Non-believers build moral codes without churches, because you don’t need to believe in a god(s) to know the difference between right and wrong.

Faded drawing of man's head in profile, on old-looking, stained paper. The "brain area" is filled with gears.On the principle of starting with the most-available, easiest-to-access, demonstrably-effective tool, we usually advise even nonbelievers to try the Step fellowships. If they don’t work, there are other tools. However, the Steps may benefit from a little “re-engineering” to increase the nonbeliever’s chances of success. Here’s the next “Re-Engineered Recovery Tool,” the Fourth step:

Step Four: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

This step is based on the understanding that the heart of change is self-knowledge, translated into productive action. And self-knowledge doesn’t happen in a blinding flash—not even for believers. Plus, there’s a particular challenge for addicts and alcoholics, who have usually expended considerable effort on staying unaware of unpleasant realities about themselves.

The Fourth step is a guide for developing useful (if often painful) self-knowledge for undertaking change. Moral issues are those related to right and wrong, and a moral inventory is based on a moral code. For believers, the code is usually supplied by a church or theology. Non-believers build moral codes without churches, because you don’t need to believe in a god(s) to know the difference between right and wrong, nor do you need a deity to undertake an examination of your own character with the kind of rigorous honesty demanded by the Fourth.

Suppose during active drinking or using you became estranged from someone you love— a child, perhaps— with years of bitter conflict and resentment on both sides. Even thinking about them brings up the anger all over again, but you also feel sad and wonder if it might have been partly your fault. Those are conflicting feelings, and sorting through them isn’t easy. In taking a moral inventory, you might ask:

  • When did the conflicts begin?
  • What usually sparked the arguments? Were there problems that kept recurring?
  • When the arguments happened was I sometimes drunk or stoned, or recovering from a binge?
  • Who usually made the first argumentative or demanding move—did I ever do that?
  • Was my child really angry at me because of things related to my drinking or using?
  • Did I make my responses to her/his anger the best way?
  • Knowing what I know about my disease now, can I see its influence in ways I didn’t see then?
  • Is there any hope of reconciling in the future?
  • Do I feel any remorse over the situation?
  • Would I someday like to make amends?

Detailed self-questioning like this provides a much clearer picture of those conflicted, emotion-laden problems, and sometimes points to possible solutions. It’s also important to pay special attention to the kind of “toxic character traits” of addiction that are related to so many problems:

  • Perfectionism
  • Unreasonable/unrealistic expectation
  • Impatience with others
  • Holding onto resentments
  • Shame and self-hate about things done under the influence

Just as addiction distorts the personality (usually for the worse) recovery can strengthen character and help you build integrity and fidelity to what you know about right and wrong.

To “work” Step Four, try this: Get a notebook, and write out a list of all the people, institutions, and forces that you blamed for your drinking and drug use. Think about it. Do you blame your parents? An illness or injury? Boyfriend/girlfriend? Bosses or co-workers? The army? The social worker? The bank? Yourself? Be as honest as you can about it, and thorough. It will take some time. If you end up with only four or five items on your list, you still have some denial to work through. Keep trying. You’ve been doing a lot of blaming for a long time, and that’s difficult to admit. Once you’re finished, look at each person, place, or thing, and ask these questions:

  1. What makes me think this (person, thing, etc.) contributed to my problem?
  2. Looking back, do I feel that I was right or wrong in my judgment?
  3. Why do I feel I was right or wrong?
  4. Did I resent or punish this person for something that was really the result of my addiction?
  5. Is this something I might want to make amends for, someday?

Get help from a sponsor or recovery guide to help if you have questions about the process.

Coming soon: Taking the Fifth


I’m alway amazed by people that need to put down religion and spirituality and the people that engage in them in order to make their point. You don’t need to be disrespectful of others to feel good about yourself or your decision to pursue another route to recovery. The fact is that AA and the steps work. It has worked for me and so many of my fellows. Spiritually does get in the way for some folks and if there is an alternative for them that is fantatic. From this adticts perspective given the choice and starting over again I would chose the AA way again. All of the people I have met are decent people. No one in AA seems to judge and I have never seen anyone be disrespectful in the rooms. Based on the last comment I suspect there are a few judgemental, disrespectful nonsecular types in those other rooms. For the people with them I wish you the best of luck.

Comment by PaulC — February 27, 2017 @ 7:12 am

A lot of secular recovery for one who want’s the 12-Step route is disconnecting from the religious language. For a nonbeliever, outside agency is natural (like group influence, books and human resources – not a supernatural creator god. Along with myths of deities that are listening to prayers and trying to send you messages of his, (or her, its, their) ultimate plan for you – as if life’s a game show – there comes some other religious baggage; morality is associated with religious doctrine. We all have our own values. The are as inherent as our ability to breathe. The reason so many theists distrust or dismiss atheist is that they think morality is dictated by an outside authority. Without god, we must be lost to our darkest impulses.

The problem for most addicts is loss of connection (with self and community). Living by “expected” standards, living “as if” and “faking it until we make it” are all forms of inauthentic roles that we play that are poison for – as AA puts it, “tapping our unsuspected inner resource.”

Losing the adjectives (or extensions) leaves the secular (myth-free program) in tact. We have an experience (why flower it up by calling it a “spiritual” experience). Let’s do an inventory (morality is an adjective that suggests living by standard dictated by an authority – not ours. Let go (that’s it – forget the cheap theatrics of an interfering god). A nonbelievers inventory as has been described here is an act of humility but it ought not to be humiliating. It isn’t about being flawed or chaotic (nature is flawed and chaotic). These questions above help find our modus operandi and stripping away morality that’s perfection based is a good start.

This is a great series. For true believers, you have an 80 year old book that will do the trick for you. For the rest of us we need to engage in this kind of conversation.

Comment by Joe C. — January 18, 2015 @ 7:01 am

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