One of the ideas that puts off the godless in 12 step programs is the assumption that spirituality is a religious term.

This is not surprising when, if you look it up in a thesaurus, the synonyms are all religious – hardly fitting a secular program you may think. But one of these, devout, can also mean seriously and sincerely, my first secular meaning of spiritual – in other words devotion to the program (in my case AA) as it has saved my life.

In dictionaries out of the four meanings given half are religious and half not. However, even one of these non-religious meanings wouldn’t take us a great deal further in the context of working programs, certainly in the early stages. This is: refined/showing great refinement and concern with the higher things in life. The other non-religious definition of spirituality I take as my second meaning in the secular context: temperamentally or intellectually akin, connected by an affinity of the mind and/or temperament.

Therefore a spiritual awakening or experience is an uplifting feeling on realizing one is part of a larger connected group in this way. It is a new sense of belonging. For steppers – who probably never particularly wanted to belong to anything – it may be seen how this feeling could take a while to permeate through, especially in the early stages if senses are numb from years of addiction.

My third meaning follows on from the first: greater than the sum of the parts in the field of human interaction (deriving from the affinity one feels in a group.) As the prime example, this is how I see the process of arriving at the AA program in the Big Book – purely out of trial and error and human observation and debate among clever men and women. A second example is the same effect generated by each Twelve Step meeting all down the years.

My fourth meaning is virtues for vices. Having thought long and hard I decided that my spiritual development should come from substituting virtues for vices in my everyday living: calmness and self-restraint for anger; tolerance for envy; balance for gluttony; generosity for greed; kindness and love for lust; courage for laziness; and humility for pride (this is the twelve step definition of humility which is a right-size view of yourself, nothing to do with being ’umble, and the twelve step definition of pride which is an over-inflated idea of your own importance, nothing to do with a job well done). That this format is like the St Francis prayer has not escaped me. Readers may like to write their own version.

Another non-religious meaning of spiritual given to me by other steppers is: openness, being teachable, willingness to accept totally new views of the world.

Spirituality for the godless in 12 step programs

 Spirituality for the godless in 12 step programs

The authors of the Big Book said alcoholism could be an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer.

A great agnostic, Carl Jung, said something similar to an early member of AA, though his description was more dramatic and he seemed to be contemplating a more sudden change: “Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. … They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.”

But as one of the appendices (II) to the Big Book explains, the AA conclusion is that spiritual experience need not be: “in the nature of sudden and spectacular upheavals. … Most of our experiences are what the psychologist William James calls ‘of the educational variety’ because they develop slowly over a period of time.”

Step 3 is the most spiritual for me, even though the term is only mentioned in Steps 11 & 12. My Step 3 is: We each nominated greater powers to remind us there are things bigger than ourselves and not to play god – then we began to let go of self-will. Step 3 gives me an interim dividend from belonging to a program and a payback from treating it seriously and sincerely. This is what I mean when I say that Step 3 is the most spiritual for me. Not that it has any religious or other-worldly connection, but that it reminds me of how serious and sincere I am about the program and how devoted to it I have become. It also reminds me of my sense of belonging to a twelve step fellowship.

The letting go in Step 3 can have the wonderful by-product of setting us on the road to finding ourselves. I have set out on a road to writing books and painting pictures. My hair is longer. I wear a suit and tie much less often, maybe two or three times a year. I am becoming happier day by day. My strong hope is that everyone on a Twelve Step program will set free their true self within as time goes by. I know of many members who have gone to university to facilitate a change to their favoured path. In this sense letting go can put us on the way to self-acceptance though this is more a focus of steps 4 & 5.

Vince Hawkins is the author not only of the book described on this website An Addicts Twelve Steps to Self-improvement (to accompany any program), but also the classic An Atheists Unofficial Guide to AA and his latest Secular AA: advanced design & build your own program – that are featured on the website  Finally, the daily reader Everyone’s an Addict, which complements any/each of the three handbooks and is also known as As Vince Sees It in its Kindle ebook format, features on the website  Vince has also written a novel, Trader Bob – see the website