Secular Organizations for Sobriety
There are numerous 12-step self-help groups for people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. Most of these groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), encourage participants to draw strength from a Higher Power and directly reference God in several of the steps that members work through as part of their recovery process. However, many people dislike the emphasis on spirituality and God in the 12-step model and seek a secular approach to recovery. Still others prefer a group whose foundation is rooted more solidly in evidence-based research. For these people, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, or SOS, may be a good alternative.
In 1985, James Christopher, a sober alcoholic, founded SOS as an organization of autonomous, nonprofessional self-help groups that exists to help people achieve sobriety from a variety of addictions—from drug and alcohol abuse to food addiction. The groups offer online and in-person meetings throughout the United States and in other countries, though exact numbers are not available.1 However, in one interview, James Christopher stated that more than 20,000 people were involved in SOS.2 And in 1987, the court system of California approved SOS as an alternative to AA or NA for mandated substance abuse support.3
Unlike AA or NA, SOS does not emphasize surrendering to a Higher Power, nor does it incorporate God or other spiritual ideas into recovery. Furthermore, there is no sponsor relationship like those found in AA or NA. Instead, SOS places an emphasis on the role of the individual in their own recovery and believes that recovery is a separate issue from spirituality, favoring a scientific approach to addiction.2
However, it also clearly states that the organization does not exclude anyone who wants a spiritual component in their recovery. SOS notes that recovery in any form is respected and that the organization does not seek to replace or compete with any other self-help group.1
The Guiding Principles of SOS are:3
- All those who sincerely seek sobriety are welcome as members in any SOS group.
- SOS is not a spin-off of any religious or secular group. There is no hidden agenda; SOS is concerned with achieving and maintaining sobriety (abstinence).
- SOS seeks only to promote sobriety among those who suffer from addictions. As a group, SOS has no opinion on outside matters and does not wish to become entangled in outside controversy.
- Although sobriety is an individual responsibility, a life of sobriety does not have to be faced alone. The support of other alcoholics and addicts is a vital adjunct to recovery. In SOS, members share experiences, insights, information, strength, and encouragement in friendly, honest, anonymous, and supportive group meetings.
- To avoid unnecessary entanglements, each SOS group is self-supporting through contributions from its members and refuses outside support.
- Sobriety is the number-one priority in a recovering person’s life. As such, they must abstain from all drugs or alcohol.
- Honest, clear, and direct communication of feelings, thoughts, and knowledge aids in recovery and in choosing nondestructive, nondelusional, and rational approaches to living sober and rewarding lives.
- Because knowledge of addiction might cause a person harm or embarrassment in the outside world, SOS guards the anonymity of its membership and the contents of its discussions from those not within the group.
- SOS encourages the scientific study of addiction in all its aspects. It does not limit its outlook to one area of knowledge or theory of addiction.
What Is a Typical Meeting Like?
SOS meetings are similar in many ways to other 12-step groups like NA or AA. Each meeting has a moderator to help the meeting run smoothly and provide time for participants to share their experiences with addiction and recovery. Since the program respects anonymity, participants can remain anonymous should they feel uncomfortable with sharing certain personal details. Meetings are centered on the power of the individual to achieve sobriety, which is a reason SOS does not have sponsors as part of its program. It also encourages participation and places all people on an even field regardless of how long they’ve been sober—everyone’s experience and input is equally valued.2
It is difficult to quantify the effectiveness of SOS groups beyond the testimonies of those who have participated in them. To date, no empirical, peer-reviewed studies have examined the effectiveness of SOS as a specific intervention.
SOS shares some similarities with SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training), which is a program that emphasizes the power of the individual to overcome addiction. SMART does not promote the concept of a Higher Power either, nor does it involve sponsorship for recovery, and research shows that SMART and AA have comparable outcomes overall.4
In general, self-help groups are often a component of both inpatient and outpatient treatment programs, which introduce the concept of the ongoing peer-support group as an important element of long-term recovery. But no one model of self-help group for addiction is right for everyone. You may find SOS is a better fit for your recovery needs if you are uncomfortable with the idea of surrendering to a Higher Power, spirituality, or God, of if you prefer a research-based program. One study demonstrated that the more closely a group’s spiritual and moral ideals matched the person who participated in the group, the more likely they were to attend.4 Committing to trying different groups until you find the one that best meets your needs is a good place to start.
- Secular Organizations for Sobriety. (n.d.). About Us.
- White, W. (2012). The History of Secular Organizations for Sobriety—Save Our Selves: An Interview with James Christopher.
- Secular Organizations for Sobriety (2000). An Overview of SOS: A self-empowerment approach to recovery.
- Atkins, R.G. & Hawdon, J.E. (2007). Religiosity and participation in mutual-aid support groups for addiction. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 33, 321–331.