How does an atheist do a 12-step program?
August 9, 2011 11:50 AM   Subscribe

How do you find a Higher Power in 12-step recovery when you're a hardened atheist?

Hi, I'm anonymous and I'm a sex & love addict and alcoholic.

I've been sober before, without the help of meetings and steps, but after this last relapse I know that I need more than willpower to take care of myself.

I'm working Step 1 right now, and it's a very meaningful experience.

For those who might not know, Step 2 reads: "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity."

I'm meeting so many people in recover who talk about their Higher Power. I just don't get it. All that I can conceptualize is this vague, fake thing that I don't get much out of. I don't know if I do believe that a power greater than me can restore me to sanity. I've been trying to embrace the idea, sort of, but I'm just not getting anywhere with it. I can't find the value in this.

I've asked people at meetings about it, but the best answer I can get is usually something like, "Yeah, you don't have to believe in God, just think spiritually in a way that means something to you."

I can't. Or, at least, I haven't been able to do so. At all. Ever.

Can an atheist/sceptic/non-spiritual person work the steps? How?
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (27 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
An agnostic's 12 steps:

1. We accept the fact that all of our efforts to stop drinking have failed.

2. We believe that we must turn elsewhere for help.

3. We turn to our fellow men and women, particularly those who have struggled with the same problem.

4. We have made a list of the situations in which we are most likely to drink.

5. We ask our friends to help us avoid those situations.

6. We are ready to accept the help they give us.

7. We earnestly hope that they will help.

8. We have made a list of the persons we have harmed and to whom we hope to make amends.

9. We shall do all we can to make amends, in any way which will not cause further harm.

10. We will continue to make such list and revise them as needed.

11. We appreciate what our friends have done and are doing to help us.

12. We, in turn, are ready to help others who may come to us in the same way.

Al-Anon follows a 12 step tradition similar to that of AA, and that is the organization I belong to. For me, presently my steps two and three require me to ask a great deal of the men and women who have a great deal more experience strength and hope than I have. In that way, the "higher power" or "something other than myself" is the meetings and members themselves.

That is where I am at right now as someone who self identifies as agnostic.
posted by msali at 11:54 AM on August 9, 2011 [23 favorites]

A friend of mine decided, in rehab, that her higher power was her beloved dog. It seemed to work for her, although I never quite grokked the logic.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:55 AM on August 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

hey Anonymous - i'm a sober member of AA and a devout atheist. I don't have any problem whatever with the Higher Power thing. I think of it as a Higher Purpose. I'm a member of an Atheist/Agnostic group in Toronto. you may want to check out our blog - we often have interesting articles and the such on this topic.

here's our website

here's a link to a specific article about a book on the exact question you have:

feel free to memail me if you want more info, or just want to chat. good luck!
posted by h0p3y at 11:58 AM on August 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

While not a member of AA I have been active in Al Anon which uses the same 12 steps. I think of it as either "everything in the universe over which I have no control" which is just about everything. More specifically I think of it as the principles/laws/forces/theories of nature and the universe. Gravity, thermodynamics, energy, chemical reactions, mathematics, evolution, physical laws. laws of physics, principle of indeterminacy, quantum mechanics, big bang, string theory or whatever have you.
posted by rmhsinc at 12:00 PM on August 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Roger Ebert wrote an absolutely beautiful essay about AA, including this very issue. It may have wisdom for you.
posted by contrarian at 12:04 PM on August 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

From a certain perspective, the Alcoholics Anonymous program itself could be considered "a greater power". Worked for an atheist I know, anyway.
posted by Zozo at 12:05 PM on August 9, 2011

You don't have to interpret the "higher power" in a spiritual sense. The way I view it: we can't do everything by ourselves. Everything around you - the computer you're using, the language you're reading - has been created, maintained, and improved by numerous people. If you tripped while walking down the street, people would stop and ask if you were okay, collect the things you dropped, help you up, and so on. AA itself runs on this higher power. AA would not work if it were only one person holding the meetings.

The higher power is the community around you, the goodness in people's hearts, and the wisdom of all those who have been here before.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:06 PM on August 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

Carl Sagan helped me, as a teenager, to reframe my idea of what God is. I don't believe in God either, but I believe in physics, trigonometry, and chaos, and I find it all deliciously comforting, actually.

Dr. Sagan wrote:

The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God.

Sagan, Carl (February 12, 1986). "Chapter 23". Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science. Ballantine Books. p. 330.

My advice is to maybe use this as a building block, and redefine what YOU mean when you say God.
posted by heyho at 12:07 PM on August 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Secular Organizations for Sobriety
Maybe there's one near you? Even if there isn't you could get in touch with them and maybe they can help you out.

And a video
posted by Mister_Sleight_of_Hand at 12:08 PM on August 9, 2011

Hello. I'm a member of a twelve-step group. The "12 steps and 12 traditions" books helped me with this step as it is a little bit more in depth. I am decidedly not religious, and I would describe myself as agnostic although not fiercely atheist.

In the 12 steps book there is a line that goes something like "The hoop that you have to jump through is a lot wider than it looks." Basically, I didn't have to believe in God, or even a god. I had to fully accept that my own willpower would get me loaded. And then I prayed a lot. I didn't usually pray to anything or to anyone. I usually just look at the stars in the sky, think maybe there is something out there that hears me (and then again maybe not) and say a lot of the step prayers. The 3rd and 7th and 11th step prayers are the ones that I use the most.

For me, the experience of not going back and doing what I'd always done (getting loaded) was enough for me to believe that something had worked. I don't know what that something was, but I know that what I did differently was I prayed, and I believed that there might have been some force in the universe that had more power than me. And I asked it to help me with my problem.

All you are ever really asked is if you are willing to believe that some force/power/thing/whatever in the universe might be able to help you. If you are able to stay sober, and feel the change within you, and know that you believed step one (that you could not solve your problem through willpower) then there must be some thing helping you out.

I feel lame every time I try to type this out. If you would like to talk about it more please memail me. I believe that if I want to work on my alcohol/drug problem that can take precedence over my desire to "know" if there is a god or not. I'm never gonna know, neither are you, neither is your sponsor, or your atheist best friend, or anyone in this thread or whoever... When I stop trying to know things and I just try to do things well and with love and compassion in my heart the twelve steps are a lot easier for me.

Hope I'm not rambling too much. Best of luck to you.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 12:11 PM on August 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I came here to recommend the Ebert essay as well, but I see contrarian has it covered. In it, one of his AA friends said that she considered the radiator in the meeting to be her higher power: because if she saw it, she knew she was still ok.

I'm sure he worded it much better than I did, so go check that out. He actually deals with the higher power question quite a bit.
posted by Gilbert at 12:48 PM on August 9, 2011

If you really look, you will see that you are already supported by a power greater than yourself: cuts and bruises regularly heal without intervention; your body temperature adjusts perfectly to the weather; gravity holds you to the ground; after a grievance or a loss, the hurt fades over time; the sun is (at least sometimes) warm on your face; strangers on the Internet are right now crafting thoughtful answers just because you asked a question. You're not being asked to invent a whole new magical being to believe in, but just that you pay more attention to what already is: you don't have to go it alone. In truth, you never have. Also, notice the "came to believe" part: it's a process.
posted by Wordwoman at 1:00 PM on August 9, 2011 [8 favorites]

No time to read other responses, so hope I'm not duplicating. A speaker in a recent Aa meeting said it well, if you don't believe ins some kind of godlike higher power the higher power is the people in your home group who are all trying hard to make each others' lives better.
posted by mareli at 1:03 PM on August 9, 2011

Over 12 years sober in AA and atheist. For me the Higher Power stuff is the programme of AA itself - I can't stay sober by myself, and so I use the programme as the 'power greater than me that can restore me to sanity' - you know, all those things the programme teaches me about learning to take responsibility for my actions, making amends when I'm in the wrong, standing up for myself when I'm not, and trying to be a good person.

If I'm in a meeting where people start going on about God and making it a generalisation, I always try to balance things out by making it clear that I don't believe in God and am not expected to do so in order to stay sober. Every time I've done that, someone, usually a person fairly new to AA, has come up to me after the meeting and thanked me for making it clear that belief in a deity is not a requirement for getting and staying sober.
posted by essexjan at 1:08 PM on August 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

A good friend of mine is six years sober, doing AA, and an atheist. He's struggled with this a lot, but it's varied a lot depending on the makeup of the group he's involved in at the time. If you're feeling pressured by the people in your group to believe in a god, and there are other meetings in the area that might work for you, you might want to see if they're a better fit.

My friend has said that having to rationalize the whole "higher power" thing, to say the words when clearly most people felt that they meant something very specific that he didn't believe in, was one of the most humbling things about AA.
posted by gurple at 1:38 PM on August 9, 2011

A friend of mine in college was in AA, and was also an atheist. I asked him about this once, and he said his higher power was a toaster. "You put bread in, and you get toast out. If that isn't a miracle, I don't know what is." So, don't be scared to think a little outside the box - the point is to find something that works for you.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 1:44 PM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I came in to say much of what's already been said - your higher power needn't be god or spiritual.

I'll leave that there and just say - good luck and take it one day at a time.
posted by deborah at 1:58 PM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Higher power doesn't mean God. I know someone who used the four forces of nature as the high power, with some interesting rationalization that made it sound like a more reasonable religion than anything I'd heard before.
posted by bensherman at 2:59 PM on August 9, 2011

I just posed this exact question to a friend of mine last week, who declares himself a hardened athiest. He's got a lot of time, I can give you his number if you email me, and he said to me his Higher Power was "complexity." We didn't get a chance to talk much more about it, but I liked what he was on about.

On a side note, if you are debating whether you are an agnostic or an atheist, or if you are looking for a way to soften your hardened atheism just enough to submit in an honest way to working the steps, I recommend re-reading the chapter "We Agnostics" in full, leaving out what you can't relate to, and focusing on the ideas that resonate with you.

This chapter, as well as notions of complexity, in my opinion leave open a very important door - the idea that you don't know everything. This in turn leads to faith. Now if this question for you is "faith in what?" then I can tell you that for me it can be as simple as the faith that things are to going to be okay today, no matter what. I don't know everything, but the belief that things are okay is going to play a large part in defining my experience, in the absence of drugs and alcohol.

After all if you're an alcoholic or a sex addict chances are that you are turning to alcohol and sex in order to make yourself feel better. And it sort of works, but it doesn't really work. These things are already, in a sense, your higher powers. So what if you stay sober? Do you think you're going to be okay? I do. I've seen it work for a lot of people.

If you're going to meetings, try to say hi to someone and ask them what they are doing. Spiritual practice is a great way to develop spirituality. Babysteps. Maybe you are responsive to one minute of meditation. Maybe you can drop your keys under your bed and kneel down and say the serenity prayer while you're finding them.

And don't feel bad about relapse. Some of the best sober men I know were chronic relapsers. It says in the 12 & 12 that "it is by circumstance rather than by any virtue that we have been driven to A.A." So you're where you need to be, and you'll get to where you want to go as soon as you're ready.
posted by phaedon at 3:21 PM on August 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Check out Rational Recovery.
posted by easy_being_green at 4:10 PM on August 9, 2011

You might be interested to read Lit, Mary Karr's memoir, in which she describes being an atheist who goes to AA to combat alcohol addiction and struggles with the same issue. However, she eventually comes to believe in God so I am not sure if that's what you would be looking for. But when she first starts going to AA, she is an atheist and talks about that a lot, and how she deals with going to the meetings.
posted by bearette at 5:41 PM on August 9, 2011

My own Higher Power, for those occasions where it's useful to have one in my life, is simply the aggregate of the countless things that are beyond my personal control.

Where somebody religious might "put their trust in a Higher Power", I will generally simply remind myself to relax, stop trying to control everything and do my best to remain mindful of my actual condition, surroundings and circumstances.

Without doing that on a semi-regular basis, it's pretty easy to get locked into a conceptual map of how things are (and, by extension, how they must always be) and to mistake the things that one does for the things that one is.

In your particular case, perhaps one of the things that you've been doing up until now is attempting to modify personal habits that have caused you grief by sheer force of will, never having really acknowledged the truth that habit is stronger and more fundamental to the human organism than is will; perhaps the particular Higher Power it would be useful for you to accept whole-heartedly is nothing more mysterious or airy-fairy than the loving support of those people you know who have the sincere desire and the skills to help you modify those habits.

It's completely unreasonable to expect a human being to alter long-ingrained habits on their own, and this expectation does not become reasonable simply because the human being involved happens to be you. You've been lucky enough to find a bunch of other people who want to help that change happen. Your job now is to let them.
posted by flabdablet at 5:45 PM on August 9, 2011

There's always the Unconscious Mind, that traditional engine of things, by definition, at least somewhat outside of awareness-- for example, addiction, and the power to replace that addiction with a habit and a thinking pattern you find more enjoyable and useful.
posted by darth_tedious at 7:19 PM on August 9, 2011

Acronyms that could help you ease in the door of AA recovery.

GOD -- Good Orderly Direction
GOD -- Great Out Doors
GOD -- Group Of Drunks
GOD -- Gifts Offered Daily
GOD -- Getting Off Drugs
GOD -- Gift Of Desperation
GOD -- Get On Down

the next two won't likely work for you but hey, they're fun, anyways
GOD -- Generic Omnipotent Diety
GOD -- Good Old Dude (ok, that one won't likely work for you, it's a fun one anyways, to me)

And since you wrote about Sex and Love Addiction, another acronym...

RELATIONSHIP -- Real Exciting Love Affair Turns Into Outrageous Nightmare, Sobriety Hangs In Peril
posted by dancestoblue at 12:31 AM on August 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

I heard someone once say: "ff you are an active alcoholic or an addict, you turn you will and your life over to a Higher Power -- something that can do for you what you cannot do for yourself -- every time you pick up."

Only that Higher Power -- the one on the Dark Side-- doesn't work so well over time.

So maybe it's time to seek out and use another Higher Power, one that is on the Light Side, one that is life affirming instead of life destroying.

Keeping it simple, maybe that other Higher Power is Good Orderly Direction from a Group of Drunks.

Good luck!
posted by Mister Bijou at 3:12 AM on August 10, 2011

I'm Jeff. I'm an alcoholic.

What helped me was to forget the idea of any sort of omnipotent ultimate universal power.

A higher power need only be greater than YOU. It doesn't take much to be greater than me. That's where I started, and went from there.
posted by thatguyjeff at 6:42 AM on August 10, 2011

I've known a number of non-religious people who successfully pursued recovery through 12 steps programs. A person I am very close to spent a lot of times in groups that catered to, basically, younger artist-types in an urban setting, a group where atheism or agnosticism was more the rule than the exception. So it is definitely possible. I see a lot of familiar constructions in these answers, and I'll reiterate a few and suggest a couple others. First I'd suggest putting aside any language about "spiritual" this or that, this just isn't your vocabulary. Maybe even the phrase "higher power" is overly loaded, you might just think of it as the "better way".

Many people see the group and program as their higher power - the way that ordinary, flawed human beings can, together, generate something bigger than any individual. Some find a particular thing in their lives that is in itself representative of the "better way" (even something odd and material, like the toaster mentioned above that does its fine and orderly little job of producing toast, or the radiator in the Ebert story posted above - seeing it, the woman simply knew that she was in the right place, not the wrong place, that she was sober and that meant something higher than the broken, addicted parts of her was at work).

Many atheists and agnostics find a sense of personal transcendence akin to "spirituality" in contemplating the cosmos, the universe, the scientific world or however you construct it. Of course they don't believe it has a "personal" interest in them or will helpfully intervene in their lives, but it is something that you can both be inspired by and get in tune with. You might want to think about whether something big and abstract or something small and concrete resonates more with you.

Daniel Pinkwater tells a story from his college days in his book of autobiographical essays Chicago Days/Hoboken Nights where he had been in his artists studio late nights working for a long period and one night another student knocks at the door and relates to him how seeing the light in Pinkwater's studio window had helped him pull out of an alcoholic spiral - the light represented the fact that there was at least one person who was functioning, being constructive, sticking to their work. The irony Pinkwater relates is that during this period he himself was feeling totally useless and that the work he was doing was almost a joke - it was just after the assassination of JFK and his college art production seemed unbearably trivial. His persistence was driven not by confidence but by not knowing what else to do. In a final twist his fellow-student's story inspired him to keep working and finish college, taking the lesson that the best way he could address the big evils of the world was to "keep chipping away at something comparatively small". There is a real transcendence of human limitation there that doesn't have to be interpreted as anything "spiritual" or supernatural. It is how we help each other despite all of us being far from perfect.
posted by nanojath at 6:23 AM on August 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

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