The Challenges of 12 Step Recovery for Agnostics

By Andy F

Going to my first AA meeting at the age of thirty was the best thing I ever did. I loved the fellowship from my very first meeting. I was someone who lived on the margins of society; alone and isolated by years of drinking. I suddenly found myself in a community of people that were just like me. They were sharing openly in meetings, about how I felt all my life. I had finally found my tribe. For me, coming to AA was a homecoming.

I grew up in care and never had a family that I could belong to. Almost overnight, my fellow recovering alcoholics became the family that I never had. In this blog, I will offer reasons why I was unable to believe in God. Why I felt unable to do the steps? What were the higher powers that worked for me that were not unseen or divine in nature?

A newcomer to AA

After my arrival in the fellowship, I started to go to meetings every day. Sometimes twice a day. It was suggested that I get into the middle of the AA bed. That’s exactly what I did. When I first got sober, my life was very chaotic and unmanageable. I was unemployable at the time, so was able to go to plenty of meetings.

It took a while for the alcoholic fog to clear. When it did, I began to notice things in AA that I hadn’t seen before. Most of my fellow members had sponsors and were working a program. I didn’t know what the expression “working the program” even meant. It had me bewildered for a long time. I genuinely believed that recovery was just about not drinking and going to meetings.

An agnostic reaction to the 12 steps

I began to take notice of what was written on the scrolls of AA meetings. One scroll had the 12 steps in bold print and the other had the 12 traditions. I began to read through the twelve steps. After I read steps two and three, my heart sank. I suddenly wondered if AA was the right place for me after all?

Step two mentioned a Higher Power and step three used the God word. “What did a higher power or God have to do with not drinking,” I thought? To me, that sounded ridiculous and left me feeling totally bewildered. I had rejected the idea of God in childhood and wanted nothing to do with any God or religion. The very mention of the God word or religion would make me “bristle with antagonism”! (Big Book Chapter 4 “We agnostics” p. 48, 4th edition)

Why I became an agnostic?

I was placed in foster care by my Mother when I was still a baby. My mom was forced into this situation because she was a single Mum and had to work. I explain more about my childhood in my book “The 12 steps for agnostics.” My foster mother was an ardent church-going Catholic. She put her faith in God at the very centre of her life. She doted on my foster brother who in her eyes could do no wrong. To me, she was cold and indifferent. Sadly, she was also physically as well as emotionally abusive. I was constantly shamed and put down. I was told that I would never amount to anything. My foster brother, on the other hand, was her shining star.

By the time I reached nine years old, I wanted nothing to do with God. If his followers were anything like my foster mother. God definitely wasn’t for me. When my mother put me into care, I experienced this as abandonment. She did have valid reasons for placing me with a foster family. I didn’t understand this as a child and took the abandonment very personally. As I grew a bit older, I began to project those feelings of abandonment onto the childlike idea I had about God too. If my mother abandoned me, then as far as I was concerned, God had abandoned me too. If he was real, he would not have allowed this to happen.

A Catholic boarding school

When I was about nine or ten, my mother took me away from my foster mother and placed me in a boarding school for boys. Coming from a Polish background, the school she placed me in was Catholic. The school was run by an order of Polish priests. The religious education we received at that school was very extreme; as were the religious observances we had to follow every day.

We had to attend mass every morning and benediction every evening. Three times a day before mealtimes, we would all gather in the assembly hall and were led through a prayer known as ‘The Angelus’. Weekly catechism classes were also compulsory. We also had to attend frequent sessions of the rosary as well as the Stations of the Cross. Not attending these religious rituals wasn’t tolerated. We were sometimes beaten by the priests if we disobeyed the rules of the school.

My Mother’s alcoholism

In the meantime, my mother became an alcoholic. Whenever I came home from school during the holidays, she would be too drunk to communicate with me. There was very little meaningful connection between us after she started drinking. By the time I was thirteen, I was so full of rage and pain that I followed my Mother’s example and I too became an alcoholic and addict. They say that alcoholism is a lonely disease and it certainly was for me as a teenager. My father had died when I was still a baby. I had no sense of care or nurture from my absent parents. As far as God was concerned, he did not exist and religion was complete nonsense.

Inability to work the steps as a non-believer

So here I was a newly sober member of AA. The suggestion was to get a sponsor and work through the 12 steps. How was I was expected to believe in a higher power presented in the second step? Step three required me to hand my will and life over to the care of a God I didn’t believe in. No way was I able to entertain such a ridiculous idea.

The thing that added insult to injury, was that God was mentioned in six of the twelve steps. These steps were definitely not for me. I decided to go into therapy to resolve the traumas of my childhood in therapists consulting rooms. I was completely unable to surrender my will and life to the program and certainly not any God!

Therapy instead of the 12 steps

I continued going to meetings and therapy for over a decade. Even after several years in AA, I still found sobriety very challenging. Over the next thirteen years in AA, I was unable to stay sober. I had dry periods from alcohol but the madness in my head was too much to bear. My mind was so tortured with pain and resentment, that I was condemned to keep picking up that first drink again and again. After thirteen years on this merry-go-round of relapse, I developed quite a serious death wish. I no longer cared whether I lived or died. Sobriety was too painful.

First agnostic-friendly sponsor

Following my last relapse, I found myself asking a man known as David B for sponsorship. In a last desperate attempt to save my life, I asked him to help me. I mention David B frequently in my book “The twelve steps for agnostics.” He was a very colourful character. He is also mentioned in one of the blogs on my website. It’s called “healthy sponsorship boundaries.” David was a very tough sponsor. Being honest, he was probably what I needed at the time. I told him that I didn’t believe in God. Despite being a practising Catholic himself, he did something which I believe literally saved my life.

Acronyms for GOD: Good Orderly Direction, Group Of Drunks and Gift Of Desperation

He told me to open the AA book known as “The twelve steps and twelve traditions.” I had to open it on page 27 in the chapter about step two. He told me to read what it said there. Towards the bottom of the page, there in black and white is the following statement. “You can if you wish, make AA itself your higher power” (12 x 12 Step two p. 27) “Are you ready to follow Good Orderly Direction,” he said? I had what David called “The Gift Of Desperation.” I was at the point in my life where if he said “jump,” I would ask “how high”!

The solutions for an agnostic alcoholic

I was to turn my will and life over in step three to Good Orderly Direction. This direction was in the suggestions that David gave me. He let me know, that another effective higher power that I could rely on was the Group Of Drunks in AA. From that moment forward, I was able to use AA as my higher power. As I continued to work through the steps with David, I began to form my own practical conceptions of powers greater than me.

It dawned on me that any suggested action I was being asked to take was a new idea. This was totally opposite to my “old ideas” (See footnote) that condemned me to keep relapsing. I conceded that the new ideas I was learning from David were definitely powers greater than me. I had thirteen years of evidence in AA to show me where my “old ideas” (see footnote) would lead. They failed miserably in every area of my life. My very best thinking would always end with me picking up that first drink. All I had to do was to remain teachable to new ideas.

Footnote: “Some of us have tried to hold onto our old ideas and the result was nil till we let go absolutely.” (Big Book – First page – Chapter five “How it works” First edition)

Effective powers greater than me

When I was with David, I realized that the higher powers that were keeping me sober were:

  1. The AA group
  2. The suggestions of my sponsor
  3. The steps themselves
  4. Love and Service
  5. “Constant thought of others” (Big Book Chapter 2 “There is a solution” p. 20 4th edition)

A non-God-centered spiritual awakening

These higher powers enabled me to do the steps and the steps helped me to let go of my past. They guided me towards healing, forgiveness and self-forgiveness. As I see it, this inner transformation amounted to a spiritual awakening. It was in no way dependent on a God awakening. The non-God-centered spiritual awakening is promised in step twelve as the result of working the first nine steps. I remain open-minded about the question of God and continue to see myself as a spiritual seeker.

Just for today, I am happy and enjoying my sobriety. I have had a powerful spiritual awakening that does not require a belief in God. For the first time in my life, I have found love and peace of mind. There are many other effective higher powers to choose from in the life-saving fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.

They are the new ideas I learn whenever I go to a meeting. I am very grateful for the precious gift of sobriety. All my agnostic friendly sponsors showed me a way of going through the steps as an agnostic alcoholic. Do you have any helpful conceptions of practical higher powers that are helping you to stay happily sober?

Andy has been sober in AA for 22 years. He was born in London to a Polish Mother. She arrived in the UK as a refugee after the Second World War, soon to become naturalized and a British citizen.

After getting sober in AA, he enjoyed a long and happy career in the social care field in London. Andy was a community outreach worker supporting elderly clients in their own homes. He retired early and went to live in Thailand. After going there on vacation, he fell in love with the country, the people and the culture. Andy has been with his Thai partner for five happy years.

Andy never met his Dad who was a published author in Poland. He always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and write. Being retired, he now has the time to pursue his passion for writing. He will soon be publishing a book, The Twelve Steps for Agnostics – How to Get Happily Sober Without a Belief in a God.

More information about Andy and his book is available on his website: AA for Agnostics.


7 Responses

  1. Andy F says:

    Many thanks for everyone’s comments. Wishing you all a great day!

    Andy F

  2. Krista says:

    I am truly in awe of people that find these 12 step groups a warm, welcoming and loving environment. I find there is help in the 12 steps but I’m still looking for these special, accepting, loving meetings.

  3. Steve b says:

    I can say that the AA group, a sponsor, the steps, and love and service are helpful for sobriety. I can say this without using the words “higher power.”

  4. Oren says:

    Thanks, Andy. An inspiring story!

  5. bob k says:

    In the account of Andy’s childhood, I see a lot of resemblance to Bill Wilson’s story. The AA founder had two parents remarkably unsuited to parenting. Bill’s adulterous father physically checked out of his marriage about ten years in. Emotionally, he was gone much sooner. Gilman Wilson fled across the continent without much thought given to the two young children he left behind.

    Less than a year later, Bill’s mother announced that she was leaving Vermont to attend school in Boston. This second abandonment became greater when Emily sent for her daughter, but NOT her son. So much for parents treating their children equally!!

    Bill also did poorly regarding genetic inheritance. The Wilson men had a long history of alcoholic drinking. From his mother, Bill got a cocktail of neurosis and depression. There’s no great surprise in Bill being a problem drinker from the start.

    I am grateful to the kindly members of AA who had more interest in seeing me sober than brought into the arms of a loving God. “Good Orderly Direction” and the like were beneficial to me. I like the term “higher power,” but that’s not what I find in the literature. The capital “P” “greater Power” tips us off that AA’s Power is not far afield from the God of my childhood.

  6. Lance B. says:

    I find the idea of finding higher powers in the many insights gained by communicating in AA as interesting and valuable. I might even expand that to all the new ideas which have become interesting to me as I gain free time and sobriety without fear. With the covid19 year I am enduring in isolation, a more rigorous exploration of various sciences and philosophies fills me with new higher powers.

    Thank you for one more higher power Andy.

  7. Doc says:

    In my experience, the fellowship -not just meetings but having coffee and sharing meals after the meetings – has been important. Personal connections without religious dogma showed that sobriety was possible. Among these personal connections has been sponsorship.

    My sobriety has not been inspired by the Big Book nor by any rigorous “working” of the steps. Many of the steps and much of the book are not relevant to my life.

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