Let’s Increase Access to Secular Recovery Programs

By Steven Kind

Anyone who faces the task of confronting an addiction will find barriers. These barriers can be so daunting that a person who needs help often cannot see getting beyond them — and may turn their backs on pursuing the idea any further.

“What about the friends I might lose?” “Will I have to go into a treatment program?” “What will happen to my job if I need to take time off?” “What will my family, friends, or other loved ones think of me?” And of course, “Can I even do this?” These are common questions that often lead the person suffering from addictive behaviors to throw in the towel before they even dip their toe into the waters of recovery.

For many, as it was for me, the obstacle is much deeper. I had been through treatment four times throughout my life with little success. The only options available to me were 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. These programs, starting with step one, tell you that you are powerless and must rely on God (or as they have come to define it, a higher power) to remove your addiction. Even for the faithful, the idea that they are powerless can be a nonstarter. As an atheist, the prospect of entering another 12-step program after several failed attempts seemed hopeless. Why even try?

That despair made finding an alternative paramount to any successful run at sobriety. I was facing sentencing for my second DUI in less than two years and my lawyer suggested I enter yet another round of treatment. I knew where this would lead. Another failed attempt, and the guilt and shame that go with it.

With few options before me, I went to a local outpatient treatment facility and put all my cards on the table. I explained that I was not religious and that I had done the 12-step dance with no success in the past. The counselor asked if I had heard of SMART Recovery. I hadn’t. She didn’t know anything about SMART Recovery other than that it was an alternative to AA or NA (Narcotics Anonymous). I checked it out.

That was a turning point in my life. Had that counselor not made me aware of an alternative, I am convinced I would have suffered another round of humiliation at the feet of my addiction. With almost five years of sobriety, and now working in the field to help others with addictive behaviors, I have heard countless similar stories. For many, 12-step programs are mandated through the court systems, probation, parole, and organ transplant qualification programs. Mandated attendance in a program filled with religious dogma is both wrong and unconstitutional.

While 12-step programs can be helpful to those who agree with its tenets, what about the rest of the population? When it comes to religion, one cannot just “Fake it till you make it.” I know. I’ve tried.

Since it began in 1935, AA has helped many on their paths to recovery. But in the decades since its inception, incredible advances have been made in the field of addiction recovery. Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy,  Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and Medication Assisted Treatment are just a few options available for those seeking a life beyond addiction. So why are so many still pushed into a program that may be of little or no use to them? There are many factors at play.

First, there is a lack of awareness about available alternatives. Ted Perkins, author of the book Addicted in Film, takes the reader through decades of motion pictures about addiction. When these stories show someone going to get help, they inevitably attend 12-step meetings. Television, movies, and books rarely show any alternative to AA or NA.

The judicial system strongly pushes 12-step programs for defendants with addictions. Typically, when a sentence is handed down or the mandates through probation are discussed, AA or NA are the only options offered. When courts require assessments of defendants, the suggestions that come back often involve 12-step treatment or meetings,  and usually become a part of the requirement for successful completion of the sentence imposed.

This is an area that has seen some recent movement. The Nonreligious Recovery Options bill was introduced last year in New York. It aimed to ensure that when defendants were ordered into addiction recovery programs, they were offered secular options. The bill had momentum and made its way through the House and Senate, only to be vetoed by Governor Kathy Hochul. She said she considered the bill to be “unnecessary” and added that it “imposes an overly rigid burden on courts and judges.” The burden was in essence shifted to the person being sentenced.

The American Humanist Association and other secular groups condemned the veto. For many, whether it’s a good fit or not, all they know is AA. When options are limited, it can make the daunting task of finding the right pathway to sobriety even more difficult. Often this leaves people on the hamster wheel of relapse, reoffending, and ending up in front of another judge.

Secular advocates are hoping to get the Minnesota Legislature to consider a bill similar to the one vetoed in New York. HumanistsMN, American Atheists, Secular Strategies, and SMART Recovery are working to draft legislation that could make a difference in the lives of Minnesotans who would otherwise not be able to choose their own path. We hope the new Secular Government Caucus will take an interest in this issue. Once it is introduced, it will be up to all of us to sound the rallying cry for this important piece of legislation.

Availability of secular recovery programs is slowly growing but it’s a difficult process. Funding is often hard to come by. Without government money, nonprofit organizations are limited to private donations and grassroots promotion.

If we don’t remove barriers to sobriety, many will never make the commitment nor find the resources to adequately battle their addiction. Finding a place where like-minded people support each other is a crucial part of the pathway to recovery. 

Without nonreligious options, a significant number of people will find themselves in the same place they began. Alone. Afraid. Addicted.

HMN Member Steven Kind is part of the SMART Recovery National Support Team, a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist, and author of Inspirational Dissatisfaction.



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    • Christine R on March 8, 2023 at 11:05 am
    • Reply

    Steven, Thank you so much for sharing your struggles, including getting treatment that fit you. I’m sure many people will benefit from your current advocacy for change!

      • Steven Kind on March 9, 2023 at 5:28 am
      • Reply

      Thank you Christine. It’s advocacy that hits close to home. I’ve seen so many people struggle to find something that fits. The result of not finding a path that works, can only be one that doesn’t.

    • Paul Heffron on March 8, 2023 at 11:59 pm
    • Reply

    A very important and well written article. Good suggestions for action by MNH and MNA. We can encourage action by Or Emet, the local Jewish humanist group and FUS.

      • Steven Kind on March 9, 2023 at 8:34 am
      • Reply

      Thank you Paul. I will reach out to them.

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