Without a Higher Power

Grapevine AA

One size does not fit all for this atheist in recovery

By Greg H. (San Diego, CA)
Copyright © The AA Grapevine. Originally published by the AA Grapevine in January 2010. Reprinted with permission.

This atheist “walked into our midst,” and stayed.

At the age of 52, I attended my very first AA meeting on Oct. 7, 2001. I have not found it necessary to take a single drink since. Were it not for AA it’s likely I would never have put together one continuous week of sobriety.

Finding all the “God stuff” in the Twelve Steps a bit hard to swallow, I immediately latched onto Tradition Three, which states, “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

I also had the good fortune of stumbling across a Twelve Step study during my first week of recovery. It has been my home group ever since. That was where someone drew my attention to the chapter on Step Two in the “Twelve and Twelve” where it states, “First, Alcoholics Anonymous does not demand that you believe anything. All of its Twelve Steps are but suggestions.”

I also learned in my home group about a fellow called “Ed” in the essay on Tradition Three in the “Twelve and Twelve.” His real name was Jimmy B. One of the pioneering members of the New York group, Jimmy B. was apparently the first diehard atheist to find lasting recovery in AA. His personal story eventually made it into the Second Edition of the Big Book as “The Vicious Cycle.” An internet search turns up lots of interesting information about Jim. He is my personal AA hero. (Editor’s Note: You can now read about him right here on AA Agnostica: Jim Burwell.)

Eventually I also discovered the pamphlet “Questions & Answers on Sponsorship” where, much to my relief, it points out that “some alcoholics have been able to achieve and maintain sobriety without any belief in a personal Higher Power.” That includes me.

In an article published in the April 1961 edition of the Grapevine (reprinted in “The Best of Bill”), Bill W. laments: “Though 300,000 have recovered in the last 25 years, maybe half a million more have walked into our midst, and then out again. . . . We can’t well content ourselves with the view that all these recovery failures were entirely the fault of the newcomers themselves. Perhaps a great many didn’t receive the kind and amount of sponsorship they so sorely needed.”

I certainly know what that’s like! I ended up firing two sponsors in my first three months of recovery. The first one dogmatically insisted that I absolutely had to turn my will and my life over to the care of some kind of Higher Power if I wanted to stay sober long. My second sponsor relapsed.

Unfortunately, sponsors who actually follow the excellent suggestions outlined in “Questions & Answers on Sponsorship” seem to be about as rare as four-leaf clovers. I ended up without a sponsor for 15 months before hooking up with my current sponsor. By then I had made a lot of progress working a personalized program of recovery I had designed for myself, one that makes absolutely no reference to any kind of “Higher Power” concept – not even using my home group or AA as a whole as a substitute for God. My new sponsor’s first official advice to me was, “Whatever you’ve been doing is obviously working well for you, so let’s not try to ‘fix’ it.”

After years of studying the Twelve Steps in my home group and discussing them with my sponsor, I now understand why faith in “God as we understood Him” was so vitally important to Bill W. and most of the AA pioneers.

As clearly explained by Dr. Harry Tiebout in the appendix of the book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, they nearly all suffered from some form of narcissism. Their narcissism had effectively blocked their recovery from alcoholism and eventually turned them into low-bottom drunks of the “hopeless variety.”

The obvious cure for rampant narcissism and grandiosity is greater humility; and as it says in the essay on Step Seven in the “Twelve and Twelve,” “the attainment of greater humility is the foundation principle of each of AA’s Twelve Steps.”

However, as Dr. Silkworth points out in “The Doctor’s Opinion,” “The classification of alcoholics seems most difficult.” Ultimately, he tells us, all alcoholics “have one symptom in common: they cannot start drinking without developing the phenomenon of craving.” That certainly describes me. All of us do have issues of our own that we need to deal with if we are to stay both sober and happy, often issues that “the attainment of greater humility” simply will not touch.

The program of recovery I work directly addresses my issues. The only person in the world it needs to work for is me, and it does that very, very well. Today I am not only sober, I am far happier than I had ever dreamed it was possible for me to be.

I now have a dozen sponsees of my own. Four of them, like me, are atheists who have absolutely no use for the Higher Power concept. Two of those have already enjoyed over four years of continuous sobriety.

Obviously I do not insist that my sponsees must all work the same program of recovery, nor do I tutor them in the program of recovery I designed to address my own issues – “defects of character,” if you wish. Instead, I encourage each of them to follow my example by identifying their own issues, and then working a deliberate, systematic, active program of recovery designed by themselves, for themselves, to directly address their issues.

Over the years I have endured a lot of criticism from other AAs for my unorthodox beliefs, especially for my refusal to endorse the Twelve Steps as a perfect one-size-fits-all program of recovery for every alcoholic. But if Bill W. were alive today, I’m sure he would approve. As he suggested in the long form of Tradition Three, “Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover.”

That certainly includes me. My fondest hope is that if enough others follow my example, someday it will include millions more like me who previously might have “walked into our midst, and then out again.”

10 Responses

  1. Roger says:

    Hi James: Marnin’s story of getting sober without a god is told in this post: My Name is Marnin.

  2. James says:

    Yes! Please send copy!

  3. Rfv says:

    This is a very accurate observation in my experience.I am an alcoholic who, although swore it would never happen to me, found himself a practicing alcoholic by my mid-30s. The alcoholism I despised in my father somehow got programmed into me and I took to it like a fish to water. I also found out later in life that other family members were alcoholic. My grandfather in fact was an alcoholic who quit for reasons of health. Yet I suppose he had all of the behaviours and thought patterns of an alcoholic and somehow I picked up on those too without knowing it. I can’t tell you how many people I meet in recovery who could tell you a similar story about alcoholism in their families. Hopefully, my recovery will initiate a new set of inheritable traits for future generations. I have observed a lot of this in my program of recovery too. Where a parent sobers up, and although their kids follow the same path of alcoholism, they too learn how to sober up and recover. Ciao. Chaz.

  4. Frank P says:

    I have not drunk alcohol for nearly 12 months, without having a sponsor, without reading the Big Book, without doing the 12 steps and without believing in God. When I began attending AA meetings after 60 years of continuous drinking, I was told by one old timer that I was just a “dry drunk” for not surrendering. Most groups pressure the individual to conform to their beliefs, and it is tempting to surrender when the alternative is to be excluded. Fortunately, the atheists in AA got together and formed groups where I am accepted. I wish there were similar groups for other addictions, so I could feel more comfortable dealing with my sex, drug and food addictions. So far I found these other “12 steppers” more dogmatic than AA itself. Thanks for posting your comments on a reassuring article.

  5. Andy Mc says:

    Thanks for sharing Greg’s article.
    As more and more of us share our stories about life in sobriety without superstition I believe we are helping to open the doors to others in desperate need of finding sobriety without the religious BS.

  6. Frank M. says:

    Oh how I love the Traditions and the traditions, formal and informal, that guide our AA fellowship. They’re like the U.S. Constitution in a way. By the application of good principles they generally protect us from an ill-informed mob.

    Thanks for this reprint. Thanks much.

  7. marnin m says:

    I agree totally in taking what you can use to stay sober and leaving the reast behind.

    Here in Florida they worship the BIG BOOK as if it was written by God him self.

    I’ve got an article I wrote on occasion of my 42nd AA anniversary on my desk.


    If you are interested I’ll send you a copy.

    Thanks for posting and for staying sober your way in AA.

    Marnin M

  8. John K says:

    Greeting’s to all: I am a alcoholic and cocaine addict. Stephen wrote, “Hopefully I will be accepted in time.” I say you are your own Liquor Control Board, like the old commercial used to say. I, John, have spent too much time trying to people please. You and me, in my opinion, need not their acceptance: we are equal when we adopt the 3rd Tradition. Thanks to all.

  9. Lech says:

    As has often been said at AA meetings “Take what you like, and leave the rest”.

    I have always thought AA dogma a load nonsense, and simply ignored it.

    Mine is a minority opinion, and no amount of debate is likely to get others to see things my way.

  10. Stephen says:

    Very encouraging. I am 8 months sober and have been doing mental backflips trying to fit in as an athiest, even to the point of leaving. I know in my heart how important meetings are to me so I will not do that but nor do I wish to cut a controversial figure for its own sake. Hopefully I will be accepted in time, even if now it feels a bit uncomfortable.

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