Turning It Over

Alcoholism

Step 3 as published in 1939: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

By Bob F.

I have never believed in the god concept despite the endless reinforcement of the idea which people are subject to everywhere. And, despite my disbelief and the endless reiteration of the god concept in the Program, I still found the 12 Steps to have been incredibly effective in healing my addiction. I was puzzled by this paradox – I don’t believe but the Program still works. What took me some time to understand internalize/accept is the ‘higher Power’ notion, detached from its association with the God image and redefined could be useful.

I have, however, always been curious about why the two most god-centered Steps – 2 and 3 – have worked for me, even though I don’t believe in the existence of a god. Early on, I thought the progress I was making in recovery was possibly about “faking it ‘til I made it” (to a belief in god). But, after many years in the Program, I still do not have that belief and never really intentionally tried to develop it.

I recently remembered the “We Agnostics” chapter, in the AA Big Book, but this chapter still does not accept atheism as it repeatedly suggests the alcoholic will come to believe in his/her understanding of God.

I also visited sites on the Internet, which would provide a different perspective on godlessness in recovery. I found AA Agnostica and wrote an email asking if there are any discussions on the 2nd and 3rd Steps from an agnostic perspective. The reply I received provided me with links to Steps 2 and 3 from The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery.

Step 3 I read these and thought the chapter on Step 2 to be conceptually very well stated but the chapter on Step 3, while again well written, was completely irrelevant to and avoidant of addressing the Step’s focus – “turning one’s will and life over to the care of God”.

From a psychological perspective, I am a proponent of the view of Freud’s perception that regards God as an illusion, and is based on the infantile need for a powerful father figure. This ubiquitous belief is global and, for me, a regressive projection that mankind continues to be limited by.

It also represents, in my opinion, the one huge deficit in the Program, e.g. the absence of any recognition that full recovery is hallmarked by the ability to take complete responsibility for oneself. The complete personal responsibility I am referring to is responsibility for one’s recovery without relying a projection to an external god. As noted above, this projection is and has been reinforced and reiterated globally and historically and is near impossible to escape or transcend.

The conditioned need for the god ‘crutch’ prevents recovery from even further personal growth by encouraging dependence on an external entity. For recovery to be a truly “inside job” reliance has to be based on the recognition that we are each ultimately fully responsible for ourselves, our thoughts and actions, “every Step of the Way”.  By extension, then, we are, ultimately, each our own higher power. As blasphemous and ego-centered as this may seem, it is, I believe, the unrecognized truth, invisible only because we are conditioned by the age old projection articulate by Freud.

So, for us agnostics and atheists, what does this mean, in regard to the 3rd Step? It means developing self- reliance by working the Steps in collaboration with a sponsor, through our reading of 12 Step literature, going to meetings and hearing how others work their programs. But more specifically, what does “turning it over” mean, absent the god factor? It means learning to trust ourselves. Not easy at first, but more do-able over time. What has worked for me was developing a belief in an inner Higher Power, with whom I can maintain conscious contact when needed. My inner higher power is like an old, totally trusted friend whom I can talk with.

When I am scared, confused, uncertain or not able to come to a conclusion about something, I lay down and talk to my inner higher power – being as honest and vulnerable as I can be about what is going on emotionally and ask for help with it. This is not turning over my will and my life over to some fictitious entity – which, for me, is abjuring self-responsibility by substituting a parental projection – but rather it is connecting to a part of myself. This is taking responsibility for myself. It does not mean I shouldn’t talk to Program friends, a sponsor or a therapist or a spiritual guide. It means there are alternatives to communicating with something I don’t believe in. This said, I also want to say that I am not denying the possible existence of a god. I completely respect others’ beliefs, in this regard.

The suggestion that one take full responsibility for oneself by redefining the 3rd Step can understandably seem to undermine what the Program considers the most fundamentally necessary Step after working Steps 1 and 2 and the foundation for all the Steps that follow.

One does not have to go to too many meetings to realize how the life histories of substance-dependent people as well as other addicts have been rife with a seriously-compromised sense of self-worth that addiction has only worsened or seemed to have destroyed. Because addiction and dependency are synonymous, I would offer that substituting a dependency on a chemical or process addiction for another dependency on an external projection creates a limit to further personal growth, no matter how benign and apparently helpful reliance on a parental projection god may seem to be. While it is unnecessary to re-open the cosmological can of worms debate on the belief in the reality of deities, it is my opinion that what is materially unproven and unprovable is purely projection, i.e. the creation of imagined truths or entities which have their sole origin in the human mind that externalizes them and then affirms these projections to be “real”.

While it might be said that what one believes is real, it is my belief and experience that healthy self-reliance has the potential to heal and strengthen the sense of self-worth and self-esteem and create a sense of self-definition that reliance on external entities cannot. This is not meant to encourage isolation or a false sense of ego power and control but, rather, to encourage the development of the willingness to do as much for oneself, in healthy ways, as possible.

Working the 3rd Step is also about practicing humility, which is ultimately about trusting ourselves to be vulnerable, a practice the Program introduces us to, in working the 4th and 5th Steps. Historically, world religions have created practices such as prayer, confession, bowing, prostration, taking vows and making commitments to be faithful to a deity, to help practitioners realize humility but often such practices subject the believer to the power and control of political and religious figureheads, rather than being used a means to facilitate personal growth.

Each of us is unique insofar as our emotional landscape is concerned. If we have been traumatized, especially in childhood, having a conceptual hand to hold may be exactly what we feel we need to make progress in our healing. But eventually I think it is important to let go and develop our own capacity for self-reliance.

My own experience, in recovery, is that the Program just made sense to me, with absolutely no belief or reliance on an external god projection. Going to meetings and feeling safe to share the history of my character defects, journaling, reading program literature and staying in touch with a co-sponsor (BTW also going to personal therapy) helped me get to a place in which I did not have an addiction relapse. I worked the Steps but never did a 3rd Step in a formal sense. I just kept coming back to meetings and working the Program as I understood the Program. Recovery can be godless.

Before ending, I want to repeat that the opinions I have expressed are mine alone and are not in any way meant to suggest that they are global truths. I want to repeat that I absolutely and completely respect the belief in a god held by others and that our differences in this regard are the confirmation of the fact that there are many ways of being human – each of which is often as effective and reliable as the others.


Bob F. lives in Tucson, Arizona, and is a 75 year old psychotherapist who recently marked 30 years in the Program, in August. Although AA is not his home Fellowship, he has reached a point in life where the Program has become one of the guiding lights of living both in and outside of our rooms. As a kid, he was kicked out of Sunday school class for challenging orthodoxy and has never had any connection to the faith of his family. He believes the 12 Step Program is the best model for living ever developed and gives grateful thanks for Bill W. and Dr. Bob.


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Turning It Over — 28 Comments

  1. Thank you, Bob for your articulate essay.

    I believe wholeheartedly in the efficacy of the fellowship of AA, i.e., doing together (sobriety) what most drunks cannot do alone.

    Because I believe so strongly in positive group psychology, I have always been uncomfortable with the religiosity displayed by many AA members and groups, which I see as a type of NEGATIVE group psychology.

    This tendency to appear as holy (or patriotic, or virtuous, etc.) as our neighbors, is deeply rooted in American culture dating back to the 17th century Puritans. The ensuing evangelism of the following American centuries, culminating with the 20th century version of a personal God has made America the most religious of developed Western nations. Hence the tendency in AA to openly declare one’s faith in an invisible entity, brag that one prays on his of her knees, and that one is continually seeking to improve one’s “conscious contact with God”, whatever the heck that means. I generally find post- meeting conversations with these individuals to be about as interesting as chats with Hari Krishnas about macro economics.

    Alas, the mindless religious atmosphere prevalent in AA has been bothering me since my first introduction to the Fellowship in 1979. I had my last drink 25 years later in 2004, and certainly hope it is my last. After all, it is my decision and I take full responsibility for it.

  2. Thanks so much, Bob, for your insightful and articulate views. This is pretty much how step three has worked for me. I live step three through a continued willingness to retreat from an outer shell of self (which can operate as a destructive mass of fear, anger and pride) and be honest and with myself, living life on life’s terms. This honesty includes being respectful of my journey so far in life. I too have sought accounts of others’ secular journeys through the steps and have been much annoyed by the god-bashing. Not helpful. I like to hear what has worked for recovering atheists and agnostics, not just the complaining of what annoys them. Your article is a wonderful account of what works. Thanks so much.

  3. Thanks Bob F for this input and pray (!) allow me to throw in my tuppence. This comes from a general practitioner in a chiefly Catholic country, BTW.

    Since day zero of my recovery, back in my first meeting, I left it crystal clear to all those present I was (am!) this diehard Atheist and as such ghostly or metaphysical entities are not my cuppa tea. This has in fact deterred me from physically approaching the Fellowship a few years back, as I browsed about the 12 steps and throughout them found many worrying utterances of the G word. I had no problems whatsoever in being readily accepted, yet a hairy feeling still lingers in the back of my mind – I have the constant idea that some of my AA fellows are fine with the concept that I have no god – YET.

    Many claim to have found their gods where they only seeked sobriety, which resonates with the leitmotif favoured in the Big Book’s above mentioned fourth chapter. Another fellow in my group, who shares a similar scientific background with me, seems to fuel this general notion – he joined AA as a self-described Atheist, yet many moons later he somehow ‘evolved’ to agnosticism. He surreptitiously hints to me that there might be indeed a Higher Power and that one should keep an open mind. Tongue-in-cheekly, my usual reply is that the one and only HP in my life is a barbeque sauce.

    Still, open-mindedness as I see it is but a cornerstone of the actual atheist reasoning and is behind my acceptance of the Programme. To steal from Bob’s original text, ‘I don’t believe but the Programme still works’. And as time goes by, the hopes of me finding spirituality I used to see in my believing fellows’s eyes – my Jewish sponsor’s included – wane one by one into oblivion.

    That does the trick for me. In AA’s programme and in our group meetings I did encounter more than initially expected – I came to terms with a healthier lifestyle, a clearer mindset and found unexpected friends. But no god.

    Yet?

  4. Thank you Bob for articulating so clearly the issues that I still struggle with in AA. They kept me out of the program for many years, and to have to grapple with the God issue again at the age of 58 was counterproductive at best. And Self Esteem! The steps equate self confidence with arrogance. I think all addicts need to first heal their sense of competence and self worth. I have almost 2 years now, and I would not have made it without the balance of insights and honest discussion I have found in this site. I wish that there was a face-to-face fellowship of free thinkers with whom I could have conversations on this level (none here). I keep my mouth shut so not to undermine anyone’s work with their sponsors by confusing them with my insights. I call mine my “Better Self”, and she is a work in progress, who has studied the wisdom of the ages, the program, and many thinkers and religions. I have learned to have confidence in our wisdom and competence to deal with the challenges of life. Thank you for stating it so clearly.

  5. “Take what I like and leave the rest.” It is a Christian program and conversion is pushed, i.e. “god could and would if he were sought”, “may you find him now” and atheists have never been accepted in AA. I left. That was my “take what I like and leave the rest”. AA is not my religion and it IS a religion of the Christian type!

  6. Hello, everyone.

    Please accept my thanks for the honesty in your posts, in reply to my “Turning it Over” article. When I first corresponded with Roger, about my interest to learn about Steps 2 and 3, from an atheist / agnostic perspective, he was very encouraging about my writing the article and felt it would definitely get replies from AA Agnostica readers. His certainty about this has been born out and I am very grateful for knowing I am not alone in my godless thoughts and feelings. Equally important for me is reading the comments about the Program’s deficits. It is, of course, anathema to talk about these in our rooms and so much valid criticism goes unremarked. I agree with all of these that are included in the replies.

    This said, though, and despite these deficits, the Program has saved my life and my sanity. As I mentioned in the article, I want to respect others’ belief systems, including the Program with any faults it is seen to have, because it worked for me in spite of endless God focus. I think being able to share without cross talk, and value of fellowship and strong emphasis on rigorous honesty provide a powerful foundation for healing addiction. Whenever I find myself at odds with anything in the Program, I just remind myself to remember that awesomely wise suggestion: “Take what I like and leave the rest.”

    In recovery,

    Bob F.

    • I’ve always cringed at the term “higher power”, it implies faith. I prefer to use “GREATER power” I think I’m going to start talking about my “unsuspected inner resource” in meetings, how it gives me guidance and puts things in my life 🙂

  7. Bob, thanks, a really thoughtful article, and I agree with most of your thoughts. However, I also think that there is an irreparable problem with the steps. I would not say the steps worked for me – in any other way than to make me aware that I *had to do SOMETHING* – and that something was really not the steps at all, but I had to make changes in my life.

    In a sense AA IS the 12 steps. Take them away, and, well, is it then really AA any longer? It IS still recovery, which is what we are looking for, rather than everlasting glorification of the steps.

    What has helped for me is the fellowship, and of course DOING SOMETHING.

    The fellowship is essential for recovery, at least I think so, but beyond that, I thing the steps border on being detrimental to recovery, while, of course we need to DO SOMETHING ELSE.

    You have described very well some of the things we need to do, but the big question of course is how do we salvage the program by/while disposing of the steps?
    Case in point is the higher power concept. So long as we retain it, we will forever be circling around that higher power which is god – no escape, doesn’t matter what we call it “inner” higher power or whatever. I like Sandra’s idea of a DEEPER power – that gets us out of the god lingo, while still retaining the, eh, spiritual idea in it. That’s the best way out of it I have yet seen. But most of all we just need to realize that the 12 steps only work because DOING SOMETHING works, and the 12 steps are indeed doing something – though doing something ELSE would probably work much better.

    Anyway, thanks again, a lot of good thoughts.

  8. I’m an atheist and an addict. I’ve really struggled with the “higher power” element to AA and was turned off by the huge focus on god during my first meeting. My family has tried relentlessly to convince me this “higher power” component could be molded into something I find truth in. I found your article enlightening and will give the “inner higher power” a shot.

  9. The comment that I hear come up is the “angry atheist”. Why would a person who is getting god stuff pushed on him in meetings, is not accepted for not believing in it, gets side comments, negative cross talk, be angry? When I hear “angry atheist” I become aware of the tread to blame the victim instead of the program owning it’s intolerance and negative behavior towards atheists.

    • Negativity and intolerance towards atheists is very common in AA. Thanks for bringing it to light with your comment.

  10. I’d like to reply to a statement in the article by Bob as it relates to “The Alternative 12-Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery” and specifically Chapter 3.

    To Quote:

    I read these and thought the chapter on Step 2 to be conceptually very well stated but the chapter on Step 3, while again well written, was completely irrelevant to and avoidant of addressing the Step’s focus – “turning one’s will and life over to the care of God”.

    From a psychological perspective, I am a proponent of the view of Freud’s perception that regards God as an illusion, and is based on the infantile need for a powerful father figure. This ubiquitous belief is global and, for me, a regressive projection that mankind continues to be limited by.

    I suppose I really don’t see it that way. What I do see is the irrelevancy of a need for a “Higher Power” or in turning over ones will whatsoever with regard to either getting sober or maintaining long term sobriety. As I see it, Chapter 3 in “Secular Guide” makes this point without degrading the step as written by Bill Wilson. It offers an alternative which the author of the article (Bill) seems to support. That being that hideous word… Responsibility… But, but… NO!!! I have a disease! A disease which absolves me from responsibility!!! You just don’t understand!!!! Damnit!

    If it makes sense that this “Higher Power” comes from with-in? Fine with me but in all honesty I see it as “Average Power”. Something innate to all. For me anyway it has just become a non-issue. That may sound as if I am trying to split hairs but from my perspective and past, the religion I was brought up in held the notion that this “Power”, this “Grace”, was only for a select few and “I” was not on the list to be a recipient. Or, that in due time this “god” would maybe change his mind if I prayed hard enough and, “Performed His work well.”

    What it comes down to is Free Will and Determinism. A theological battle that has raged for centuries.

    Interesting to me how AA can tend to support this deterministic thought in many ways. Some thirty years ago I was in AA. I had a relapse. In talking to my then sponsor he just said, “Well… god either removes the obsession or he doesn’t”. He then paused and sighed a little sigh of pity for me…

    I think it’s important too to realise that this perspective is “AA” and part of the religion unique to AA along with it’s loosely defined deity. It is not held by all “Christians” or by any other religion for that matter.

    Here is an article written by a Christian pastor that makes that point better than I am able to: The Religion of AA and Twelve Steps.

    (I became quite the “Angry Atheist” for a time… Whew! Thanks be to the gods those days are long past… It just takes too much valuable energy to be angry about anything these days… In retrospect I’ll take a whacked out right wing AA/Christian fundamentalist over a raging atheist to spend an afternoon with any day of the week. At least the fundamentalist will give me something to laugh about. (Not at, about.)

    Freud made a lot of statements. As I see it he offered few solutions. I was convinced for a time that it was all my mom’s fault and stayed mad as hell for years… Blaming my Mom was easily as childish as dependency on some kind of god to resolve my issues for me.

    So what has worked for me? It’s something that in all honesty changed my life and my perspectives. Like anything worthwhile it took some work and it took some time to practice day in and day out but it has worked.

    This same “program”, if that’s what you want to call it is at the core of SMART Recovery.

    Mention was made of “Freudian thought” in the article and I don’t see Freud as offering much of a solution. Dr. Ellis cuts to the quick in short order with a thought and action model which for me anyway took little time in making a big difference: Albert Ellis & Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).

    Anyway, enough said I suppose. I hope this didn’t come across as critical. Was not my intent.

    Peace to all in what and by whatever means, beliefs and perspectives that you find work for you in being able to live rich, full, happy lives despite all the curves that come our way.

    • And thank you so much for the link to the REBT site. I have been using the technique for years, since having been exposed to it through The Life Training in the late 80’s.

      This site is a wealth of useful information and Practical tools. You can read my take on Mindtalk in my post He’s a Real Tool, I call my nemesis Alkie, Alkie Cravens. I have now submitted it to AA, and it is being published in The Myna Bird, our Hawaiian publication. Haven’t heard back from the Grapevine yet. Thanks again for your post, wish we could sit down for coffee.

      He's a Real Tool

      • Coffee!! Sure! Any time. I’m currently in Steamboat Springs, CO take’n pictures and talk’n to folks whilst take’n notes… The fall CO color is pretty darn amazing! “Liv’n the dream.”

        Brought to me in vivid living technicolor by just one thing. Learning how to live life sober. I personally think there are as many ways to get and stay sober as there are folks who have issues with ethanol. My way ended up with REBT and also in doing my very best to excise “narcissism” from my life in all of its devious (Eewww! Poke it with a stick!) forms from arrogance to self-pity.

        Please take this as a joke but one of my favorite jokes about AA is: “Am I an Alcoholic!!??? Oh Hell NO! Alcoholics have to go to those damn meetings and pray a lot!”

        HA!

        From my perspective AA has done much more good than harm and when it really comes down to it what I really needed to figure out was why the “God Business” drove me keeeeeyyyyyrazzzzyyyyyyyyy, absolutely ape chit for quite some time. What I understand today, with no doubt, is that no one can make me “feel” anything. It’s about what’s going on in me at the moment. That’s the Carp I need to figure out…

        Too, even in medicine the “placebo effect” is very, very real. If the idea of a personal interactive “god” helps some folks? I’m all for it and stand behind it. I’m all in for anything that can help folks out of the living hell of addiction.

  11. Bob, this is an interesting article. For me, the 3rd step means learning to take things in stride, to do the best you can and not worry too much about how things are going to work out. I don’t go in for higher powers, whether inner or outer. To take the notion of self-reliance a step further, it could mean reducing dependence on AA itself. I haven’t had a sponsor for about 20 years, I don’t sponsor anyone, and I’ve been to about 4 meetings in the past 6 months, 2 of them online. And I feel fine. I plan to attend some meetings in the future, but whenever I go I get tired of the god talk–unlike you, I do not respect irrational beliefs, the excessive readings, and I often get bored. And the online secular meetings sometimes bore me too. I don’t want to send negative; I’m just describing how things are for me right now. AA did help me a lot in the past, and it’s possible I will become more enthusiastic later on, but right now I’m just not much interested in participating.

  12. Well written Bob! The only difference between you and I was that I came to AA a believer. I rejected the religious conditioning as a kid but still held onto the belief there’s maybe some kind of God/Creator. 5 years ago I acknowledged the truth to myself – I did not nor ever really did believe in a God. I faked it for over 20 years in AA/CA/NA and it simply didn’t work for me. I too believe in taking full responsibility for my recovery, my actions, my thoughts, me feelings, my decisions… everything and I too have developed more faith in myself and have learned to place faith, not absolute faith, but some faith in certain others. To me, it’s very freeing to not believe in a God anymore and be dependent on myself and sometimes to a degree in others in certain situations. To me Step 2 is just about believing it’s possible I can get and stay clean & sober with the help of others. That’s it. Step 3 is recognizing I like to control things, I like to control outcomes and it’s time to stop doing that and try something different – the rest of the steps for example. Have more faith in myself and others and start taking a good, hard look at myself and see what I need to change. No God needed for any of that!

  13. Thank you, Bob, for a thoughtful message. 37 years sober, I’m still sometimes climbing out of the immaturity well. Over time, many of the principles derived through step practice have integrated for me, and I find it easier to wait for my first thought – following my first impulse. A little fatalistic Buddhist philosophy and Stoic advice helps as well. Meeting attendance remains key, however; especially in tough times; for me Fellowship is the best game in town.

  14. Wonderful article, Bob — thank you . . .

    I’ve had the concept for a number of years of asking my Higher Self, the part deep within me which has an intuitive connection to the next right thing to do, for guidance in times of stress or a need. Sometimes I define this part of me as that into whom I am in the process of evolving, since I realize that I have grown immensely since my first year of recovery. I trust that the process of continuous evolution still is occurring for me.

  15. Thank you for the excellent article. My interpretation of the third step means turning my will over to my “higher self”, the part of me that knows what’s right for me. When I listen to it, I make good choices. When I ignore it (because it tells me what I don’t want to hear), I make bad choices.

  16. In the Buddhist eightfold path there is no concept of Higher power, turning things over to one or asking something of one. Those HP god steps are not universal and I don’t have to adapt to them. It says “these are the SUGGESTED steps we took”. They are not good suggestions for me and I should not get any peer pressure to conform to them but I do.

  17. Spot on observations for me. I spent my first 17 years in AA as a believer. Eventually I realized how unhealthy for me that belief was. The ‘God’ of my then understanding (aka the one I made up) turned out to be a substitute parent and prevented me from taking full responsibility for my life. Since I took the wheel, my recovery has bloomed into something powerful.

    For me, step 3 is just about letting go of the need to control and accepting that no matter how things turn out, I will be okay.

  18. I don’t use the AA steps because of the Christian origin and bent. The Buddhist eightfold path are my steps. I quit trying to work around the steps and just dropped them.

  19. My physician, who is a Quaker, asked me…. “What if it is not a higher power? What if it is a DEEPER power?” That was the moment that I GOT the “turning it over” part of Step 3. I also have just celebrated 30 years of sobriety and am living “happy, joyous and free” as the Big Book suggests. The article will be very helpful in the future with my sponsees. Thank you!

  20. At an AA meeting on Step 3 in Dublin, Ireland, I heard someone share something he was given by a member in New York. Step 3 is ‘Let go and don’t micro manage!’ I love this and have used it ever since.

  21. Very well said. Thank you Bob. We have so much untapped resources within us. I rely on those and on my concept of a harmonious life without strife. I struggled with the god concept for years and was exhausted from the fakery of trying to please the frowning Sky God.

    Letting go and being true to myself was the newfound freedom extolled in our books.

  22. For me I found this right on – I am somewhat of a arrogant atheist – – the myth of belief is to me so much BS – however I dont tell my believer friends that in or out of the program – I am 25 yrs plus a bit sober, dont feel a real need for meetings, but like our freethinkers local meetings so I often attend – – not because I need them, but I want them.