Secularist Problem Drinkers Find Alternatives To AA

By Tim Townsend


By the end of January, plenty of New Year's resolutions have been broken.

For those who have ignored pledges to hit the gym every day, or stay away from "American Idol," a broken resolution is little more than an annual defeat of the will. But for people trying to get their alcohol problem under control, a broken resolution can have devastating consequences.

Alcoholics Anonymous, with 2 million members worldwide, is the largest organization people turn to when they recognize they have a drinking problem. But the religious overtones in AA's famous "12 Steps" with their focus on God and the powerlessness of the individual can be jarring to those whose vision of faith differs from AA's.

"I knew there was no way in hell this was going to work for me," said Donna Dierker, a Creve Coeur neuroscientist who considers herself agnostic and who tried AA when she wanted to moderate her drinking in 2002. "I was just ideologically opposed to the 12 Steps."

Some who struggle with alcohol also struggle with the notion of surrendering to a supernatural force in order to solve their problems a key component of AA's 12-step program.

They cringe at the idea that they are powerless to help themselves, and that they must rely on something they don't believe in to gain control over their lives. Those two ideas are contained in AA's first two steps:

"Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over our addiction that our lives had become unmanageable. Step 2: (We came) to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity."

Dierker and many others turned off by the religious content of AA have turned to other programs. Dierker opted for Moderation Management, which calls itself a "behavioral change program." In language starkly different from AA's, MM says it "empowers individuals to accept personal responsibility for choosing and maintaining their own path, whether moderation or abstinence."

AA, which was founded 75 years ago, has roots in a Christian movement called the Oxford Group. It describes the 12 steps seven of which mention God or spirituality as the "heart" of the organization's recovery program. But it also makes it clear that "newcomers are not required to accept or follow" them.

AA also has 12 traditions, or principles first adopted in 1950 one of which says: "For our group there is but one ultimate authority a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience."

MM comes at the problem from a different angle. It relies on research from organizations such as the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, and spirituality doesn't enter the picture. Nearly all of MM's advisers and directors are doctors.

On a recent Sunday, about 20 people sat in a dark room at the Ethical Society of St. Louis in Ladue watching Dierker work her way through a PowerPoint presentation about moderating problem drinking. Afterward, the discussion continued at a nonalcoholic beer-tasting in the next room.

MM is largely an online network, and therefore its popularity is difficult to measure, but there are face-to-face MM meetings around the country, too. Dierker started one in St. Louis about a year ago; in August, the meeting moved to the Ethical Society every Wednesday evening. Not everyone who attends MM meetings is a secularist, and some who attend also go to AA meetings.

AA says it "is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution," but court opinions have been mixed on the issue.

In March, a Pennsylvania appellate court ruled that AA was not protected by religious land use laws because it could not be considered a religious organization.

"The fact that the 12-step program is used and it contains references to 'God' and a 'Higher Power' does not mean that all members believe that they are partaking in a religious experience when they are attending an AA ... meeting," according to the ruling.

But in 2007, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said that, because of AA's religious content, prison inmates could not be coerced to take part in AA meetings as a condition of their release.

Many AA meetings are held in church and synagogue basements around the country. Rabbi James Goodman runs a hybrid meeting called Shalvah ("serenity" in Hebrew) at Neve Shalom, a Jewish Renewal Community temple in unincorporated St. Louis County.

"The purpose is to create a bridge between the 12-step model and the traditional spiritual resources of Judaism," Goodman said.

The meeting, held on Thursday evenings, attracts from 20 to 40 people, about half of whom are Jewish, according to Goodman.

Moderation Management is not the only group that has taken God completely out of the recovery process.

James Christopher is the founder of S.O.S. Secular Organizations for Sobriety. Christopher said S.O.S. will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, and he calls the group the "largest and oldest secular alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous."

"We have a self-empowerment approach, rather than faith-based approach," Christopher said. "But we're not anti-religious."

Ginger Frank, an addiction therapist at Jefferson Barracks, runs a meeting for veterans called SMART Recovery. On its website, SMART Recovery says it has "a scientific foundation, not a spiritual one," and "teaches increasing self-reliance, rather than powerlessness."

Unlike MM, SMART Recovery which has about 300 meetings worldwide compared with about 90,000 AA meetings is an abstinence program. Frank said there are several people in training to be SMART Recovery coordinators in the St. Louis area, and there are likely to be other meetings outside Jefferson Barracks soon.

"We don't encourage the concept of powerlessness at all," Frank said. "We can prove to people that they do, in fact, have power over their addiction. If they're in jail, they're not using. If they're in the hospital, they're not using. They do have a choice."


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