In the chapter “We Agnostics” in the book ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ (aka Big Book), it suggests that agnostics and atheists can often struggle with the concept of God; due to “a particular idea” with which they were conditioned with during childhood. “Perhaps we rejected this particular conception because it seemed inadequate. With that rejection we imagined we had abandoned the God idea entirely.” (p.45, 3rd ed)
The Christian concept of God, which I was conditioned with during my childhood, as are many, has been a large barrier in relation to developing a connection with a Power Greater than myself in recovery from addiction. I have found it difficult to relate to traditional language and ideas where the concept of God is concerned, and also held resentment against it. I couldn’t get past my own history of suffering or that of others in this world. It seemed a nonsense to believe in “a loving God, who is personal to me.”
My resentment against traditional Christian ideas caused me to disconnect from the 12 Steps of AA, more or less completely, for a significant period of time in recovery, to the extent that I didn’t see much point in being a member of the Fellowship. I was on the verge of leaving Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and had lost my motivation to attend meetings. I then discovered the book ‘Not-God, A History of Alcoholics Anonymous’, by Ernest Kurtz. This book gave me a much greater insight and understanding in relation to the influences upon the AA fellowship and its philosophy, and in particular its liberal principles. I began to see a way forward in my relationship with the 12 Steps. I realised that I could replace the language and ideas within the Big Book of AA with concepts that were meaningful to me.
“When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, too, to other spiritual expressions which you find in this book. Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you.”
Alcoholics Anonymous, p.47.
The process of relating to the language and ideas within AA literature as metaphor has continued to enable me to connect with the 12 Steps and the concept of a “Power Greater than myself.”
I can appreciate that this translation process is not acceptable to some agnostics and atheists in the Fellowship of AA, and that they choose to more or less reject the Steps. This is not my path in recovery. I have become open to a naturalistic, rather than supernatural, relationship with the concept of ‘spirituality’. In using the word spirituality, I mean the experiences of life that seem and feel more than purely material, or more than the sum of their parts. The phenomena of consciousness and love being good examples. The mystery of our existence is awe inspiring to me and worthy of reverence and contemplation.
I’ve increasingly realised that the main reason I have difficulty with the language used within AA literature, apart from it being outdated, is that it primarily promotes a dualistic concept in relation to God. The idea of separation; of a higher power transcendent, beyond or outside of the self or nature. Liberal principles allow me to reject this idea and conceive of a power greater than myself in a non-dualistic, holistic, or monistic sense. This approach works well for me and accords with my world view. It’s all connected! I have found humanistic ideas (e.g., self-actualisation) and some of the eastern traditions, e.g., Hinduism (yoga), Buddhism and Taoism, helpful in this respect.
It does suggest on pages 55 (“Great Reality deep down within us”) and 570 (“an unsuspected inner resource”), 3rd ed, Big Book, that this “Power greater” can exist within us or be part of ourselves. It can be thought of as our essential nature which lies beyond the ego.
The following passages, taken from various sources, have been helpful to me in my quest to find an authentic relationship with spirituality and the concept of a Power Greater than myself:
The God Word
“Whilst I respect that many AA members believe in a God of their understanding, I cannot conceive of a supernatural being that resides in the sky, has human characteristics, especially those of the male gender, and organises me and everyone else as if it were a master puppeteer. And yet I have no difficulty in accepting a power greater than myself, and that such acceptance is vital to my continued recovery. I guess that makes me agnostic, but I don’t like to be defined by labels, although I do use it when in the presence of someone who is struggling to find a power greater than themselves.
The power of the AA group is undoubtedly greater than myself, and involvement with this power is vital to my continued recovery: as Aristotle said: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. But in my daily life outside of meetings, and indeed to practice the “God Steps”, I need a different conception of a power greater than myself. On page 55 of the Big Book it says: “We found the great reality deep down within us”. Through the practice of daily meditation I sense, beneath the mental chatter and the fleeting bodily feelings, a deep sense of calm and peace, from which I draw strength to be able to deal with all that occurs in my daily life (“the power to carry it out”, as it says in Step 11). This I identify as my true nature, which is common to all of us. It is also, for me, the great reality that is referred to in the Big Book, is beyond all concepts and labels, and defies all attempts at description.”
“The origin of the word spirit is Greek. It means “breath.” That which stirs within, slows or quickens, goes deep or dies out. When I speak of spirit, I am not speaking of something related to or given by a force outside ourselves. I am speaking of the force that is ourselves. The experience of living in this world, bound by a body, space, and time, woven into the fabric of human history, human connection, and human life. This is the force that feels and thinks and gives us consciousness at all; it is our awareness of presence in the world. It is the deepest, most elemental, most integral part of who we are; it is who we are.
So when I speak of spirit, I’m speaking of something that frustratingly defies articulation, because we have few words for spiritual beyond those that refer back to a God. But not believing in a God is not opposed to a belief in an aspect of the self that can be called spiritual. The latter is experienced, and defined, very personally, and is different for each individual.
I am not speaking of some universal or transcendent “Spirit” that exists outside of us; I am speaking of the human spirit that exists in each of us. I’m speaking of something that is urgently important in ourselves, the very thing that’s sent us searching, the thing that feels the longing, the thing that comes knocking on the door of our emotionally and intellectually closed lives and asks to be let in.
When we let it in, and only when we do, we begin to be integrated people. We begin to find integrity in who we are. We are not just a body, not just a mind, not just a mass of emotions, not just people dragging around the dusty bag of our pasts. We have depth and wholeness, not shattered bits of self that never seem to hold together properly. And we begin to walk a spiritual path.
This path is not toward a known entity of any kind. Rather, it is the path that leads through. And there are many points along the way where we stop, or we fumble, or we get tangled up or turned around.
And those are the places where we wait. We’re not waiting for the voice of God, or for the lightning-bolt spiritual experience. We’re not waiting to be saved or carried. We’re waiting for our own inner voice—for lack of a better word, I’m going to keep calling it spirit—to tell us where to go next. It will.”
“I do not know if there is a God, if there is a Higher Power…. I do not, myself, believe that there is a personified God, a deity to whom I pray and by whom I am guided and who intervenes in my daily life. I do not find a source of comfort in a singular religious or spiritual figure, nor do I have a God to question when things go wrong in my life or in the world.
That I myself do not have or know such a God does not mean one does not exist. It only means I do not believe it exists. I am only one, incredibly flawed, absolutely limited human mind—one spirit—among millions more. But it is precisely this limitation—the fact that I can know only so much of the nature of things, of spirit, of universal truth—that is, paradoxically, the source of my spirituality.
Because, lacking a sense of a God above, but aware of the spiritual nature of myself—the spiritual nature of, I believe, all human beings—I find myself in need of a spiritual life here on the ground. A spiritual life that is not theoretical, but practical. A way of living spiritually—here, in this life, bounded by space and time, both in connection with others and in solitude, here in this living world.”
Read a review of Marya Hornbacher’s book on AA Agnostica here.
“Lots of us confuse spirituality and religion. The words are often used interchangeably and we must realize that they shouldn’t be, for they have different meanings. To call religion spiritual is true, but religion is only one source of spiritual power. There are many, many others.
The word spirit comes from a Latin word that means breath, life, vigor. We call something spiritual when it represents life or when it enhances life.
There are people who center their spirituality on religious practices and principles. There are others who find spiritual connections with things totally outside of any religious framework. As far as spirituality is concerned, to believe in a God or not to believe in a God doesn’t matter. What matters is to have faith in our spiritual self – in other words, to have faith in the energy that gives us life.
The phrase “spiritual resources” can be interpreted in many ways. Does it have to mean something great and mystical? Probably not. Does it mean there are a certain number of clearly defined sources of power that we can tap into? No. There are many sources of spiritual power, more than any of us will ever be aware of or be able to use.
Spiritual power comes from whatever gives us peace, hope or strength and enhances our humanity.”
“Buddhist prayer is a practice to awaken our inherent inner capacities of strength, compassion and wisdom rather than to petition external forces based on fear, idolizing, and worldly and/or heavenly gain. Buddhist prayer is a form of meditation; it is a practice of inner reconditioning. Buddhist prayer replaces the negative with the virtuous and points us to the blessings of life.
For Buddhists, prayer expresses an aspiration to pull something into one’s life, like some new energy or purifying influence and share it with all beings. Likewise, prayer inspires our hearts towards wisdom and compassion for others and ourselves. It allows us to turn our hearts and minds to the beneficial, rousing our thoughts and actions towards Awakening. If we believe in something enough, it will take hold of us. In other words, believing in it, we will become what we believe.”
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
“In relation to 12-step philosophy: nothing says a higher power has to be external to the self…. It might be interpreted as: the unity of all things; the web of existence of which I am a part; a force for good; the persistence of love despite the pointlessness of existence. Maybe I have been unusually fortunate in my 12-step journey, but I find so much of the critique about “12 step programs” is actually a critique of literalistic and non-experiential interpretations of it, or of the limited interpretations of it…. Yes, I guess it is easy to interpret “greater than oneself” as meaning ‘outside oneself,’ and to interpret that as meaning one is supposed to surrender to some Other Being outside the self. But…those are interpretations.
Self might mean: ego, and the power greater than it, is love. It might mean: will, and the power greater than it is, the laws of physics that make it impossible for me to will myself to fly. For me, the transformative idea of my 12-step experience was that I wasn’t going to figure out how to live so as not to be miserable and addicted, by thinking more and harder about it.
Intellect/intelligence was how I had navigated up to that point; it was my great strength, the root of my identity, my pride and joy, my vocation, and yet I was unable to think my way out of my obsession to use; I was unable to think my way into happiness. So to me, surrendering to a ‘higher power’ meant learning to stop literally wracking (and frying) my brain to figure out how to fix me, and open up to other kinds of guidance. The idea that I could learn through experience, through feelings and intuitions, through action, through making mistakes, through what others had to say, through connection to others, through the passage of time was revelatory, and there was no Jesus or Heavenly Father anywhere involved. I have never felt pressured by anyone in NA, AA, or Al-Anon, in the many thousands of meetings I’ve attended, to understand ‘higher power’ some other way or someone else’s way or any particular way. The word ‘God’ has so many connotations in our patriarchal Christian culture, it can be off putting, and when I was first getting clean honestly I just kind of ignored it and paid attention to the comfort I was finding being with other people who understood my dilemma and were trying new things to move forward in their own lives.
Now I think of ‘God’ as a shorthanded way of describing the miraculous and inexplicable fact of my own existence on this inexplicable planet/universe, and the interconnectedness of all things. That is what ‘higher power’ means to me, but the ability to live in awareness of this, and act in accordance with it–aka, with some humility and gratitude and a sense of perspective about what really matters in life and is worth my attention and care– is all internal to me…. I do think some of the critique of 12 step ideas, does arise from interpretations of language that are much narrower and more literal, than what the language means to convey. I found my way by learning that I had a much too narrow concept of what my internal resources consisted of, and that there was more to me than my intellect understood; and that there were external resources too, and nothing wrong with availing myself of them.
Comments by Lisa K, 12 Step Group Member.
“Can silence be an answer to the hard questions we ask? How can we interpret silence?
Marya Hornbacher (MH): “Waiting: A Non-Believer’s Higher Powerlooks at exactly that question or premise that our hard questions will be met with silence (if we are looking for answers from without), and that as sentient beings it will be up to us how we interpret those silences. The book’s purpose is to give readers a sense that their own process of “waiting” — often in silence, or in quietude listening to the spiritual self — is a spiritual process, and a means of discovering our own answers to those hard questions.”
What is the relationship and interconnectedness of humans and nature? Are they separate entities?
MH: “This reminds me of the funny distinction we often make between the physical body and the mind, or “self.” We are the body. The body, nature, and all that is around us is not something else, but is actually what we’re made of. We consist of all we see, all we touch, taste, and breathe. We are no more than, no less than, matter; and yet, what a wonder that from matter arises beauty, consciousness, oceans, heartbeats, glaciers, cultures, and breath. The spiritual self has evolved as much as the physical self. I think it is helpful to remain mindful of the fact that we are but a fragment of all that is. It keeps us aware of both our smallness and our responsibility to one another, and to the world.
A quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson sums this up: “So we are all connected, to each other biologically, to the Earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically.”
Do you consider yourself atheist or agnostic? Where did all of this come from, what created it, why are we here, where are we going?
MH: “I can’t say that the terms are significant to me; I think each has gathered connotations that make it less helpful in understanding a person’s spiritual perspective, rather than more. The where, what and why are really the central premise of Waiting, and a big piece of my spiritual practice: not knowing is the nature of the human condition, and I feel it can teach us humility and acceptance in a very deep sense.
The only portion of that question I’d begin to take a stab at is “why are we here,” and I would come up with a number of answers. The one most key to my spiritual practice, though, is the belief that we are here in great part for each other. I find my sense of purpose in focusing more on the needs I can try to meet in the human community, and less on determining answers to things I am incapable of answering.”
In the book Everyday Spiritual Practice, Scott Alexander defines spirituality as “our relationship with the Spirit of Life, whatever we understand the Spirit of Life to be. Our spirituality is our deep, reflective, and expressed response to the awe, wonder, joy, pain, and grief of being alive.”