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Why Alcoholics Anonymous Works Where All Else Fails… and Also Why It Fails; The Higher Power. Part Two of Many.


Now it’s a series…

This won’t be a post in which I try to convince anyone they should believe in God – the attempt is almost as useless as trying to convince someone they shouldn’t believe… or better, that they’re an addict or alcoholic in the first place.  As discussed in the first post, the decision that one is an addict or alcoholic has to be arrived at… or not.  The fun part is, those who do believe think those who don’t believe in God are just as nuts as those who don’t believe think those who do are nuts for believing… and that’s why that conversation is so hard – there’s just too much damned ego on both sides getting in the way – I’m stupid, you’re stupid, and we’re all stuck on stupid when it comes to a Higher Power (or for the others, higher power).  For this series, I am going to do my best to remove my (rather large, but competently caged) ego from the equation and take AA’s position; believe or don’t, but find a power greater than yourself to believe in. (Even if it’s what happens when one alcoholic meets with another over a cup of coffee and a resentment, working for a solution; miracles happen every time, and that’s good enough to call yourself a member and open yourself to a new and exciting way of life.)

I believe where we drive off the path when it comes to God, it often boils down to ignorance, self-centeredness and, not ironically, ego.

On one hand, you’ve got God’s cheerleader squad who, for some Godforsaken reason, insist on adding that they believe in a “Higher Power, that they choose to call their savior, Jesus Christ” every time they open their mouth in a meeting.  This is, for the agnostic or atheist, bad for business.  What they hear is, “you’re supposed to believe this in AA too, and you’re an idiot for not believing the way I do”, and it rightly turns them away.  That behavior isn’t in the Big Book.  Or the other Big Book, for that matter.

The atheist or agnostic is missing the point at the same time, though.  They’re looking at this in anger, rather than compassion.  What that person, the cheer leader, is really saying is, “I’m so insecure, I’ve done such wrong, I’ve gotta try to buy my way into heaven by shouting from the hilltop that Jesus is my savior.”  All I can think of is the warning in the Bible to be weary of the guy on the hill with the trumpet.  And that helps me remember that which is most important:

Folks, this is nothing to get angry over.  The correct response is to feel sorry for that person because that is a sick person.

On the other hand, we’ve got the atheist or agnostic, who, at every mention of “God” in a meeting, gets steamed.  As long as a meeting goes off without a mention of God, they’re fine, but they always wait to share till the last, so that if God makes an appearance, they can clamp down like a bear trap about how there shouldn’t be any “God or Jesus” mentioned in a meeting.  They’re the exact opposite that of God’s cheer leading squad.  And they’re just as sad and sick as the cheer leader.  Now here, I have to rely on speculation a little bit, because I only think I understand the atheist or agnostic… and not unlike the cheer leader, even if I had them pegged perfectly, their ego wouldn’t allow for them to be put in that box anyway.  And that’s a huge problem, especially when we have to exorcise the demon that is ego in the first place.

Again, though, when I’m on my game I can see the anger that comes from the atheist as I would a sick friend just the same.  The exact same way I treat the cheer leader.

The most important thing to recovery is that we somehow find a power greater than us.  My (and everyone else’s) best thinking landed me at the doorstep of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  If we know anything, we know we can’t fix the problems we created with the same thinking that created the problems in the first place – and I suck at changing my own thinking – especially when we’re egomaniacs with an inferiority complex to begin with.  Belief in God as a Higher Power makes that simple.  Relying on the group’s collective wisdom, as I understand it, would be the next best thing.

However, while some love to say that you could make your higher power an ashtray, I highly recommend against that silliness.  For the purposes of “working the steps” an ashtray is right up there with an actual ass.   The point is, all you have to do is find something greater than you.  What happens when alcoholics and addicts meet to overcome their addiction is the very definition of “greater than me”.  By myself, I’m not very good at recovery.  Sitting in the middle of the wagon, I’m pretty excellent at it, therefore it’s a power greater than me.

The point is, don’t let the concept of God throw you off from the greatness that can be achieved in AA.  There’s a whole chapter devoted specifically to those who have a problem grasping the idea (We Agnostics pg 44 – 57).  For those who don’t have a problem grasping a Higher Power, save tooting on your Jesus horn for those at church.  You’re not impressing anyone, and you’re likely doing as much harm as good.  Jesus, like AA, is better through attraction than promotion.  You want other people to come to you to ask you how you could possibly be as calm and happy as you are.  That’s when you let them know that Jesus saved you.  Putting the cart before the horse is a ham-handed way of going about it that’ll turn off five times more people than it turns on.

The second reason people don’t make it in AA is they have a problem with the God thing.  Don’t – there are enough workarounds to get you where you need to be.

And for both sides, don’t look at the other as wrong, evil, stupid or worse.  They’re not.  Look at them as you would a sick friend.  You wouldn’t look at a person with late term lung cancer and proclaim, “Wow, I bet you’re sorry you smoked so much now!”  You don’t have to play Captain Obvious.  They just don’t get it.  Yet.  With time and a little bit of effort, rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed the path.

Just follow the freakin’ path.

UPDATE:  Please scroll down to the comments section for Bryan B’s perspective.  It’s excellently succinct.



  1. unironedman says:

    Great post, as always. I suspect some of the issues some folks have here are not with the concept of ‘power’ or ‘god’, but with the phrase ‘higher’. So in times like these, I would suggest folk just put their faith out there and see what happens. Personally, I’m in the non-believer camp, but I don’t tend to wave it around or get upset if others in the room DO have a religious faith. Each to their own should work perfectly well, as long as we all have respect for the other position.

    But when the shit is hitting the fan (and anyone standing close), just the act of putting your problems out there and talking about it is a good start. And that is an act of faith, whether or not we believe in a god or not.

    So I’ll finish with a really cheesy Limerick I made up once, in the bathroom, of all places…

    “Hear me know when I say
    Don’t matter to which god you pray
    ‘Coz even my shower’s
    Got a higher power
    That’s how you stay clean, with AA”

    Like I said, cheesy!

  2. annastk76 says:

    Thank you for writing this. This is the stuff that would have people flock to AA more. Me too. If you were the chair of the meeting, I’d be in the front row. This nails it on so many levels. 👍👍👍👍👍

  3. Bryan B says:

    The longer I am in AA, I have found that I am more agnostic about the religious understanding of god. If I get run off because of “the god stuff”, I’m just not finished drinking. My sponsor would say, “You’re just homesick for hell.” Whether it’s a Group Of Drunks, Jesus Christ, Buddha or Good Orderly Direction, doesn’t matter to me. There is something special when a newcomer walks in the door and says he’s an alcoholic and needs help. The Spirit of AA is activated and the miracle begins. That is the essence of a higher power. When every other resource has given up, AA steps in and offers help, with no contingencies. AA was my last hope and it saved my life. For that, I am truly grateful.

    • bgddyjim says:

      That’s beautifully put, Bryan. Thank you for adding your experience to my post. I’ll be sure to amend it to direct people to your comment.

  4. joliesattic says:

    Love this!! Sometimes, I get put off by piety and the person who uses God as a weapon rather than a tool and I don’t mean tool negatively. Relying on a higher power means accepting you need something or someone stronger than you are at the moment.

  5. Eliza says:

    Thanks for sharing this!!!! I love it.
    It has always frustrated me when people try to push their definitions on others. For myself I learned to let it go. It bothers me that so many think the 12 steps are associated with religion, when they really don’t have to be. People try so hard to cling to their beliefs and believe that they are right that they sonetimes can’t see the similarities or where someone is saying the same just using different terminology. It’s not the words themselves that count.
    Love, light, and glitter

  6. curlymamaof2 says:

    2 things:
    1 – “we’re egomaniacs with an inferiority complex” OMG. Yesssss. I am that! 🙌🏻
    2 – I tend to agree with another post above about being put off by religious piety. What I call “churchy people”. I do believe in God. But I find it helpful and reassuring when I don’t always fit in with said “churchy people” that Jesus didn’t either. (Flipping tables and calling religious leaders snakes come to mind).

    Great post!

  7. […] Three in this series is going to be fun.  Part One is (here), Part Two is (here).  I’m going to get into why AA fails for the abundant folks who can’t (or […]

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