Why a Higher Power Isn’t Enough to Stay Sober

By Jeffrey Munn
The author of Staying Sober Without God

So, you’ve decided you don’t really believe in a “god” per se, but you’d like to choose one of our sleek, modern Higher Powers™ instead. Great! This vaguely-defined entity comes with all the bells and whistles. You can turn your life over to it, pray to it, let it take care of the uncontrollable, seek its comfort and forgiveness, and even ask to remove your pain and discomfort! I know, I know, it sounds a lot like a god, but it totally isn’t, it’s a Higher Power™. It’s your way of kind of believing in God while still being able to say you don’t. It may seem a little contradictory, but that’s a price you’ll need to pay, because you absolutely must have a Higher Power™ in order to stay clean, sober, or abstinent.

But do you? Is there really one thing out there that isn’t God, but can also serve all the necessary functions of a higher power? To start, let’s look at all the boxes a “higher power” tends to check in an individual’s life when it comes to maintaining sobriety.

  • It’s something one can surrender the uncontrollable to.
  • It’s something one can seek guidance from.
  • It’s something that is always available whenever you need it.
  • It’s something that is capable of taking away negative thoughts, cravings, and negative character traits (steps 6 and 7).
  • It’s something that has a “will” for you, meaning it knows what’s best for you.
  • It’s something that can give you a sense of meaning and purpose.
  • It’s something that you can ask for forgiveness.

The more I look at this list, the more it looks to me like a list of important components of a recovery lifestyle rather than one single entity. I understand the impulse to lump all of these things into one category and call it a higher power; it makes it a little less overwhelming. If a newcomer were to get to a meeting and be given a list of all the practices they needed to incorporate in their life, they might perceive it as an insurmountable task and run away screaming. It’s much simpler to tell them “don’t worry, you just need to define your higher power.” It sounds simpler and more exciting. My issue with this is that it oversimplifies something that we could really benefit from understanding better. Why not teach newcomers how to really understand the recovery process rather than pretending it’s being driven by some vague entity?

In my experience, I benefit more from understanding the impact of social support than I do from calling a group of people my “higher power.” I get much more from consciously practicing the mental exercise of radical acceptance than I do pretending that I’m turning my worries over to an imaginary force. I grow much more when I learn to develop and trust my intuition than I do by “asking a higher power for guidance.” These are all separate skills and practices that are necessary in order to build a stable and consistent recovery lifestyle. If you still want to refer to your group of recovery skills as your “higher power,” nobody’s stopping you, but when I started to really understand the essential components of my recovery, reducing them down to a singular “higher power” concept seemed to cheapen them.

Rather than choosing a single higher power, this is how I currently get the needs met that I listed above (this list is not exhaustive):

  • It’s something one can surrender the uncontrollable to – Radical acceptance and mindfulness.
  • It’s something one can seek guidance from – My support network, therapist, literature, and other experts.
  • It’s something that is always available whenever you need it – My coping skills, relaxation, exercise, meditation.
  • It’s something that is capable of taking away negative thoughts, cravings, and negative character traits – My practice of engaging in positive behaviors and reality-based thinking.
  • It’s something that has a “will” for you, meaning it knows what’s best for you – Advice from others, my intuition, my thought process (when my emotions are regulated).
  • It’s something that can give you a sense of meaning and purpose – My work, my relationships, contemplating nature and the universe, my hobbies and interests.
  • It’s something that you can ask for forgiveness – Myself, or the person I wronged.

Today, I don’t have a higher power, I have higher powers. I just don’t call them that. I have an arsenal of tools, resources, people, and psychological/emotional practices such as meditation and compassion that improve my life dramatically and therefore reduce or eliminate my desire to engage in addictive behaviors to escape. Your higher power can be a lot of things, it just can’t be one thing, because no single thing keeps us sober, a multi-faceted recovery lifestyle does.

So find your Higher Powers™ today!


Staying Sober Without God

Available on Amazon.

Jeffrey Munn was born in Southern California where he still resides with his wife and daughter. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has been working in the field of mental health since 2010.

Jeffrey works as a therapist in private practice and specializes in addiction, OCD, and anxiety disorders. In addition to his master’s degree in clinical psychology, Jeffrey earned a degree specialty in co-occurring disorders.

Click here to access the book on Amazon: Staying Sober Without God.

To visit Jeffrey’s website, click here: Practically Sane.


For a PDF of this article, click here: Why A Higher Power Isn’t Enough To Stay Sober.


40 Responses

  1. Andy says:

    Hey Jeffrey,

    I must say wow. The work behind the writing of this post seems so strong. All those quotes from different authors are really hit on the nail. Well done and keep it up.
    Thanks

  2. Craig G. says:

    Very interesting readings! I have been in AA for 33 Years a Day at a Time and have become very agitated to the point of angered on Zoom Meetings where it appears the topic of discussion more than not is a constant God and Higher Power talk. I am a very transparent individual who will not when asked to share pretend to have had and justify a “Spiritual Awakening” when I have not! Until I had in-depth discussions with a friend who has chosen the path of Agnostic AA I am only now starting to feel it is okay to respectfully pull back from traditional AA and stay connected with people like minded thoughts. I must say that this is very unfamiliar territory for me as I have never stepped back from my one to two traditional Meetings a week. I am just unable to deal with the negative energy that I feel pertaining to this Higher Power / God subject and my negative energy that I put out there when speaking on this topic.

  3. Larry G says:

    Super article. So practical and applicable. Very useful and helpful. Thx for sharing. This forum and accompanying articles is what traditional AA is missing for me. So deeply grateful for AA Agnostica. It really deepened, strengthened, and enriched my recovery in wonderful ways that were missing from traditional AA. I like what I get there also, but it’s been incomplete.

  4. Mike O says:

    As an agnostic I kind of see a “Higher Power” kind of like psychological training wheels. This entity, entirely of my own making and imagination, is kind of like a placeholder, a way to do what I don’t think I can do for myself. It gives me comfort and company when I feel alone and lost and was particularly valuable when I was newly sober and didn’t know what to do next. It was “Good Orderly Direction” and “Group of Drunks”, a way to connect with the fellowship and AA literature, even the parts I didn’t agree with. The literature itself and many old-timers in the rooms at the time when I was new insisted that my “Higher Power” would mature as I “worked the Steps” and as a result came to a “God-consciousness” or “Spiritual Experience”. In fact, I was told that AA ITSELF was primarily a “spiritual” program, that recovery from addiction was simply a means of achieving this “spiritual awakening” and that the problems of addiction itself came from an ego-centered lack of humility and relationship with God.

    To be a member of AA and still an active agnostic/atheist/secularist is a delicate balancing act. It’s the ESSENCE of the phrase, “take what you want and leave the rest”. It means carving out your own understanding and peace with the program, even the parts you have fundamental disagreements with. It’s about defining yourself for who YOU are as a person and what YOU believe. It’s knowing that many others in the program, including those with significant time and seeming significant social influence, will sometimes not see eye to eye with you and maybe openly challenge you. They may even dismiss your sobriety entirely, calling it “sodryeity” or a “dry drunk”. If you can stand fast and accept that not everyone will agree, understand, and sometimes even respect where you’re coming from it’s a great lesson in self-discovery.

    “To Thine Own Self Be True”. In the end, it’s all we really have in life.

  5. Jack B. says:

    I’ve copied and printed a bunch of copies of this article. And I know exactly who I’m gonna give this to.

    The article is so well written. And so concise. It melds so many ideas that are so very confusing for newcomers. I really can’t remember how many of them (newcomers) who’ve quietly asked “is it ok to NOT believe in all the god stuff?”

    I’ve always wondered how many newcomers have left entirely because all of the god stuff – what a terrible tragedy.

    Thanks for this, I think it’ll be a permanent part of my toolbox.

  6. Richard K. says:

    Excellent!!! Yes multiple higher powers. A recovery life style. A treatment. I am never cured. My disease is centered in my brain. I came for my drinking and stayed for my thinking. A life time process. A commitment.

  7. dlp says:

    As a newly arrived Agnostic member in traditional AA, I struggled for years to find some concept of a mandatory “high power” that would ensure continued sobriety. It was not until I discovered secular AA websites like AA Agnostica that I found the following excerpt by an unknown contributor pertaining to the term “higher power.”

    One of the reason that I don’t like the higher power concept, and that the religious people are so insistent on it, is that it creates a continuum intended to sneak god in the back door. I can let the group be my higher power they say, but the idea is that they aren’t really content with that. Sooner or later they expect me to find the real god who isn’t just any higher power, but the one and only.

    I could have the group as my higher power, but why? True, I depend on the group to help me stay sober and grow, and with the help of the group I can do things I likely could not do on my own, but why does that have to make it a higher power??

    We all accept the saying that two heads think better than one. So does that mean that two heads together now become a higher power to the individual heads? Why is it not just two heads thinking together?

    Or, like an AA friends of mine says, try lifting a heavy sack alone. It can be tough. Now try two of you together, it gets easier, now try four, of course it gets still easier, and the four of us together can lift something much heavier than one person can all alone. Where exactly does the higher power concept become needed to explain this? This is all the group does, lifts a burden together. We are doing together what we could never do alone. I simply see it as a level field, and no higher power is needed to explain how this program works.

    Some individuals may disagree with me, but the author of this excerpt did an excellent job in helping me understand that I do not need to have a higher power to maintain my sobriety…

  8. Adam N. says:

    I like it. The way I understand it is that the whole idea of a higher power needs to be removed from the project altogether. This whole concept, so central to Bill Wilson’s highly religious’ understanding of addiction and recovery, stems from, and perpetuates, the 2 millennia old Christian tradition of religious dualism which holds the supernatural as superior and the natural as inferior. We hear it reiterated at every meeting where the good is chalked up to god or HP, while the bad is chalked up to the human will. We are the source of all that is bad, all that is evil. Humans are the disease, god is the cure. Original sin, et cetera. Eradicating this Abrahamic (Islamic and Christian) dualism in order to embrace a more contemporary, science-friendly, evidence-based perspective in which human beings are in fact the source of all the good stuff is an essential first step in revamping and secularizing recovery, and thereby making it accessible to more than 5 or 10% of those in need. We are the source of all the good stuff, as the author fully recognizes. No higher power required, mysterious, supernatural, or otherwise.

  9. Jeanine B says:

    Exactly. It’s when I try to specifically define higher powers that I get myself in trouble. As said, there are many powers greater than myself in the world – the question is, which do I choose to align with?

  10. Mary G. says:

    Thanks for a great article. Since I realized using the term “HP” no longer served me as an atheist, I have become very careful about choosing my words, i.e., I’m no longer “in the program” nor am I “in recovery”. I prefer to see my abstinence as a lifestyle and recovery as a social, mental and emotional maturity that has grown over years of abstinence. I resonate with your statement: “I have an arsenal of tools, resources, people, and psychological/emotional practices”. My toolkit has evolved over time which, for me, is also a sign of growth!

  11. Michael T. says:

    I am six years sober. There are two things common in AA with which I will have no truck. One is God and/or the Higher Power, the other is prayer and/or meditation.

    The story of the G/HP is that about a year into my sobriety there was a long run of meetings where the ever repeated theme was “the necessity to find a HP”. It was much too early for me to be doing any more than the absolute basics of staying sober. So, I mentally put the entire HP thing onto the back burner, kept quiet about it as I did not want to get picked on for not having a HP, and after years of the HP being on the back burner I never felt any need to go back to the concept.

    Prayer was useful in the early days, when I found trying to remember the prayers I last used in childhood served as a useful way of stopping the “what ifs” and the “if onlys” from going round and round in my head. As I got further in recovery I stopped praying. I never have developed the skill of meditating, and I do not feel in any way disadvantaged by not meditating. The core concept I have that I think bears on the preceding is that I do not believe in an interventionist God. One skill I have most definitely learned is that of keeping quiet about all the things everyone else thinks I absolutely must do.

    Above all, I am supposedly an intelligent man, and I have learned that alcohol does me no good at all, and so I must avoid drinking at all costs.

    What is forgotten is the suggestion from one of the founders, who said to take what you wanted from AA for your own sobriety. It never was said that you had to take the whole lot, hook, line and sinker.

    For much the greater part of my sobriety I was always happy to attend meetings “lest I forget”, but I surprised myself no end with Covid-19, by finding sober life without AA meeting to be perfectly alright.

  12. John B. says:

    Very practical Mr. Munn, thank you. When I wandered into the world of sobriety my knowledge about alcoholism was minimal, my reasoning ability was contaminated by alcohol, and my reservoir of will power was near empty. This pretty much describes day one for most of the sober alcoholics that I know. I didn’t know poop, I couldn’t think straight, and any will that surfaced was misdirected.

    If I hadn’t tapped into sources of power outside myself, there is no way I would be sober today. It’s too bad the term higher power got perverted by AA to mean God. Some folks scream to high heaven (just a colloquialism), about any reference to the term higher power. Let’s face it, higher powers dominate our lives: biology, psychology, physics, chemistry, for starters. HALT! Don’t let yourself get too hungry, too angry, too lonely, or too tired. Biology.Psychology. Physics. My serenity demands a reasonable conformity to those powers.

  13. Bullwinkle says:

    Beginning with my sobriety 40 years ago, I don’t believe in any form of deity, I am THE higher power. I keep it simple, identifying the causes and conditions for my addiction through self-examination is how I got sober.

  14. Brien O. says:

    Powerful article for me because right now I am about to leave the AA online meetings. Someone might say they do not believe in God I give them encouragement and there are always comments that follow. Our AA literature says and fill in the blank but it is always something like the BB is designed for us to find our way to a God of our understanding etc. etc.

    I want to be respectful and I need some new ideas. I need to take notes when I see something on this website that will help me because I am not really good with expressing myself. There is a person in my homegroup with 44 years sober who mentioned this book. I need to buy it. Thanks everyone who contributes to this site.I was sober 23 years then drank for 2 years now coming up on 3 years next month but the thought of drinking keeps coming back. I need to change my thinking quick.

  15. Lena R. says:

    WHAT A FANTASTIC ARTICLE! This is something I say all the time but far less articulate-ly. I love the bulletproof arguments and the TM after higher power, lmao. And I agree, why cheapen recovery this way? Sure it may be simpler to turn over everything to an abstract HP, but doing the more thorough investigation of the process can only help one’s recovery in the long term, in my opinion.

  16. Dean W says:

    There are many powers greater than me in this world: the police, my employer, and the IRS to name a few. Add my wife to the list on any given day that I let codependency take over. My problem with higher powers is finding and using a higher power that is benevolent. The group or fellowship is as close as I come right now. As I read in a story in One Big Tent, I seem to benefit more from the concept of higher purpose than higher power.

    This article cuts through the magical thinking that Traditional AA preaches. It’s great to read something that focuses on psychological and social forces and practices that work without magic. If you like this article, please check out Jeffrey’s book. It’s excellent! We have a copy at my home group. We don’t have a copy of the Big Book.

  17. Doc says:

    I really don’t like the concept of HIGHER power as I prefer an egalitarian worldview to a hierarchical one. I prefer to acquire the skills to run my own life rather than to rely on someone else – a mythical being, a sponsor, the group, significant other – to run it for me.

  18. Scott H says:

    “Why not teach newcomers how to really understand the recovery process rather than pretending it’s being driven by some vague entity?”

    This hit me like a ton of bricks simply because it’s true. Teaching recovery basics should be emphasized at meetings and one-on-ones with a sponsor, not bible quotations and silly mnemonics. I was so impressed by the author’s take that I bought the Kindle version on Amazon.

    • Bullwinkle says:

      Alcoholics Anonymous was written in 1938, published in May 1939 for the purpose of reaching out to readers. There was no AA fellowship / meetings until after the book was published, and it wasn’t written exclusively for alcoholics.

      As a newcomer, I read Alcoholics Anonymous cover to cover many times. The text taught me how to recover and it’s on Page 25, Chapter 2, There is a Solution. It reads, “Almost none of us liked the self-searching, the leveling of our pride, the confession of shortcomings which the process requires for its successful consummation”.

      • Dean W says:

        Bullwinkle, AA claims as its founding date June 10, 1935, Dr. Bob’s sobriety date. The founding members in New York left the Oxford Group in 1937. What do you want to call the New York meetings that occurred between 1937 and 1939 if they weren’t AA meetings? I guess you can pick any date for the origin of AA you want, but the weight of history is against you.

        • Bullwinkle says:

          It’s obvious that you haven’t read AA history books, and/or the archives. The meetings in NY weren’t called AA, because the Big Book didn’t exist in 1935 (written in 38, published 39) and “The Way Out” was going to be the title, until it was discovered that there was 12 other books with that title. The very first meeting was started by Clarence Snyder in May 1939, @ 2345 Stillman Road, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, which was Grace and Abby Goldricks home. As Clarence Snyder told Bob Smith, most of the guys he was trying to help get sober were Roman Catholic and they weren’t allowed to attend Oxford Group meetings. So, Clarence Snyder said, “we’re starting a meeting for alcoholics and family members only and were going to call it Alcoholics Anonymous from the title of our text book”.

          • Dean W says:

            What’s obvious is you haven’t answered my question. What do you want to call the New York meetings that occurred between 1937 and 1939 if they weren’t AA meetings?

          • Roger says:

            What’s obvious is that the meetings were not officially coined as “Alcoholics Anonymous” until the one in Cleveland was launched in May 1939. See some of the other comments. The earlier meetings in New York were at Bill’s home so, hey, maybe they were referred to as “Bill’s meetings”. In retrospect they can be and are called AA meetings. So be it.

      • Bob K says:

        The AA book was published in April 1939, not May. If you want to be seen as knowing your stuff, you CAN’T get that wrong!!

        Bill Wilson and others were referring to the fellowship as Alcoholics Anonymous in mid-1938. In a June 1938 letter to Dr. Bob, Bill informed his Akron friend that they were working on creating a foundation. “What do you think of the name ‘Alcoholics Anonymous?'”

        The name “Alcoholics Anonymous” is on letterheads of the “One Hundred Men Corp.” prospectus, also in 1938. The idea that the fellowship was named after the book is mythological.

        • Bullwinkle says:

          Bob K writes>>>If you want to be seen as knowing your stuff, you CAN’T get that wrong!!<<<

          You're correct, it was April 10, 1939. I can get it wrong, it's called a typo or memory lapse, 2 already today. Otherwise, I'm virtually perfect 🙂

      • Roger says:

        The first meeting that was actually called “Alcoholics Anonymous” – was in fact held in Cleveland on May 11, 1939, one month after the Big Book had been published.

        For more info on this read: AA started in riots, published in 2013 on AA Agnostica.

        • Bullwinkle says:

          Yes, Clarence Snyder said that a fistfight almost broke out, Roger. I have the Clarence Snyder tape where he covers why he started the very first AA meeting, calling it Alcoholics Anonymous from the title of the text.

  19. Chris G says:

    “Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.” I forget where I heard that, but it best expresses the complete lack of belief in the supernatural by us Atheists in the crowd. Now inner resources, coping skills, society belonging, clear thinking (by me or others), scientific and even anecdotal advice…those I can easily include in my reality. And they are what got me sober, even in traditional AA, and keep me sober today. Great article.

  20. Dan L says:

    Thanks for that essay. There is nothing quite like professional validation! I came in as an atheist agnostic/ignostic of the “who gives a shit?” sect. From the getgo I was appalled that this approach required appealing to an entity which I KNEW was a fairly tale. I have tried here and elsewhere to describe the virulent (see what I done there) reaction I had to “We Agnostics”. Even worse were the flock of believers who pointed me to it, telling me it would “straighten” me out.

    As if as a lifetime drinker and atheist in an RC family I had not had to endure all that shit and more! It did not take a very long time for me to read up what “alcoholism” is and how AA can help it – in rational everyday scientific and medical terms. The idea that I HAD TO have god to accomplish this just struck me as a ridiculous denial of reality. The opposite of what I wanted.

    So it was a great big NOPE!

    What infuriates me is that the BOOK insists upon a faith based approach stressing some kind of personal relationship with the laws of physics and it denies the human approach of community which is what really does the trick. That IMHO is one BIG denial.

    I would imagine that through the decades AA has killed more than the fundamentalists can admit. In the wrong hands – untreated alcoholics – it can be very abusive and destructive.

    With help from my friends I used AA to make a program that I think helped me stay sober these few years and that is the advice I give to newcomers – Make AA Work For You.

    I will step down off the soap box.

    Thanks.

    • Dean W says:

      It sounds like you might be entitled to a few minutes on the soapbox. I seem to spend a fair amount of time there without dire consequences as long as I don’t get to worked up. I completely agree with you about THE BOOK. What’s worse is that it is still being peddled as the fellowship’s basic text. It does a lot of damage, and not just in the hands of the untreated.

  21. Murray J. says:

    My experience has taught me that lots of us in recovery found sobriety through a treatment program then traditional AA. When I got sober traditional AA was the only option. I’ve been an agnostic since childhood so I was always uncomfortable with the steps with the god reference. So when an agnostic group in my area was made known to me off I went. I believe with loving, competent guidance from fellow AAs I was able to establish and sustain recovery for almost 24 years. I found I had the inner strength and with support I’m living a good life…without god.

    Thanks Jeffrey and Roger.

  22. Thomas K. says:

    12 step programs do not say a higher power is enough. Teaches me how to be self reliant and how to use my will for a better way of living as I choose.

  23. Mickey S. says:

    Excellent essay. Exactly states what I have thought, over the years succinctly and logically. I was a wreck. I needed something, because I was desperate to get sober. The support of an AA group worked, but I never felt at home… but then the desperation to STAY sober kicked in…and I didn’t know there was another way!!!

  24. Brendan F says:

    This is a very helpful and practical article. It might be (I doubt it though) what people sometimes mean when they say “a personal higher power” as it never made a lot of sense to me. It still doesn’t.
    I will keep this article for myself and newcomers as it lays out a superb template towards achieving and maintaining sobriety without the need of god or anything else considered divine.

    • Roger says:

      Hi Brendan. When I read your comment I decided to create a PDF of the article to make it easy to share. You can find that now at the end of Jeffrey’s article.

  25. TJ says:

    Thanks! This is really great. And it captured perhaps my biggest annoyance with Bill Wilson’s writings: their glibness. He was a salesman after all, often highly successful, and at times a total failure.

    I’ve often just substituted the phrase “let go of it” for “turn it over,” since the latter clearly implies *to* something rather than just *from* me. (I had to change it from Let it Go when the song from Frozen came out).

    Now, whether we call it inner peace, a soul, a heart, an ideal self, or an inner spirit, I need a concept of *something* bigger than plain old me, who was a real mess when I started this journey (29 years ago last Wednesday). And I’m definitely committing trademark infringement stealing HP(tm)…

  26. Edward says:

    I prefer NO higher power.

    • Bob K says:

      Essentially, the essay says that. “Resources” far more accurately describes what I’ve been aided by in AA.

  27. Micaela S. says:

    Great essay. You eloquently stated what I have been thinking in my mind for over a decade.

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