Close this search box.

Working the Steps

Here are some stories by Overeaters Anonymous (OA) secular members, outlining how they navigate, translate, and work the Steps without a higher power.

Go below for links to secular podcasts where people discuss working the Steps without God.

Many people find it helpful to read outside secular literature along with the OA books. Often these books have a chapter on each Step, so it’s easy to sync up with your reading of the OA Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Check Book Recommendations.

Another barrier can be the wording of those god-danged OA steps! Check Alternative Steps for fast relief.

If you’re using the OA Twelve-Step Workbook of Overeaters Anonymous as you work the Steps (a very thorough practice!), here are translations of the “god” questions you can print out and keep with your other materials (pdf, 4 pages).

It also really helps to have a sympathetic sponsor. When you choose someone, be sure to tell them how you feel about the HP issue, and make sure they’re okay with you supplementing OA materials with outside resources. 

Do you have ideas for working the Steps that you’d like to share? Contact us!

The Freethinker Step Discussion
Visit this monthly meeting (third Sunday of the month, check the meeting schedule for time and Zoom link) for a thoughtful discussion of the Step of the month (i.e., the first month of the year, January, examines the First Step). Various secular versions of the Steps and their interpretations are discussed. We have started adding recordings of the meeting discussions to our podcast page.

Stories on Working the Steps by Secular Members

Author Alan shares his non-theist interpretations of the Twelve Steps.

Lifeline story link from October 2018:

In the Big Book chapter “How It Works” there is a passage that reads: “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.” The reality is many, if not most, addicts don’t find reprieve in traditional Twelve-Step recovery, including myself at one time. Not all of us are constitutionally incapable of being honest with ourselves. We are not delusional or lacking rigor. In my case, I didn’t have the understanding, confidence, or support to reconfigure the program in the ways necessary to make it work for me. Instead, I was told, as so often women and anyone who doesn’t fit the Anglo-hetero-male mold are, that I needed to conform myself to the framework some white dudes who believed in a He-pronouned God had divined a century prior. 

I attended my first Overeaters Anonymous (OA) meeting around age 24 at the suggestion of a therapist. After almost a decade of abusing drugs, I had gotten clean. But rather than seeking true recovery, I had simply swapped an illegal substance with one I could buy over the counter—food. In particular, sugary, starchy, fatty, salty, highly addictive foods. Instead of getting high amid the camaraderie of other addicts, I began bingeing alone in my house with the TV serving as my most trusted companion. I wandered into OA lost and desperate and willing to do whatever I was told, including working the Steps with a sponsor. For reasons related and unrelated to the program, I never achieved any lasting abstinence or experienced a spiritual awakening and within a few years I fell away, as too many do. 

Over the following decade, my external life continued to march forward, passing by all the milestones that signaled to the world I was a functioning adult. Though, behind the charade, I remained stuck in the food. I didn’t have the consequences that followed alcohol and drug binges, but the dissonance of knowing that I wasn’t living in alignment with my values or pursuing my potential was enough to slowly corrode my soul. I studied addiction, reading books, attending seminars, and working with treatment professionals. None of it brought sustained relief from compulsive eating, but it did give me the context to understand why Twelve-Step works, how it rewires neural pathways by creating new habit loops and infuses members with a deeper purpose and meaning in their lives. And I knew OA worked. I had seen it in the rooms. 

At 33, again demoralized and desperate, I went searching for a local OA meeting, which is when I found the Freethinkers, a secular group in the San Francisco Bay Area. For the first time, I am able to be part of a community pursuing recovery through willingness, personal accountability, and service to others without bending my integrity to allow for the blatant patriarchy perpetuated in Twelve-Step literature or doing mental gymnastics to circumvent the Judeo-Christian theology. Yet, listening to those who have long-term abstinence speak at meetings has given me a faith that science and psychology could not. The relationships with other fellows have become a lifeline, slowly reeling me back from the depths of food addiction.

Many who do not believe in a dualistic capital-G “God” or gray-bearded sky wizard granting wishes from the clouds choose to conceptualize a higher power that they can relate to. For some, it’s OA as a whole, or a universal spirit, or a higher self guiding through intuition. I remove the higher-power notion completely. Step Two, for me, is about coming to believe that recovery is possible. I do that by going to meetings, talking to fellows, and bearing witness to transformation in real time. Step Three is when I decide that recovery is worth all the hard, uncomfortable change that it requires. It is the willingness to do something other than what I’ve been doing, to open myself up to the guidance of those who have trudged the path before me. It is when I commit to put my recovery before all else. In Step Six I become willing to let go of the behaviors that are standing in the way between me and recovery, particularly my usefulness to others, and through Step Seven I develop and put into action a plan to modify those unhelpful habits developed not just over my lifetime but over an entire ancestral lineage. Step Eleven is about learning to pause. Daily meditation lets me observe emotions and thoughts. Instead of reacting to life, I practice responding with skill and intention. 

In my experience, OA is not a one-size-fits-all antidote to food addiction. I have not been struck abstinent by working the steps and utilizing the tools. But the program and even more so the people have empowered me to embark on a personal journey toward healing. One day at a time, we carry on.

—Meghan W, Oakland, CA USA

Author Mercy shares her experience as an agnostic member of OA and her adaptation of the Steps.

OA Lifeline story link from September 2020:

Secular Podcasts on Working the Steps

Proactive Twelve Steps

Working the Proactive Twelve Steps: This is another secular interpretation of the Steps and author Serge Prengel talks with host John S (Beyond Belief Sobriety) about his interpretations of the Steps and how they can be worked.


120421 | Step Twelve | Jenne | 19 min | East Bay Unity Intergroup
Jenne tells her story and adds how she works Step Twelve as an atheist.

If you know of other podcasts that focus on a Step or Steps from a secular perspective, send us the link! Use the Contact form.

"Perfection Is Not Progress." Collage by Anonymous