This week’s podcast features an interview with Steve K. who discusses his book, The 12 Step Philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous: An Interpretation by Steve K.Inspired by Aristotle’s “Virtue Ethics,” Stoic philosophy and the liberal principles embedded in AA history; Steve interprets the Steps from a humanistic perspective. It is an approach that will be welcomed by many of us who struggle with the God bit of AA.
The book begins with Steve’s personal story of recovery. He was about 15 years old when he started drinking, and by the time he was 25, he realized that he needed to stop. When Steve found himself in the rooms of AA, he could accept that for him complete abstinence was the only solution, and though he did not grow up in religion; he was open to the idea of a belief in God. He lost the obsession with alcohol during the second year of his sobriety, and as he began to feel more confident and secure in his recovery, he also started to question the Twelve Steps. He became somewhat disenchanted with the program, which he perceived to be religious. He was sober, but he wasn’t content, and he didn’t feel at home in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Steve reached a turning point after reading Ernest Kurtz’s book Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous. The book gave him an understanding and appreciation of the liberal principles upon which AA was founded, and this helped him relate to the steps from a non-theistic point of view. His new approach to 12 Step philosophy evolved slowly over time and is shared with the greater recovery community through his popular blog 12StepPhilosophy.
The 12 Step Philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous: An Interpretation by Steve K is an outgrowth of the blog and is presented in three parts: 1) The 12 Steps, 2) Practicing Virtue, and 3) Articles of Interest.
The Twelve Steps
Steve believes that by employing a little imagination and not taking the Steps so literally, there should not be any difficulty for a person with a secular worldview to interpret the Twelve Steps. Steve describes the First step as “inwardly understanding and admitting one’s lack of control or power in relation to drinking (alcohol addiction) and accepting help.” Acknowledging and accepting the problem is essential to the rest of the program, and when we share our experience in an AA meeting, others will hopefully identify and recognize their own lack of control over drinking, and gain hope of recovery.
Steve describes Steps Two and Three in entirely rational and practical terms in which we essentially come to believe in the transformative power of the group and make a commitment to work the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. This isn’t to say that Steve shies away from spirituality in this book; he certainly does not. In fact, during the past year, Steve has become more open to spirituality and the idea that there is something beyond self. As an atheist, I don’t have any problem relating to Steve’s experience with the Steps, and I find his openness to new ideas and experiences to be interesting and inspiring.
I can’t think of any other book that does a better job explaining the inventory process. Steve takes us through Step Four just as it’s laid out in the Big Book, but he strips away the excess drama and in a very concise way helps the reader understand the process. I particularly liked the discussion of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and how the Fourth Step helps identify our basic human needs and motivations so we can hopefully move to a higher level of self-actualization. I also found it interesting how he drew comparisons between Step Four and the ABC model used in cognitive behavioral therapy.
Steve writes that “sharing our Fourth Step Inventory with another person, helps us identify the exact nature of our wrongs, and hopefully motivates us to change.” The books’ treatment of the remaining housecleaning steps is entirely practical and reasonable. Steve encourages the reader to be realistic about Step Eight and to list those people who were obviously harmed and for which there are lingering feelings of shame and guilt. He also cautions the reader in Step Nine to be sure to seek guidance before making amends.
This book doesn’t change the wording of the Twelve Steps. Instead, Steve offers an interpretation. This is a true and honest account of Steve’s experience with the 12 Steps. In Step Eleven, he urges the reader to “develop their own form of practice in relation to prayer and meditation, while being true to themselves.” (p. 28) As an atheist, I don’t practice prayer, but if I am honest with myself, I must admit that I do recite the Serenity Prayer, if not just out of sheer habit. So, who’s to say that prayer doesn’t play a role in my atheistic AA program?
The book concludes the discussion of the Steps with the chapter “Love, Grow, Serve.” This chapter describes a spiritual awakening as a “change in awareness and way of being that cannot be willed to happen, but come about as the result of participation in the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous and its Twelve Step Program of Recovery.” We practice Step 12 through the actions of love and service which AA co-founder Dr. Bob Smith considered to be the essence of AA.
Steve was influenced by Aristotle’s Virtue Theory, which can be understood as a humanistic approach to an ethical life. Aristotle defined virtue as being the mean between two extremes of a character trait, and in the book, Steve uses the example of courage as the midpoint between cowardice and foolhardy; and humility is the mean between pridefulness and low self-esteem. In this section of the book, Steve assigns specific virtues to each of the Twelve Steps with the virtue of humility being the common denominator in many of them.
Humility is having an accurate view of oneself as a limited, imperfect human being and being honest without pretence in the portrayal of oneself to others. Humility acknowledges the need for others and reaches out toward them. Pride/ego denies this need and results in an inner emptiness; it cuts one off from others due to a sense of being “better than” in comparison and therefore lacks identification and compassion for others. (page 34)
The section of the book that deals with virtue would make for interesting discussion topics at an AA meeting. I have never given consideration to virtue, at least not in this context, but as I read the book, it made sense to me. Practicing virtue can enable me to lead a more ethical life, and I believe that if I live a life based on sound ethics, then it’s just that much easier for me to stay sober. I was intrigued by this idea of virtue, and the book whetted my appetite to learn more.
Articles of Interest
A large section of the book consists of essays that Steve has written over the years covering a broad range of topics of interest to AA members. Subjects such as: co-occurring disorders in recovery, sponsorship, AA Conference approved literature, spirituality, the root cause of addiction and much more. All of these essays are extremely well written and can also be used as discussion topics at an AA meeting.
One of my favorite articles in this section is “Recovery—A Journey of Self-Actualization.” In this article, Steve goes into more detail about how Maslow’s hierarchy of needs relates to Step Four. Equating self-actualization with spiritual awakening is an idea that I find very helpful and it also comports with my experience. As I took care of my lower level of needs, I was free to grow emotionally and live a more fulfilling life. This article and many others can be found on Steve’s blog: 12StepPhilosophy. It’s definitely worth a visit.
This book is more than just another secular interpretation of the Twelve Steps. In this work, Steve offers an intelligent discussion of the underlying philosophy behind the Twelve Steps. He brings his love for history, science, and classical thought to the recovery process, and communicates it all in a smart, down-to-earth style that makes this book a joy to read.