Let me start by saying that the only higher powers I believe in are judges and cops. They’re tangible. And further, let me add that anyone who wants to believe in a higher power, or can’t help doing so, godly or otherwise, I’m ok with that. It’s not my place to tell people what they should or shouldn’t believe, so long as they don’t tell me either. My main errand here is to say that you don’t have to have one.
Countless times I have heard some newcomer lament their struggle with finding a higher power, since in AA if you don’t find a higher power, no matter what it is, you are guaranteed to drink again. We know of course that this is not so, but even in the agnostic/freethinkers community I hear a lot of people talking about their higher power and their mental contortions to come up with one.
Let’s define a Higher Power: Something with the power to intervene in my life in a deliberate, directed manner, either on its own accord or in response to my prayers. If it can’t do that, what makes it “higher”?
The best higher power to have of course would be “God”, since He can do anything for you, at least if He chooses to, and He is always listening for prayers, or He has the scanner dialed in on the sly to see if you’re doing something He doesn’t approve of. But those of us who have too skeptical a mind to believe that kind of stuff are stuck with one of the lesser options: a doorknob, a lightbulb, a table, the ocean, a mountain, the sky, the universe. What all these higher powers have in common is that there’s nobody listening, and there is no-one to pray to. There’s nobody home.
Well, we can pray all we want of course, and I recognize that prayer as a contemplative exercise does potentially have considerable value. The way I understand prayer is it puts a person in an open, receptive state, and thus often things which a person could not see, or imagine, or accept before come to be within the realm of the accessible. But there is no one anywhere listening to those prayers, and granting or denying anything. Prayer may simply have the power to open a person up. This is of course good, so I have nothing bad to say about prayer per se, even though I don’t pray myself. It has too many associations of coerced childhood prayers for me.
Then there’s the group as a higher power. It’s not “higher” in any sense of the word. Is it going to directly intervene in your life and take away your character defects if you pray to it? No, it’s just our group. The people who call the group their higher power are those who have no other higher power, but need to have one because it says so in the Big Book, and Bill himself says in the 12&12 that the group is a good higher power for starters until you find a real god.
The group can truly help you change your life, but there is nothing “higher” about it. It is just doing together with your brothers and sisters in recovery what you could never do alone. No magic here, nothing higher, just love and hard work.
But now about those higher powers in the realm encompassing the light bulb and the universe – if no-one is listening then why “have” them?
This is the odd thing about having a higher power in AA: The believer who’s trying to coerce the newcomer into getting a higher power will ask manipulative questions like: “So you don’t think there are powers greater than yourself?” (All I said was I don’t believe in any god.) “How about the ocean? Isn’t that a power greater than you?” Sure the ocean, or the wind or earthquakes, floods, and volcanoes have more power than me. So does a tractor. But how does that put them into the realm of a petitionable, interventionist deity? It is a false dichotomy and a non sequitur logical fallacy.
Another common thing to hear in AA is that you have to realize that there is a god, and you’re not it. Among unbelievers it has to some degree been reduced to the latter: I’m not it. The big question is why would it be an issue, or something to concern myself with? So it says I have to realize that I’m not [something which I anyway don’t believe exists]? Seems every bit as irrelevant to my recovery as to realize that I’m not a hamster or a pick-up truck. I understand the main points in it, of course: I’m not the center of the universe and I am not all powerful. Both things I never thought anyway. I’m at the periphery of all things, and everyone else is more powerful than me. At least that’s how I thought it was when I came to AA. Now I have simply found my rightful place.
The night sky or the ocean can certainly be awe-inspiring, and awe is a good thing. It is good for me to contemplate these awe-inspiring things and my place in the universe. It can fill me with a humble gratitude for being alive in just that moment, or in general, for that matter. Even if I’m not grateful “to” anything or anyone. Grateful to the light bulb? Maybe, just maybe I could stretch myself to being grateful to General Electric for inventing it, but that has nothing to do with my recovery. Grateful to the universe? Yes, why not, no harm in it, but is the universe an entity that cares whether I’m grateful or not? I think the universe is just there, and there is nothing or anyone there to give a damn about my gratitude. And that should in no way make my gratitude any less. My gratitude is mine, and my gratitude is a feeling inside myself, and a wonderful feeling to have.
And the ocean inspires awe and wonder, but no matter how beautiful and inspirational it is, objectively it’s still just a big tub full of water splashing around like big tubs of water do. It may sink a ship when the splashing gets bad enough, or kill me if I get stupid and stand with my back to a rogue wave. But it has no will, no intentionality. It is not an interventionist higher power. Praying to it isn’t going to cause any other changes in my life than the good feeling I may get from praying. That is of course significant and important, but it’s all a natural process inside myself.
This brings us to the remaining higher powers: My inner higher self, or whatever people call it. I would like to point out the physical impossibility of something greater than myself being contained within me. So it must simply be a part of me. An “inner resource” never accessed or utilized before. We all have this, I imagine, and it is comforting to know that we do have strengths we were not aware of.
But again, what makes it a “higher power”? Something inside ourselves, supposedly other than “ourselves”, which we can pray to and which magically “could and would if it were sought”? Sounds like a sort of multiple personality disorder to me, an even more troubling mental problem than having an imaginary friend in the sky. Of course it is good if in the course of our recovery we become able to access parts of ourselves which were previously closed off. This seems to me to be the goal of recovery, but there is really nothing higher about it. We are just becoming more whole, and wholesome people, but there is no petitionable interventionist deity in there either.
So to sum it up, Higher Powers seem to fall into four main categories:
The omnipotent interventionist deities, such as “God”, which can and will do anything for you, except for the small glitch that they don’t exist, or at least many of us don’t think so. So why call it a higher power?
The ones that do exist, and may be more powerful than me in some trivial mechanical sense such as the ocean, or a tractor, but which can’t actually intervene in my life to do anything. So why call it a higher power?
The ones that aren’t “higher” such as our AA group – but which we call a higher power for no good reason other than to align ourselves with The Big Book’s requirement that we have a higher power. So why call it a higher power?
The inner higher self higher power. It is great to draw on inner’s strengths we didn’t know we had, but the idea here is there is a part of me that is more powerful than me, which is obvious nonsense, or schizophrenic. So why call it a higher power?
Finally, let’s talk a bit about spirituality, since this is a concept often associated with higher powers. It has gotten so badly entangled with religion but on page 27 of the Big Book Dr. Carl Jung is quoted as defining a spiritual experience like this:
To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.
Notice this is a completely secular definition, and might be all we need, except maybe that there is nothing in particular in it to encourage awe. As for that secular definition of spirituality, I haven’t seen anything better to add than this particular quote:
Let’s simply enjoy the awe and cut the higher power BS.
life-j got sober in Oakland in 1988. He moved to a Northern California coastal mountain village in 2002 and helped wake up the sleepy AA fellowship there.
He has written a number of articles posted on both AA Agnostica and AA Beyond Belief. His last article on this website was Moments of Clarity and was posted last October.
You can read and/or download life-j’s book as a PDF right here: My Collected Published AA Stories.