Growing non-religious population in need of more secular recovery groups


Many popular drug recovery groups use religious methods to help addicts.

But that could be a problem for those people who aren’t religious – a growing part of the population in both Canada and Calgary.

Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous are among some of those recovery groups with religion being part of its 12-step program.

It is not required that you follow a religion or need to become religious to attend these meetings. All individuals are welcome.

But some meetings open with a prayer. And the third step of all of these organization’s 12-step program is to make “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.’

The amount of religion in some of the support groups has caused some atheist or agnostic members to feel excluded or lonely because they do not share the same faith. Bill Wilson – one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous – noticed this problem early on.

He wrote an article called “The Dilemma of No Faith” for AA Grapevine back in 1961. The article was also featured in the International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In it, he described his aggressive push to include God in the recovery process as being “damaging – perhaps fatally so – to a number of non-believers.”Religion ArtWebAlchololics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are some drug recovery programs that stress coming to an understanding of God is important to the recovery process.

Photo illustration by Skye Anderson

According to Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey, Canada’s non-religious population has increased from being 16.5 per cent of the population in 1991 to 23.9 per cent in 2011. Similarly, in Calgary, the non-religious population has gone from making up 25.2 per cent of the population to 32.3 per cent. But, despite that growth non-religious literature still does not exist in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Roger C., whose name is not disclosed in keeping with the principle of anonymity espoused by recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, is author of The little book: A collection of alternative 12 steps. He started AA Agnostica, a popular website for atheists or agnostics that want to achieve sobriety.

“There is a problem in terms of agnostics and atheists in AA, otherwise my website wouldn’t exist. It is not easy to be comfortable as an agnostic or atheist in the fellowship of AA” says Roger C., whose AA Agnostic group in Toronto has clashed with the local Alcoholics Anonymous group there.

That kind of discomfort also prompted Neil F. and others in Alberta to start an agnostic AA meeting in Stony Plain, which is referred to as the Beyond Belief Meeting. It meets once a week and the meeting does not include prayer. This group reads secular material only and then discusses what they are doing to stay sober rather than what they believe. He says both religious and non-religious members attend the meeting.

“I think the non-theistic members of AA are doing what they need to do to try and bring about changes within AA itself. In addition to that, of course there are other organizations, such as SMART Recovery, that have meetings in Alberta. Men for Sobriety is also represented in Alberta,” Neil F, says.

But that patchwork of groups is in need of expansion. According to Justin Trottier— a spokesperson for the Centre of Inquiry Canada– there just aren’t enough secular drug and alcohol treatment groups for Canada’s growing non-religious population. The Toronto-based Centre of Inquiry is a registered educational charity with a mandate to promote the values of reason, science and freedom of inquiry.

“Even in Toronto we are talking about one or two groups that we host compared to the dozens and dozens and dozens of AA and related 12-step religious programs that are out there,” says Trottier. “So, we cannot provide enough support for what’s required. And then there are many cities where there aren’t any, that I’m aware of, any secular organized alternatives to AA. It’s either AA, a religious recovery program, or you are alone.”

In response to this issue, the centre created a program known as Secular Organizations for Sobriety, which focuses on sobriety as the priority, rather than God.

Trottier, a board member of the Canadian Secular Alliance, believes that it is up to the people to step up and say they are not comfortable with AA, and to find those other secular options.

“AA does not have a higher success rate than some of these secular programs. They are about the same. They work for a majority of people, but certainly not everybody,” says Trottier 

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