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
AA’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.
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.
Adam 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.