When I first read about the 12 steps I didn’t dwell on the words “A power greater than ourselves” or “God”. For me, it was all about introspection and discipline; take a better look at yourself, be honest and make sure you keep away from the drink, drugs, gambling, or whatever it is that you don’t have control over.
And then I met someone who left AA because he couldn’t accept the Higher Power part. He was an atheist and it didn’t make much sense to him. I didn’t enquire further. But now I know that being an atheist, or agnostic, and a member of AA is not a contradiction.
After joining AA fellowships, people are expected to have a spiritual awakening and to identify their understanding of Higher Power. Yet, God has as many meanings as there are people who believe in Him. It can be a Christian God but often it is not: it can be a sense of a personal and sacred mystery or wonder, whether that be the wonder of Mother Nature, or of science or in the memorable words of one former patient, “an electrical force that binds everything in the universe”. One can even look to the very existence of support groups like AA. Recently, a former Castle Craig patient who has been sober for almost a year, wrote to us about his experience:
“When I started my recovery I didn’t have faith in a Higher Power. I didn’t have much faith in anything or anyone. But when I saw the other addicts helping others maintain sobriety, I placed my faith in them. They showed me that it was possible.”
“Everyone has a religion,” writes Scott Peck, psychiatrist and author of the best selling book The Road Less Travelled “since everyone has some understanding – some world view, no matter how limited or primitive or inaccurate…” It is this realisation that can help the agnostic to come to terms with a Higher Power. “However you define it,” says Dr. Margaret Ann McCann, Castle Craig’s medical director, “the key thing about Higher Power is that it will keep you clean and sober.”
The Problem is Alcoholism
Jowita Bydlowska, a member of an agnostic AA group who writes for the online magazine The Fix says that her fellowship gave up using the words ‘Higher Power’. They decided to “remain ambiguous about their own beliefs in what is helping them to recover and stay sober.”
“My problem is not agnosticism”, writes Bydlowska, “it’s alcoholism”. She reminds us of what Bill W., one of the founders of AA, wrote about the 12 steps: “We must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them, as they stand, is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made AA available to thousands who never would have tried at all had we insisted on the 12 Steps just as written.”
If you would like to make a contribution to this subject and share your insights and experiences about your Higher Power, please leave us a comment.
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | April 26, 2013