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.
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.