Does Everyone Need a Higher Power?

This is the second in a series of articles that life-j wrote for publication by the Grapevine. We are posting these on a monthly basis, the first in the series “The Thing About AA” was published on August 4, 2019. 

With the Grapevine book “One Big Tent” AA has finally given recognition to something tens of thousands of us in AA have known for a long time: It is entirely possible to stay sober, live a good healthy sober life in AA without any god or higher power.

Some people seem to need a god or a higher power, or it is just in their nature. Most people in the US have still been raised in a Christian tradition, and they are comfortable with it. To them it is a great comfort to have a god in their life. I have observed the peace and direction this seems to give to many people, and I have no intention of questioning that. But I would like to suggest that we move toward a program where it no longer feels like it is mandatory for those of us who do better without.

I am aware that it isn’t mandatory in an absolute sense. There are no AA police telling me to. But much of our literature seems to tell me to. The Big Book in no uncertain terms tells me I must find God if I want to have a chance of staying sober. And that has just not been my experience. And I’m not a lone AA nut. There are tens of thousands of us, and we do feel kind of aggrieved by it all.

So now, I want to ask, can you think of anything bad that could come of it, if we had a program which just left the god business up to each individual? All the good people in AA that have a god, I don’t want to take that away from their personal program. I don’t even wish I could. I’m happy with whatever works for everyone. It’s just that for me, personally, and many like me the god parts can actually be a hindrance, so we’d like to not feel so put upon by it. I know out there in the big world there are people who would like to in general do what they can to impose their religion and their views on everyone else, but in AA we consider ourselves more open-minded and enlightened than that. We’re just sharing a spiritual program, not a religion, right?

I look at the 500 million Buddhists in this world who have no gods per se, but seem to be very spiritual, so evidently a god is not necessary for a spiritual life, even if it feels like it for so many, and again I’m not trying to take anyone’s god away from them, I am only trying to take it away from me. And to do that it seems we need to take out the pressure to have a higher power in the program, our program, the one we work together, our literature.

I’m not out to burn the Big Book. Even if I don’t like it very much myself, I know many people do. So of course, we want to keep it for them. But let’s start looking forward, and develop some new literature which is secular, which neither tells you to have or not have a higher power.

It has seemed for a long time now to be a must in AA to have a higher power. I’m sometimes told it doesn’t even have to be a god in the usual sense, it can be a lot of things. The group, the ocean, a doorknob.

But the way I see it, if it’s got to make any sense, a higher power must be something you can pray to, which in turn hears you, considers your prayers, and then according to its own choice, may or may not step into your life and intervene, make changes to your own personal life or to the whole world around you.

Seems that can really only be a deity of some sort, something above the laws of physics. I hear the group can be my higher power, but I can’t really pray to the group. At least I figure the group will not in some divine manner intervene in my life and fix things. What the group does, however, is help me, but that doesn’t make it into a divine sort of higher power. It just means we do things together.

Just because something is stronger or more powerful than me doesn’t make it into any sort of higher power. The ocean is a force stronger than me, obviously, but no matter how much I pray to it, it is still just going to be an ocean, doing what oceans do. It won’t listen to my prayers. The only time it will make changes to my life if I stupidly ignore its power, like if I turn my back on a rogue wave, things could change quickly.

This is all not about whether I think there’s something, or nothing more powerful than me. This is not about an either-or choice: Either I get myself a higher power, or else by definition I think I’m the most powerful. Those are not the only choices. They aren’t even relevant choices. How did we even get to talk about power? We’re trying to not drink, so why don’t we just talk about concrete steps I can take to keep from drinking? You’re sober, you can help me, right? This is not about power at all, higher or otherwise. I just need help from my fellow alcoholics.

But the group helps me, and together we’re much stronger than I am by myself. We can do things together that I could never do alone. But it in no way diminishes the power of our joint efforts, nor my gratitude for it, if I don’t call the group my higher power, but simply my group, my fellowship, the tribe which made my life worth living again.

We’re just lifting a burden together, instead of struggling with it alone. In my younger days I could lift a hundred-pound sack, but with two of us, one on each end, it was a lot easier. Sometimes with a guy on each corner it can be easier yet. Now with four of us we’re a group, and can even lift a 200 lb. sack together, something I could not do by myself. But have we now turned our little group into a sack-moving higher power, or do we still just have a group of guys moving sacks together?

We do have the little book Living Sober. It is an excellent little book with no-nonsense tips on how to make it through our sober days when we’re just not used to living that way yet. We ought to make more literature like that, look at what it really is that works in our program.

We ought to not put so much emphasis on the Big Book anymore. Please note, I didn’t say we need to outlaw the Big Book, establish an AA police, and punish anyone who still reads it. Why would I want to deprive anyone of that option if it works for them? And why would anyone want to deprive me of other ways that might work better for me?

Maybe no-one will, but some will say, then it is not AA, then go somewhere else. Well why not? How can it possibly detract from a more religiously minded person’s program, if someone else works theirs differently, even with other AA books to support it? Can’t we just have a broader program, One Big Tent, one that first of all wants me to be sober but doesn’t insist on me being sober the right way? We are trying to help the next suffering alcoholic.

If you could help twice as many alcoholics with a broader, more inclusive program, would you not want to do that? Or would it be more important to “save the program” in its 1939 version?

I just want our program to work better, reach more people, and help them feel welcome.

The median age in AA is now 51, and we don’t seem to attract younger people very well, even though youth alcohol abuse is a growing problem. Since the early 90s the US population has grown by 30%, and alcohol and drug abuse are a growing problem. Yet AA membership has flatlined, or even declined slightly. Which means that as a percentage of the population we are backsliding considerably. And of course, it is not our primary concern to make AA as big as possible, but the declining numbers do reflect our effectiveness. We do have to look at that. We may feel healthy, “me and my buddies, we’re doing okay”, but really – AA is on the decline.

I guess that would have been okay, if it weren’t for those 20 million people we didn’t get to help. They keep on bothering me.

AA is such a beautiful, strong, loving fellowship, we have such potential to help. Let’s not squander that by insisting on keeping those old ways intact, which do not suit our times anymore. I have heard voices to the contrary: “It would work better if only we dug in our heels more”. Preserve the purity of our program. Doesn’t work. All movements which have done that, fade into obscurity. Wind up serving only those who want to protect the purity, not those it said it wanted to serve. Nothing can grow from that. Growth requires change. I would like us to be able to help those other 20 million other alcoholics. I have a few ideas which may work, but we ought to all put our energy into this together.

About the Author

life-j got sober in Oakland in 1988. He moved to a Northern California coastal mountain village in 2002 and helped wake up the sleepy AA fellowship there. He’s been involved in service work of every kind all along, but now thinks the most important work is to help atheists and agnostics feel safe and welcome in AA. Events in the fellowship conspired to make him become way more radicalized than he ever wanted to be, and he finds it difficult to settle back down to focus on his own program again, for better or for worse. He’s spent parts of his life as a building contractor, part as a technical translator, and has dabbled a bit in artwork and writing. life-j is now semi-retired on a five-acre homestead together with his sweetie, and his dogs, chickens, and gardens.

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Mary Garden
Mary Garden
9 months ago

Thank you for this article! I found you by searching on ‘OA, no higher power.’ I am both atheist and totally unspiritual. I feel a great love for and sense of connection with nature, beauty and other people, and experience profound feelings, but I don’t think any of it is supernatural. I have never tried hallucinogenic drugs (for the same reason I have no interest in gods), but it sounds like the higher power in Anonymous programs is supposed to function similarly–as a more objective but compassionate part of yourself that can step outside you and perceive you as if… Read more »

1 year ago

I just found this site, and this post, and my heart is doing a happy dance. I am so strongly atheist and have been having philosophical arguments since I joined AA about 4 months ago. I am not looking for someone to save me, tell me that I am powerless, or give me only one solution- a solution that is metaphysical and absurd. (would we say the same about cancer? That we are powerless over cancer but giving over to a higher power will heal us?). I asked them about the biochemical process and the interconnections between behavioral drinking patterns… Read more »

1 year ago

If you don’t have a higher power and you stopped drinking and you are a real alcoholic then you have proved the big book wrong. I don’t believe I am even powerless over alcohol. Alcohol it’s not going to jump down my throat. I decide to drink it or not drink it. AA seems to be a moral solution to a brain chemistry problem. It just doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t go to many meetings, I don’t like to listen to people demean themselves.

1 year ago

This touched me deeply.
At three years sober, I accepted that I am an agnostic (most likely atheist; I’m trusting the process) and my home group is entirely Christian and generally conservative. I love my home group. It saved my life. But I’m feeling like a fraud in my own meeting. And I’m breathing a sigh of relief and renewed hope reading that there are alcoholics who know exactly how I feel about this.
I’m truly grateful for this.

Craig Weatherly
Craig Weatherly
2 years ago

Those who consider the original literature scripture will never change their views. Social change takes time because it is exasperatingly generational. All we can do is continue to build strong secular fellowships. The big book thumpers will dwindle in numbers as understanding of the true nature of alcoholism–not as a spiritual malady but as a manageable neurological-physiological disorder–continues its growth. Thanks for a thoughtful article.

Rich A.
Rich A.
1 year ago

Sorry you feel this way, amigo. I change some of my views, retain others that still hold validity, in AND out of AA. Generalizations about age groups has a name that I use now: ageism. I tried to reject it as a thing but soon realized not only were young people using it against me but I was using it against them! I call it a character defect because that concept is a phenomenon I learned in AA; I need to find a better term but for now, it’s an observation about myself, my mental process, one that I don’t… Read more »