An Atheist Goes Through Alcoholics Anonymous

We already know Alcoholics Anonymous is not a program designed for atheists. 6 of the famed “12 Steps” refer to a Higher Power/God. There are secular alternatives, but nothing with the size and scope of AA.

Author Marya Hornbacher knew she needed help battling her addiction but, as an atheist, AA didn’t seem like the right place for her. Instead of attending a meeting of a secular alternative, though, she went through AA’s program, finding her own ways to get through each step. Her method placed “spirit of life and a deep faith in the value of connecting and sharing with others” above any sort of supernatural deity.

Turns out you don’t need a god to get through rough patches in your life.

She’s written a book about the experience and it’s called Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power.

While not an excerpt from the book, Hornbacher wrote an original piece about her recovery for CNN:

The official preamble Alcoholics Anonymous states: “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

And millions of people want that and find a way to do it in this program. I’m one of them. I was, not to put too fine a point on it, a raging drunk. Now I’m not.

It wasn’t magic; it was brutally hard work to get from point A to B. I do believe I’d be dead without the help of the people and the structure of the steps in AA.

But I don’t believe in God.

And this can be something of a sticking point when you’re sitting in a meeting room, desperate for almost any route out of hell, and someone cites “the blood of Jesus” as the only way to go. Or when you realize that six of AA’s 12 steps explicitly refer to God, a Higher Power, or He.

But this shouldn’t be a deal breaker. I’m going to make a lot of old-style AA’s cranky with this, but it’s perfectly possible to sober up, sans belief in God.

People told me their stories — of God, the divine, the power of love, an intelligent creator. Something that made all this. Some origin, some end.

I told them I believed in math. Chaos, I said. Infinity. That sort of thing.

They looked at me in despair.

And not infrequently, they said, “So you think you’re the biggest, most important thing in the universe?”

On the contrary. I think I am among the smallest. Cosmically speaking, I barely exist.

I haven’t read the book, but it sounds like an incredibly useful resource. No doubt any atheist with an addiction would appreciate a godless way of getting over it and Hornbacher’s personal journey is a rare insight into how atheists handle something that’s commonly been ceded to religion.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Nancy

    I have always believed that those who conquer any addiction do themselves an injustice when they believe someone or something caused them to be free of the addiction.  It’s your own hard work and belief  in yourself that does it.

    I quit smoking years ago after having the habit for 20 yrs. God didn’t do it, nicotine patches didn’t do it, I did it!  And I’m damned proud of myself for the accomplishment!

    • Anonymous

      Agreed. From what I read about it, AA seems to go to extreme lengths to emphasize that you’re powerless

    • Jim [the other Jim]

      You and me both, Nancy. I quit smoking cold turkey 21 years ago, with no divine intervention of any sort. I used a little of what I call “mind control”. Placebos work the same way.  I bought a carton of cigarettes [8 packs, for you non-Canadians out there].  I placed them in the refrigerator and every time I went into the fridge for any reason, I would look at the last pack and said out loud, “That is my last pack”. When I got to the last pack, I took one cigarette and turned it upside down. Every time I took out a cigarette, I would look at that upside down cigarette and said out loud “That is my last cigarette”.  After I butted out that cigarette, I said “I am now a non-smoker”.  It wasn’t as easy as it sounds, but it was easier than I thought it would be. I smoked a pack a day from  1978 to 1991 plus my parents were heavy smokers so I literally grew up in a house of smoke, from 1962 on.  We are often our own worst enemies, be we can easily become our own best friends.

      • Angst3

        Jim, thank you in particular for your last sentence.  I’m writing that down and posting it somewhere where I can refer back to it often.  It’s a gem!

        • Jim [the other Jim]

          Aww shucks <<>>

    • Rich Wilson

      You should be.  I know someone who kicked heroine, but not nicotine.

      I always boggle at the idea that not believing in God is somehow arrogant.  No, I don’t think my planet or my species are particularly special.

  • Becky

    Her earlier book, ‘Wasted’, about her eating disorders was a wonderful read!  I have no doubt this will be as well. Thank you for sharing.

    • JulietEcho

      I’ve struggled with my eating disorder for about eleven years now, and I’ve read dozens of books – academic books, self-help books, memoirs, everything – about anorexia and bulimia.  Marya Hornbacher’s was the one that helped me.  Nothing else came close to mirroring what I went through, what I was going through, and what I still go through.  It definitely helped me in my push for recovery.

      On a less personal note, she’s a brilliant, creative writer.  She belongs in a category with Chuck Palahniuk and David Foster Wallace when it comes to her ability to express her ideas.

  • Juliana Willliamson-Page

    Nancy, I feel the same away about quitting drinking. Finding a “work-around” for non-believers who want to use AA is a positive for them, but  I have issues with the 12 steps beyond the god thing. 

    For help with addiction AND the tools to learn to live life fully, beyond just kicking the habit, I recommend Women for Sobriety, http://www.womenforsobriety.org  It was one of the alternative resources posted in the comments four years ago http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2007/05/30/alternatives-to-alcoholics-anonymous/#comment-247883919 and they DO have materials and resources for men now, too!

  • Sober Atheist

    I do not worship AA, nor the people in it. But I go, and I work the steps without God. Obviously, since there is NO god!  I have a blog:  soberatheist.com   and I tweet.

  • MelanieDawn

    Many years ago I attended AA/NA family meetings with my then-husband during one of his in-patient treatment programs. The purpose was to address co-dependency issues, and it was structured on the same ‘steps’ as AA/NA. I will never forget my utter disbelief when I was told by the counselor leading the meeting that I should pray to the door knob if I didn’t believe in God. Her advice was that I needed to look to ANYTHING outside myself and a doorknob would work just as well as anything else. I got a lot of the  “So you think you’re the biggest, most important thing in the universe?” type comments too. Mayra’s book would have helped a lot back then!

    • Anonymous

      Is it just narrow mindedness or the typical Christian irony impairment that leads them to make such stupid comments?

      There are hundreds of billions of galaxies with hundreds of billions of stars each. A significant amount of them have planets. But out all of them, an unremarkable star in a fairly insignificant corner of our galaxy has a planet with a bunch of intelligent apes, who somehow have been chosen by their creator. All of that out there was created solely for us? Talk about arrogance and hubris on a literally astronomical scale.

      Recognizing that we are insignificant and unimportant on a cosmic scale is a sign of humility. It’s the exact opposite of what they claim. The mind of a Christian is a truly strange and weird place

  • Anonymous

    The Onion had something along these lines last week:

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/man-somehow-overcomes-alcoholism-without-jesus,21146

    “Man Somehow Overcomes Alcoholism Without Jesus”

    Pretty funny.  I’d like to think that when something becomes the subject of fun like this it means it is evidence that it is gaining acceptance in the popular consciousness.

  • Gordon

    There are in fact atheist/agnostic AA meetings.  They are few in number, usually in major metropolitan areas, but they do exist.

  • Anonymous

    It’s quite disturbing that the religious assume that you must be worshipping yourself if you don’t believe in god.  The mindset of religion is so strong that it is deemed impossible to not have a religion, ergo, you are your own god.

  • http://francishunt.blogspot.com Francis Hunt

    I ‘m a recovering alcoholic and a non-believer; in fact, it was the process of quitting drinking which contributed to me finally admitting that whatever I had of “faith” was, in fact, non-existent.
    I was lucky, I suppose, to find a self-help group at the time which was not AA based and left the God question strictly outside.

    If AA helps – and it has helped millions – well and good; I won’t knock anything which helps people recover from the hell of addiction. But one thing that has helped me to stay dry for over ten years now is the realisation that I did it – with the help of others who loved me, certainly, but without the help of any “higher power.” You don’t need God to recover.

  • Hoognu

    SmartRecovery.org

  • Kristinap815

    Dammit, AA officially is not a religion, nor ever claimed to be one. It is CLEARLY stated it the Twelve Traditons. Those taking issue with people bringing their religion into a meeting need to take a group conscious and deal with that. Sober atheists CAN and HAVE TO speak up in business meetings when the Traditions are being broken. As for thr comment having issue with this women’s book, if they truely are a part of the program, the only issue they have should be with her breaking anonymity. But thst is her choice. I am a sober atheist, and I know SEVERAL others, and I cannot count the times that I have heard it is a HIGHER POWER OF ONE’S OWN CHOOSING. Even the Big Book recommends the AA group if the “god issue” is a problem, because we recognize that many who are broken down and find themselves at AAs doors very often have problems with their childhood religious beliefs. Anyone who touts AA as a “religious” very clearly do not know a thing about it, or have been unable to take what they need and leave the rest.

    • Anonymous

      What somebody officially says and how some leaders run their own little groups are very different things. It’s not like there is centralized control, so many groups can be run as prayer meetings.

      And replacing “religion” with “spirituality” doesn’t change anything whatsoever. Most atheists aren’t really spiritual either. They don’t believe in ANY higher power. So what good is it to exchange the Christian god with some nebulous, utterly vague concept?

      How about, instead of telling people they are worthless and powerless, give them power and self-confidence instead?

    • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

      Of course AA is religious! It can’t possibly not be. The entire point of chapter 4 of the Big Book is that it’s impossible to maintain non-belief and stop drinking. As if that’s not enough, several of the steps specifically mention God.

      What AA is, is non-sectarian. It doesn’t matter what God you’re referring to when you talk about God. As long as you believe in one, you’ve satisfied the requirement to be religious as described in chapter 4 of the Big Book.

      BTW what the Big Book says about “the God issue” is that “we agnostics” (as chapter 4 of the Big Book calls itself) are required, ultimately, to give in and stop resisting worship of God. Some God, any God … as long as it’s a God. Honestly, that chapter is disingenuous, because there is no way it could possibly have been written by “agnostics.” But that’s another problem entirely.

      Whatever you choose to call God … e.g. “higher power,” “spirituality,” etc. … it’s just a circumlocution intended to dance around the fact that it’s a religious notion. Simple as that. AA’s advocates lie when they insist their program is not religious. Of course it is! If they had any courage and integrity, they’d just admit it and move on. But they won’t. Because the whole idea of AA is to suck in a vulnerable population and convince them to become religious …

  • Denis Watkins

    Anyone who is addicted to alcohol, as far as I understand the agony that results, has my sympathy for what that is worth.    Perhaps the strength of AA comes from the feeling of a supportive and understanding community of sufferers.   As an atheist, if I were an alcoholic, I would wonder why a god who allowed me into this mess would support me in getting out of it.

  • RalphC

    I sobered up in AA 27 years ago, was a atheist then and still am today. There were groups that pushed the God thing but I avoided those and found plenty of groups and good people that just told me to use the group as my ‘high power’…it worked, I’m still sober and godless today!

  • Anonymous

    In the bigger cities like New York there are a number of atheist/agnostic AA meetings. I know several atheists who got sober with AA. It’s when you get outside to smaller towns and suburbia where it’s harder. You may have to look around and go to meetings that are not the closest or most convenient.

  • Jim [the other Jim]

    This is actually somewhat related. Is anybody here a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation?  If so, then think back to the episode entitled “The Devils Due”.  Even if you are not a fan, check it out.  Very briefly, it was a story of a woman named Ardra [aka the devil] who was collecting on a claim that a planet’s war-weary, impoverished inhabitants sold their collective souls to the devil 1000 years earlier in exchange for a 1000 years of prosperity.   At a “trial”, Captain Picard questioned the planet’s leader,  asking precisely how did the devil actually help.  It is discovered that the planets inhabitants helped themselves, thru hard work and determination. As Picard said in the trial: “Did she not even pick up one piece of trash?”.  Turns out that the “devil” was actually a con artist using 24′th century technology to fool the planet’s population, so she could claim the entire planet as hers.  At the end of the trial, the leader thanked Picard, saying:  “Thank you, Captain Picard. You saved our lives” to which the ever humble Captain replied: “No, Jared. As I’ve tried to tell you, you saved your own lives a long time ago”.  This was classic Star Trek, hiding a political/social statement inside a fictional alien circumstance. 

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      While I don’t remember that particular episode, that sort of thing is a big part of why I like Star Trek, and sci fi and fantasy in general. The many ways that you can make points that you would have a harder time making in realistic fiction is one of the best parts. 

      That, and I want a holodeck.

  • Prosey

    There are MANY secular alternatives out there. 

    For a different perspective on AA, check out The Orange Papers…an extremely comprehensive analysis of AA.

    • TychaBrahe

      I love Ken Ragge’s More Revealed, too!

    • http://www.facebook.com/ray.faraway.9 Ray Faraway

      At the risk of trying to “fair and balance” the orange bias, check out the alternative too: http://www.green-papers.org/

  • Ida Know

    An acquaintance once told me about the eating disorder she had once had.  When I remarked how hard that must have been to overcome, and that I admired her strength for doing so, she insisted that no, it was god that did it.  Nothing would sway her from that.

    I suppose it was her way of being modest, but it still made me sad that she seemed to think she had no right to take credit for her achievement.  Sigh.

    • JulietEcho

      So long as she’s recovered (and staying recovered), then I don’t think it’s very important what she credits.  I mean, if you define God as the *idea of a God* and that’s the idea that helped her, then sure, God did do it.  Eating disorders – anorexia in particular – have a higher mortality rate than any other mental illness.  They can be extraordinarily difficult to conquer.  Whatever helps – or whatever people claim helped them – I’m just grateful that they found it.

      It does bring up a quandary though.  For me, as well as for thousands of other women in recovery from eating disorders, recovery isn’t something you accomplish so much as something that you have to keep accomplishing, every day.  If someone is using exclusively religious talk/ideas to stay in recovery, then a loss of faith on their part could be extremely dangerous.  If the idea that some God created you “the way you are,” or the concept of keeping yourself healthy because your body should be a  “temple” to God is what’s keeping someone afloat, then what happens to their recovery if it disappears?

      • Ida Know

        Those are pretty much the reasons why I chose not to engage her about it.

      • Anonymous

        But isn’t that a great argument AGAINST god-based recovery? I understand (as well as any outsider to EDs or addiction can) the desperate need for effective methods of any kind to bring the mental health issue under control. I can totally see why atheists familiar with these problems would think of religiosity as being very much a secondary priority to sobering-up/getting healthy/etc. However IF in fact god-based recovery leaves such a huge vulnerability to relapse through loss of faith, this in itself makes for a very convincing argument for pushing people away from faith-based programs.

        On the other hand, I don’t know that we can assume that a loss of faith would lead to a loss of control. What would be helpful would be to hear from people who went through recovery theists and then became atheist. Even better would be a wide study of people suffering from various mental health issues to see how outcomes were affected by a loss of faith, though I suppose it would be almost impossible to get many organizations to cooperate on that front, less it hamper their “You need God!” message.

        • JulietEcho

          I see your point, but as you point out, there are practical problems with doing anything about it.  

          Anecdotally, I was a Christian (well, a teen raised in a very Christian home) when I developed my eating disorder and an atheist by the time I achieved a steady recovery.  The two changes were perhaps not completely unrelated – my motivation to stay healthy comes from my determination to live a full and meaningful life (without an early death or interruption by this illness) – and since I’m pretty sure this is the only life I’ll get, I’m that much more determined to make the most of it and not let my eating disorder rob me of any more time or happiness.

          When people first leave their faith – especially if they were brought up in it – many of them talk about feeling depressed, anxious, and lonely for a period of time.  A kind of withdrawal, perhaps, from the community and comforting beliefs they were used to.  Extra stress, anxiety, and (especially) depression can trigger a relapse.  So even if the program/motivation someone used to recover was secular in nature, leaving a faith could still be dangerous.

          I’m not judging whether it’s worth it or not – I’m profoundly grateful that I’m not trapped in a conservative Christian worldview anymore – but it’s something that could be yet another hurdle a new atheist could face.

  • Clippo

    As a sober atheist in AA let me try to clarify something.  AA is not the twelve steps; AA is not the big book of alcoholics.  AA is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.  That’s it.

    AA is a wonderfully diverse and anarchic bunch of people.  In its diversity it is a good reflection of American society, and like the rest of America, it suffers from the disease of religion.  Don’t blame AA for religion.  We all need to work on the problem of freeing our society from the bonds of religion.

  • Jbcoffin

    Skipping past much of the stuff above, I’d like to emphasise a couple of points that get lost in the pros and cons of AA, as (mis)understood by the public and some of its members.

    I am writing as an atheist AA member, sober since 1988. I do not conceal my rejection of supernatural ‘higher powers’ nor do I stint in warning others of the extra complications they make for themselves in pursuing or inventing such beings.

    AA, like every other institution in the US, is under seige by the fundamentalist Right. Any given AA meeting is made up of those who show up. AA has no mechanism of enforcement to counter the influence of would-be swamis. Religion and psychology, in the worst forms, have constantly intruded into AA all the way back to 1939. Church groups blasted AA for not endorsing prohibition, catholics were told to stay away from AA because it might threaten the control the clergy had over them.

    Anyway, here are a series of quotes from AA literature (in chronoligical order) to emphasise how AA, as such, has tried to resist the invasion of pop-religion.

    Pamphlet—2 44 Questions ©1952
    IS A.A. A RELIGIOUS SOCIETY?
    A.A. is not a religious society, since it requires no definite religious belief as a condition of membership. Although it has been endorsed and approved by many religious leaders, it is not allied with any organization or sect. Included in its membership are Catholics, Protestants, Jews, members of other major religious bodies, agnostics, and atheists.
    The A.A. program of recovery from alcoholism is undeniably based on acceptance of certain spiritual values. The individual member is free to interpret those values as he or she thinks best, or not to think about them at all.
    Pamphlet—9 Memo to an Inmate who may be an Alcoholic ©1961
    WE ARE NOT RELIGIOUS
    A lot of people in A.A. talk about God or a Higher Power. But A.A. is not connected with any religion.
    The only reason a lot of us talk about God is that it helps us, not because we expect you to believe in the same things.Religion is a personal thing. You don’t have to believe in God to be a member of A.A. All you need is a desire to stop drinking. You can have any Higher Power you want, or none at all.Pamphlet—30 Is there an Alcoholic in your Life? ©1976NOT A RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONPerhaps the alcoholic in your life thinks that AA is an evangelical organization, heavy on religion and preaching. Again, the facts are different.A.A. has been described as, basically, a spiritual program. To be sure, it does not offer any material help, as a welfare department would. But A. A. is certainly not a religious organization. It does not ask its members to hold to any formal creed or perform any ritual or even to believe in God. Its members belong to all kinds of churches. Many belong to none. A.A. asks only that newcomers keep an open mind and respect the beliefs of others.Pamphlet—24 A Newcomer Asks ©1980IS A.A. A RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATION?No. Nor is it allied with any religious organization.Pamphlet—32 A.A. and the Gay/Lesbian Alcoholic ©1989.WE ARE NOT RELIGIOUSMany people in A.A. talk about “God” or a “Higher Power,” but A.A. is not connected with any religion. A.A. is a spiritual program, not a religious one.Faith is a personal thing and it is not necessary to believe in God or in any form of religion to be a member of A.A. All you need to be a member of A.A. is a desire to stop drinking.Atheists, agnostics and believers of all religious have a place in A.A.—provided they wish to stay away from the first drink.When people, inside AA or outside, make claims about ‘AA demands X,’ or ‘AA forces you to Y,’ remind yourself of these statements. ‘Our fellowship should include all who suffer from alcoholism, Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought AA membership ever depend upon money or conformity….’ (from the full text of the 3rd tradition0PS: the damn’ steps are optional. ritualizing step ‘work’ as a means of enforcing bogus conformity is a major symptom of the toxic bullshit that creeps into AA.
    The only reason a lot of us talk about God is that it helps us, not because we expect you to believe in the same things.
    Religion is a personal thing. You don’t have to believe in God to be a member of A.A. All you need is a desire to stop drinking. You can have any Higher Power you want, or none at all.
    Pamphlet—30 Is there an Alcoholic in your Life? ©1976
    NOT A RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATION
    Perhaps the alcoholic in your life thinks that AA is an evangelical organization, heavy on religion and preaching. Again, the facts are different.
    A.A. has been described as, basically, a spiritual program. To be sure, it does not offer any material help, as a welfare department would. But A. A. is certainly not a religious organization. It does not ask its members to hold to any formal creed or perform any ritual or even to believe in God. Its members belong to all kinds of churches. Many belong to none. A.A. asks only that newcomers keep an open mind and respect the beliefs of others.
    Pamphlet—24 A Newcomer Asks ©1980
    IS A.A. A RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATION?
    No. Nor is it allied with any religious organization.
    Pamphlet—32 A.A. and the Gay/Lesbian Alcoholic ©1989.
    WE ARE NOT RELIGIOUS
    Many people in A.A. talk about “God” or a “Higher Power,” but A.A. is not connected with any religion. A.A. is a spiritual program, not a religious one.
    Faith is a personal thing and it is not necessary to believe in God or in any form of religion to be a member of A.A. All you need to be a member of A.A. is a desire to stop drinking.
    Atheists, agnostics and believers of all religious have a place in A.A.—provided they wish to stay away from the first drink.

    When people, inside AA or outside, make claims about ‘AA demands X,’ or ‘AA forces you to Y,’ remind yourself of these statements. ‘Our fellowship should include all who suffer from alcoholism, Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought AA membership ever depend upon money or conformity….’ (from the full text of the 3rd tradition0

    PS: the damn’ steps are optional. ritualizing step ‘work’ as a means of enforcing bogus conformity is a major symptom of the toxic bullshit that creeps into AA.

    • TychaBrahe

      OK, that’s all well and good, but let’s start with the premise that AA was founded by members of a religious cult (the Oxford Group) with the purpose of reaching out to the drunks on Skid Row.   AA was never intended to help people get sober.  AA was intended to bring drunks to Jesus, who would make them sober.

      • John the Drunkard

        Tycha, you are repeating the argument of the stealth theocrats I am opposing. It is just not true.

        Bill Wilson’s attempts to preach to skid-row drunks failed completely. His own exposure to the Oxford Group came AFTER his ‘spiritual hot flash’ in Town’s Hospital. Ebby Thacher had only been exposed to the OG for a few weeks in Calvary Mission before his meeting with Bill. Rowland Hazard, the patient of Jung mentioned in the Big Book, who place Ebby in the mission; left no trace of ever being involved with the OG.

        In the same time frame; ‘Dr. Bob’ Smith had been attempting to stay sober via the OG’s principles. “I gave the matter much time and study for the next two and a half years, but I still got tight every night neverless.”

        AA’s foundation is counted from Dr. Smith’s last drink, July 10 1935. A washed up stock-broker reaching out to a proctologist, not to preach, but because he knew that attempting to help another (even though he had no success doing so before) would get him past his current urge to drink.

        Thus, AA’s origins imply a rejection of any class of ‘helper,’ any form of overt therapizing, any imposition of authority. In early stories, from the first edition of the Big Book, it is common for ‘helper’ and ‘helped’ to switch roles as the former relapsed. See the story ‘The Vicious Cycle’ where Jim Burwell, AA’s first prominent atheist, drags his drunken ‘sponsor’ back to New York when he himself had only been dry for a couple of weeks.

  • Anonymous

    AA serves three functions that I can see, from secondhand exposure.

    First, it provides a community of people with similar problems and diverse experiences, providing both the opportunity to learn from heterogeneous life experiences and the chance to network.  When these people aren’t too wrapped up in their dogmas to attend to the human needs of those around them, they’re supportive and give sufferers the chance to feel understood, though the community’s failure to seriously address the people who use AA as a “hunting ground” for emotionally vulnerable people to take personal, financial, or sexual advantage of (“thirteenth steppers”) and a reported tendency to demand that people look for “your part” in anything bad that happens to them up to and including being raped, potentially undermine this, as does the exclusionary dogmatic religiosity and the mindless, robotic insistence that what they are doing is not actually exclusionary, dogmatic, or religious (“gaslighting”).

    Second, alcoholics and other addicts tend to have very poor impulse control and in particular have a tendency to reassure themselves that their addiction isn’t real, that it’s manageable, that they’re not real alcoholics, that just one drink won’t hurt, that it’s okay because it’s LIGHT beer, ad nauseum.  Literally.  AA, if it works, embeds a powerful distrust for these impulses into a recovering alcoholic’s mind – this is the real function of the “powerless over” meme.

    Third, the whole “higher power” focus allows an addict to create a locus of control which is connected to them and related to themselves, but far enough outside of “them” to be credible above the level of the sort of self-deception above, and to remove the sense of responsibility from themselves enough that they can contemplate it without being crushed by it, while keeping it grounded to themselves enough to be able to assume effective control.  In theory.

    I assume most of the ways this could go wrong are pretty obvious. :/

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    The more suffering someone has gone through, the more attached they will tend to be to the method they used to escape, and the more defensive they might be if someone criticizes the shortcomings of that method. They can perceive that criticism as a threat that could send them back into the suffering again. It’s not a rational process, but with some empathy, it’s understandable.

    In these discussions, please use plenty of empathy for those who defend the way that worked for them, and also please be open-minded to new ways that will hopefully work for others. Never discourage someone from trying something new.  We need lots of methods, not just one.

    For 12 years I had nothing to recommend to my thousands and thousands of addicted patients  but 12-step programs, and I was so frustrated at being so limited. Telling the non-religious people to somehow translate it into some kind of secular way of support sometimes worked for them, and sometimes it didn’t. Religious or not, I tried and tried and tried, and they died and died and died.  It was like working in a makeshift morgue in a disaster that never ends. The hurricane doesn’t move on by. It just keeps killing, and the bodies keep coming in.  It broke my heart. Eventually I got so sick that heroin addicts were telling me I looked like crap. If you know how they can look, you get the irony. I had to get out or die too.

    The experience left me with no ability to shrug off anyone’s suffering, no matter how slight, no matter how they came by it. I’m unable to be indifferent, even though I’m often unable to help.

    To anyone who has escaped the hell of addiction, by whatever means necessary GOOD FOR YOU! Nobody deserves suffering like that. I’m very encouraged to see more tools becoming available for a wider variety of addicted people. We need every possible bit of help we can find. USE WHATEVER WORKS and be open to new ways too. 

    Don’t ever, ever give up.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ray.faraway.9 Ray Faraway

      Thanks for what you shared, and thanks for saving yourself in/from the process. It’s easy to give the advice that someone must be “detached” but it’s hard to live that in the middle of the chaos. Codependence, survivor’s guilt, of simply a kind empathetic heart can all serve to compound other people’s pain in us. Where you have no authority (over the choices someone else makes) you can have no responsibility.

  • John the Drunkard

    Hmmm. My previous post seems to be missing. Sorry about the typos etc.

    If anyone thinks that the hyper-religious, abusive AA that some have had the misfortune to encounter is in any way the ‘real thing;’ you might want to look at:

    http://aacultwatch.co.uk/default.aspx

    These fellows are opposing the introduction of creepy, cultish practices into English AA. (England’s member with the longest sobriety, 52 years, was an out atheist known as Dartmoor Bill).

    I will watch for Hornbacher’s book. Another recent volume you may want to see is: “Get Up” by Bucky Sinister, a strong atheist AA member in the  SF Bay area.

  • Hapman

    I find it refreshing that more and more lately, on “mainstream news outlets (CNN, NBC, FOX, ABC, etc) there are more and more articles and news stories about Atheism.

    Even when the stories aren’t always positive, its good to see that we are being recognized, not just swept under the rug and ignored.

    Guess its a “step” we have to take toward acceptance.

  • Kathy Greene

    I am a recovering alcoholic.  From age 56 to 60 I was in-patient 13 times in a variety of detox and rehab programs.  AA always frustrated me as I struggled to make sense of it while having no belief in a higher power.  Once I learned how low AA success rates were, admitted the ‘higher power’ thing made no sense to me (especially the door knob bit) and took back control (rather than ‘turn over’ control)  I was finally able to get sober on my own with support of friends and family.  
    I am from the south (read ‘bible belt) and I think AA meetings are different in different parts of the country.  Ones I attended in NYC and in Calif. were much easier to take and did not push the religion side of the program as much.

    I’m so glad to have found this  blog.

  • William Lemeshevsky

    My name is Bill and I am an alcoholic.  I’ve been recovering from alcoholism for 34 years.  I was a devout Xian, a daily mass attendee, who prayed that god help me stop drinking.  Once I had stopped imbibing I came to realize that it was not any invisible friend that had stopped me but that it had been multiple detox stays, counselors, as well as the more secular aspects of AA that had helped me to stop and stay stopped.
     
    One of the biggest problems that the degenerate drunk has in the beginning of recovery is that they have no life aside from drinking friends, invisible friends and AA does fill that emptiness.  The first 18 months I went to daily AA meetings; I lived in a city.  At that time the State Rehabilitation got me aimed at college and later grad school, my life became full and I never went to AA again.  I have always known other recovering alcoholics of like mind and we have our own little impromptu meetings.
     
    My name is Bill and I am an alcoholic.  I’ve been recovering from alcoholism for 34 years.  I was a devout Xian, a daily mass attendee, who prayed that god help me stop drinking.  Once I had stopped imbibing I came to realize that it was not any invisible friend that had stopped me but that it had been multiple detox stays, counselors, as well as the more secular aspects of AA that had helped me to stop and stay stopped.

  • William Lemeshevsky

    I remember that at meetings during those 18 months a group of people would leave the meeting when the Lord’s Prayer was coming up.  They’d smoke a butt or talk and then return to the meeting to mingle as the meeting was ending and coffee was being poured.   

  • Some_aa

    Wow. I’ve been going to AA meetings for years in heart of the so called “Bible Belt” and, even so, I’ve NOT ONCE heard anyone at a meeting make such a specific reference as “I’m sober by the blood of JC”. Sounds to me like someone took what was most assuredly an exceptional comment from a meeting and is blowing it out of proportion simply to advance an agenda.
    AA does promotes the concept of a higher power, though many AAs use the collective wisdom of the group as their “higher power” and thats the extent of it.

    In my home group we have many atheists who work the program , another adopts the practices of the Hopi Indians, and others consider  service work as their HP.  However most never disclose their concept of HP and its not necessary to so. What you believe is your business. 

  • Jaymagoo

    I’m an atheist, and I just celebrated 12 years in AA.   Oh?  you say?  Easy, I say.  I live in South Florida and we have three regular AA meetings for Atheists and Free-Thinkers.  You’d be amazed!  Never is a prayer uttered at our meetings, nobody suggests that you “Let God Do It,” or that you turn it over to your higher power.  And believe me, the members of my group, The “Alcoholics Anonymous Freethinkers of Fort Lauderdale,” are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. We meet every Thursday night at 7:30 at the Unitarian Church just off Oakland Park Blvd, three lights west of I-95.  If you’re tired of the AA meetings that have become fundie revival meetings, give us a try.

    Two other Atheist AA meetings are on Sunday morning at 11 at the Little River AA Clubhouse on 72 st., just east of US 1 in North Miami, and the “We Atheists” AA group which meets Friday nights in Boca. You’ll have to look that one up yourself..
    Joe Mc

  • oli kenton

    Greater Manchester Skeptics recently had a speaker (Tania Glyde) in to tell us about AA and her clean up. Discussion post talk, as is usually the case, got fiesty. What was interesting was that a number of the atheist skeptics who HAD gone through AA were adamant that turning your life over to a higher power didn’t mean god but could mean the group, your conscience, some other philosophy, basically anything you wanted. Also, while many of us balked at the declaration of powerlessnes before the problem (being more of a take the world by the horns kinda group), those who had gone through the program corrected us saying that by the point you need AA, you DO have no power over the problem. If you had power over it, you wouldn’t need AA. This declaration is more of a sweeping the clutter away and starting from the bottom.
    All in it was a fascinating talk and discussion and really opened my eyes to alcohol and drug addiction.
    One thing that is also evident both from these talks, discussions and my own study via the Open University is that everyone has their neural circuitry wired differently. Some people simply do not become addicted to booze or drugs and can quit them very easily, making a decision to stop and never having any great problem. For others, the addiction is monstrously powerful and can be very hard to fight. When you hear people saying “I just decided to stop smoking and that was it, haven’t smoked a single ciggy since. I think all these programs are daft, willpower is all you need” you must realise that they are lucky enough to have a brain setup that allows this and that “simple willpower” isn’t sufficient with someone with different head-wiring.

  • http://twitter.com/secularaa Secular AA

    Working this program is hard as an Atheist or Agnostic. There is a messageboard for meeting other secular AA members:
    http://secularaa.proboards.com/
    Hope this helps anyone who may need it.

  • Anonymous

    I am an atheist and I have been a satisfied member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 12 and a half years.  My sobriety date is Aug 29, 1999. Here in Fort Lauderdale we have at least three meetings set up by and maintained by non-believers.  My home group is the Fort Lauderdale Free-thinkers of Alcoholics Anonymous, and we meet every THursday night at 7:30 at the Unitarian Church just off Oakland Park Blvd.  What can I say? We don’t pray, we never have anybody talking about “let go and let God,” because that would cause eyes to roll all over the room. We don’t insist that you be a non-believer, we welcome everybody, the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.  That’s what it says, and we mean it.  We have a lot of very smart people in our group, and if you’re ever in Fort Lauderdale, stop in.  Introduce yourself and join our meeting.  You will experience AA without any of the mumbo-jumbo you hear in regluar AA meetings. And you will like it.
     
    Jay Mc

  • Don Gwinn

    I’ll read it and hope I find something good there.  12-step programs are full of stories about this guy or that guy that somebody “used to know” who decided that his Higher Power would be Arnold Palmer (“He said he loved golf, and Arnold Palmer was more powerful at golf than he was!”) or their local AA group.  Or, like Mrs. Hornbacher, the Law of Gravitation or mathematics or simply “The Universe.”

    I get that those are all, semantically speaking, things that can be described as “Higher Powers” since they’re all in some sense larger or more powerful than the individual addict (there’s usually reference to testing the proposed Higher Power by asking whether it can do something that the addict cannot do by himself.)

    What I do NOT understand and have never seen any explanation for is the logical leap from something like “Arnold Palmer is a Higher Power because he can do things to a golf ball that I cannot” to an idea like, “Arnold Palmer has a supernatural power over me, and if I pray to him, he will remove my desire to take another drink (just for today.)”  In other words, in AA and its offshoots, you are not asked to declare belief in something, anything greater than yourself and move on.  Once you choose a “Higher Power of your own understanding” you will be told to pray to it, to worship it, to ask it to guide you daily, to accept its will and forget your own.

    Yes, for anyone wondering, the Arnold Palmer story is one that was told to me recently in an OA meeting as evidence that atheism would be no barrier to “working the program.”  

  • David

    What got me most when I went to AA(was a theist when I first encountered AA in my early 20s drinking myself to death, then became an Atheist in my mid twenties and haven’t looked back in many years and will still think like this on my death bed, about to be 34 and going strong, sober), the dishonesty. I have watched people who believed in “God”(and the higher power the Big Book “suggests” people believe in has a mind, sentience, a will, forgives, gives grace, has an agenda/plan for my life, guided my life into AA to “save” me) and Atheists get sober and stay sober. When I pointed out that if the “end game” or the point of the steps is to establish a “relationship” with the “spirit of the universe” who DOES have a plan, a will, so on and so forth, why would he/she/it keep an Atheist sober when it only cements their disbelief? You can’t say that in a 12 step meeting without being accused of wanting a drink. Also when I would tell people who accused me of thinking that I’m special and unique that I merely think I am a drop of water in the vast ocean of humanity, they would cling to their idea that I think I’m special cause I’m the only one in the room who was saying that I’m not. Bullshit, the one who thinks they are special believes they were “chosen” by the creator of the universe(while other people who kill themselves drunk aren’t). That is the irony. I had to leave. To me, the obvious thing is that the Atheist who stays sober by doing the steps proves that there is no god required for sobriety. Any time I would point that out calling a spade a spade(me being “the devil”, the “bad guy”, the “dry drunk”, the “liar/dishonest person” etc etc), how many times would people mention the story in the 12 and 12 about Ed(I believe that was his name) but he was an early anti-theist who got about a year, praised the group, the steps, but hated this “god-nonsense” and he would speak louder, and louder, and angrier and angrier about this resentment. Then he drank and came to one day becoming a Christian. They so quickly point out that it was his disbelief that kept him from staying sober in the long run, yet they quickly sweep under the rug what the Big Book also says “resentment is the NUMBER ONE offender”. His anger caused the desire to return, NOT his Atheism. Point that out and again, you just want to drink. You’re not being honest. That’s just you running your own life, you sure think you’re special…blah blah blah. If they admit that I had a point, it would shake the very foundation of their entire world view. So ironic, a program that demands “rigorous honesty” and the ones who supposedly are “Mr. AA’s” are flat out(not always but often) incapable of basic truth and logic, not capable of just calling a spade a spade. IE:it is a RELIGION. They also say “it’s a spiritual program not a religious program” yet that is the same party line that Christians use when we call Christianity a religion, “it’s a relationship not a religion”. I had to leave, but good for the lady who wrote that book if she is happy in AA, there really is nothing quite like the fellowship.

  • Rachael C. Black

    your post caught my eye immediately. Had 12 years clean and sober in AA and relapsed. . coming back the 2nd time is so much more difficult, especially as an atheist. Will look for the book. thank you again.

  • Ben Spores

    I’m actually attending my first AA meeting in less than an hour. When I found out that it was somewhat god referring, I found myself pretty discusted. This post has givin me a bit of closure, I’m looking forward to the experience.

  • Ed

    Great article! I’ve been sober almost 14 years in AA and I always cringe when I hear other members say their own idea of God is the best way to understand the concept of a higher power. Belief or non belief in “God” is no obstacle to finding recovery in AA. Our literature is clear on this point… it’s a higher power as you understand it.

  • Alex Adieu

    I am in AA and I don’t believe in god. I do believe in meditation and prayer. When a person prays “God please save me” they internally have the expectation that there is someone out there that can “save them” from their addiction. Simply by taking that action THEY are reprogramming themselves internally (basically self hypnosis), therefore freedom from addiction is a self fulfilling prophecy. They FEEL it strongly enough, it has a greater effect than going and getting hypnotized and therefore seems to work better. Same when I do mantra chanting. I am changing myself internally resulting in freedom from my addiction. I also believe that there is no such thing as free will, we merely feel as though we have free will. So in that respect I am “powerless” over everything. If I have “self control” or appear to have it in one area, I could do nothing else given the situation as my “self will” is doing exactly and functioning exactly in accordance with the law of cause and effect. There is no “I” but the one I believe exists. Any and all choices I make are effects based on past causes. In other words, in the given situation I could not have made any other choice. I was riding in a car one time with someone and I flat out told him I don’t believe in grace as I had recently come back to AA off a relapse. He started in on this business about how his business improved, made more money, more customers, etc etc, ergo it was “the grace of god”. Then asked me in a confrontational way if that was all merely a “coincidence”. I was surprised by how he had this false dichotomy or assumed that I believed in his false dichotomy (without grace it is all “chance”) and I said of course not. There is no such thing as a coincidence. There is a symbiotic relationship between you and your environment. You changed on the inside and how your environment REACTED to you changed, including how the people bringing you business are now reacting to you differently than in the past. He seemed to readily accept my explanation as though it made more sense than “grace”. I’m not a Buddhist by the way although I believe very similar to a Nichiren Buddhist.

  • MikeDubose226

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