"It's helpful to remember that the Big Book encourages you to find your own concept of God."

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Episode 166 -- November 15, 2021

A Spark of Faith: Agnostics in AA

Those of us who are addicts are familiar with black-and-white thinking. There is this, or there is that. However, in recovery we are beginning to see that there is also gray in the world. For many of us, our concept of God or a Higher Power involves a lot of gray. We may not be sure what we believe and we don't necessarily understand why the Twelve Steps contain so much "God stuff."

In his book The 12 Steps Unplugged: A Young Person's Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous, John R. provides a new way of approaching the spiritual aspect of AA by unpacking what the Big Book says about the role of faith and belief in recovery from addiction. Though he's writing for a specific audience, John's topic is one that matters, no matter how old we get or how grown up we feel.

We learn that nobody is asking us to believe in one specific thing. We get to define God or our Higher Power for ourselves in the Twelve Step program—that is, we get to choose our own belief. Wherever you fall on the spectrum of faith, this excerpt can help you better understand the spiritual aspect of Twelve Step recovery.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

First of all, what is an agnostic? An agnostic is someone who isn't sure whether he or she believes in God. And what's an atheist? An atheist doesn't believe in God.

God. The very word gives some the heebie-jeebies. We see that word pop up on the page and we want to close the book. We want nothing to do with God.

Even those more comfortable with the idea of God carry some baggage. I was one of those. I was raised by devout parents, but I grew angry at God over a string of prayers not answered to my liking. Eventually, I shifted my faith from God to pot and alcohol. Though they let me down as well, I was too immersed in my addiction to find my way back to God.

Many readers of the Big Book feel uneasy, even defiant, toward God. Chapter 4 of the Big Book intends to calm some of those fears and ease that resistance. It's helpful to remember that the Big Book encourages you to find your own concept of God. The authors of the Big Book weren't speaking about the Jewish God, the Christian God, the Muslim God, or any other God of organized world religion. Their talk of God had nothing to do with organized religion—which is something separate altogether. When they said "God," they weren't saying, "This God." They were saying, "Your God—whoever that might be."

It helped me to know I didn't have to believe exactly what others believed. Perhaps that will help you as well. You can believe in your God—whoever that might be.

Still, the people who don't believe in a God or Higher Power of any sort find themselves in a tough spot. The Big Book does say, after all, that addiction will consume us if we don't accept spiritual help. If this is you, take heart in learning that about half of the original AA members were in the same boat. They considered themselves atheists or agnostics, and they didn't believe in any sort of God. But after giving AA's solution a try and discovering God could save them from the drink, they came to believe.

A Solution or a Crutch?
One of the program's premises is that we must find a spiritual basis for our lives. The authors remind us that our moral codes and life philosophies didn't give us any type of control. We had lost control. We had lost power. On our own, we couldn't stop using. Eventually, we realized that if we wanted to quit and stay quit, we had to find a Power greater than ourselves.

That's the AA definition of God: a Power greater than ourselves. We admit we lack the power necessary to stop our addiction. We admit we are not God. Then, we seek a Power greater than ourselves that can help us quit. This is the beginning of a spiritual approach to life. The Big Book serves as a guide to get us started on the solution.

Still, many of us faced barriers. Perhaps we had honest doubts. Or we had discarded childhood images of God that had outlived their usefulness. Or we had dismissed God as a crutch for those who are weak or stupid. Or we rebelled against whatever we'd been taught. Whatever the reason, any mention of God made us defensive. Nope, not for me.

We knew from the way drugs and alcohol roughed us up that we had to find another way. Beaten, many of us were open at least to examine what AA suggested. Freed from others' definition of God, we can develop our own concept of God.

The simple willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves is enough to start. That willingness opens us up to discovery.

Many people focus on nature when seeking a Power greater than themselves. Gazing upon a mountain ridge or across the ocean or up at the stars helps us feel part of something much bigger than us. Even in marveling at small details—a pinecone, a robin's egg, an agate—we gain a sense of awe. These can be stirrings of faith in a Power greater than ourselves.

God only knows where these stirrings will lead. There are all sorts of conceptions of God—as many as there are members in AA. Yet they seem to agree on one belief: a Power greater than themselves has accomplished the miraculous—what for them was not humanly possible. A Higher Power allowed them to quit drinking and drugging, empowering them to change their way of thinking and living. A Higher Power can bring us peace, happiness, and a sense of purpose. Millions of people worldwide have discovered this for themselves.

Seeing through New Eyes
The change required in our thinking and living is nothing short of radical. We need to see the world through new eyes.

Our drinking and drugging has forced us to find a new way to look at life. If we don't want to stay on the destructive path of addiction, we need to try a new path. Our ideas hadn't worked for us. The God idea had worked for others. For all of the facts only a mouse click away, no one has a complete understanding of God. No one has cornered the market on truth. Beware those who tell you they have! God remains a mystery.

We still must search within ourselves to explore that mystery. It can help to listen to other people's journeys. Many of the personal stories in the Big Book can guide our own exploration. We can learn from the struggles, fumblings, and discoveries of fellow pilgrims and apply what they've learned to our own journey.

As we open our hearts and our ears (remember how addiction had closed them up?), we may discover some surprises about ourselves. For instance, we might be surprised to realize we were a people of faith, even if we placed our faith squarely upon our own thinking. We might also realize that worship was already a part of our lives, though maybe what we worshipped—drugs, for example—only hurt us. Further, we might discover we were believers, even if it was simply in the existence of life itself. The spiritual life might not be such a stretch for us, after all.

No Thunder, No Lightning
In chapter 4 of the Big Book, we meet a minister's son, an atheist who is lying in a hospital bed. Suddenly he realizes, Who am I to say there is no God? After all, his drinking had brought him to his knees. He felt an immediate conviction and God's presence. That set him on the road to recovery. He never drank again.

Most spiritual experiences aren't that dramatic. They happen without lightning bolts, without thunderclaps. They occur slowly and subtly. Gradually, we come to believe. Gradually, we change our way of thinking and living. Gradually, we accept that God has done for us what we couldn't do for ourselves. Gradually, we become a miracle of recovery. The Big Book suggests that the fundamental belief in God resides in you as well. All you have to do is be willing and open to the idea and you'll likely become aware of your faith. You'll discover your concept of God.

About the Author:
John R. sobered up at seventeen, before he was old enough to legally drink. Over twenty years of continuous sobriety, he has worked as a chemical dependency counselor with young people in high schools and residential treatment centers. He also has written extensively on the subject of adolescent addiction and recovery. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and their two children, but calls his Thursday night AA group home.

© 2003 by John Rosengren
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