Finding secular alternatives to AA – Henry Steinberger, Ph.D.

By Henry Steinberger, Ph.D.


When people have a problem with addictions, where can they turn? Most people can name only Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups. Most treatments centers and courts refer people to them, but many people have a problem with this.

Though some people manage to take the helpful fellowship and ignore the higher-power/god talk, many of us who reject theism and supernaturalism will forgo help rather than seek a so-called “spiritual awakening” and accept a “higher power,” who, if prayed to in the right way, removes one’s “defects of character.”

Worse, when a person rejects the 12 steps for all of these legitimate reasons, they are accused of being in denial about their problem and receive threats that they will end up in jail, insane or dead if they don’t accept the 12-step solution, as if there is no other path to recovery.

U.S. courts have consistently ruled that 12-step programs are religious for purposes of the First Amendment and forbid their mandated or coerced imposition. Further, research has demonstrated that although participation in these groups is usually helpful, regular attendance and real participation were more likely when the individual’s degree of religiosity was congruent with that of the group (Atkins and Hawdon, 2007).

But accurate information about secular options rarely comes from the underinformed and biased sources often unwillingly providing it. After all, religious movements have a commitment to winning new converts, not providing alternatives.

But secular alternatives do exist. 

SMART Recovery (SR) has built its science-based, self-empowering, abstinence program on empirically tested methods. Besides the mutual support found in its almost 800 face-to-face meetings worldwide and daily online meetings, SR offers recovery tools proven effective in research. Its Four Point Program aims at (1) motivation to abstain, coping with cravings, managing problems such as negative emotions, and finding a life with balance. Like AA, lifetime abstinence is the goal, and meetings and help are free. Unlike AA, lifetime abstinence need not require lifetime attendance at meetings. 

SMART stands for Self-Management And Recovery Training and is not claiming to be smarter than other groups. It’s recognized by many professional health organizations and governmental agencies, which are listed and linked at

SR’s website ( provides links to other secular groups, which do not always reciprocate. SR’s tag line is “Discover the Power of Choice.” That includes the choice to quit using and the choice of one’s recovery path. 

Other secular recovery

These recovery programs are also secular and free:

Women For Sobriety aims for abstinence and offers volunteers the opportunity and training to become meeting “moderators.” Dr. Jean Kirkpatrick started WFS out of dissatisfaction with AA’s focus on lessening hubris — more of a problem with men, whereas women (and minorities) often need to be empowered rather than further humbled.

Her “New Life” program is based on positive thinking and metaphysics, so it may not meet everyone’s definition of secular, but it’s not a theistic spiritualism. The website ( doesn’t link to other groups or list its meetings (perhaps for security), so you have to contact the central office to find a group.

Secular Organizations for Sobriety (aka Save Our Selves) is affiliated and supported by the Center for Inquiry of Los Angeles, thus affirming its humanist credentials. A dominant figure, James Christopher, started SOS. Meeting leaders are all recovering people.

The program might be described as the 12 steps minus the god stuff. The website ( provides a list of meetings but no links to other programs.

LifeRing started when Martin Nicolaus, head of SOS publishing, broke with that organization to start a group “not affiliated” with any other (like CFI). He claims that each person creates their own program, but his books provide theory and structure. Volunteer “conveners” are all recovering people. The website ( lists meetings but does not link to other groups. 

Moderation Management, unlike all the other groups, is not abstinence-based. The secular, science-based program is not for alcohol-dependents (alcoholics). MM provides safer responsible drinking limits and guidelines. It’s a 9-step program to help people cut down or quit, and either outcome is considered a success.

Volunteers include people who have never had an alcohol problem. The website ( lists live and online meetings and links to other programs. 

For the “never addicted” reader who wants to help, SMART Recovery volunteers include both never-addicted and recovering people, all of whom receive training in facilitating meetings.

Rational Recovery is often mistakenly offered as a secular alternative to AA, but RR stopped offering free self-help meetings in the mid-1990s. It’s a for-profit company that sells seminars, DVDs and some fine secular self-help books, but it’s not a self-help group. 

Why am I interested in providing secular options? 

My step-grandfather, Jacob Benjamin, who wrote “Did Jesus Ever Live or Is Christianity Founded Upon A Myth?” under the pseudonym Historicus, was a devout atheist and science-minded for his time, but he engaged in secret maintenance drinking during the day and a family-destroying binge every night. He ruined my mother’s life and his own, which revealed to me a societal need.

I believe he might have been helped if there had been a secular alternative available back then. It is my hope that with this information more people in our FFRF and related communities will support and volunteer to help offer these secular options.


Dr. Steinberger, an FFRF Life Member, is a licensed psychologist. He holds the Certificate of Proficiency in the Treatment of Alcohol and Other Psychoactive Substance Use Disorders from the American Psychological Association and is a past member of the SMART Recovery board of directors. He’s the editor/author of The SMART Recovery Handbook (2nd Ed., 2004) and is a volunteer adviser to SMART. He specializes in science-based, secular approaches to addiction treatment.

Freedom From Religion Foundation