Book Review: Staying Sober without God

Munn wrote this book because, as a nonbeliever, he felt the 12 steps of AA don’t fully translate into a workable program for atheists or agnostics. This inspired him to develop the Practical 12 Steps.

Reviewed by Cassie Jewell, LPC, LSATP

  • Staying Sober without God by Jeffrey Munn, LMFT
  • Published in 2019, 165 pages

I stumbled upon Staying Sober without God while searching for secular 12-step literature for a client who identifies as atheist. Jeffrey Munn, the book’s author, is in recovery and also happens to be a licensed mental health practitioner. Munn wrote the book because, as a nonbeliever, he felt the 12 steps of AA don’t fully translate into a workable program for atheists or agnostics. (For example, the traditional version of Step 3 directs the addict to turn his/her will and life over to the care of God as they understand him. If you don’t believe in God, how can you put your life into the care of him? Munn notes that there’s no feasible replacement for a benevolent, all-knowing deity.)

The whole “God thing” frequently turns nonbelievers off from AA/NA. They’re told (by well-meaning believers) to find their own, unique higher power, such as nature or the fellowship itself. (The subtle undertone is that the nonbeliever will eventually come around to accept God as the true higher power.) Munn writes, “There is no one thing that is an adequate replacement for the concept of God.” He adds that you can’t just replace the word “God” with “love” or “wisdom.” It doesn’t make sense. So he developed the Practical 12 Steps and wrote a guide for working them.

The Practical 12 Steps are as follows:

  1. Admitted we were caught in a self-destructive cycle and currently lacked the tools to stop it
  2. Trusted that a healthy lifestyle was attainable through social support and consistent self-improvement
  3. Committed to a lifestyle of recovery, focusing only on what we could control
  4. Made a comprehensive list of our resentments, fears, and harmful actions
  5. Shared our lists with a trustworthy person
  6. Made a list of our unhealthy character traits
  7. Began cultivating healthy character traits through consistent positive behavior
  8. Determined that the best way to make amends to those we had harmed
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would cause harm
  10. Practiced daily self-reflection and continued making amends whenever necessary
  11. We started meditating
  12. Sought to retain our newfound recovery lifestyle by teaching it to those willing to learn and by surrounding ourselves with healthy people

The Practical 12 Steps in no way undermine the traditional steps or the spirit of Alcoholics Anonymous. Instead, they’re supplemental; they provide a clearer picture of the steps for the nonbeliever.


Before delving into the steps in Staying Sober without God, Munn discusses the nature of addiction, recovery, and the role of mental illness (which is mostly left untouched in traditional literature). He addresses the importance of seeking treatment (therapy, medication, etc.) for mental disorders while stressing that a 12-step program (secular or otherwise) is not a substitute for professional help. In following chapters, Munn breaks each step down and provides guidelines for working it.

The last few chapters of the book provide information on relapse and what the steps don’t address. Munn notes that sustainable recovery requires more than just working the steps, attending AA meetings, and taking a sponsor’s advice. For a balanced, substance-free lifestyle, one must also take care of their physical health, practice effective communication, and engage in meaningful leisure activities. Munn briefly discusses these components in the book’s final chapter, “What the Steps Miss.”

Staying Sober without God is well-written and easy to read. The author presents information that’s original and in line with current models of addiction treatment, such as behavioral therapy (an evidence-based approach for substance use disorder). Working the Practical 12 Steps parallels behavioral treatments; the steps serve to modify or discontinue unhealthy behaviors (while replacing them with healthy habits). Furthermore, a 12-step network provides support and meaningful human connection (also crucial for recovery).

In my opinion, the traditional 12 Steps reek of the moral model, which viewed addiction as a moral failure or sin. Rooted in religion, this outdated (and false) model asserted that the addict was of weak character and lacked willpower. The moral model has since been replaced with the disease concept, which characterizes addiction as a brain disorder with biological, genetic, and environmental influences. The Practical 12 Steps are a better fit for what we know about addiction today; Munn focuses on unhealthy behaviors instead of “character defects.” For example, in Step 7, the addict implements healthy habits while addressing unhealthy characteristics. No one has to pray to a supernatural being to ask for shortcomings to be removed.

The Practical 12 Steps exude empowerment; in contrast, the traditional steps convey helplessness. (The resulting implication? The only way to recover is to have faith that God will heal you.) The practical version of the steps instills hope and inspires the addict to change. Furthermore, the practical steps are more concrete and less vague when compared to the traditional steps. (This makes them easier to work!)


In sum, Munn’s concept of the steps helped me to better understand the 12-step model of recovery; the traditional steps are difficult to conceptualize for a nonbeliever, but Munn found a way to extract the meaning of each step (without altering overall purpose or spirit). I consider the practical steps as a modern adaptation of the traditional version.

I recommend reading Staying Sober without God if you have a substance use disorder (regardless of your religious beliefs) or if you’re a professional/peer specialist who works with individuals with substance use disorders. Munn’s ideas will give you a fresh perspective on 12-step recovery.


For working the practical steps, download the companion workbook here:

Note: The workbook is meant to be used in conjunction with Munn’s book. I initially created it for the previously mentioned client as a format for working the practical steps. The workbook is for personal/clinical use only.

12-Step Recovery Groups

An extensive list of support groups for recovery

Compiled by Cassie Jewell, LPC, LSATP

Updated July 12, 2019

There are a variety of 12-step support groups for recovery. 12-step meetings are not facilitated by a therapist; they’re self-run. Support groups are not a substitute for treatment, but can play a crucial role in recovery.

The following list, while not comprehensive, will link you to both well-known and less-familiar 12-step (and similar) organizations and support groups for recovery.

Support Groups for Addiction

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

Narcotics Anonymous (NA)

heroin anonymous (HA)

pills anonymous (PA)

Cocaine Anonymous (CA)

Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA)

Marijuana Anonymous (MA)

Nicotine Anonymous (NicA)

caffeine addicts anonymous (cafaa)

chemically dependent anonymous (CDA)

all addicts anonymous (AAA)

recoveries anonymous (R.a.)

pharmacists recovery network

international doctors in alcoholics anonymous (IDAA)

international lawyers in alcoholics anonymous (ILAA)

association of recovering motorcyclists (A.R.M.)

For Families and Others Affected by Addiction and Mental Illness

Al-Anon/Alateen (For Family and Friends of Alcoholics)

Nar-Anon (For Family and Friends of Addicts)

Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA)/Dysfunctional Families

Families Anonymous (FA)

parents anonymous

NAMI Family Support Group (For Adults with Loved Ones Who Have Experienced Mental Health Symptoms)

S-Anon/S-Ateen (For Family and Friends of Sexaholics)

codependents of sexual addiction – COSA (for those whose lives have been affected by another’s compulsive sexual behavior)

gam-anon (for families and friends of gamblers)

Secular Alternatives

SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training)

Women for Sobriety

Rational recovery

sECULAR aa

Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS)

LifeRing Secular Recovery

Religious Alternatives

Celebrate Recovery

Christians in Recovery

Addictions Victorious

alcoholics victorious

Alcoholics for Christ

overcomers in christ

overcomers outreach

the calix society

jewish alcoholics, chemically dependent persons and significant others (jacs)

BUDDHIST RECOVER NETWORK

REFUGE RECOVERY

Additional Support Groups & Organizations

violence anonymous (VA)

Adult Survivors of Child Abuse Anonymous (ASCAA)

Survivors of Incest Anonymous

lds family services

porn addicts anonymous (PAA)

Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA)

Sexaholics Anonymous

Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA)

sexual compulsives anonymous (SCA)

Sexual recovery anonymous (SRA)

Co-dependents Anonymous (CoDa)

Emotions Anonymous

Dual Recovery Anonymous

Depressed Anonymous

social anxiety anonymous (SPA/Socaa)

PTSD Anonymous

Self Mutilators Anonymous

obsessive compulsive anonymous

obsessive skin pickers anonymous (OSPA)

Clutters Anonymous (CLA)

Overeaters Anonymous (OA)

Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA)

Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous

Recovery from Food Addiction

Eating Disorders Anonymous (EDA)

Debtors Anonymous (DA)

Underearners Anonymous (UA)

spenders anonymous

Workaholics Anonymous

Gamblers Anonymous

internet & tech addicts anonymous (ITAA)

Online Gamers Anonymous (OLGA)

offenders anonymous

reentry anonymous

GROw in america (peer support for mental illness)

hearing voices network

AA Sites for agnostics and atheists: AA Agnostica and AA Beyond Belief


Do you know of a 12-step support group not listed here? Share in a comment!