *nothing* would cure that, not should it) but such people never come too the attention of A.A., so it’s common to think that no one both stays clean and stays sane without a “program.” Personally I benefit most from regular one-on-one therapy, formal and otherwise, and from group settings that allow and encourage cross-talk, especially when I get to be the crossest talker. OK, not really.

    One advantage A.A. has always had is that it’s free.

    As for A.A. “struggling to stay relevant,” I don’t know if I would couch it that way. It’s not a for-profit company like Whole Foods that has started losing market share as its competition gets more stringent. A.A. will probably always be relevant, although it would help a great deal if the encrusted servants in New York or wherever the headquarters are would allow the Big Book to be modernized.

    The decline in A.A.’s popularity — and I think it’s useful but ultimately fruitless to try to track membership numbers — is fairly predictable based on the general trend toward secularization in the U.S. as a whole, de facto circus-freaks and raging imbeciles in places like Roy Moore country notwithstanding.

  19. It has helped me stay sober. I’ll have 8 years in January. I’m the least religious person but am convinced that a power of my own understanding has been the driving force behind my sobriety as well as using the tools of recovery and giving back.

  20. It’s interesting to see how many comments this link is generating from both what I would call Pro AA and Pro Alternatives to AA. Interesting that the Pro Alternatives to AA seem larger in actual numbers even if a few Pro AA are spending a great deal of time on this link, and producing more comments per person.

    Coming from the Pro Alternatives camp, the point that I’m seeing again and again from other Pro Alternatives is that Pro Alternatives can say, “Yes, some people would die without AA, according to their own self-report–a report voiced over and over again as part of normal AA and other 12 Step meetings.” So those who need to keep AA are free to do so. However, the point is shouldn’t the other 95% be more aware of an option that is going to almost certainly be more helpful for them.

    This is one reason why I, and others, are not just Pro Alternative but AntiAA (even if I don’t want to take AA away from anyone who needs it). AA meetings have people say over and over again that without AA they will die. This practice seems culty and unhelpful and statistics bear out the fact that many who leave also find this and other aspects of AA culty and unhelpful. So point is more people need to know that AA doesn’t work at least 90% of the time, even if those that it works for tend to become zealots for how what a miracle it is.

    Articles like this work to show the public that there are alternatives to AA, that they are not actually confronted with the choice of drinking or using until they OD and die or working the AA or other 12-Step program, but have a variety of treatment options.

    As many of the Pro AA comments will say, AA is specific to those who identify as having a “spiritual disease” whether or not they believe in God or not (which is bizarre but athiests can be in AA if they are willing to to the mental gymnastics of “turning their will and their life over to a Higher Power that somehow isn’t God but isn’t anything within themselves.”). What Pro Alternatives will take issue with is active AA being so certain that a large segement of the population has and shoud identify as having a “spiritual disease” and if they have a drug problem but don’t identify as having a “spiritual disease” then this means that they are going to die, rather than that they should just go to another treatment option.

    So what AA really needs to start doing, instead of telling people in meetings that it is “jail, insitutions, or death” if they don’t work the AA program is emphasize that AA and 12 Step is only for those that identify as having a “spiritual illness” and who want to turn their will and their life over to a Higher Power as well as to an Old Timer sponsor in Program who will help them work the Steps, and do so for the rest of their life.

    Also say that 5-10% like this, some it kills, some turn out hating AA, but fortunately not that many people are injured by AA, probably not much more than those that are helped.

    Virtually no one will stay if given this. But if it is a “spiritual program” that should be fine with this because they will see the declining numbers as also the will of the Highger Power.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here