Do the 12 Steps Lead a Person to a Specific Religion?

12 steps lead to religion

The quick answer to the question posed in the above headline is no. The 12 steps are a spiritual program developed through Bill W and others’ experiences of being in the grip of alcoholism.

Bill W. was not the first, but was himself the beneficiary of another recovering alcoholic’s testimony of the power of working a spiritual program for recovery from alcohol. Bill W. explained in The Big Book (aka Alcoholics Anonymous) that before recovery he was not an atheist and did not believe many people really were. It was his assertion that atheistic belief would mean, “…blind faith in the strange proposition that this universe originated in a cipher and aimlessly rushes nowhere (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001, p.10). In fact, his scientific heroes of the time even “…suggested vast laws and forces at work….I had little doubt that a mighty purpose and rhythm underlay all. How could there be so much of precise and immutable law, and no intelligence? I simply had to believe in a Spirit of the Universe, who knew neither time nor limitation” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001, p. 10).

You see, the 12 Steps of recovery have one goal in mind: to bring those who become entirely willing to obediently choose honesty and humility 24 hours a day to a spiritual awakening. Not just once, but again and again, each and every day that the steps and relationship with a power greater than themselves are practiced and applied through faith. This faith is not blind faith, but faith that the steps combined with power from our higher power sought out in prayer and meditation consistently and daily will produce sobriety. On top of sobriety the steps will build strength, endurance, hope, direction, maturity, self-control, the power to deny destructive selfishness, openness, community, belonging, accountability, self-respect, freedom through the gift of forgiveness, the reordering of behavioral choices, inner peace, mental clarity, joy in living, and pleasure in serving others.

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Bill W. taught that he had a profound awakening in which past memories aligned with the present testimony that was being shared with him, such that God was able to remove his unwillingness to believe in a power greater than himself. The question from his friend, “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001, p. 12), led to the realization, “It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a Power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001, p. 12).

You see, in the 12 Steps there is a beautiful freedom given to each participant. Come as you are, where you are, and know that if you will acknowledge where your beliefs stand today, and obediently and fully commit to working the steps, the God of your understanding will bring you to the faith you need to live the program successfully. This was called moral psychology by William D. Silkworth, M.D. — a doctor who worked with many alcoholics and whose writing is included in The Big Book.

In Silkworth’s experience, alcoholism was a death sentence of sorts. He had not witnessed successful life change or recovery until he witnessed Bill W. share his story and his steps with those in the then institution for alcoholics. What Silkworth reports is that through “moral psychology,” Bill W. and the men he led out of alcoholism were able to achieve “unselfishness…the entire absence of profit motive…community spirit…[belief] in themselves, and still more in the Power which pulls chronic alcoholics back from the gates of death” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001, p. xxvii).

Dr. Silkworth had been convinced that emotionalism, merely focusing on behavioral Band-Aids, or psychological tricks was not enough to help alcoholics. He said, the approach had to have, “depth and weight” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001, p. xxviii). Silkworth testified about his own experiences of powerlessness when faced with healing an alcoholic. He innately felt that there had to be a power greater than the alcoholic sickness to heal it because human medicine/psychiatry had no cure.

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This has also been my clinical and personal experience with addicts of all kinds. This includes anyone that has a compulsive pattern, an addictive cycle, a “bad habit” they seemingly cannot overcome that is bringing any level of brokenness into their life, their relationships, or their social/vocational functioning. The experience of powerlessness when attempting to help others is quite profound. It is not until I surrender control of the healing to my higher power can I be of any assistance to my broken client. Many people, many addicts, are skeptics of the 12 Steps and its programming. If that person is reading this, in the Silkworth tradition, I would encourage you to read the The Big Book front to back, slowly and carefully with your ears open to hear and receive. As Silkworth said, “perhaps [you’ve come] to scoff, [but you] may remain to pray” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001, p. xxxii). The 12 Steps will not lead you to a certain religion but they will lead you to a relationship; a relationship with a power greater than yourself that is the power you need to change your life for the better.

Shannon Lowell, LAMFT, operates Veritas Recovery Counseling Services. For more information: 651-317-9213 or

Last Updated on August 25, 2019

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