The Great Chain of Being

By Adam N.

I was a mere lad of 26 when I was flown off to a treatment facility deep in the Minnesota woods, in the midst of an icy, snow-covered winter. I was seriously beaten down, hammered into a state of reasonableness. I spent the next couple of decades eschewing curiosity and original thought, as far as my program of recovery was concerned, embracing instead the ecclesiastic virtues of obedience, faith, humility, and submission to the traditions and teachings of the big book, the 12 & 12, and the sagacious silverbacks of Alcoholics Anonymous. I followed the rules, did as the old timers suggested, and believed everything they told me. Sometimes I think that I did not have an original thought along these lines for twenty years running.

Things have changed. I am an atheist. Actually, I suspect this is the fault of Alcoholics Anonymous. You see, I worked the steps so diligently, or, perhaps that’s obsessively, that I got rather addicted to the whole rigorous honesty bit. Ultimately it was rigorous honesty which brought me to what many would call a spiritual awakening. Spiritual awakenings are described as profound and life changing. Acknowledging and accepting my atheism was definitely profound and life changing.

Honestly, I cannot wrap my head around the kind of interventionist deity which the big book and so many members exhort. As a result of these new found habits, coupled with my natural curiosity, I have come to believe that god, as they understand him, is not a kind of being, but rather a kind of belief. As a form of belief which I do not have, this deity seems to be no more than a cerebral placebo, a kind of wishful thinking which one cannot readily fake.

My life is completely different now, no doubt for the better. Like a butterfly after a long winter in cocoon, I have been freed from the laborious chains of tradition. I am now a card carrying, proud member of the debating society. I no longer think of curiosity as a dangerous vice, but rather as a virtue which represents human nature at its very finest. Contrary to the religious traditions from which AA emerged, I find an inquisitive fascination with how things actually work to be amongst the most virtuous and fulfilling of human traits.

Thinking outside of the AA box has led me to new insights. My revelation du jour is that I no longer believe that the ‘higher power’ concept, as it is so firmly embedded in AA, is of any value to me. I would even say it is unnecessary for anyone to believe in a higher power in order to become clean or to find lasting, fulfilling sobriety. I am over the whole Higher Power thing. Many members, even amongst the agnostics, atheists and free thinkers, hold fast to the belief that a higher power is necessary for sobriety or quality recovery. I think this is mistaken.

The Great Chain of Being

Great chain of being IAA’s conception of a higher power stems from pre-Darwinian days and the concept of The Great Chain of Being. This is the very familiar old paradigm from which our AA forefathers got their understanding of things. You have God or gods at the top, angels and demi-gods and such just below that. Next you have human beings, though in some versions you have men above and women below. No comment. This speaks for itself. Anyway, moving down the order of celestial value we come to the (other?) animals, perhaps mammals above reptiles above insects. Then your household ferns comes somewhere below that. You get the picture.

This hierarchic conception dominated peoples understanding of human nature, our place and purpose in the cosmic scheme of things, for millennia. It’s still alive and kicking, echoing around within the confines of our collective cultural skull, and within the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. But with Darwin and the increasingly evidence-based thinking of his day, the Great Chain of Being started to look less and less like an accurate depiction of reality. Questions regarding humanity’s place in the cosmic arena now had to be approached from a wholly new direction. Hierarchic models no longer applied as they once had, and adding god into the mix did not help explain anything. The more people sought genuine explanatory value, the more they came to disregard the Great Chain of Being.

But, many folks clung to the old view. Even scientists had a hard time making the transition. Thus arose paradigms emphasizing human exceptionalism, a hierarchic model with humanity at the pinnacle. You can see these two old models jockeying for position when Bill W talks about human beings as the “…spearheads of God’s ever advancing creation…” The only difference between human exceptionalist models and the Great Chain of Being had to do with who was at the top of the heap.

Over time the fallaciousness of this view, too, began to show. Slowly but surely we came to a self understanding rooted in the idea that we were animals that came to exist as the result of natural selection. We are animals. Like gnats, cleaner wrasses, eagles, porpoises, wolves and wombats. Evolution through natural selection is non-hierarchic, non-linear and non-progressive. We are not at the top, because there is no top, no middle, and no bottom.

Yet in trying to describe the process of recovery, our AA forefathers’ understanding was rooted in these antiquated hierarchic models. They interpreted their experience in terms of the language and concepts available to them at the time. Now we are left with these obsolete interpretations. While some of the fundamental experiences they had are still valid today, their outdated interpretations of those experiences may hinder more than help.

For example, when they gathered together, sharing stories and offering understanding, mutual respect and genuine care, they experienced changes that were tangible and valuable. This is just as true today. But their interpretation of what was happening was limited by the conceptual and linguistic tools of the time. They gave the credit to god, to a higher power. We can still hear this today, when members talk about their higher power working “through the group”. Perhaps the fundamental experience is as valid and valuable as ever, but their dated interpretation, an albatross.

Alternative, contemporary interpretations might include social psychology and the power of peer support; neurochemistry and the effects of socially nurturing contact; the value of mentoring and peer guidance; evolutionary biology and a tribal, highly social archetype of the human being. These are just the tip of the iceberg, just a little taste of the exciting future that awaits our recovery movement once the intransigence and conservativism of AA wanes, and we rejoin the stream of human progress which results from celebrating, rather than squelching, curiosity and knowledge.

The Good Old Higher Power

At last we get to good old HP. First of all, Higher Power is, in many respects, merely a sneaky way of saying god. In the same manner that “We Agnostics” is a thinly veiled piece of religious propaganda, the whole higher power thing is often merely a way of getting people closer to the Christian God which, in their defense, our founding fathers genuinely believed was necessary for sobriety. But they were wrong about that.

The relevant fundamental experience is humility. As a human I am a being who needs the assistance, help, and guidance of others at times. I need a good mechanic to fix my car. Sometimes I ask Lance in his ranger hat, over at the Garden Center, for advice when one of my hibiscus plants looks distressed. Every day when I come home, my little doggies, Tucker and Sammy, help to raise my endorphin levels, in a manner which I alone seem unable to duplicate. I need my wife to program the TV, and she needs me to cook dinner. We could probably unlearn these little dependencies, but after 29 years of marriage, it’s actually a part of the fun. We laugh about it, and within our little brains neurochemicals like dopamine, natural opiates, and serotonin all race around from synapse to synapse doing their thing. We are content.

I need people to give me support and guidance and feedback on a regular basis, lest my poor interpretive skills lead me off on a paranoid tangent, or some spiral of self loathing. Can anyone relate to that? I need the shared stories of AA members, as in literature like Do Tell, or heard daily at meetings, to give me reminders, perspective, and all the many beneficent states which I alone am unable to consistently generate.

I am aware of when and where powerlessness exists in my life. But Lance, or the mechanic, or the friend on the phone, or my dear wife Laura Joy, are none of them higher, nor lower. In fact, maybe this is a fruitless way to talk about the whole thing.

Ladder of Divine Ascent

The Chain of Being involves reaching up to a Higher Power: The 12th century Ladder of Divine Ascent icon showing monks ascending the ladder to Jesus.

In no way are these alternate sources of power “higher”, and calling them so merely regresses us back to an archaic, ecclesiastical world view which places god above and humans below.

There is no longer a higher power in my life. There are other powers, as I’ve described. These other powers may help me out, may give me more power in a sense. But, even then, is phrasing the whole thing in terms of power not itself a throwback to antiquated conceptions which are neither constructive nor accurate?

Higher power is just a leftover from the Great Chain of Being which served to define humanity’s place in the cosmos for millennia. This was the whole mental and linguistic framework for understanding human nature which Bill Wilson and the early members employed to interpret their process of recovery. Their framework, in turn, gave rise to the various constructs we still use to interpret our own recovery process today: spiritual experience, living by spiritual principles, dependence upon and guidance from a higher power, et cetera.

But things are changing. We are collectively coming up with alternative interpretations, ones which we can take to the bank, take action upon in our lives, ones that are real and tangible. They are neither magic nor do they work in mysterious ways. When a newcomer walks in off the street and is sick and dying from drug addiction, they do not need a solution that “works in mysterious ways”. They need ways that offer the kind of falsifiability and predictive value which evidence-based thinking can bring to the table.

For many recovering folk today, components such as sharing our story, service to others, and humility are as valuable as they were in Bill’s day. But our interpretive apparatus at least needs to be more relevant. More accessible, especially in an increasingly secular world. More accurate, in the sense that science and knowledge and learning are, ideally, accretive, generating genuine progress from one generation to the next, moving us ever closer to something resembling truth. This means that saying god removed our desire to drink is less accurate than is saying that our neural network changes as we practice sober living, until our rewired brain makes sobriety more and more habitual.

All of this is really good news. Accurate, accessible, magic-free interpretations of the process of recovery make more sense to agnostic, atheist and free thinking persons. They also make for a more actionable recovery program. Like Tinker Bell, the higher power appears only to work for those who believe. On the other hand, recognizing fundamental human humility in light of our nature as tribal, highly social, interdependent beings comes with a prescription for action which is both precise and has strong predictive value. All of this stems from the demise of the Great Chain of being at the hands of evidence based thinking and the works of people like Charles Darwin. And all of this serves to explain why I am clean and sober today even though I have no higher power in my life. And I do not miss it at all.

_________

CSR CoverAdam is an alcoholic and addict, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and an atheist.  He is the author of Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous and is currently working on a second manuscript whose subject matter concerns reinterpreting the tools and modalities of recovery for our increasingly secular world.


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The Great Chain of Being — 39 Comments

  1. Very nice read, Adam, thank you. Feels like home in my own head reading essays like this one.

  2. Great read. Articulates so well how I feel and think is so many ways. Thanks for putting it out here.

  3. Thanks, Adam, for so well articulating the views I’ve harboured for more than 20 years in the program. I too ‘came out’ as an atheist while speaking at a friend’s AA anniversary about a year and a half ago. Soon after that, I became aware of aaagnostica.org and have since become a huge fan. Your book on recovery really helped me crystallize some of my views and introduced some new ones. I’ve been pretty ‘up front’ recently when discussing extracts from the Big Book, 12 and 12 and ‘As Bill Sees It’ and so far have been pleasantly surprised that when I am tolerant of the mostly religious interpretations of others, most of the people I respect have been quite interested and respectful back. We’ve just started a secular meeting in Odessa (just west of Kingston, Ontario) and we’ll see what the collective response of the local Intergroup is, given the Toronto nonsense! And I thought we Canadians were so tolerant and multi-cultural! I look forward to your next book, and hope to meet you if you visit Toronto or attend the 2016 Austin convention.

    Best wishes
    Martin

    • Thank you so much for your supportive words. It pleases me greatly to hear that my efforts are beneficial to others.

  4. Just wondering is anyone knows of any speaker tapes from any atheists/agnostics. I heard Eric’s tape a couple months back but I have been unable to find any others. Any help would be appreciated.

  5. Thank you for your post Adam, this site has had some extraordinary posts over the years, yours is a barn burner. I identified and agree with everything you stated!!!
    I am in my 40th year of sobriety; as a result of folks as articulate as yourself and our AA Agnostica website I am more excited than ever before about the future of delivering evidence based discovery to those seeking sobriety without magic.
    Many thanks to you; I am looking forward to reading your second manuscript.

  6. “I would even say it is unnecessary for anyone to believe in a higher power in order to become clean or to find lasting, fulfilling sobriety.”

    Just because you say it doesn’t make it true… I’m not sure you are qualified to be the spokesman for sobriety and how it happens to “anyone”.

    • Well, what makes it true for me is that I am sober and happy today and it has nothing whatsoever to do with religious belief or belief in a higher power. My experience makes it true, for at least one case! I am a fully committed atheist who is helped to sobriety through human friends, fellowship, sponsorship and literature. My position is not and has never been to be a spokesperson for how anyone should do their own personal recovery process, but to speak out against the predominant paradigm which has always held belief in a higher power to be a requirement for sobriety. I simply attest to the fact, based upon my personal experience as well as that of many other atheists and agnostics I know, that belief in a higher power has not proven to be a requirement for sobriety or a contented recovery. Myself and many others hold such beliefs to be optional, not required. If they work for you, great. No problem. I can speak only about how it happens for me, and for those like me who have attested to the irrelevance of the higher power concept in their ongoing recovery, and offer the hope to others that they, too, can have a similarly secular recovery.

  7. Hi, Adam:
    I´m a 60 year-old Brazilian journalist who has just found AA Agnostica. You´ll hear more from me soon. Your text is extremely interesting and touches many vital points.

  8. I learned about AA Agnostica only last Friday, after returning from a brutal incarceration due to my heavy drinking. I would gladly submit myself to another period in that camoulflaged concentration camp if that would be the price I had to pay for getting in contact with you guys.
    Your text touches many points that are constant material for my not-so-healthy but still working brain
    I’m exchanging e-mails with Chris, a member of AA Agnostica who has promised to send me additional material about the work you have been carrying.
    Tonight I’ll go to a meeting of NA – something I haven’t done in decades. Wish me patience, I´ll need that more than luck. Let’s keep in touch.
    I’ve just found among by books an essay by Bakunin where he defines Nature. I don’t have time to translate it right now, but you can find it in Spanish. The title is Consideraciones Filosóficas sobre el Fantasma Divino, Sobre el Mundo Real y Sobre el Hombre.
    By way of introduction, I´m a 60-year-old retired Brazilian journalist (due to heavy drinking, I supposed you figured). I live in Brasilia, the capital, and really hope to form a group of people around here with similar ways of thinking as ourselves.
    Have you read Wallace’s The Infinite Jest? It has just been translated into Portuguese. I’ve read it some 5 or 6 years ago and wonder if DFW is not a constant subject of discussion among you guys.
    Um abraço do Manoel

  9. Adam,

    “Cerebral placebo” is poetic. Often I think life would be easier if only I believed in Tinker Bell.
    I’m new to AA and 12 steps. I go to AA meetings because they are the only place to go.
    For my recovery, I’d like to find a healthy healing process that does not include a ‘higher power’. I have tried to read the BB – it is a big pill and tough to swallow.
    I am sensitive to being judged these days… and it is doubly challenging to go to meetings when I can’t comfortably read steps 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 11.
    Is there a place online where I can go for regular communication with like-mind sober people?
    Thank you again for your thoughtful column.
    Always learning, Lisa.

    • Speaking for myself, one thing I find useful is the literature. The only AA conference approved book I read now is Living Sober, old and very middle of the road, but still useful in a keep-it-simple, basic-tools kind of way. I appreciate the material on this site, and there’s a lot of good stuff archived here. Plus, there are some good books available like ‘Don’t Tell’ & ‘Do Tell’, ‘The Alternative 12 Steps’ and ‘Beyond Belief’, to name a few.

  10. What a great personal story, making the point once more that the steps are suggestions, open to interpretation, and that the founders only knew what they knew. The old ideas and language in much of Bill’s writing is clearly the kind of spiritual make-believe he refers to later in the Big Book and a distraction from authentic spiritually. Finding what Bill called a “great reality deep within,” and later “an unsuspected inner resource,” seems to be the real purpose and potential of both the book and the fellowship. No longer do we have to turn our will and our lives over to alcohol, drugs, other people, places and things, imagined or real. Self esteem self worth and self efficacy are among the great rewards of learning to learn from our own and others’ experience, and it is really the supportive fellowship that has helped puerile like me get in and stay on “the road of happy destiny.” Life is good once we learn the process of really using the process Bill tried to describe on pages 60 through 88! Accept, Begin, Continue.

  11. Excellent essay, indeed, Adam. It’s so good to read the clarity of your thought and expression again. Thank you !~!~!

    For me the laws of science, both those we know of as our species has evolved over unknown for sure millennia, as well as those yet to be discovered serve as a “higher power.” The vast majority of these laws I can’t articulate, much less understand, but when I observe the power of gravity, for example, and more carefully hike these days out of terror of falling down and becoming an invalid, I experience increasing awe about the seemingly mysterious workings of the Kosmos. I don’t have to understand how gravity works to appreciate the consequences of what will happen if I don’t respect its power.

    Likewise, I am filled with awe deep at night when I look up into the heavens and see the uncountable pinpoints of starlight shining upon me, some of which science informs me are many, many, many lightyears away. I know more about the heavens than our ancestors did, but I am still filled with the same awe, just as they experienced, when they looked into the heavens. The more we know, the more awe and curiosity and questions and wonder we evolve. Kind of neat, eh?

  12. Excellent article and very relevant! I look forward to reading more of your insights.

  13. Adam, good essay. I agree with everything you said, except that even in the 1930s there were some people who valued the scientific approach and scorned religion. And group therapy has been around for over a hundred years.

    I too have been sober for years without “finding” a higher power for myself. To me, this is a ludicrous approach to sobriety. I just acknowledge that the the people in AA help me. And from time to time I explain my views at traditional meetings, especially when members start harping about their higher powers.

    • Certainly there were those that espoused a more secular view in the 30s, amongst them our own Jimmy Burwell. The predominant influence upon our young organization at the time, though, was Bill and the other more religiously inclined fellows. Their ‘scientific’ understanding was limited at best.

      Even well healed scientists today suffer from hierarchic, antiquated views, most notably the mistaken hierarchy of human exceptionalism and the linear, progressive model of evolutionary theory.

      Finally, as you intimate, humanity’s ultimate origins in tribal groups from the African savanna suggest that our beloved ‘group therapy’ model clearly predates Alcoholics Anonymous! I would suggest, though, that this is less a matter of hundreds of years than of several million!

  14. Great article! I’ve always thought that the word ‘construct’ accurately describes the ‘higher power’ concept. It is only an idea or theory w/in the mind of those who subscribe to it that is merely subjective and not based on any empirical evidence even tho many of those who believe say that it is based on evidence. It’s great to see that you use the same word ‘construct’ w/in your article. Your article is one of the best I’ve ever read on this site.

  15. Adam’s piece is so well thought out and worded that it of itself could be used by humans as evidence that we have within our own scrupulously exercised self-honesty the capacity to continue to grow in our understanding of what existence and its governing laws are all about without the need to stifle that growth with archaic progressively disproved notions about anything supernatural. Thanks, Adam.

  16. Excellent read. I’ll be sharing this, and maybe even printing it out to leave around a few meeting places.

  17. Adam, thanks for this. I think you here describe one of the most important aspects of freeing the program from its religious origins. I too have for a long time been puzzled by how even many agnostics seem to think some kind of higher power is needed, and you describe the nonsense of that really really well. It’s a level playing field.

    So thanks again. Have just two more things to add, one is that the hierarchial world view was politically necessary in a feudal society, in order to keep the rabble in its place, and as we are approaching a neo-feudal society there is a reviving need for it. Politically, certainly not philosophically.

    The other is as I look at some of the more religious members, I can’t help but wonder if there tends to be two kinds of people – those who want to figure things out, and those who need something to believe in so they don’t have to think too deeply. Psychological explanations of the latter are readily at hand, needing the big mommy, whatever, a real deep running flaw in the way we grow up, that such a need can remain in people that supposedly are adults. But of course, so far, the churches are fanning the flames of childhood needs. Even as emotional dependence is being transferred from god to television it is obvious it will be a monumental task to challenge it.

  18. I really like this; it makes so much sense for those who do not have faith in a higher power and for everyone else as well.

  19. Great thinking and writing – again! I like to think of a Higher Purpose or an Inner Power, both terms I think I learned here, maybe from you.

    When I was a young counselor, I learned that we can’t help other people change unless we show unconditional empathy, respect, and love. I found this to be true professionally and personally. Then you state that AA works through “understanding, mutual respect, and genuine care” – same thing, different words. The truth doesn’t care who knows it, I guess.

    If your trusted mechanic doesn’t rely on the 1939 owner’s manual, why should AA rely on the unchanged 1939 Big Book? We bought a new vacuum cleaner. The old one works OK, but the new one works better. Same house, same inhabitants, same kinds of dirt.

    • Pat, I think that terms like higher purpose and inner power just have a tendency to do the same as the higher power substitute for god does – creates a continuum of nonsense that will always have a tendency to draw us closer to god.

      It is fine to have a higher purpose and inner power of course, but if it is terms used in extension of the AA higher power stuff, it will always keep things muddled.

      It’s a way of buying into this idea that “you can have any kind of higher power you like” – except of course that you can’t have none. So having an inner power, “officially” having an inner power makes you respectable in the eyes of the higher power crowd, and you won’t have to argue with them. You have proven that you have accepted some version of their higher power. Again we have inner resources which are essential to our recovery and to our life in general, and of course I don’t want to take that away from you, but I think it is really important that we do everything we can to avoid any sort of language that resembles the higher power stuff, lest we get sucked right back in. And only if we manage to develop a language which is truly circumventing the higher power concept, by a whole mile, will we be able to develop a language for recovery which liberates us on our terms, and makes us able to explain how the program works by an alternative model. For starters – it’s not god keeping us sober, it’s the fellowship, there we have about a mile between the concepts of whaty keeps us sober, we need to develop that everywhere – though of course there will be some wise guy who will come along and say that the fellowship is divine in a strenuous attempt to muddle the distinctions again.

      • Agreed, and along those lines is why I suggest that maybe even phrasing the whole discussion in terms of “power” is itself antiquated, problematic, ready for a change…

  20. Yep, thanks Adam. One of the things that I hope to improve through my continued sobriety is expressive clarity, which you rightfully can claim.

    I certainly hope more folks in need of a realistic way to understand and tackle their addictions will find writings such as yours to help them on their way.

  21. Thank you Adam. I enjoyed that thoroughly. I remember being stopped cold when I ran into the admonition to “…quit the debating society…” That “debating society” for me is a totally paramount aspect of humanity. How do you quit the debate and still search for meaning in what can be a meaningless world? I can’t do it by blindly accepting some hokey old religion – as my hero Han Solo would describe it. I think many of us find something in our search for meaning and that something, if nurtured, can evolve and change as we personally develop. I could describe myself as a “former catholic couldn’t give a crap agnostic” before AA. AA and its totally whimsical and arbitrary god helped to change me into what you might call a thoughtful (okay, sporadically thoughtful) atheist. I could never understand why a God who gave me an addiction (with my wholehearted cooperation) would, upon being humbly beseeched from a kneeling position, and invoked by a certain prayer, lift the fatal compulsion from me… maybe. Or maybe not for some benevolent but inscrutable reason. Thanks again Adam and everyone. I really enjoy these Sunday reads.

  22. One of the best articles on this web site I’ve come across. I’m going to forward this around to some acquaintances who might be surprised to discover there’s more to recovery literature than that which is “AA Conference Approved”. Also going to get the book, as Adam seems to state with calm, crystal clarity much of what I struggle to express.

  23. “…I spent the next couple of decades eschewing curiosity and original thought”.

    Your power to describe me is amazing, Adam. Thank you a lot. I remember when I saw your book and learned I could read it online, I spent nearly a whole day devouring it’s accurate description of me and my tour.

    Here it is again. I love your brain and ability to move just a few steps ahead of mine. And write it down so coherently.

    I grew up in the north woods of Minnesota, so perhaps a similar world view predominates – but I find it wonderful and am so glad to have found you.

  24. My AA birthday is May 1, 1970. I could never grasp the “god” concept. Perhaps AA central offices will recognize the need to list agnostic groups. Even free thinkers may have the desire to stop drinking. Page XX of the big book’s forward states “Alcoholic’s anonymous is not a religious organization”!

  25. Thank you Adam. Very thoughtful. I’m sure many of us will find room for your words.

    peace

  26. We are one with the beasts.
    We all breath.
    We all die.
    All is vanity.

    My flawed but still satisfying translation of Ecclesiastes 3:19, Old Testament. Truths are all around us IF we are committed listener/observers. It is a good day for discovery.

    • I love it! I want to put it on a t-shirt!

      We are one with the beasts.
      We all breathe.
      We all die.
      All is vanity