A Lesson for AA from our Betters
By Frank M.
“You’ve got a higher power problem,” my old AA sponsor told me.
It’s something he’d asserted on a number of occasions when the subject of God and the Steps and my atheism came up. He repeated it when we were working on my Fifth Step. I had just informed him that Chapter Four – We Agnostics – was on my resentment list. He decided that my finding Bill Wilson’s rather lame version of the cosmological argument irksome represented a serious higher power problem. He was wrong, of course; I didn’t have a higher power problem. I had a God problem, and it’s not the same thing. Not a bit.
The truth is I was perfectly okay with all the salient points and actions that we’d been discussing together. I both wanted and thought I really needed a higher power, and I was ready to surrender to it. It was clear to me I didn’t run the universe, and that I had been behaving as if I did. That had to stop. I was also convinced it would be a good idea to turn over my warped decision making process (particularly regarding getting loaded) to a more reliable source of truth and direction. However, I’d tried before to imagine that as God, or a Power, or a Being, or some vague Cosmic Energy and it flat out didn’t work.
What I wasn’t willing to do anymore was to keep repeating this same theistically-oriented approach over and over again while expecting a different result. They have a word for that in recovery.
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It’s widely accepted in the rooms of AA that you can effectively use just about any good source of direction for your higher power in doing the Steps. Just please call it “God.” This is essentially the psychological approach to recovery (with a little accommodationist bone thrown in) that James Burwell and others have used from before the Big Book was a gleam in Bill Wilson’s eye. And it works.
That is not, however – even with its muddy and humanistic version of the God concept – what Bill believed was going on here. And it is not how AA’s basic texts describe our quasi-supernatural Program of recovery, with its numerous prayers for miraculous intercession by (and psychically transmitted instructions from) an all-powerful Heavenly Father.
Of course the psychological view of recovery doesn’t have to square with Wilson’s conversion experience theory . AA as a fellowship is not defined by its historical texts – to which we have never been required to pledge our allegiance. We are to some practical extent, though, limited by those same books. And that ought to be remedied in an appropriate manner, one that recognizes the historical value of our literature while incorporating our growing experience as a fellowship. I’m going to suggest one way to do that right here, and it is by following the example of a bunch of little girls.
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On October 23, 1993, the Girl Scouts of the USA voted 1,560 – 375 to permit individuals to substitute another word or phrase for “God” in their promise. This is from the motion itself:
For some individuals, the word “God,” no matter how broadly interpreted, does not appropriately reflect their spiritual beliefs. Since the belief in a spiritual principle is fundamental to Girl Scouting, not the word used to define that belief, it is important that individuals have the opportunity to express that belief in wording meaningful to them.” [emphasis added]
And this is what the Girl Scout National President had to say: “Affirming that the belief in a spiritual principle is fundamental to Girl Scouting, Girl Scouts USA recognizes that some religious groups such as Buddhists… use words other than ‘God’ to express their spirituality.” (B. LaRae Orullian)
So there it is, a quite simple solution to the “God problem” as faced and met in a very similar context. No changes have been made to the original Girl Scout Oath, it’s still there for anyone to take in the traditional form. But an option has been added. And by doing this, Girl Scouts of the USA has recognized officially that spirituality, one of their organization’s defining values, is broader than theism. It should be noted that this is not a theory, this is just recognition of an historical fact of the world and its peoples. It is simply coming to understand, as Bill Wilson did later in his own life , that spirituality and God-belief aren’t necessarily the same thing. You can actually have either without the other. Imagine that.
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My old sponsor would have an objection to this approach that we’d do well to address here, I think. He often said to me, “God is just the word we all agree to use to describe this thing which we can’t really define. You could call it anything. We just call God by convention.” And he’s absolutely right. Most folks in AA are talking about the very same thing when they speak of that intangible Power that governs the universe, and which can be accessed through prayer, and then used as a guiding light.
And many of us are talking about something else altogether.
That’s why it makes no sense to use the same word here. It is at best confusing and at worst fatal. Because this de-facto theism can lead unintentionally to the abandonment of a meaningful spiritual life for those of us with more naturalistic bents. No, the God idea is not just a word. It has practical ramifications related to prayer and study and philosophy of life and more.
Many religious or non-religious spiritual and humanistic groups (and their followers) not only use words other than “God” to describe a healthy and true relationship to reality, they use ideas that can in no sense be correctly identified with the God concept. For example, a Buddhist alcoholic might use “the teachings of awakened ones” the Dhamma, as her higher power. Only in AA would someone try to call a practical set of wisdom teachings “God” in some ad hoc attempt to rescue orthodox 12 Step recovery theory.
As a practical example, it isn’t effective to ask in prayer for the Dhamma to “take away” your obsession or character defects. The instruction manual for accessing the Dhamma is not the same one a theist would use to form a conscious contact with God.
The truth is that some of us use God and some of us use totally non-theistic systems of spirituality in our recoveries and we accomplish exactly the same ends.  I heard someone say once that this was like comparing a milkshake to a soy shake. Without milk (God) it’s not really a milkshake, is it? That is, he meant to say, it’s not really AA.
Well, analogies can’t prove, they can only illustrate. So here’s mine: AA is more like teaching a man who’s freezing in the dark woods without any matches how to build a fire. He’s not going to think his way warm, he needs to access a power that is in a real sense greater than himself. But it doesn’t matter whether he does it by clacking two rocks, rubbing two sticks, or applying a bow and a spindle. It doesn’t matter what he uses for tinder and kindling either – as long as it catches fire.
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In conclusion let me say there’s no need, as far as I can see, to rewrite the Big Book and take out the word “God.” I don’t think that would be very honest of us. That book and the Twelve and Twelve are historical records of the actions and thoughts of some, not all, of AA’s founding members. We cannot alter our past, but we can recognize today, officially as a fellowship, that the spiritual path of recovery is wider than our founders imagined. In doing so we will be honoring our own Fifth Tradition of maximizing our service to the alcoholic who still suffers. We will be doing what is in a very real sense our duty.
When AA does this, officially recognizes the fact that the God concept – no matter how vaguely you wish to define it – does not encompass all effective forms of spirituality and belief, it will have finally caught up with tens of thousands of girl scouts.
It’s about time.
 See Wilson’s letter to Carl Jung, January 30, 1961: “If each sufferer were to carry the news of the scientific hopelessness of alcoholism to each new prospect, he might be able to lay every newcomer wide open to a transforming spiritual experience. This concept proved to be the foundation of such success as Alcoholics Anonymous has since achieved. This has made conversion experiences – nearly every variety reported by [William] James – available on an almost wholesale basis.”
 Bill Wilson, AA Grapevine, April 1961 – The Dilemma of No Faith, wherein Wilson says of an atheistic doctor he had once lectured about God: “This was the story of a man of great spiritual worth. The hallmarks were plain to be seen: humor and patience, gentleness and courage, humility and dedication, unselfishness and love – a demonstration I might never come near to making myself. This was the man I had chided and patronized. This was the ‘unbeliever’ I had presumed to instruct!”
 And some of us, of course, use neither. And our AA fellowship accepts that too, and always has. But that is beside the point of this incorrect conflation of theism and spirituality, so we’ll leave that discussion to its proper place.
Frank is a practicing Buddhist and fond of Stoic philosophy. You can read Frank’s other posts on AA Agnostica here: Is the AA Program a Procrustean Bed (January 6, 2013), An Atheist’s Guide to 12-Step Recovery (August 12, 2012), and The Willow Tree Bark (May 13, 2012).