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The God Concept in Alcoholics Anonymous

By Comments off By the Numbers: The God Concept in Alcoholics Anonymous

If you go to a 12-step meeting such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, you’re gonna hear the G word: “God.” I have had clients reject the idea of AA or NA solely because they were atheist and they were uncomfortable or even insulted by the idea that a god would help them with their problem. I have also had clients claim their objection to AA is God when in reality, it became clear that their real objection was not being able to drink anymore!

Let’s debate 🙂

AA as a spiritual solution

In a chapter entitled “We Agnostics,” the book Alcoholics Anonymous states, “About half of our original fellowship were exactly of that type,” meaning atheist or agnostic. Alcoholics Anonymous makes the case that alcoholism is a spiritual malady that requires a spiritual solution. However, there’s also a chapter in the book—which was written in the 1930’s—called “The Doctor’s Opinion” that makes as good a case for the disease concept as anything in the field today. At that time, there was much debate about whether alcoholism was a disease or a moral dilemma. Glad we got past that, eh? (Ha!)

“God as we understood Him” is the way God is written about in the 12 steps of AA (pardon the gender-specific reference). That phrase exists thanks to Sister Ignatia in Akron, Ohio. She was trying to overcome the opposition of a Catholic priest from Cleveland who was objecting to alcoholic parishioners coming to Akron to attend a meeting of the Oxford Group, where there was an “Alcoholic Squad” of individuals seeking recovery. Yes, AA had its beginnings in a Christ-centric organization.

The Higher Power of AA/NA

I used to make the argument that there was no specific dogma in AA. That’s an argument that’s hard to win with statements like, “You can pray any way you want to, but here are a number of suggested prayers.”

AA has a number of clichés that some members take as seriously as commandments. One of the axioms you’ll hear in AA is this:

“Your higher power can be anything! Make it nature! Make it the group!”

“Can I make it my sponsor?”

“Oh no!”

“But you said anything!”

So while AA members tell us that it doesn’t have to be G-O-D, the book Alcoholics Anonymous, the basic text its members use, contains the G word and He and Him (with a capital H) an awful lot.

My own journey

I spent a portion of the late 60s and early 70s on a spiritual quest that took me to a lot of strange addresses and included some that were more traditional. I got clean in 1991. It was my fourth treatment. When I got serious about my recovery, I came face to face with the G-O-D thing.

My experience with a higher power was intellectual at first, and sometimes still is. After being shamed after a meeting early in my recovery about “sounding like I’ve got it all figured out” in regard to humankind’s relationship to God, I gave up trying to understand “it.” Some days I’m an atheist and some days I am agnostic and some days a believer. It did and sometimes still does drive me crazy.

A number of years ago and well in to my recovery journey, Mother Teresa’s diary from her years in Calcutta was discovered.

Seems Mother Teresa was tortured about her faith and about her relationship to something she could not define or understand. I remember thinking, “Yes! If that’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for me.”

So I’ve come to my microwave analogy of my relationship to my higher power. I do not know what God is. I don’t know if or how prayer works. It’s kind of like my microwave. I don’t really know how it works. I can wax intellectual about an electro-magnetic force that jiggles moisture molecules, but the truth is, if that piece of machinery goes down, I don’t take the back off to have a look inside. This lack of understanding does not keep me from using my microwave! Stick stuff in there, press the right buttons, stuff gets hot. That’s all I need to know.

It’s been a process of evolution for me, but I now think of the 12 steps as the “buttons” for my relationship with whatever God is. I know they’ve helped me in every other relationship, so why not with that one?

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