By Alex M.
Author of Design for Living: Daily Meditations on the 12 Steps of A.A. for Atheists and Agnostics
The first two paragraphs of “We Agnostics” say that being alcoholic I have an illness “which only a spiritual experience will conquer,” and that I have only two alternatives: to accept a spiritual change or die. I wanted a third option to treat my disease because I was the angry atheist. I didn’t believe in God, but if there was one I hated him because he had killed my wife and made my life miserable. I did not want to hear that I needed some make believe entity to fix me.
Feb. 24, Design For Living: Daily Meditations on the 12 Steps of A.A. for Atheists & Agnostics
Irritated by all the “God stuff” saturating the rooms of AA? Feeling overwhelmed by God popping up on every page of the Big Book? Wondering why half of AA’s 12 Steps refer to God? Tired of holding hands and mumbling the Lord’s Prayer at the end of every meeting? Skeptical of those in AA who declare “All we need is God?” Embarrassed to openly admit you don’t believe in God, or have some serious doubts?
Do not be discouraged.
Desperate, dying and drunk, another atheist washed up on the shores of AA in May 2006, where he received his only 24 Hour token and hasn’t taken a drink since. I’ve shared the details of my recovery that year hundreds of times with hundreds of alcoholics in AA. The newcomers usually ask “How did you do it?” And the old-timers often say “Thank God for God.”
God did not get me sober. No magical, mystical, imaginary higher power or other almighty entity got me sober. Prayer did not get me sober. Reading the Big Book did not get me sober. Going to AA meetings did not get me sober. Circular hand holding with other alcoholics reciting the Lord’s Prayer did not get me sober.
What got me sober was not drinking one minute, one hour and one day at a time. What gave me a new design for how to live my life without using alcohol, drugs or other compulsions to change the way I felt was doing the demanding but rewarding work of AA’s suggested Twelve Steps.
My sponsor at the time, a born-again Christian no less, was wise beyond his years. My fear and protestations that I’d never stay sober in AA because I never believed in God were met with a chuckle and the same response every time: “Anyone can stay sober without God. Let’s work through this together.”
Each week we would meet at our local coffee shop, Big Books in hand, and methodically go through the first 164 pages, spending most of our time on the seventy pages related to the 12 Steps. During those sessions I learned that alcoholism is an illness of denial, delusion and defiance: I don’t have it, I can take care of it myself, and nobody is going to tell me what to do. That dangerous and misleading viewpoint had to be smashed.
The Big Book insisted I needed God, or a God “of my understanding,” to recover from my illness of alcoholism. It did not say I needed a higher power of my understanding to get sober, nor did it say I needed a spiritual power of my understanding to get sober. It said I needed God. God was the preferred and only recommended power to lead me into a new life. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t force myself to believe in a god that didn’t exist.
My sponsor told me three things, in no uncertain terms:
First, the Big Book was a historical record of how seventy or so AA members got sober in the 1930s. Those neophytes were mostly educated white males who were Protestant low-bottom drunks. Almost all of them had grown up in the Christian church, which was why they called their higher power God and not something else.
Second, if I couldn’t stop analyzing and obsessing over the words God, Higher Power and spiritual in the Big Book, I’d be drinking soon and would never recover. He said I’d just have to accept the Big Book as it was written, warts and all, and jokingly suggested I pray to have my priggish obsession removed.
Third, he told me that no newcomer, or anyone else in AA for that matter, would ever respect or listen to “an angry alcoholic atheist,” so I needed to make sure I practiced love and tolerance for the more religious members in the Fellowship, even if I disagreed with them.
We reviewed “The Doctor’s Opinion” together. Dr. Silkworth said I had an obsession to drink because I was forever restless, irritable and discontent, and alcohol gave me relief – that sense of ease and comfort. Over time I began drinking not for relief, but to relieve a craving for more I developed after taking that first drink. No longer was I drinking because I wanted to; I was drinking because I had to and couldn’t stop. All my self-reliance, self-sufficiency and human will-power were unable to stop my drinking. My recovery, the good doctor said, required a “psychic change.”
Unless this person can experience an entire psychic change there is very little hope of his recovery… the only effort necessary being that required to follow a few simple rules…. One feels that something more than human power is needed to produce the essential psychic change.
The Doctor’s Opinion p.xxviii-ix
I was unsure what a psychic change was, but I couldn’t deny that I needed “something more than human power” to have one since I had already proven it to myself. Even though Bill W. found his psychic change through a power he called God, I knew his power didn’t have to be my power. So where could I find some ethereal power to change my life?
Our human resources, as marshalled by the will, were not sufficient; they failed utterly. Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves… But where and how were we to find this Power? Well, that’s exactly what this book is about. Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem.
We Agnostics p.45
I knew I couldn’t believe in a God which didn’t exist, but maybe I could find within me some power, force, or energy other than me to spark that “Silkworth psychic change,” which I interpreted as a change in the way I thought and acted.
For Steps 2 and 3, my sponsor said to write down what type of person I’d like to be, and maybe I could relate to the qualities I listed which could become my higher power in life. In doing so, I realized I had always had a higher purpose and a set of higher principles in my life. I believed that my best task on this earth was to live my life with as much decency, kindness, love, compassion, honor and integrity as I could.
I knew from past experience that when I followed my purpose and principles, I received the gift of self-esteem, a feeling of worth, the ability to become comfortable in my own skin and the possibility of doing something for someone else. I could live life on life’s terms without becoming consumed by self-centered emotions or behaving in ways I thought the world wanted me to behave in order to be loved and accepted.
The spiritual awakening in Step 12 that led me to that “Silkworth psychic change” was the realization that I really could change my attitude and actions; I could change old thinking and habits into new thinking and habits. I discovered I could create my own design for living by using the principles of the 12 Steps as an inspiration and guide for how I wanted to live my life. Those twelve principles, such as honesty, trust, integrity, courage, willingness, humility, compassion, fairness, kindness, tolerance, service and love, were clearly universal and secular in nature. In AA speak, I decided to refer to the 12 Step principles as my Higher Power, which I believed would allow me to better carry the AA message to my fellow sufferers.
Even though my higher power is not an entity like God, but a set of spiritual principles I can use and connect with on a daily basis, I find I can describe those principles as simply the Golden Rule – treating others the way I want to be treated – which helps me carry a simple message to others in the Fellowship.
Today, I choose to use the human power of the AA Fellowship and the non-human power of a set of ideal principles to direct my life. Sprinkled with a bit of gratitude, humility and humor, my life has never been better or more fulfilling.
Alex M. is a retired physician living in the Midwest where he got sober in A.A. in 2006. Since so many newcomers flee A.A. because of the “God stuff,” Alex believes his responsibility is to share his experience on how recovery can be attained through A.A. when one does not believe in a god of someone else’s understanding.
His Home Group was the first atheist-agnostic meeting in his region. Service work remains the foundation of his recovery, and he is active in sponsorship and participates on various service committees through his local Intergroup.
Alex has published ten articles in The A.A. Grapevine, including his article “God on Every Page” in the October 2016 edition. He has also published in his A.A. Area Newsletter and has a chapter in the book Do Tell! Stories by Atheists & Agnostics in AA called “A Friend of Jim B.”
And he has written two books:
More information about Design For Living is available here in Facebook.
Design For Living contains a collection of Alex’s writings on the Twelve Steps, selected from those that he wrote during his eight years co-hosting forty or so eight week Step Study sessions between 2009 and 2017. In the back of the book is a copy of the Eight Week Step Study Guide which was used for the Step Study sessions.
You can learn more about him here, on the Goodreads Author Page.