Talk with Dr. Caleb Lack on AA and Secular Therapy

by | September 25, 2017
Caleb W. Lack, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Oklahoma, and the Director of the Secular Therapist Project. Dr. Lack is the author or editor of six books (most recently Critical Thinking, Science, & Pseudoscience: Why We Can’t Trust Our Brains with Jacques Rousseau) and more than 45 scientific publications on obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome and tics, technology’s use in therapy, and more. He writes the popular Great Plains Skeptic column on and regularly presents nationally and internationally for professionals and the public. Learn more about him here.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: With Alcoholics Anonymous, I notice one thing in particular, which is an amorphous or vague definition of “God.” Is there a functional utility to it? Does it have a purpose?

Dr. Caleb Lack: If you go back to the 1930s, there was basically a cult called The Oxford Group, which is what splintered off into Alcoholics Anonymous. They were very specific about their God, which was a Christian God. Fast forward some 25 and more years later, they started to have this vagueness about what their “higher power” could be, saying things like “Your higher power can be a rock or yourself.”

Part of the reason for the switch was the negative feedback they got from the secular and evidence-based community. They now have the more broad, vague definition, or claim that it is not a religious-based treatment. However, if you look at the history, core principles, and even specific steps of AA and the 12 Step programs, half of those are religiously-based.
They appear to be trying to stay relevant in a world where they are less increasingly less relevant, as evidence shows that they work for only a small majority of people who use them. This broadening is part of that progress, I think.
Jacobsen: How are the alternative therapies, the secular therapies, providing a better alternative to dealing with these issues of addiction?
Lack: One thing that helps people in AA, for the pretty small percentage that it does help, is that they get into a supportive group of people that is not engaging in problematic substance use. You can easily have that without the religiosity and cult-like things. Groups like SMART Recovery, for instance, provide a good and supportive atmosphere. But on top of that, they teach you coping mechanisms for dealing with problematic drinking or other drug use. That supportive atmosphere plus the coping skills actually do help you get much better, better than the majority of folks do with AA.
Jacobsen: With regards to evidence-based practitioner work, what are the common reasons people come into a secular therapeutic setting to deal with the problem?
Lack: People come into secular settings for treatment of drug and alcohol abuse for a couple of reasons. One is that, sadly, they have often tried (or been forced into) AA or some other 12 step program and it did them no good. This could have been because they were non-religious and just couldn’t buy into the “higher power” aspects of it, or it could just be because AA doesn’t work for some 85% of people, according to our best outcome studies. They may also have done some research into what we know works for helping reduce problematic drinking, which isn’t any religiously-based therapies.
Jacobsen: In a Canadian context, what are the organizations that come to mind with regards to a secular alternative?
Lack: SMART Recovery has groups all over the world, although they started in the U.S. There are many groups in the larger Canadian cities, certainly. Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) is another option for group-based support. The other thing I would do is to seek out an evidence-based practitioner who uses techniques that we know work for substance-based problems, such Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Motivational Interviewing. This can be done via therapy search websites, and there is a really nice network called MINT, for Motivational Interviewers.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Caleb.

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