SOS Members Don’t March to the 12 Steps


Unhappy with the pervasive religious character of Alcoholics Anonymous, James Christopher of North Hollywood launched a group 12 years ago with similar goals--but using nonspiritual means--that has grown into an international movement.

While AA members are advised to give their lives to a “Higher Power” at meetings laced with religious references and occasional prayers, Christopher’s Secular Organizations for Sobriety, or SOS, works on the premise of self-reliance.

“We can say this is something we’ve done ourselves,” said the onetime advertising worker, who said that in his worst drinking days he “was falling down in the streets of Van Nuys.”


Thus, Christopher happily marked 20 years without a drink Friday and celebrated Sunday with cake and congratulations from people attending the regular Sunday morning meeting of the Glendale SOS.


“I once lived to drink, but it has no place in my life now,” said Christopher, who, like AA, advocates total abstinence from alcohol. “It’s a comfortable sobriety.”

The organization, run by Christopher from an office near Marina del Rey with the help of volunteers around the country, has several hundred U.S. chapters and a core membership of 20,000, he said. In addition, Christopher has established ties with secular groups of recovering alcoholics abroad.

That is still minuscule compared to the millions of people around the world who have been aided by Alcoholics Anonymous since the organization was founded in Ohio in 1935 by Bill W., a former stockbroker, and Dr. Bob, an Akron surgeon.

In the San Fernando Valley alone, at least 790 AA groups meet regularly in churches, storefronts, offices and park buildings, said Larry, a staffer in charge of the Valley’s meeting directory at a regional AA office in Van Nuys.

Larry, in keeping with AA practices, doesn’t give his last name.


“We often meet in churches, frankly, because the rent is right,” Larry said.

AA books and brochures deny the group has any sectarian ties and say it is not a religious body but a fellowship guided by spiritual insights. Alcoholics desiring to lead a sober life are asked by AA to look to a “Higher Power.” Specifically, “We suggest that you turn your will and life over to God, as you understand Him,” reads a much-quoted AA line.

Of AA’s much-imitated 12 steps, the seventh and 11th are prayers. The seventh step, for example, asks whether the subject has “humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

“At most AA meetings, all in attendance are invited to close the gathering by reciting the Lord’s Prayer,” states a brochure addressing religious questions. “Participation, of course, is voluntary,” it adds.

However, such AA practices trouble some non-Christians, agnostics and atheists with drinking problems, according to Tom, who said he is an atheist despite being the son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers.

“I have known Jewish people who left Alcoholics Anonymous for SOS because they objected to the specifically Christian orientation of the 12-step programs,” said Tom, a computer consultant who lives in North Hollywood.

Sober since February 1989, when he found an SOS group, Tom said SOS is not anti-religious or anti-AA. “Rather, we regard religion or spirituality as a separate issue from sobriety,” he said. “We welcome all, regardless of belief or nonbelief.”

SOS might have had difficulty expanding without the help of the Council for Secular Humanism, of Amherst, N.Y., which publishes Free Inquiry magazine.

Four people attended the first SOS meeting in a North Hollywood park building in November 1986. Gerald Larue, a USC professor emeritus of religious studies, heard about SOS and introduced James Christopher to Paul Kurtz, chairman of the secular humanism organization.

Larue wrote an introduction to the first of three books Christopher wrote about SOS, all published by Prometheus Books, an arm of the Council for Secular Humanism. The SOS office in Los Angeles shares space with the Center for Inquiry-West, also linked to the humanist group.


“We don’t have any hidden agenda,” Christopher said in reference to the secular humanist links. “Not all of our members are secular people; some of our members go to AA as well.”

His organization’s acronym has inspired a second name--Save Our Selves. “We credit ourselves for achieving sobriety” rather than dependence on a god or a higher power, he said.

Christopher contends that SOS may work too well for the organization’s own good. “A lot of people don’t feel the need to continue with us indefinitely,” he said.

He looks for more people such as the man who founded an Atlanta SOS chapter. That man continues to attend SOS meetings, although after a decade of sobriety, he no longer even thinks of drinking.

“It’s a fun place to listen to some intelligent conversation,” Christopher said in an account written for SOS’s quarterly newsletter, and “reminds me of that time in 1988 when I very much needed SOS because there was no other viable option.”

After SOS started expanding, Christopher found that there was at least one other secular alternative to AA already in existence, called Women for Sobriety. And AA itself watched a variety of new groups announce their own 12-step recovery programs in the 1980s, some overtly religious and some not.

“I checked out 30 or 40 of those other 12-step programs out of curiosity during my early sobriety about 10 years ago,” said Larry of the AA Van Nuys office.

He said he does not know how many of them survived.

Of SOS and other alternatives, Larry said: “If something somewhere helps, that’s good. Alcoholism is a life-and-death disease.”

A female member of SOS in the Boston area, writing in the newsletter, agreed: “It is manly to get drunk, to force (or coax) a pledge at a frat party to swallow enough alcohol to kill him. It is ‘90s-style parenting to allow your teenagers to drink at home.”

She said she identified with a comic-strip religious zealot wearing a sandwich sign saying: “Repent! The end is near.” Despite her comfort with the nonreligious approach of SOS, she said, “I have repented, and I’m carrying a sandwich board which says, ‘Alcohol kills.’ ”