Can atheists go to a 12 Step program? The short answer is yes, atheists can go to a 12 Step program. However, the important question is whether 12 Step programs are effective in helping atheists overcome drinking problems?
Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), the group that developed the 12 Steps, emerged from a fundamentalist Christian religious movement of the 1930s called the Oxford Group. The 12 Steps themselves were based on religious principles espoused in that religious movement. Half of the steps emphasize God or a Higher Power and members of A.A., Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.) and other 12 step programs are expected to submit their will to God or another Higher Power.
Some members say that A.A. and other 12 step programs are not religious but simply spiritual, and that a members' "Higher Power" can be anything--a rock, a Pepsi bottle, or a door knob. However, the United States Supreme court has upheld lower court findings that A.A. is either a religious organization or that it engages in religious activities. So forget the door knob unless you're using it to leave a 12 Step meeting.
The fact is that few religious, non-religious or spiritual people find 12 Step programs helpful. The one-year success rate of A.A. is only about five percent. That is, only about one of every 20 members achieves sobriety. A federal nation-wide research study found that a higher proportion of alcoholics achieve sobriety on their own, without a 12 Step program. In other words, attending a 12 Step program appears to reduce the chances of achieving sobriety.
There are number of possible explanations for the generally negative effects of 12 Step programs. The programs teach people that alcoholism is an incurable disease; that alcoholics will remain "diseased" for the rest of their lives; that alcoholics suffer from a mysterious "loss of control" if they consume any alcohol, even unknowingly cooked in their food; that they must always be on guard against temptations to drink; that they should avoid family and friends who drink; and that they will need support for the rest of their lives to help them avoid relapses.
If religious and spiritual people have such a dismal success rate in a religious program with these demanding requirements, what are the chances that an atheist would achieve even that very low success rate? No one knows, but the chances don't look good.
But there is good news. The non-religious Saint Jude Retreats program provides Cognitive Behavioral Learning (CBL) to help people learn how to prioritize their life goals, self-assess their actions; develop behavior patterns supportive of achieving their goals, and use effective tools to lead a gratifying life free of alcohol problems.
Independent researchers periodically examine the long term success of former Saint Jude Retreats guests in living lives free of unwanted alcohol or drug use and find that they have a total sobriety rate of at least 62%. That compares with A.A.'s 5% meeting attendance rate at one year. This meeting attendance rate doesn't assume sobrietyâ€”just meeting attendance. Consider the standards and make the decision that seems the best option for a successful outcome for you.