Design for Living

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 AA Grapevine, including his article “God on Every Page” in the October 2016 edition. He has also published in his AA 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:

Design For Living: Daily Meditations on the 12 Steps of A.A. for Atheists & Agnostics by Alex is available as a paperback and Kindle at Amazon and as an eBook at Bookbaby.

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.

Daily ReprieveThe book compliments his previous meditation book Daily Reprieve – A.A. for Atheists & Agnostics, in which he describes his journey through the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Joe C. did an excellent review of that book, which you can read right here: Daily Reprieve. It is also available as a paperback and Kindle at Amazon and as an eBook at BookBaby.

16 Responses

  1. Reccy says:

    What a fantastic article.

    I’ve been on the 12 Step for nearly a year and have been struggling recently with the concept of my higher power. I had, up to now, just created an entity – basically the complex biosphere of which we’re all a part, which we have to nurture for the good of all and of which I am but a small and humble bit part.

    Well this is good, but it has become increasingly difficult to use this higher power to drive my agency – and how do I ask it for help!

    The 12 principles you describe which frame a vision of how I want to live my life do give me agency. They’re immensely practical. I’m working on developing this into my Step 7 mantra.

    Thank you so much.

    • Alex M says:

      Thanks Reccy. I find two of the most helpful things I learned in AA was 1) the importance to develop and use some type of personal daily ritual, or mantra, which will “relieve me of the bondage of self” — that reminder that I no longer need to be the Director of the Universe. 2) The second thing is to say connected (don’t isolate) with the people power of the Fellowship. It is my fellow alcoholics that provide me with the strength and direction to practice those 12 Step “higher spiritual principles,” and I find the more I practice the principles, the more connected I become.

  2. Thanks Alex,

    You say, “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…”

    You mention how the Steps helped you. Of course many of our “less religious members” dismiss the Steps as being as woo-woo religion as… well, as the language their written in. I’m a Step guy, in as much as I’ve used them and they’ve helped me – just as you have reported.

    It’s been an eye-opener in secular AA how many, with 20, 30, 40+ years of sobriety never have and never will work the Steps. Of course, there are likely as many or more of “our more religious members” who don’t work the Steps – at least not to completion or not literally – and their sobriety is as strong as anyone’s too. Non-Stepers in mainstream AA seem more muted or closeted about their indifference to inventory/amends/meditation/ et al. In secular AA, it’s more emphasized, “Suggested” Steps, means optional steps.

    There are so many books on 12-Step interpretation and how-to-guides, it’s nice to see a growing offering of secular interpretations. In the 1990s we could count on one hand, the non-theistic 12-Step interpretations in print. Today, thanks to you and others, secular variations are catching up and catching on.

    • Alex M says:

      Thanks Joe. Without the Steps I couldn’t be sober today. Thinking about “why” the Steps matter to me, I believe it is because they provide a constant structure to change the way I behave so I can live well sober in the real world. The same Step suggestions could have come from my wise old grandmother, which made it a lot easier for me not to get consumed by the God references in the Steps.

      First, I’ve got a problem that I can’t fix all by myself since I’ve already tried and failed; otherwise I wouldn’t be in AA. My “problem” is not drinking; it’s how to live life sober.

      Second, since I don’t have the power to fix myself all by myself, I need help from some type of non-human power. The non-human power requirement was my sticking-point, but no human I encountered could get me sober, so “something else” appeared necessary, whether I liked it or not.

      Third, if I’m ever going to get back my self-esteem so I can change my behavior, I need to remove the guilt and shame over my past actions, which I can do in Steps 5, 8 & 9. This allows me to “start over” with a clean slate. Having a clean slate erased much of the constant “committee noise” in my head.

      Fourth, I need to pay more attention to what keeps getting me in trouble today. It’s not booze or drugs; it’s selfishness & self-centeredness. Steps 6 & 7 are reminders I can change my attitudes and actions (without God) if I make the effort to make my life a little less about me-me-me 24/7.

      Fifth, I need to learn and practice some type of personal daily ritual to push me to be a little more “mindful,” a reminder to try to live only in this day by not sitting on my pity-pot ruminating over the regrets of yesterday or being consumed by my fear of tomorrow’s unknowns. Steps 10 & 11 help with this.

      And last, Step 12 reminds me that I need to practice what has worked for so many in AA by consciously trying to improve my behavior toward others, which is the essence of the Golden Rule. I find when I treat the world the way I’d like to be treated, for some mysterious reason life seems to go a lot better.

      None of this process requires God. I don’t need God to try to be a better person in sobriety, but I do need constant instruction, direction, motivation and a daily reminder ritual. The Steps provide that for me, just as easily as I believe my grandmother could have.

  3. Kurt W says:

    Will Alex M’s books be available to buy at ICSAA Toronto next month?

    • Alex M says:

      Kurt: if I were able to attend I’d bring some along but unfortunately I won’t be at the ICSAA. Books/ebooks are available on Amazon & Bookbaby through the links in the article.

      • Kurt W says:

        I see I can get Daily Reprieve through Barnes & Noble — still have one within biking distance — but not Design for Living, Alex. Will hunt a bit more — trying to resist Amazon ueber Alles and am averse to e-books. Thanks for your quick response! Kurt

      • Alex M says:

        Kurt, I sympathize and am sorry, but the paperback is only available on Amazon-USA. You don’t want to hear me complain about the reasons.

  4. Bonnie G. says:

    Even though I am a “43 years sober” christian catholic (from birth) female alcoholic, I continue to be “amazed, enlightened & informed” by Alex’s willingness (necessity, he says) to share his personal story/struggle to find within the Big Book & Twelve Steps a design for “living sober” as an atheist. And his story doesn’t stop there. He also has found a place to share and grow his skill as a “spiritual trudging writer”: both these aspects inspire me to continue my own growing along spiritual lines via “the principles embodied in these 12 steps and the fellowship”- the dual facet of his guiding power through the journey.

    I was a closet agnostic. I reserved RIGHT to choose which of God’s rules I’D follow. (OUCH! NOT ADVISE ANYONE TO DO IT THIS WAY).

    I can say that knowing Alex, thru his writings both in our step study group ongoing for five years and in his 2 published meditation books I became clear about my own need to define my personal higher power and finally decide “who or what IS that power?”

    I am sure his writings/reflections and personal experiences can help many people who either are or are not atheist, but are struggling as newcomer or old-timer with “the power”, to accompany them along this wonderful journey of “recovered from hopeless state of mind and body” on the road of “happy joyous and free”!

    • Alex M says:

      Thanks Bonnie. You have helped me appreciate and gain tolerance for the wide variety of religious experiences in AA. Your help in freeing me from my resentment over the constant God-God-God flooding the rooms of our Bible Belt AA meetings freed me from my obsession to change AA and prove I’m right. It’s not my task and I don’t have the power. But I do have the power to share how one secular alcoholic recovered in AA when he became willing to change and put aside his anger, prejudice and ego.

  5. Constance M. says:

    Thank you for your insightful thoughts. Having long term sobriety myself, I can use your experience to help others.

    • Alex M says:

      Thanks Constance. That’s the idea. Let’s not lose those newcomers who come into AA, flee and possibly die due to all the God talk (note that most folks who try AA once or twice and leave do NOT return, despite rumors to the contrary). There is a solution for us atheists and agnostics too!

  6. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks so much, Alex, for writing this most appropriate and well written article; thanks Roger for publishing it. I believe practicing the generic principles, such as the twelve you have listed Alex in your article, are a much better schema for achieving a satisfactory sober life than working the steps as they are “suggested” in the Big Book.

    • Alex M says:

      Thanks Tom. For me, I only “got where I am today” by going through the Steps with a wise, unbiased sponsor. My awakening was that I didn’t need to return to some god of my childhood teachings that I never believed in to have a fulfilling life inside or outside of AA – and I didn’t need to be intimidated or hostile to those in AA who thought otherwise.

  7. life-j says:

    Being a grade school science class stickler I have always wondered how there was room for something greater than myself inside of me.
    I think we’re still stuck in too many old AA ways. Not only do we not need a god, we also do not need a higher or greater power. We do need to do something, yes, we do need to make some changes, yes, we do need to start living our lives based on some principles which are less self-centered and with more good-will toward the world at large, yes, but we need to stop being stuck in all the old AA lingo. Ignore the old AA literature, strike out with something new.

    • Alex M says:

      Even if I can personally ignore all the AA lingo & literature, the rest of the AA members can’t, won’t and don’t. My 12th Step challenge is how can I work most effectively within the current AA system, that will never change in my lifetime, to pass on the message of hope and recovery. I’ve tried taking a hard line approach on the God problem, especially with newcomers, and it never worked. My experience has shown me if I can show how parts of the AA God language (the amusing God disclaimers) open the door for any beliefs, or no belief, maybe the newcomer will stay in AA and find whatever useful sober life they can. The question is, how can I best serve the alcoholic, regardless, and despite of, my own beliefs and prejudices about the AA program language and lingo.

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