The path was not easy for this agnostic in AA.
I was an atheist when I got sober, as arrogant as most people with staunchly held beliefs. Sober, I have still never felt the presence of a god, but I have come to be open-minded to accept that if other people think there is one, that’s fine and none of my business, so long as they don’t try to make me believe there is. But for a long time well meaning old-timers did, and of course I tried to believe them. I wanted to work this program right. Took more than ten years before they quit pestering me, and another ten before I could speak my mind freely about it.
The chapter “We Agnostics” in the big book at least acknowledged that there were people like me, but then it forged right ahead with arguing for the existence of god, and the assumption that surely sooner or later I would find god too. It was only a matter of staying sober a little longer and coming to my senses.
And I read the Big Book and even Came to Believe, but I never did.
I found a humanist meeting which I attended, and later I found another meeting where there was no “Lord’s Prayer” at the end. It always offended me to have this piece of Christianity imposed upon me. The closing prayer was the one time during an AA meeting where I would feel truly alone, unless I spotted someone else in the circle with their lips sealed. Then we’d smile at each other and not feel so alone any more.
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So I’m going to write about how I stayed sober without a higher power, and developed a spirituality which helped.
When a person comes into AA with even some inclination toward accepting a Christian-like god, there is already a well laid out program for them. Most of our literature is focused on this god, even with the caveat “as we understood him,” but when the God concept remains completely foreign to us, we have to develop a spirituality all on our own. The kind of help that I could accept was scant and far between in the beginning. Finding a sponsor who wouldn’t harass me about finding a higher power was real difficult.
One of the reasons that I don’t like the higher power concept, and that the religious people are so insistent on it, is that it creates a continuum intended to sneak god in the back door. I can let the group be my higher power they say, but the idea is they aren’t really content with that. Sooner or later they expect me to find the real god who isn’t just any higher power, but the boss of all higher powers.
I could have the group as my higher power, but why? True, I depend on the group to help me stay sober and grow, and with the help of the group I can do things I likely could not do on my own, but why does that have to make it a higher power?
We all accept the saying that two heads think better than one. So does that mean that the two heads together now become a higher power to the individual heads? Why is it not just two heads thinking together?
Or, like an AA friend of mine says, try lifting a heavy sack alone. It can be tough. Now try two of you together, it gets easier, now try four, of course it gets still easier, and the four of us together can lift something much heavier than one person can all alone. Where exactly does the higher power concept become needed to explain this? This is all the group does, lifts a burden together. We are doing together what we could never do alone. I simply see it as a level field, and no higher power needed to explain how this program works.
The group is not my higher power, nothing is my higher power, and just because I don’t have a higher power, does not mean that I am playing god, and just because I figure that there is no god in charge, does not mean that I am, or think I am, or that I am trying to be god.
Maybe this “playing god” was a problem for the high powered Type A professionals and businessmen who started this program, but my problem was fear, not a big ego. If it sometimes looked that way, maybe it was because of fear of losing territory, fear of losing respect, or love or money or whatever, sometimes fear of not getting what I wanted. I had two ways of dealing with it: Try to control the situation, or drink my feeling of failure away when it was obvious I couldn’t control it.
So now sober, I couldn’t stop trying to play god like they told me to because I never had to begin with. I had only done whatever it would take in the moment to not feel whatever I was about to feel, usually fear, and a poor choice which would take that bad feeling away right now was better than a good choice which would have solved the problem in five minutes.
Of course when I was drinking I was arrogant, self-centered, and self-serving, and it caused me all sorts of trouble. But is it not possible to find a way out of self-centeredness and self will without putting it in relation to the will of a god? Either it is my will, or god’s will, they say, but where does god really fit into this? Can I not simply stop imposing my selfishness on the world with the help of other recovering alcoholics? With careful consideration of what sort of results self-centeredness got me, and compared to what sort of results a courteous, considerate, helpful manner of living gets me? Why is a god needed to explain that one works well, and the other doesn’t? Isn’t simple, common sense enough?
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So finally I came to a place of some humility. And here we need to talk about surrender.
This can be a hard concept to swallow at first, because we suspect that probably it again means surrender to a “higher power,” or even a god. But is not surrender possible even without it being “to” anything? All it means is to say, “OK, I give up being selfish, self centered and self serving. I become teachable, service minded, and as generous and kind as I am able to be without opening myself to being deliberately taken advantage of by anybody.” Isn’t that enough? Why do I have to offer myself to a “thee”? I am offering myself to my fellow alcoholic, and my fellow man at large. AA is about one alcoholic talking with another, not about talking with god.
Surrender requires acceptance. And acceptance is not required because “nothing absolutely nothing happens in god’s world by mistake,” but rather because without first accepting myself as I am, I have no honest self appraisal on which I can base change. I wasn’t playing god, I was just hard-headed. God or no god, acceptance is just to gain peace, to have a starting point from which to move forward.
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I have learned that I don’t need to have answers to all the world’s big questions, nor let anyone else impose them on me. That I can’t explain how the world came to be, or don’t think a god made it does not mean that since I can’t explain it, someone who can explain it with that god did it is more right than me. As far as I’m concerned, saying god did it is no better explanation than that nothing did it. All that religious conviction just seems arrogant. But maybe there is a god who did it, I don’t know, and I don’t need to know, and I don’t care, in the end.
If I were an astrophysicist I might be pondering where the universe came from, but as a lay person and as an alcoholic it is sufficient for me to know that it is there. I don’t need to make it any more complicated than that. The universe is there. And all the things in it are in it. And regardless of how much it is a wonder that the sun rises and bumblebees can fly, it is simply not my business to know whether it came to be this way because god made it so, or because of inherent laws in the universe, or by some infinitesimal chance it came to be so out of complete chaos. The bottom line still is I’m not in charge, and have every bit as much reason to be humble either way! Can I change the natural laws? Can I control chaos? I wasn’t playing god. I just thought I had to do it all alone, and now I know I need help, and it’s ok to ask my fellow recovering alcoholics for it.
But I have had to rewrite the whole program for myself, mostly by myself, and it has not been easy. I think it is finally coming together. God or no god, this is a spiritual program but let’s keep it simple. It just consists of honesty, open-mindedness, willingness, humility, service, and living by the golden rule. It means doing the right thing, and if I work my program diligently, I will know what the right thing is, whether I pray for the knowledge for God’s will for me or not, and if I do the right thing I will have no reason to drink, because I will be ok with me.
I have had to rewrite the steps for myself. I have to have faith that somehow this program will work for me, but that is all the justification for steps 2 and 3 that I have found. Some sort of personal inventory, and sharing it with another person is necessary, steps 4 and 5. The three elements of early AA, confession, restitution, and service, together with self examination are really the only essential elements in my program. And though they are rather Christian of origin, they work for me too, because and I am part of that Christian culture whether I believe in its god or not. Thinking along Christian lines comes easy to me since I grew up with it.
Self reflection does not come easy, though it is a prerequisite for growth. To actually come to think about what makes me tick, and if everything I think and do is right and just and for a good purpose in the greater scheme of things. Not just for my own selfish ends, but whether it makes the world at large a better place. It starts out a bit like the big question in the movie American History X: Has anything you have done made your life better?
Sure the AA fellowship has saved this alcoholic’s life, though not because it is a higher power, but simply because of the love and help of the people in it, because together we can do what we could never do alone, like they say in another program’s Unity “Prayer.”
Sure I have seen a lot of people with a God who have had a much swifter recovery than me. Picking up the “ready made” toolkit has many advantages. However, having walked my own paths in this program I have had to turn every stone in my search for a spiritual life. And being forced to grope around on my own, spiritually – and that has largely been the case for many years – looking back at it I think I have probably grown more, and in ways I otherwise never would have, if I had just taken on some sort of ready made Christian god concept and gone with it. All the answers and concepts a Christian can take for granted in this program, I have had to ponder deeply, and that, like any spiritual exercise, has given me much good growth. So I’m quite content with the course of my own recovery. I’m very grateful for all I have learned within or from AA these last 25 years.
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The last few years have been real different.
First thing that happened was that the girlfriend left. She later came back, and the time I had on my hands to ponder what made for a good relationship has helped. She has since joined one of the programs, and it’s good to have a common spiritual framework.
Feeling sorry for myself while I sat alone out here in a mountain village, I discovered AA online.
It was way better than nothing at all, but people were just hanging out, flirting, or talking about guns, sports, TV, and hating socialists, or being obnoxious in some other manner. Hey, I guess there has to be an online place for all that, too. But when they took time for newcomers it was usually by throwing the Big Book and god at them – go read the doctor’s opinion and pray. And it was all done with AA scripture lingo: If you aren’t ready to go to any length, just go back out and try some controlled drinking. But rarely did the newcomers get more than two minutes of attention from half the room. I started to not like old-timers anymore.
Luckily I got to hook up with several people along the way who felt like me – that these online chat rooms should be about helping the newcomers – and eventually we found a place to set up a room we call the Living Sober Room, a place where we drop everything when newcomers show up, and help them all we can.
Another thing that happened over the last year was an initiative at the Conference level to develop AA literature acknowledging that alcoholics and agnostics can stay sober in AA. We know how that ended: The General Service Conference Stumbles. The backlash against non-believers in AA that I have observed in recent years, including the White Paper, has made me realize the extent to which AA has become fossilized.
We as a fellowship need to take inventory, and when we are wrong promptly admit it. Instead the Big Book has become scripture, and the god people resist any change. For most of my time in AA I lived by a Don’t Tell policy, but I have had to come out of the closet, as it were, and say out loud I’m an agnostic, and I’m now working on putting together a freethinkers meeting here in my area. I’m meeting more closed-mindedness and unwillingness every step of the way.
The bright spot in all of it is that I have once again, like when I first got sober, found others like myself – this time at the AA Agnostica website, and books and other support material to go along with it. I once again no longer have to feel alone. It is giving me the courage to pick up the responsibility I have toward all the alcoholic non-believers that come into AA to let them know they can stay sober in spite of the god stuff, if they just keep showing up.
My first sponsor, incidentally a devout catholic, told me two things, that I heard, anyway: One was don’t ever stop going to meetings, and the other that service work will keep you sober when nothing else will. Sometimes my program is reduced to that, but it’s nice and uncluttered, and it worked up to now.
life-j got sober in Oakland in 1988. He moved to a Northern California coastal mountain village in 2002 and helped wake up the sleepy AA fellowship there. He’s been involved in service work of every kind all along, but now thinks the most important work is to help atheists and agnostics feel safe and welcome in AA. He’s spent parts of his life as a building contractor, part as a technical translator, and has dabbled a bit in art work and writing. life-j is now semi-retired on a five acre homestead together with his sweetie, and his dog, chickens, garden, and apple trees (one of the trees is the featured image for this post).