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Recovery Without Religion
Oct. 8, 2008

"Dennis," a retiree in his seventies, was once the executive director of a large residential treatment center for children and adolescents. A humanist and a longtime member of the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, N.Y., near Buffalo, he took pains to keep his drinking a secret for years.

(Due to the need for confidentiality, "Dennis" requested that his real name not be used in this article.)

Initially, he sought out Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for help, and although he found sincere people in AA, he was "deeply disturbed by their religious tilt." However, he attended AA meetings for two years simply because there were no other alternatives.

As soon as Secular Organizations for Sobriety, also known as "Save Our Selves" (SOS), came to Western N.Y., he eagerly started attending meetings and left AA.

SOS is a peer-run secular recovery program primarily, but not exclusively, for alcohol and drug abuse.

"For me, it was much more educational than AA," Dennis told the Humanist Network News.

Alcoholics Anonymous is a spiritually-oriented recovery program. Its foundation is the 12 Steps, several of which talk specifically about believing in a "power greater than ourselves" and "turning one's will and lives over to the care of God." Its founders, ex-stockbroker Bill Wilson and physician Dr. Bob Smith, both struggling with alcoholism, drew on the principles of an evangelical Protestant sect called the Oxford Group for AA's philosophy.

Rather than talking about turning over one's will to a higher power, SOS takes a self-empowerment approach to recovery. Meetings are not as highly structured as AA, and there is room for members to give each other feedback and share information.

While not specifically atheistic, SOS is definitely freethought friendly and a place where one can talk about recovery in a "god-free" environment.

James Christopher, a recovering alcoholic, was the founder and remains the director of the international office of Secular Organizations for Sobriety, which is housed in The Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles.

While 12 Step programs seek to change one's entire belief system, Christopher sees abstinence from the addictive substance as a distinct and separate priority from other issues in one's life.

"I believe in the separation between church and recovery," wrote Christopher in his book SOS Sobriety.

Not prescriptive in nature, the SOS program is offered as a suggested strategy for achieving and maintaining abstinence. Despite one's other issues, making sobriety the top priority is paramount to success. When one is successfully capable of doing this, then one can turn to dealing with other aspects of one's life.

What kinds of people attend SOS meetings?

"Pretty diverse," said Eric Chinchon, who is the SOS program director for Western N.Y. "People who are a bit more questioning and skeptical of dogmatic answers."

Chinchon first heard of SOS while he was a patient in a 28-day inpatient treatment program for substance abuse, There, Chinchon met a counselor who said that considering his philosophy and thinking, SOS might be a better fit for him than AA.

As there were no SOS meetings available, Chinchon went to another god-free recovery group, Rational Recovery, a few times.

Chinchon would soon bring the first SOS meeting to Western New York.

"The whole idea for the group came from an article published in Free Inquiry magazine by Christopher. It got a large response from readers," said Chinchon."

The article, "Sobriety without Superstition," was published in 1985. In it, Christopher describes his own "recovery without religion."

SOS is affiliated with the Council for Secular Humanism, also in Amherst. It is a peer-based subcommittee, according to Chinchon, who is a paid employee of the Council.

According to its web page, the Council for Secular Humanism promotes "rational inquiry, ethical values, and human development through the advancement of secular humanism." It also sponsors publications, programs, and organizes meetings and other group activities.

A long term sober alcoholic, Dennis continues to attend meetings, partly for himself and partly because he sees himself as a resource for new people. He has also led meetings in the past, some at a local correctional facility.

"(SOS) Meetings are popular, not as popular as AA, but popular. Religion doesn't get invoked. They don't depend on religion and the supernatural," said Dennis.

"We don't get hung up on terminology," said Chinchon. "While there are no sponsors, individuals do offer support."

Meetings are held in inpatient treatment facilities, hospitals and even at correctional facilities. Meetings are also held at the Center for Inquiry headquarters and at Unitarian Societies.

Most of the groups are not substance specific. Individuals trying to quit smoking may be in the same group with substance abusers. SOS is trying to do outreach to those who struggle with mental illness as well as addictions, sometimes called "MICA's"—the mentally ill and chemically addicted.

Both Chinchon and Dennis feel that there is a place for AA and acknowledge that it has brought sobriety to many people. Some individuals who attend SOS meetings continue to attend AA as well.

"The more variety of self-help that is available the more chance people will avail themselves of it," stated Chinchon.

Ruth N. Geller is the editor of Humanist Network News, the weekly e-zine of the Institute for Humanist Studies.

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