5 Common Arguments Against 12 Step Recovery (and the Counters)

The common arguments against 12 step programs – and their counters – here.

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The 12 Steps are Controversial

The 12 Step recovery approach to addiction is the subject of considerable controversy. On one side are the supporters of the program, many of whom credit the 12 Steps with saving their lives or the lives of their loved ones. On the other are those whose experience of the 12 Step program was negative, even damaging.

In this article we will investigate the arguments against the 12 Step program. We’ll also offer the counters to these arguments. Finally, we invite your feedback at the end. We want to hear from our readers! So, sound in.

Argument #1: You have to believe in God to do the 12 Steps.

The 12 Steps contain numerous references to God or a higher power, and often meetings conclude with a prayer, usually The Serenity Prayer. The 12 Steps were initially conceived from a Christian point of view, not only that, a white, male, Christian point of view.

This was because of the context of the founders of the original 12 Step fellowship, Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith in 1935 Akron, Ohio. Subsequent fellowships such as Narcotics Anonymous have adopted and adapted the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions along with the meeting format and sponsorship system.

Florence Rankin, A.A.’s first female member, joined A.A. in March 1937, and the first non-Protestant member, a Roman Catholic, joined in 1939. The first Black A.A. group was established in 1945 in Washington DC by Jim S., an African American physician from Virginia. A.A. membership has since spread internationally and become ever more inclusive of all kinds of diversity. Close to 2 million people worldwide are members.

The 12 Steps have not changed in language, they have however changed in meaning as times have changed. They continue to be adapted by each individual that finds a way to incorporate them into their lives.

COUNTER: The concept of God has expanded to include any higher power in which you can put your faith, this can be something spiritual, equally it can be the group itself or anything which fits, there is no strict dogma in practice.

Argument #2: The concept of powerlessness frees the addict from responsibility for their actions.

Rather than affording the addict a cop out, the idea of powerlessness frees the addict of some of the crippling shame and guilt of addiction. It is the nature of addiction that leaves a person powerless. You are not weak willed or flawed or a bad person, instead addiction is a chronic illness or a disease.

COUNTER: Powerlessness’ is a condition of the disease of addiction, which is both compulsive and chronic, and progresses despite negative consequences.

Understanding and acceptance of this is necessary for 12 Step based recovery which requires abstinence from addiction forming mind/mood altering chemicals, including alcohol.

Argument #3: Addicts substitute their addiction with dependence on 12 Step meetings.

Meetings provide community with like-minded people who share a similar past and a future. Meetings provide a space in which addicts can begin to develop healthier relationships, a place in which to be helpful and to be helped and generally expand their repertoire of positive and effective behaviors and attitudes.

COUNTER: The stable presence of meetings, the only requirement for attendance of which is the desire to stop using, is a very different kind of presence in anyone’s life that the all-consuming nature of addiction.

Argument #4.: The 12 Step program is a Patriarchal Cult.

Often the definition of an addict has been based on observed male characteristics that seemed common in the drinking culture of the 1930’s and 40’s.  The A.A. basic text describes addicts as self-absorbed and self centered. In the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous the characteristics of alcoholics is described as being ‘King Baby’, ‘grandiose’ and as having an ‘inflated self-ego.’ (These definitions have been expounded on throughout recovery/ treatment literature). All this must be taken in context though, as discussed above the book was written in the 30s by white, male, Christians.

COUNTER: 12 step fellowships are today what each group makes them, continually evolving and become more inclusive. People are free to take what suits them from the meeting and leave the rest. The 12 Steps provide a frame work for what must necessarily be – a very personal, existential journey. Those participating in the 12 steps must think critically and find their own way, blindly accepting religious dogma wouldn’t cut it.

Argument #5: Twelve-Step programs don’t work.

Research limitations

The controversy that surrounds the efficacy of 12 Step fellowships is understandable in that the scientific study of A.A. members has been hard to achieve. This has left us with a debate involving believers and non-believers rather than evidence based, objective facts.


The studies which have been conducted give us wildly divergent conclusions, some associating attendance with higher rates of assistance whilst others suggest the opposite is true.

The 2006 Cochrane Review, of eight studies (undertaken between 1967 and 2005) on the effectiveness of A.A., found no significant difference between the results of Twelve Step participation compared to other treatments, stating that “experimental studies have on the whole failed to demonstrate their effectiveness in reducing alcohol dependence or drinking problems when compared to other interventions.”

A 2014 study by Keith Humphreys, Janet Blodgett and Todd Wagner concluded that “increasing A.A. attendance leads to short and long term decreases in alcohol consumption that cannot be attributed to self-selection.”

Dr. Lee Ann Caskets reported in 2009 that the frequency with which individuals attend meetings appears to have a statistically significant correlation with maintaining abstinence. Caskets noted two studies which both found that 70% of those who attended twelve-step groups at least weekly were abstaining from alcohol consumption at follow ups at both two and sixteen years later. Those who attended less than once per week showed about the same success rate as those who didn’t attend meetings

COUNTER: This conflicting evidence should not convince us that 12 step recovery doesn’t work however, just that research methods to date have unfortunately been inadequate.

In Conclusion

If you are suffering from addiction, 12 step recovery meetings remain a free and ever available resource for you.
So, why spurn the process?
You are welcome to go and check them out for yourself!

About the author
Jason Shiers, Dip Psych, MBACP is a Transactional Analysis Psychodynamic Psychotherapist, and Head of Digital for addictionhelper.com and ukat.co.uk. Jason has been helping people with all types of addictions for 23 years. He practices holistically calling on various modalities including, psychotherapy, 12 steps, mindfulness, energy and meditation to help people empower themselves to make positive change in their lives.
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