AA for atheist
November 11, 2013 12:05 PM   Subscribe

Atheist and alcoholic I need to seek support from AA. Please interpret aspects of the higher power stuff in a way that is not cognitively dissonancing for someone who has no belief in a deity. I know there are other options for "rational" alcoholics but my circumstances and location make AA the best option. Feel free to include scripts and behaviours for me to respectfully avoid participating in group prayer (and hand holding - im really uncomfortable with touching strangers) without drawing excessive notice to myself. I am in Australia which is not overtly religious but the two AA meetings I have been to previously (and will be attending) included a prayer, and people who explicitly said they were not religious but recommended the higher power as crucial in their sobriety.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard about a woman whose "higher power" was the radiator on the way into her AA meeting; seeing it meant she was still sober and attending a meeting so it was a very powerful force for her. I don't know if something like this would work for you but it seems like a really strong secular symbol.

Someone I know has her mother as her higher power; her mother died a few years ago and this person (who is not religious) sees her as a source of inspiration and strength.

Very very best wishes to you.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 12:10 PM on November 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

Plenty of people have had this problem. Atheism is no obstacle to staying sober. Feel free to talk about this at meetings. Yes, everyone will probably pray at the end but you can feel free to remain silent. Also, just take a few steps back out of the circle, when they hold hands, smile and shake your head, fold your hands in front of you. After a few meetings they will get used to it, AA meetings make much larger accommodations.

If you do not feel comfortable, you need to find a different meeting! Shop around a bit. Can you find meetings, say, in a big city or in or near a university campus? They tend to be less gody.

And remember, AA does not ask you to believe anything, it asks you to try some things and see how your life goes after you try them. One of those things is prayer and meditation, which you will just use to mean meditation.

You (or anyone in the same boat!) can feel free to MeMail me.
posted by shothotbot at 12:12 PM on November 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I have been active in Al Anon and simply use "nature/science" as my higher powers. Physics, mathematics, universal quirkiness the predictable nature of the universe coupled with the principles of uncertainty. If you go with no judgment of others beliefs and sense of puzzlement about the nature of the world and experience you should not have a problem. Best wishes. BTW, I have absolutely no problem with the Serenity Prayer.
posted by rmhsinc at 12:15 PM on November 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've known people whose higher power was the ocean. It doesn't even have to be someone or something who is "over" you, just someone or something that you can cede some of your control to, to help you in admitting the problem is bigger than you. But yes, people at meetings are usually accommodating to whatever; just be clear that it's about you (shothotbot has a great script) and not judgey about how people are. Best of luck, any step forward is a useful step.
posted by jessamyn at 12:18 PM on November 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, one close to me does the 12 step thing, and settled on one of the Buddhist writers who suggested, deliberately circularly, that the higher power is that thing that when you act on a belief in it gives you the strength to remain abstinent.

It may be some function of your own brain, whatever, but it's that thing that when you act as though it exists it enables you to achieve your goal.
posted by straw at 12:19 PM on November 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

A lot of people just make the group their higher power. Pretty simple and no religion required.
posted by feets at 12:19 PM on November 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

They say you can interpret "God" as "group of drunks", i.e. the AA meeting itself. When I struggled with this these are the options I considered:

- Science / the Universe / Evolution
- "the memory of my dear departed", mostly my dad.
- a fictional God. YMMV (this didn't really work for me)
- the vastness of the Universe and all that came before me. I think this is the one I generally came back to, and found quite helpful.

I always took part in the serenity prayer, and stayed silent for any other prayers.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 12:20 PM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are you the most powerful being in the universe? No? Then you can acknowledge a Higher Power, and you certainly do not need to identify that as a deity. It can be chaos, or randomness, or as Jessamyn mentioned, the ocean. This is a well-trodden path for atheists in AA, and lots of atheists discuss this. There is even a book on this: Waiting: A Nonbeliever's Higher Power (mentioned in one of those links.)

You can also selectively edit; the Serenity Prayer doesn't actually need a God. You can simply beseech the universe or yourself or the program itself: "Grant me the serenity..."
posted by DarlingBri at 12:27 PM on November 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm not entirely 100% capital A atheist, so I don't know if this will work for you.

But I think a lot about the power of Humanity, as a collective whole, and how that power is so much bigger than just me. I think about it most often when I think about art, aesthetics, scientific advancement, and literature. The world is bigger than just you or just me, and just like a river is bigger than a drop of water, that is a really meaningful thing. Not just the great mass of individuals, but as what we are, together, and how that is Big and Important and, in a way, Sacred.

Would something like that apply?

I grew up in the Bible Belt (USA), so I'm pretty practiced at not praying when everyone else is praying. Just stand or sit quietly and respectfully, as if you are enjoying the fact of everyone doing this without actually taking part yourself. If you feel too obtrusive even doing that, you can always do what I did in parochial school and just bow your head and move your mouth as if you are praying, without actually doing it. I know that feels invasive or dishonest, but if it's what gets you through thirty seconds of having to say things you don't believe in, so be it.
posted by Sara C. at 12:28 PM on November 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

My advice is to not get too hung up on this stuff, but rather to focus on the down to earth process of coming together with other alcoholics for support.

If you really don't think you can proceed until you have generated a secular "higher power", then maybe think of an idealized or more rational version of yourself, who always sees the future, and who wants you to do what's going to be good for you. Then, try to do what that guy would do.
posted by thelonius at 12:28 PM on November 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not an alcoholic but I attend 12 step meetings and my higher power is nothing specific - rather, to me it's a concept that serves as a reminder that I am not the highest power in the universe, that my will is not always correct, that everyone else seeks guidance from their own concept of a power and that it's not my place to get involved in other people's stuff, et cetera. There are other atheists in my group who say that their higher power is the group itself, which serves as a guiding influence that has made their life immeasurably better. Over the years I have found that despite my total and complete lack of religious faith, I will sometimes catch myself "praying" - to the universe? to the inside of my own brain? I don't know. But it's okay not to know. The main thing is: it helps.

I would recommend not worrying about the details so much at this stage in the game. Just go to meetings and take wisdom where you hear it. There is a reason you'll hear "take what you like and leave the rest" at a 12-step meeting; you're not always going to feel like you can use everything you hear, but hopefully you'll hear enough that helps to keep you going back. The definition of a higher power (or lack thereof!) will come in time. The point is, it does help atheists, going to meetings. It has kept my atheist husband clean and sober for seven and a half years. Good luck to you.
posted by something something at 12:30 PM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know the panic this sort of doubt can bring - I so desperately needed to get sober, but it seemed that everything hinged on handing over to a higher power. I think I hit my rock bottom *in* recovery as the consequences of drinking caught up with me. It's a frightening thing.

I found my solace in the Desiderata poem, specifically "The universe is unfolding as it should". Later on, this has grown and taken hold in so many wonderful ways. Memail me if you'd like to talk.
posted by katiecat at 12:33 PM on November 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Consider the self-healing nature of the universe -- the fact that forests regenerate, bones knit themselves together, sorrows fade, hurricanes eventually become still. Name that anything you want.
posted by Wordwoman at 12:45 PM on November 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm an atheist who's almost 15 years sober, due to AA. The God stuff bothered me a lot at first, but I was told to use it as Group Of Drunks or Good Orderly Direction rather than a deity. Truth is, I was clueless about how to live sober, and needed that Group of Drunks to put me on the right path to the Good Orderly Direction. I learned to live my life in such a way that the 'fuck it' switch didn't get thrown to make me pick up a drink.

AA is described as a 'spiritual' programme. And it's true for me that my spirit has come alive, after years of numbing it with alcohol. This doesn't mean any kind of religious awakening, but the 'spiritual awakening' spoken of in AA has definitely happened. By this I mean that I'm now aware (and appreciative) of the world around me, I love nature, I'm able to enjoy music, art, trashy TV, sport, I appreciate and learn from my fellow humans, I'm able to be a friend, a good neighbour, a trusted employee.

None of this would have been possible for me without AA, but I learned to edit out the God talk, and at the end when the Serenity Prayer is recited, I say it but leave out the word 'God' at the start.
posted by essexjan at 12:54 PM on November 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

How about the power of your higher self? We all struggle between our lower (animal, id) impulses and our higher (self-actualized, resourceful and loving) selves. We want our higher selves to win out, we want that side of us to be the one that guides our behaviours, thoughts and actions.

Picture your higher self located in the centre of your chest, where you feel love, openness and compassion. Pray to that centre-feeling to have the strength to choose what is right, and loving and healthy over what is animal, impulsive and childish. That's all you need to do.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:56 PM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sun worship is firmly based on science. Not simply the material, but most of the energy supporting life comes from the sun. Higher power, indeed. Astronomy, cosmology and physics can be your theology.
posted by lathrop at 12:57 PM on November 11, 2013

Good Orderly Direction is the one I've always heard, too. Or think of the higher power as the collected wisdom of those who have become sober before you and are therefore able to teach you to get sober, too. Good luck.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 1:12 PM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are AA for Athiest meetings. Our UU church sponsored one.

Strongly advocate finding one in your area, or perhaps even starting one. You've got to feel comfortable.

You can update the serenity prayer, to a serenity affirmation. Here is a site that has one. And here it is:

"Through my efforts, I gain the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Hang in there!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:27 PM on November 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

The higher power business is essentially about letting go of the idea that you are in control of how everything pans out in your life. You don't have to believe that a guy named God is in control, you just have to believe you're not the one in charge of everything. Meaning you can't solve all your problems by creating a clever master plan. Sometimes the solution is to do a big shrug and say this one is too big for me, I'm going to take some advice and do some things I don't necessarily want to do.
posted by mermily at 1:32 PM on November 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

A similar previous question. There's a link in there to Roger Ebert's essay about giving up drinking with the help of AA, unfortunately (I don't know why, maybe just some glitch) that essay and the best of his comments pertaining specifically to the religiosity of AA are truncuated on his home website; however the whole essay is reproduced here, his comments WRT a "higher power" are towards the end of it. On his home site (from cite the first link) Ebert participated in the comment thread as I recall and touched on the subject some more.
posted by nanojath at 1:33 PM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've known people who said they interpreted the higher power as the collective shared experience of other, successful folks in AA, and that seemed to work for them. Others just ignored the higher power aspects and focused on the peer support and sense of not being alone in their struggle. Of the half-dozen friends who I was aware attended meetings regularly over the years, only one of them was at all religious - though none of the non-religious folks was an atheist of the "I must tell anyone I suspect of being religious that they are being duped" variety.
posted by aught at 1:55 PM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am in a 12 step program and have had that struggle. My HP is a power greater than self that wants the best for me...period. I know nothing beyond this. A book that helped me with the religious language used in AA is called One Breath at a Time by Kevin Griffen. He is Buddhist and recovering himself. It helped me put the language used in perspective and gave me a way let go of my interfering judgements about religion in general.

There are a ton of meetings online, on the phone and on skype. People from all over the world are getting together using these mediums and recovery is happening.
posted by cairnoflore at 2:00 PM on November 11, 2013

"Higher Power" can mean whatever you need it to mean - the important point seems to be recognizing that there is something bigger than you at work. Call it genetics if you want.

It sort of also helps to realize that, whatever your personal beliefs are, they got you into trouble in the first place. If you'd had the answers, you (and I) wouldn't be in this mess... so it helps to have an open mind, even if just a bit, to some new ideas because, hey, it might help.

For what it's wroth - I have a hell of a time with that part too.. I mostly ignore the higher power shit. I pay lip-service to it, but I go to meetings to hear stories and talk to others, because it seems to help.
posted by TravellingDen at 2:14 PM on November 11, 2013

For many, 'God' is a Group of Drunks with Good Orderly Direction.
posted by Mister Bijou at 2:34 PM on November 11, 2013

Yay, lots of good advice here. I, too, got sober in aa and don't believe in any sort of traditional diety. I've used the stars, the ocean, group of drunks and good orderly direction. My favorite description of a higher power, and one that I now identify with, is the idea that my higher power is the intuitive feeling, that sense of right and wrong, that I feel in my gut way before I know it in my heart or my head. When people talk about their connection with their higher power, it is easy for me to see that my connection to this intuitive belief has also grown stronger in my sobriety.

You are free to not hold hands, of course. Also, I abstain from The Lord's Prayer, but I use the 3rd step prayer and the Serenity prayer- here is my take on it: I do not pray because I expect God to hear me, I pray because it is a reminder to myself to be grateful, to be humble, to be hopeful, to meditate. I see prayer as a form of self-reflection and meditation, and so it does not have to mean that I'm directly communicating with God.

Best of luck, and feel free to memail me as well, if you'd like to explore your thoughts on this further.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 5:41 PM on November 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I actually think there is not very much difficulty in translating most of the 12 Step world view into a kind of metaphysically deflationary language. For example, one could use the simple belief that it is possible to get better as an HP, it seems to me. Other people have gotten better. What logical reason is there that you can't, too? I don't think that would be satisfying to everyone, and it's just a dumb example, but, it just has to work for you. You are going to have plenty of time to think! You can always revise your views.

After 2 years sober from alcohol, I do think that there is a sort of faith needed. Not religious faith as such, in the sense of belief in any spiritual entity, but just times where you are going to have to hang on and act as if you know that, although things are for the moment difficult or unclear, you are doing the right thing, and are on the right path. To me, that kind of experience is a bridge that helps me understand the way the more religious or spiritual recovery people think.
posted by thelonius at 7:19 PM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Remember - "3. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking." I'd also invite you to read 3, 5, and 10 in the long form of the 12 traditions

The steps are in an order, there's a reason for that. Don't even worry about step 2 if you haven't got step 1 down. We suggest you live in the now - not the future, not the past. Keep your head where your feet are. Just don't drink *today*.

While I experienced something very strong outside myself when I finally hit bottom, that was my recovery, not yours.

The most important thing is to remember is God is not spelled (spell your name here)
Consider this, when you walked in, everyone in that room had been sober longer than you. Didn't they have a power you didn't? Isn't that what you are after, the power to not pick up a drink today?

In my group, we've ditched the Lords Prayer. We use the serenity prayer to open and close. The Lord's Prayer is a distinctly Christian prayer - and we've got Buddists, Christians, Jews, Agnostics, a few atheists, and who knows what else. You might get involved and present this at group conscious.

Many of us find it quite obnoxious for someone to declare "My higher power, who is (insert Jewish guy who died about 2000 years ago) etc etc" when they share. After the meeting one of our cooler heads has a little chat with them. It violates our group conscious, just as texting during the meeting, or directing your share at someone else, or giving advice in a share does. I left my last group because of this sort of thing. Oddly, it usually seemed it was someone pretty new that did this, and they didn't seem to last long. It's obnoxious, off-putting, and in my opinion, a display of ego. I've seen newcomers just walk out over it. Not worth getting drunk over, but that's just my opinion. Another well worn saying, Given the choice, would you rather be happy, or be right?

Remember that people who show up at AA meetings don't do so because they are models of sane behavior.

It's a spiritual program, not a religious one. Consider that people are using the "G" word as a shorthand - we all have our own conception of God, but using it is a one word reference to whatever that higher power is *for you*.
posted by rudd135 at 7:24 PM on November 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I invite you to consider that whatever force in your psyche motivated you to seek out AA instead of remaining in alcoholism, and whatever force in other people's psyches led them to set up AA and maintain these groups that do so much good, could be thought of as a Higher Power. Despite all the deeply crappy things humans seemingly inevitably do, we also seem to have something in us that stubbornly drives us towards kindness, growth and nobility, even when it is difficult or causes us discomfort. I'd call that a Higher Power for sure. The perverse instinct in us all towards making things better.
posted by stuck on an island at 3:41 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I attended Al-Anon in the past. I've felt as you do before, with the discomfort of declaring there is a Higher Power and holding strangers' hands in a group. I decided that, during the meetings, I would pretend to be a person who believed in a Higher Power and just see how it went. It was a form of surrender, and practicing that helped overall in terms of wanting to control the alcoholic in my life. I thought of it as role-playing/psychodrama.

As far as the hand-holding goes, I just attended a few meetings until I got comfortable with holding hands in a circle. No one pressured me to do so until I was okay with it. When I felt comfortable, they weren't strangers anymore, they were friends. If you never do, that's okay too.
posted by xenophile at 5:02 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

This isn't exactly what you asked, but I would really recommend reading an excellent book titled, Sober for Good: New Solutions for Drinking Problems -- Advice from Those Who Have Succeeded, by Anne M. Fletcher. The author presents case studies of people who have become sober through a wide variety of approaches, including non-spiritual, non-religious approaches.
posted by alex1965 at 7:24 AM on November 12, 2013

If you take an atheist perspective on how people break the grip of addictions, and if you believe in the popularized (if oversimplified) picture of neuroscience, then you might be OK with accepting the idea that everyone has a "higher" and "lower" mind.

It's pretty well established that evolution has left our brains with several different operating modes, which don't always agree. They talk about the "reptile" brain and the "rat" brain and finally the prefrontal cortex or "human" brain.

Experiments with animals show that compulsive and addictive behavior affects deep, primordial brain mechanisms tied to attention and reward. Rats can become addicted, and thus the "rat" brain within us can get addicted, too. It's the legacy we carry from evolution. Left to their own devices, rats and other animals have a tough time overcoming addiction.

Executive function—planning, overriding impulses, weighing costs and benefits—is the domain of the forebrain, which is uniquely developed in our species. So, the very thing that allows you to choose not to drink is, in a way, a "higher power" over the part of you that desires to drink. There's also some evidence to support the idea that consciously acknowledging your own decision-making power strengthens that power. So you might want to use prayer time or other religious moments to re-commit to your own self-control.

If you didn't have a human mind, you'd be stuck like a laboratory rat, unable to overcome the lure of reward. You do have a higher power, it's just not supernatural and not external to you.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:37 AM on November 12, 2013

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