From Believer to Non-Believer


At around 8 years sober, he redefined his Higher Power

By Bob S., Louisville, Ky.
Published online by the AA Grapevine in November 2014. Copyright ©  AA Grapevine

My journey in AA began in 1985 and I have been sober ever since. In the beginning, I wanted sobriety because I had hit an emotional bottom. I was very willing to accept the program without any reservations. I did what the literature suggested and initially I used my home group as my Higher Power. I did not give God much thought until I got to the Third Step. My first sponsor is dead now, but he was a firm believer in God. He suggested that instead of focusing on a struggle with the whole God thing, I focus instead on the fact that I couldn’t sober up by myself. I needed the help of others who had already been there. He suggested that I move on with the Steps.

I accepted his advice, hurdled over Step Three, and completed Steps Four and Five within the first 60 days of sobriety. I did not reject God, but took advantage of the slogan, “fake it till you make it.” I completed most of my amends during the first year and eventually made the Christian God my Higher Power.

I became active in my home group and in my district and area. I attended nearby state AA conventions and listened to countless tapes from fellow AA members. In my third year of sobriety, I went back to my past religion, which I had abandoned some 25 years earlier. I was completely absorbed by the AA program and by my fifth year, I felt at peace with myself and with the people around me. I learned not to struggle in life but to accept the things I couldn’t change.

After about eight years of sobriety, I was having thoughts about whether or not God existed. Although I realized that this was common, it was interfering with my recovery program and it affected my religious beliefs to the point where I considered myself a hypocrite every time I went to church. I was losing the little amount of faith in a God that I had. I had always put my sobriety first and I didn’t want anything to interfere with it. Therefore, I left that religion and just stuck to my AA program.

Making this transition from believer to non-believer was quite gradual and natural for me. It took place over several years. I became convinced my belief or non-belief was simply a personal opinion and that my actions were more important than my beliefs.

I identified my Higher Power at that time with slogans such as “good orderly direction” and “do the next right thing.” I swung back and forth with this for a few years and became rather comfortable with my non-belief. I should emphasize that I did not struggle with the Higher Power concept during this time. I simply let it happen.

Today my Higher Power is “people,” and it has been that way for several years. If it weren’t for the sober people in AA to guide me, I would not have achieved sobriety to begin with. I need to continue going to meetings to listen and to share with other recovering alcoholics. When life gets a little rough at times, it’s the people in AA that can help me – just as I need doctors to help heal me when I am ill. I need the farmers to grow crops and vegetables necessary to provide food for my survival. I need the workers who maintain the power plants to provide me with electricity. I need the autoworkers to build cars for my transportation to and from work. I need the teachers and professors in my life to educate and encourage me to become a positive force in society. I need laborers to provide highways, to put a roof over my head, to plant trees and flowers, to provide necessary clothing. I need police to maintain law and order. I need a loving partner in my life to love and comfort me during good times and not-so-good times. The list is endless and the people in AA are just part of the whole that collectively become my Higher Power.

Today it doesn’t matter so much exactly what my Higher Power is, but it is absolutely necessary for me to have a Higher Power that I am comfortable with to help me stay sober. The realization that I cannot do this program by myself is paramount. Life can deal some nasty blows at times and I am grateful that my Higher Power and I can handle those situations just fine, one day at a time, in spite of my shortcomings. My non-belief in a God has very little to do with my state of spirituality as I understand it.

Spirituality is a state of acceptance of myself, a loving of others, a giving of one’s self, and of doing the next right thing. For example, before acting on something, I ask myself if the decision I’m about to make will perhaps harm someone. If so, then I re-evaluate the situation. These circumstances arise frequently and are opportunities to grow spiritually.

The passage on page 10 in the Twelve and Twelve that reads, “He finds himself in possession of a degree of honesty, tolerance, unselfishness, peace of mind, and a love which he had thought himself quite incapable” appeals greatly to me. It describes a spiritual person. It is also absolutely necessary to be honest with myself. I create my own heaven or hell here on the planet earth and rather than turning my problems over to a God who I don’t believe exists, I am willing to accept the responsibility for my choices or situation and to keep trying to improve and accept myself.

This simple program of Alcoholics Anonymous is an action program requiring positive acts that I do in my daily life to stay sober and, to some extent, to become happy, joyous and free. My serenity today depends on how I live that simple concept of doing the next right thing. I do not question other people’s beliefs, including those I sponsor, nor do I bring the topic up unless asked. I love and cherish AA. I have no intention of changing it, and I appreciate the kindness and the acceptance that fellow members have shown towards me.

12 Responses

  1. Joe C says:

    The AA apostate – this is someone who once bought the intervening deity possibility and then lets go of it. I remember this story. I think the Many Paths to Spirituality pamphlet ought to have been many arrows going in different dirrections, not one direction. Whatever spirituality means it must include lettings go of gods if to do so is a form of maturity.

    Being right-sized in terms of my place in the world is a good place to be, neither feeling inferior nor better than. I take from this the value of personal integrity. If I focus on maintaining a balance in this regard, Iman not so inclined to evaluate others.

    Roger puts out a call to the Grapevine. I subscibe. Who else here does? If the AA journal is as uninspiring to us as it is to the fellowship as a whole, maybe publishing stories though WAAFT makes more sense. While I don’t oppose pressing Grapevine, I wonder if it isn’t a vessel of diminishing returns.

    • Roger says:

      The more the merrier, is what I say!

    • John S says:

      I subscribe to the online version of the Grapevine. I to search the archives. On occasion, there’s an article that I like but I don’t really spend a lot of time with the articles. As a newcomer, I read the Grapevine regularly and I liked it.

      At a district meeting that I attended in AA, I heard that Grapevine subscriptions are down yet La Vina subscriptions are up. Not sure what to make of that.

      The Grapevine shouldn’t be shy of posting something that people find controversial. That’s one thing that bothers me about AA is this desire to avoid controversy at all costs. I understand it from a public relations standpoint but as people, we can’t learn and grow if we choose to avoid reading, writing or saying something because someone else finds it controversial.

  2. Tommy H says:

    Wonderful article, well put, and the tone is perfect.

    Looking back, I questioned god from about the time I could question and probably never was a theist.

    Thanks for sharing it, Roger, and I did submit a comment to GV, which I’ve subscribed to for some time.

  3. John S says:

    That was a nice article. I also completed and submitted the form. This is what I wrote:

    The agnostic, atheist and freethinker in A.A. needs to know that A.A. and the steps can work for them without their being required to change their worldview or to adopt the beliefs of others.

    The Big Book and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions portray agnostics and atheists as people who have not yet seen the light. Meetings open with a reading from “How it Works” proclaiming, “There is One who has all power. That One is God”, and then demands that “We find Him now”!

    This creates an atmosphere that makes the agnostic, atheist or freethinker feel that his or her views are unwelcome and that the program cannot be properly worked without belief in a supernatural and all powerful God.

    A book of stories written by others in A.A. who are staying sober without belief in a God will provide support to these people, helping them relate to other alcoholics and assuring they have a place in A.A.

    The book would also be useful in educating believers that there are indeed many paths of spirituality in A.A., and that even an atheist can practice the underlying principles found in the steps and find sobriety and happiness in the fellowship.

  4. life-j says:

    I do think we need to keep a bit of heat to the grapevine. they told us its a long process, so now it’s been a few months and we ought to hear if this process is on schedule, or if they’re shining it on.
    It would of course be great if the grapevine would do the publishing , because it would “give us the credibility and blah, blah”. And while I have much higher hopes for the grapevine than for aa at large, my hopes can still lie in a pretty small place. So we should think of what we may need to do to make it happen. Including putting as much heat to them as we can. And like Malcolm X said….
    As for the article itself, yes, nice. My main concern is that we need to get away from speaking our spirituality and fellowship in terms of a higher power, no higher power is needed, and we don’t need to strain to call the fellowship or the universe a higher power just so that we have one. We don’t need one, it just sneaks the one true god in the back door.

  5. Christopher G says:

    Thank you, Roger, for republishing this and Bob S. for sharing initially. I identify completely with many points of your experience, thinking and feeling.

    I too subscribe to the GV but as gift subscriptions for those of the conventional believing variety. I have stopped reading it for myself unless I spot some article of interest, usually having to do with relationships or emotional sobriety.

    I think the Spanish version may be up because of the matching religiosity inherent in current publications and Hispanic culture. I, too, wonder if the diminished returns as a whole aren’t due to GV’s alignment with reified AA.

    Just a note for those interested in the passage Bob shared from the 12 and 12, I think there may be a typo as to the page reference. It is found on page 107. One of my favorite quotes I use to share in meetings that I now have a degree OF honesty, tolerance, etc. not a degree IN! It shatters my sense of black and white perfectionism and allows me to accept myself as I am and go from there.

    And finally here is my response to the GV:

    I recently started an open meeting for agnostics, atheists and all others not only for myself but for the several alcoholics in our local fellowship who have died by their own hands in recent years, and most importantly for those still alive and suffering. Those that died were atheists, agnostics or terribly ashamed and self-loathing Christians. Identification with mainstream, traditional, God talking AA was difficult for them.

    To me, beliefs are surface identifications just as alcohol is only a symptom, one of many, of alcoholism; but identification is what attracted me to the fellowship and inherent program within it. Atheists and agnostics and attendant beliefs are a special interest group, just as young people’s, LGBT’s, men’s and women’s groups are. I feel that any book, booklet, or pamphlet in each of these venues would be most appropriate as an identification tool of attraction to the fellowship and suggested program of recovery of Alcoholics Anonymous.

  6. Laura M. says:

    I just spent an hour composing a response that I submitted. I concluded by asking for a compilation of AA approved literature citing the beliefs and experiences of its many agnostic atheist members. As a side note, I asked that this concern be addressed in Atlanta this summer. I hope we are there as a presence and can connect at World too! “Boston Laura” in Tucson, AZ

  7. kevin b says:

    I, too, tried “fake it ’til you make it” for a number of years but underneath, I always knew that I questioned whether there was a god…now I understand that it was more of a people pleasing thing than anything.

    The good thing there is that I was honest with my sponsor who took me through the Steps and he never had any problem with it; he always maintained (in fact, he still does) that there are many roads to sobriety and through the Steps and he maintained that his role as a sponsor was to help me find my road.

    I went through a rough patch with my current sponsor on the God thing but it seems to be working itself out now that I am being more open about my non-theistic beliefs with him. As a result, I am beginning to practice the program with more honesty and sincerity.

  8. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks for posting this article, Roger, and for calling for us to again request the GV to publish a book for agnostics, atheists and free thinkers, like it has for other “special interest” cohorts, the most recent being Sober and Out for LGBTs.

    I also suggest that we each write letters to the Chairperson of the Board of Trustees, Terrance M Bedient, with a copy to the Trustees Literature Committee, requesting that such a GV book be published. We can express our opinion that the recent pamphlet “Many Paths to Spirituality” — which only took 38 years to produce — does not effectively demonstrate stories of agnostics, atheists and free thinkers, who successfully recover in AA.

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