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Alcoholics Anonymous Not As Helpful as Secular Alternatives

Posted in Friendly Atheist by Skepdude on February 4, 2009

I’ve written about the topic before: Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs which require participants to submit to a higher power (PDF).

You would think that, because AA is so famously known and its program so widely used, it would at least be effective… right?

New research says otherwise.

So what works better than AA’s 12 steps?

In last month’s Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, University of New Mexico addiction specialist William Miller and his colleagues presented findings from two controlled trials in which patients underwent drug treatment. Some of the patients received spiritual guidance as part of the treatment — learning such practices as prayer, meditation and service to others, all of which are central to 12-step programs. Others received secular psychotherapy. Because of the enduring popularity of AA and similar programs that involve a spiritual component, Miller and his team expected the patients in the spiritual group to do better than those in the secular group. They were wrong — at least in the short term.

While both groups eventually benefited relatively equally from their treatment — abusing substances on fewer days — it took longer to see improvement among those in the spiritual group. What’s more, those who received spiritual guidance reported being significantly more anxious and depressed after four months than those who got secular help. Those problems abated at about the eight-month point, but because substance abusers are at high risk for suicide, some worry that it may not be a good idea to put them through demanding spiritual calisthenics in the early months of their recovery.


9 Responses

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  1. Skepdude said, on February 4, 2009 at 9:38 PM

    If someone can get their hands on the PDF copy and e-mail it to me at I would really appreciate it.

  2. Chaz said, on February 8, 2009 at 11:17 AM


    I suppose I can see your point. Perhaps recovery strategies and practices are an evolving thing.

    Realize that prior to the discovery/development of the 12 step approach by AA, alcoholics like Bill W and the like were considered hopeless.

    Even Sigmund Freud considered extreme alcoholics and drug addicts untreatable.

    There had to that time been no treatement approach as effective as AA. Now since AA has been successful, perhaps it has opened minds up and challenged others to develop other methods that may indeed be effective too. Or dare I say even more so.

    Any notion that recovery approaches need to compete, I believe is unnecessary.

    I have tried numerous approaches to get clean, sober, and recovering. None worked for me until I took the AA approach. That is for me. Others may differ.

    I also attended a treatment program that boasted a 98% success rate. What a load of crap! They may have at one point in isolated conditions achieve these results, but they were not the results I observed.

    So…. all I can really say is two things….

    1. AA has kept this alcoholic sober for a number of years now and helped me recover in virtually every area of my life.

    2. If other ways work for other people, then great. Bring it on.



  3. Skepdude said, on February 9, 2009 at 4:47 AM


    Thanks for the comment. Please note that the study did not say that AA does not work, it simply said that it takes longer, but the effects are beneficial just the same, with the only possible conclusion that we can logically draw being that by removing the spiritual portion we can possibly help people quicker.

  4. ken said, on February 21, 2010 at 1:27 PM

    This is bogus. 12 step programs do not “require” you to have a higher power, only to consider having one. To state otherwise means the writer is lying or has not bother to read 12 step literature!

    I considered higher power. And then decided I did not believe in a higher power. Many others I know did the same thing.

    Of course one problem in the United States is there are a lot of “god nuts” compared to any other western nation. Would be Presidents have to discus how much they believe in a christian god to get elected. In most other democracies you would be considered a moron for bringing this up in public.

    • Skepdude said, on February 21, 2010 at 9:21 PM

      Ok, please consult the AA 12 steps here

      Click to access smf-121_en.pdf

      Please notice that a reference to either God or a higher Power is made on steps 2,3,5,6,7, and 11 while step 12 talks about a “spiritual awakening”. That’s 7 out of the 12 steps. I’d say that is more than a mere consideration, would’t you say?

  5. tothnews said, on April 7, 2010 at 7:52 AM

    For those seeking an alternative, I’ve discovered a secular group known as SMART Recovery, which offers meetings involving no dogma whatsoever, only clear and rational thinking. If you’ve been looking for an alternative route to recovery, I suggest you join the SMART Recovery Facebook fan club at!/pages/SMART-Recovery-USA/102376027397?ref=ts and visit their main website at

    Online support groups are available, along with a growing number of meetings and a great deal of information about the SMART Recovery approach. Whether or not you prefer group involvement, I think you’ll find SMART Recovery to be a great alternative.

  6. RumHound said, on April 20, 2010 at 1:16 PM

    No AA group or member should ever, in such a way as to implicate AA, express any opinion on outside controversial issues–particularly those of politics, alcohol reform, or sectarian religion. The Alcoholics Anonymous groups oppose no one. Concerning such matters they can express no views whatever.

    • Martha said, on May 15, 2017 at 9:53 PM

      Goshhhh Ally I love reading your stuff! Your such an amazing write lol … I never knew this was in you! You definitely have a HUGE gift!!! You inspire me!!! I can’t get enough! I want to keep reading!!! Can’t wait to read the rest of them!!! Love you your aweeemseeo!!!!! ❤

  7. Paul A. Toth said, on April 20, 2010 at 1:25 PM

    Then who are all those people attacking me when I post an article like this one: ?

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