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The Future of Secular Alternatives to 12 Step Groups

By Clifford W. Beninger 08/18/15

AA is not the only game in town anymore, but these options need your support.


Some time ago I was manager of a laboratory facility, and we hired undergraduates to come in and work, learn and gain some experience. Quite often these young people would somewhat reluctantly ask me for advice as to what would be the best decision they could make given potential choices they had after graduation. My initial answer was always “Isn’t it wonderful that you have options!” to which sometimes I was given a somewhat annoyed response. However, what most of these students did not realize is that having options in terms of their career choices is actually a very good thing. But having options means making decisions, and no-one (or few of us) want to make the wrong decision which we might regret later. Yet risk, having options and making decisions based on the best information available are among the most important things in life.

Having options in choosing a peer-support group for someone who is dependent on a substance is equally important. With advances in the science of addiction, we are slowly coming to the realization that there is no “one size fits all” program, and that there are indeed many paths to recovery. These paths can be unique to the individual, and as I will argue below, secular support groups are becoming much more important for those individuals.

The Dominance of 12-Step Programs and Rise of Secular Peer-Support Groups
While I do not want to delve into my personal problems with substance dependence, I will say that over 20 years ago when I suspected that I had a problem with alcohol there was only one choice – Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Narcotics Anonymous (NA) was a relative newcomer to the scene, but I was told by everyone, from professionals to friends and relatives, that if I wanted to get sober, I needed to attend AA meetings and get “with the program." It is surprising to most people, as it was to me when I started attending AA meetings, that it is a religious organization and in the 12 steps “God” or “Him” are mentioned in six of those steps. This was a problem for me, as I was a secular humanist and atheist – but I thought, if this is the only way, then I will, as they say, “fake it till I make it." So I tried, and I did everything I was told to: attend meetings, 12-step study groups, get sponsors – the works. While I did have periods of sobriety, I always kept falling down and “coming back” to do the walk of shame and collect my beginner’s chip. There is much more I could say about my personal AA experience, but all the information anyone could want about AA/NA etc. (hereinafter referred to as 12-step) is available on the web.

When I had some time and raising a family and working on a career were not my main concerns, I began to hear of alternatives to 12-step programs. The first group I became aware of was Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS), and then I learned of SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training), LifeRing and Moderation Management. There are other secular groups as well, such as our own (Secular Recovery Organization or SRO) and a full listing is given in Wikipedia but the four mentioned above are the main secular groups in existence today.

Even though I now had information about other groups, there was still a problem: in the city I lived only one of these groups held any meetings and that was SMART. SOS had started a group in the city, but it had not been able to survive for a number of reasons. I came to the realization that although these groups existed, they were nowhere near as ubiquitous as the number of 12-step meetings that one has access to in virtually every city in North America.

It is outside the scope of this article to go into any real depth about these main secular programs but I will just briefly outline how they relate to 12-step groups, and I will only deal with abstinence-based groups (although harm reduction is now a proven approach for many individuals).

Secular Organizations for Sobriety
As I indicated above, SOS was the first group I came to be aware of and was established by James Christopher in 1986 and is based mainly on the two books he wrote about recovery without religion: How to stay sober: recovery without religion (1988) and SOS sobriety: the proven alternative to 12-step programs (1992). When I decided that we needed a secular humanist approach to peer-support groups, of course I decided to re-start an SOS group in my city, not so much as in competition with SMART, but as an alternative or adjunct to it. I approached the individuals who had previously started SOS in our city, got the books and literature and started a meeting one night a week. However, after having a number of meetings, and reading the books and literature thoroughly, I began to realize that SOS, while definitely a secular group, suffered from one of the main problems that 12-step groups and in particular AA did – it was too dated. AA was formed in 1935, and the “Big Book” of AA first published in 1939, which has remained virtually unchanged to this day. Christopher’s books, although written more recently, were unchanging as were the pamphlets etc. and coming from a strong science background I found this unacceptable. The science of addiction (in particular genetics) has come a long, long way since 1992, and that was when I decided to start SRO, but more on that later. In addition, despite the many sites SOS claims to have in Canada, on its website I have looked into this and there is only one SOS meeting in Canada’s largest city, Toronto. I don’t know if the same is true for their other proposed meetings in other countries, but that is to the best of my knowledge the situation in Canada.

For my personal recovery I then turned to SMART after reading some of their literature online. SMART began in 1994 and was supposed to be scientifically based, meaning that it would continuously evolve as the science of addiction evolved. I had done some research and discovered that Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) was a useful technique in helping individuals get and maintain sobriety. For me, however, CBT did not seem to help much, and when I attended a very packed meeting of some 30 people or so, I did not like the format, or rather lack of it. There were a few individuals that dominated the discussion, and it seemed that there was no structure at all. In addition, after doing my own extensive research on addiction and creating (as well as maintaining) a database of peer-reviewed articles, it didn’t seem to me that they were on top of the science of addiction as they claimed to be. However, SMART is now second to 12-step groups with over 1,500 weekly group meetings held worldwide.

Unfortunately, my knowledge of LifeRing is limited to what is available on the web. In Canada they were at one time found only in the province of British Columbia, but it now appears that they no longer have any meetings in Canada but they do still seem to have a presence in the United States and Europe. (Note: the link www.lifering.org leads to an updated website since Dr. Beninger accessed it for this story - Ed.) It is unfortunate that they are no longer available in Canada since I agree with their philosophy in that they take an experimental approach to maintaining abstinence from substances just as SRO does. Also the group is free to incorporate ideas from any source they find useful, even other addiction recovery groups. In addition, and again similar to SRO, LifeRing encourages members to use relapses as learning experiences and does not encourage the shaming of those who do relapse.

So why do we Need More Secular Peer-Support Options?
First and foremost, if you have learned anything from reading the article thus far, there are many paths to recovery and none of the above secular options will appeal to all those who are seeking alternatives to 12-step programs. Secondly, of the secular options available above they are “variable in time and space” which basically means that some groups such as LifeRing and SOS start out, expand, and then fail to maintain a major presence in most cities. There are several possible reasons for this but one of the main ones is that 12-step philosophy has dominated North America for 80 years, and has many meetings as well as having a presence everywhere, including most private and public institutions. I have found personally in SRO that people who are coming to our group for the first time and profess they want nothing to do with religiosity become resistant to actually listening to the very real advances in science and options to 12-step philosophy that they may have.

Finally, and most importantly: there is a tidal wave of youth aged 18-24 in Canada, 44% of whom do not believe in God according to the Association for Canadian Studies that is just now starting to breach the shores of 12-step programs. This trend is also very similar in the United States as well and this is bound to have a profound impact on 12-step programs there as well.

So, if you are unhappy with the peer-support options in your community, start an SOS, SMART or LifeRing group. You can also start an SRO group. In the last 18 months we have expanded in our city from one meeting a week to three. We have all the info you need to get started, just visit our website and hit the “Contact Us” button. We maintain a free database of peer-reviewed articles on addiction and recovery which you can access, but due to copyright restrictions in some cases only summaries (abstracts) of articles are available to view. All you have to do is visit the website, download the free software, and invite yourself to access the database. We are a science and evidence-based group that believes there are many paths to recovery – you just have to find yours, with some help.

Published in the fix: addiction and recovery straight-up 8/18/15.

Clifford W. Beninger (Ph.D.) is Chair and Treasurer for Secular Recovery Organization

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