Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Jesse Smith, Ph.D.,

Second Advisor

Vyacheslav Karpov, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Elena Lisovskaya, Ph.D.

Fourth Advisor

Cynthia Visscher, Ph.D.


Addiction, nonreligious, recovery, secularization, sociology of religion, substance use disorder


This dissertation utilized mixed methods research to examine how nonreligious individuals with substance use disorders navigate recovery within—or in spite of—Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Both the 12-step program itself and Alcoholics Anonymous have long been criticized for being religious and/or spiritual in nature, and some studies have shown that this is particularly challenging for nonreligious individuals seeking recovery. The purpose of this research was to (a) identify differences in recovery resources (recovery capital) between the religious, the nonreligious, those in AA, and those who have adopted alternative forms of recovery; (b) identify barriers that the nonreligious face as they navigate recovery within AA; and (c) identify common factors that underly a successful recovery.

Drawing from a sample of over 500 participants throughout the United States, I found that there were no statistically significant differences in recovery capital between the religious, the nonreligious, those in AA, and those with alternative forms of recovery. Additionally, interviews with 51 (predominantly nonreligious) individuals in recovery identified 6 barriers that the nonreligious face as they navigate AA: (1) Anxieties over being nonreligious and the belief that AA was religious; (2) The religious undertone and “God talk” in meetings; (3) Prayers in meetings; (4) The Big Book; (5) Discrimination; and (6) Fundamentalism. However, despite this, the nonreligious are able to find success in AA by creating their own unique “recovery toolbox” that consists of some, if not all, of the following: not working the 12 steps, creating an alternative higher power, drawing from outside resources, and practicing gratitude, meditation, and mindfulness. Additionally, the nonreligious create a space for themselves within AA by (a) being active and vocal about defending their nonreligious beliefs at meetings and (b) attending secular AA meetings. Aside from their personal recovery toolbox and actively creating their own space within AA, the nonreligious find the community itself to be the greatest asset to their recovery.

The findings of this research contribute to both public health literature and sociology of religion. It contributes to public health literature by providing a qualitative assessment of the efficacy of AA, specifically for a traditionally stigmatized group. Additionally, it contributes to the limited literature on nonreligious experiences in AA. This research also contributes to sociology of religion, as it offers support for theories that argue secularization and desecularization can be found in everyday institutions—in this case, AA. It also contributes to ongoing debates as to whether religious folks have better health outcomes compared to the nonreligious.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access