Which God, Whose God, What God?
“I grok, I am god, you are god.” – Mike, the Man from Mars in Stranger in a Strange Land
By Paul W.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, “God” is simply defined as a Higher Power or a Power greater than ourselves. Or so it is often said.
In the Twelve Steps, AA members are clearly told that they may have their own, individual definition of “God.” Steps Three and Eleven use the words, “God as we understood Him.” (Emphasis in the original wording.) Nothing in the Big Book limits this understanding to the definition(s) of the authors and editors of the Big Book, and its “textbook” Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.
With the permissive “God as we understood Him,” AA members are allowed (actually encouraged) to have their own concept of a god. This permissive stance allows many to be comfortable with the god of AA, since this god can be one of any individual’s imagination.
However, this presents a problem, actually, several problems.
Problem I: Many Gods
Logically AA’s allowance for personal definitions of god throws the window open to gods such as Bacchus, Neptune, Mars, Aphrodite, Venus, Diana, Vishnu, Isis, Juno, or any of the other gods of India, Greece, Rome, the Americas, etc. Remember, in AA there is only one stated limitation to the self-defined “god,” that is god must be a “power greater than oneself.”
With every AA member allowed to define god to his or her liking it is possible that at a meeting of, say 20 people, there could be twenty different gods? Is it possible for each person to be in the presence of 19 heretics? Or, is the meeting composed of a collection of heretics, filled with false gods? If everyone’s definition of god is acceptable, then are all the gods god?
This brings us to the question, if everyone is allowed her or his own god, and that god may not exist in another’s belief system, why the objection to a god which is not, which does not exist? If the AA member next to you has Maat as god (don’t Google it, I made it up), and you just know that there is and never was such a god, do you accept that person? If so, why the objection to nontheists, to people without a god, to agnostics, atheists, free thinkers, humanists, Buddhists, etc.?
Problem II – Is AA’s God Masculine?
Unfortunately, an argument can easily be made that however an individual defines and describes “God” AA assumes that “God” is masculine. God is in the masculine three times in the Steps and once in the “pertinent ideas” of Chapter 5, “How it Works.” Recall, “God as we understood Him, and the assertion that “God could and would (relieve us of alcoholism) if He were sought.” This portion of the Big Book is read aloud at many open meetings of AA. Thus, newcomers are informed and members are reminded that “God” is masculine.
Further, the practice at many meetings of using the Lord’s Prayer, which begins with, “Our Father.” Two more indicators of a masculine god; a lord and a father.
Problem III – Is AA’s God Christian?
Granted that in a letter to an AA member, Bill Wilson asserted that the wide acceptance of the Lord’s Prayer overcomes its Christian nature. While it is arguable that Bill was wrong about this, as many theologians assert, it is still clear that god in the prayer is masculine.
Even if Bill were correct and the prayer has become nondenominational, it is a prayer. And, it is generally associated with Christianity. Credit for this prayer is given to Jesus Christ in the New Testament (NIV) Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:1-4. Christians are followers of Jesus and routinely recite this prayer during church services and privately. Reciting it at an AA meeting and having the attendees join in, strongly resembles a religious ceremony and gives pause to the “spiritual not religious” claim of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Problem IV – Characteristics of God
Another problem: at many meetings theistic members share about their concepts or definition of god. Many comment that, for them, god was a vengeful being, who condemned you for certain practices or thoughts. God kept a record and would punish you for infractions. For many, god was not a friend, nor a loving entity. Continuing, these members comment that, after gaining sobriety in AA, they have come to see god as a loving entity, a caring being.
Has god changed or has the member changed god? Do Christian AA members have their own god or their denomination’s god? And, did Jesus change who god is, or did god change himself from the Old Testament “kill all the men and children but keep the unmarried women for yourself, and drown all people but a few” god to a merciful and loving god?
Problem V – Reconciliation
The attempt to reconcile one’s freedom to have a customized, personal god in spite of AA’s focus on a singular masculine god and one of a Christian nature can send a person’s head spinning. I choose not to even give it serious consideration.
Problem VI – Ask a Member
When questioned about “AA’s” god, experienced members may state that everyone is free to their own definition god, including the accompanying qualities, attributes, powers, intentions, etc. The only caveat being that your god be a power greater than yourself. (So we’re back to problems I through IV.)
If dealing with an admitted alcoholic who is a nontheist and has a problem with “the God thing” the nontheist is often told that he can make anything his Higher Power. The AA group itself is often recommended. This suggestion has some merit. Groups are stronger than the sum of its members. Think synergy. Being in the company of people who have achieved sobriety and learning the secular parts of their journey is powerful.
Unfortunately, some suggest that the nontheist can use a chair, a doorknob, electricity, a lightbulb, and the like as a higher power. If an AA member offering this advice isn’t being sarcastic or trying to insult the nontheist but is sincere he is either ill-informed or just plain ignorant. Just imagine handing one’s “life over to the care of —” any of the above examples. I’ve had some theists suggest that I use the power of the universe as my higher power, reminiscent of, “May the Force be with you.”
Another piece of helpful advice given to a nontheist is to “act as if” or to “fake it till you make it.” I suspect that this is generally offered in the belief or hope that the nontheist will come to believe, to become a theist. It calls to mind the popular, “Came, Came to, Came to Believe.” Pause for a moment and consider the basic flaw in this advice. Members of AA who suggest this forget that they are in a program which has honesty as a basic principle. Acting as if and faking it are acts of dishonesty. It is telling a person to lie until he becomes honest – when he was honest in the first place by disclosing his non-theism.
Sometimes the doubter is simply told to believe that others believe. What does that accomplish? Quite frankly, I don’t have to believe that you are a theist, I know it.
Freedom Not to Believe
The felt, and frequently acted upon need to bring nontheists to believe in a god is covered by Bill Wilson’s comments in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age. On page 81 Bill wrote, “we must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us.”
Suggesting that Bill would state this meaning membership only and not recovery is patently ludicrous. On page 105, Bill quotes the end of Tradition Three (Long Form), “Any two or three gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that as a group they have no other affiliation.” He then goes on, “This means that these two or three alcoholics could try for sobriety in any way they liked. They could disagree with any or all of AA’s principles and still call themselves an AA group.” Keep in mind that AA’s principles are the Twelve Steps, the Twelve Traditions, and the Twelve Concepts of Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill’s statements, after twenty-two years of experience, acknowledges the fact that nontheists do not have to believe in a god, are allowed to modify (change) the Steps for their own use, and can achieve sobriety without a god and be a part of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Which god, whose god, what god? It matters not what any individual theistic member thinks, what any Intergroup holds, how any Area delegate thinks, or what AAWS, Inc. declares. In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age Bill Wilson acknowledges the rights of people to have no god at all and to modify the Steps to suit that stance.
 The plural “Authors” is used since, of the first 164 pages chapter 10, “To Employers” was not authored by Bill Wilson but by another alcoholic, Hank P. who, along with Jim B. was instrumental with softening the “God” references in the Twelve Steps before publication. Both Hank and Jim were nontheists.
 In the Conference-approved Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, in direct reference to Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill Wilson clearly states, “This small volume is strictly a textbook which explains AA’s twenty-four basic principles and their application, in detail and with great care.”
 The Big Book, which is all but ubiquitously called the “Bible” of AA, was written after just a few years of AA experience. Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age was written after twenty-two years of growth and experience. Unquestionably, this Conference-approved volume contains Bill Wilson’s more considered thoughts.
Paul W has been a member of AA since 1989. He is comfortable as a nontheist and calls himself an atheist. He has spoken at Area functions about the lack of literature for nonbelievers and has been a supporter of recognizing non-theists as full members of AA. Before retirement, he was a consultant with an international professional services firm where he specialized in education and organizational behavior. Paul and his wife live in New Jersey, she a Christian (of her own definition) and he an atheist. They have six children (50% atheists), six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
A few things…
When I first in AA I was prepared to believe anything to get sober, but soon remembered my ongoing issue with belief in God. An AA member who also struggled with the God concept said to me when she first came in that out of desperation she prayed to her refrigerator, claiming as she couldn’t freeze or refrigerate food the way her fridge did that it was therefore a power greater than her. While there was an element of humour in her comments, it did help me as a frightened, confused alkie at her first or second meeting. I could see the programme working in her and others’ lives. It didn’t matter WHAT my higher power was, as long as it wasn’t me.
Secondly, atheists/agnostics in the programme differ in no way in their practice of step three. I have heard, in another programme, ‘I can’t, s/he/it can, I think I’ll let them’. Once I have decided to rid myself of the burden of xyz (eg. my alcoholism, or any one of the myriad of resentments I experience in a day), it is gone. I might take my will back, but the more I practice, the better I get at it.
I might differ in my interpretation of my higher power’s will for me, but that is further down in the steps. Also, I am subject to the vagaries of reality, and I am expected to live up to the standards laid down by society. I am guided by others in the fellowship both in meetings and in individual conversations. I find this works for me, and I have noticed that this is also how others practice their individual programmes.
I am not seeking to argue or over-complicate matters, merely to clarify my position. These forums and articles help. If anyone has any comments, I’d be grateful for their input. One peculiar thing I have noticed recently is discrimination towards agnostic atheists like myself. This is the first time I’ve noticed this in thirteen years of coming to AA. I am tempted to ‘go underground’, but then I realise I have just as much right as anyone else to be in meetings. Thanks for the opportunity to share!
Are you an agnostic or an atheist? You can’t be both, you must be one or the other.
I prefer not to discuss my beliefs or lack thereof with other people.
Now Marty, why would we have to choose? When I’m talking with a sensible person I will call myself an atheist, “Yeah, obviously this god stuff is a bunch of bunk so let’s not waste our time with it”; when I’m talking with a middle of the road religious person I will call myself an agnostic, “Oh, we just can’t really know these things for sure, can we? so let’s leave it alone for another day”. Best thing for an evangelist is that I’m an apatheist, “I don’t know, I don’t care, lay off, p*ss off”. I can be all three without a problem, depending on what the situation requires. Main thing is to keep the religious hordes off my back, and it is better to be pragmatic about that than to be philosophically pure.
What’s more important to you in a restaurant? That you don’t want the roast beef sandwich, or that you don’t want the tuna sandwich? Most important thing for me would be I DO want the turkey sandwich.
Thank-you – I agree with you 100% and have found a new tag for myself to shut up the moaning myrtles. I’ll take the turkey on rye with cranberry please. Signed an apatheist.
“True agnosticism is not a position of doubt. It is a statement about life’s inherent uncertainty, a position of openness that entails the ability to tolerate the unpredictability and chaos of existence without resorting to a comforting belief.
It neither defines nor defies anything. It says: I don’t know. I don’t know, so I am open. I am open because I don’t know. This ‘not knowing’ expresses the limits of what can be understood with the rational mind.”
“I had always believed in a Power greater that myself. I had often pondered these things. I was not an atheist.” Bill W.’s belief in a “Spirit of the Universe” did him no good—he was a dying drunk. He needed a God that cares about helping drunks.
The book’s theory is that lack of power is the dilemma. There’s no power at all from the various Gods of AA members’ understandings, UNLESS they be deities that plunge into the affairs of men.
“God could and would if He were sought.” Spirit of Nature won’t do anything for a drunk. So why the flexibility of “choosing your own conception?”
“Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning.”
BEGINNING???? Uh-oh!! Here comes the “bait and switch!”
“Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you. At the START, this was all we needed to commence spiritual growth, to effect our first conscious relation with God as we understood Him.”
I told ya!!
The fact that bullshit Higher Powers work attest to it all being pure psychology.
I guess I never put as much thought into what Bill said about “God” as some people do here. They wanted to sober up drunks as many as they could, however they could, whenever they could. They were successful enough to keep AA going when I came in and 38 years later. The rest is just more words.
There is a song “Head Games!”
Thank you, Paul, for your article.
I’ve always been shocked to read “God as we understand Him.” Further, as a woman, and feminist, I’m double-shocked.
AA, although helpful in many cases, was founded on a patriarchal ideology impossible to deny. The language used in the Big Book or in the 12 Steps is outdated. It is not in accordance with freethinkers, agnostics or atheists.
I live in a Catholic area where I am subject to the Lord Prayer. I have to ignore it. But it’s not always easy to hear something in total contradiction with your vision of things. That’s the reason why I often choose to stay at home rather than go to a meeting.
For all those who want to get or stay sober, I hope someday there will be an alternative to AA and its “goding” mentality. Something who presents a real openess.
Good stuff –
“God as we understood Him” is put forward but what follows is a highly singular and particular version of the Christian God, who does all sorts of things – He has a plan for us; He gives us guidance; he changes the course of history and performs miracles. Despite the disclaimer, there is only one God in the Steps which we depart from in a “hazardous deviation”.
At the same time, can we treat believers in AA with respect – just as we non-believers also deserve respect ?
The very saddest part of AA to me is the illusion it creates in suggesting that there is a personal or interventionary “God”. A “God” that is going to remove the desire to drink and then somehow sprinkle magic pixy dust on one’s life. Then when it doesn’t work the alcoholic/addict feels even worse than they did before, in thinking that there is something wrong with them. Or, that they failed to work the steps in the right way or hold their head quite right when they prayed. This leads to even deeper depression, alienation, despair and DOC.
Oddly enough I thank god that I was able to see it for the hoax it is years ago. I figured out a different way not only to remain sober but live a real “life”. I have remained sober ever since, sans “AA”.
I have become an apatheist, since Thomas B introduced the concept to me: Don’t know, don’t care.
It’s a long road ahead to make AA become secular, we’ll see how it goes…
Thanks for that, life-j. I have for a number of years described myself as an apatheist. If someone were to present irrefutable evidence of either the existence or non-existence of god, it wouldn’t change a thing about the way I live my life today. The turning point for me was when I began to realize that my “god issues” weren’t my issues at all. They were my willing participation in another’s struggle with such matters.
I went to a conventional A.A meeting today and I find they really don’t meet my needs at this point in time.
I stopped believing in GOD after my son passed away in a senseless accident in 2017. GOD left my life after that.
AA is for Alcoholism, it’s not a church sermon. I realized today that now that GOD doesn’t exist in my program I have to work the other parts of the program harder, like the steps, the traditions, meditation, inner reflection.
I’m much more active and feel less like a victim because I’m not waiting for this magical GOD to give me answers.
I think probably if someone were to provide irrefutable evidence of the existence of gods, it would, it should change my life in some manner, as should everything new that comes into my life. It must have had some implications when it was proven (well, I consider it proven anyway) that the earth goes around the sun, even if perhaps it did little or nothing to change people’s everyday activities, they still got up, sowed, reaped, went to bed.
But I hear that issue presented as one of the tenets of apatheism. I can’t make sense of it. Anything new we discover should self evidently change something in our outlook, even if it may be small. It was in part discoveries in astronomy, and other sciences that took gods away from their primacy position.
However, I don’t see that it matters much. really, though here I’m arguing, I see apatheism first and foremost as an unwillingness to argue. Apatheism is not so much a philosophical system as a pragmatic stance, a way of saying “No, I do not want to argue about your religion. Period”.
“Don’t know, don’t care” I basically see as true statements, but they could easily be countered by “Why”. However they are purely pragmatic. It is something I will say simply to avoid discussion. I try to, at least formally if not necessarily “in my heart” to be respectful of all believers to the extent they are respectful of me. And so long as they don’t try to get me involved in arguments about their beliefs, usually inferring I should hold them too. I will as gently or as forcefully as the situation allows let them know I do not want to engage, and take no whys. I am not interested.
I cannot be anything other than pragmatic about belief systems which seem to me to be nonsense. If someone holds a position which is nonsense, he will not be able to hold a discussion which is not also nonsense. Thus engagement to me is a waste of time. It is a pragmatic stance, not a philosophical position to me.
Here here. I will say this, however. That I have found that some people who argue for religion are not well-reasoned or logical. I have found many people emotional. They also get offended when I don’t agree with them. I am not saying all religious believers are like this, but many are. It is a strange thing about humanity that something as fundamental as belief systems make us so worked up. You’d hope that if anything our common humanity would allow us to see eye to eye.
I believe we all (theists & non theists) have a Buddha nature… this does not mean in any way fealty to a god of any kind. It simply means a belief in karma (good cause/good effect). My HP is within me… And so is yours regardless of your “religion”.
Good article. Thanks!
Thanks Paul for writing this perceptive article and Roger for publishing it.
I vacillate between being a garden-variety agnostic, a devout nontheist and a raging atheist. Actually, I have several gods: Group Of Drunk/Druggies, Good Orderly Direction, and my favorite Gratitude Over Drama. This is particularly meaningful and relevant for me because I moved to New York City in the summer of 1972 to work in the theatre and instead I ended up getting sober for which I am indeed most grateful !~!~!
No god, thank-you very much.
Thank you Paul and John for your article and reply. I don’t need a supernatural agency to stay away from a drink a day at a time, but I do need friends in AA who are doing the same. Your comments are refreshing and supportive, they help to balance out the religiosity that sometimes seems to overwhelm a nontheist like myself.
Yes, we need friends who are sober. I know from experience that social isolation is harmful.
I really enjoyed this article, and liked the quote from Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange land, about which I wrote a long Amazon review. My own take on the pick-your-own-HP bit is my blasphemous satire, “Friends of Lucifer.”
AA as much as they say it’s Spiritual is Religious. I use the tools of the program and leave the GOD part out seeing as I’m an Atheist.
The Literature of AA is ALWAYS trying to convert members to religion.
Ngaire, I’m very sorry for your loss…..