I have been a member of Narcotics Anonymous for 24 years and have stayed clean for that time. I have always had problems with the need for a Higher Power. My question is how do you (as an atheist) reconcile the implicit need for a Higher Power (often referred to in the literature as god or the god of your understanding). Are there any people out there who have applied atheist thinking to the 12 steps and have an easy practical way of understanding and applying that process to life.

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it was actually the program that helped me find the ability to be honest about being atheist.  what seems an implicit need for a higher power is the human inability to see their own potential.  i've observed a strong tendency to believe in a magical source of power rather than accept the potential the lies within.  coming to terms with the true power that lies within carries with it responsibility and accountability that people choose to escape rather than embrace.

embrace the power within you and accept the responsibilities for your choices.

First of all, congrats!  24 years is truly a feat and it deserves recognition.

I'm going through a bit of this myself, well not myself but due to a family member.  From what I understand, and please correct me if I'm wrong, the acceptance of a higher power results to the acceptance of that which you cannot change.  Learning to let go of or accept what is, yet commit yourself to actions that will lead the attainment of future goals seems to be key.  In the beginning, my brother repeated to me throughout our conversations, "I want to use, but I want other things more.  He was doing well and staying on track at that time.  As a family member of an addict, I must accept that I cannot change my brother or keep him safe by willing it so.  My parents find the strength to do this in prayer, by turning over their "fates" to a higher power.  In doing so, I think they trust that this higher power will keep them all safe.  I, on the other hand, find comfort in my friends and family, accept that what is will be, know that he may not get better, and commit myself to reaching out and doing what I can to 1) take care of myself, 2) keep my family together as a support network, and 3) set clear boundaries with my brother and family such that I do not enable his harmful habits.  Not sure if this helped much, but as I deal with the ups and downs of our situation, I'd love to hear your story and how the idea of a higher power helped you so that I might better understand my family and brother.

For Atheists, the higher power is supposed to be someone who you can submit to in a time of weakness.  I knew someone who was into AA and NA and that is how they explained it to him.

  Honestly, there is Rational Recovery as well.  You don't need the religious aspect for improvement.  In reality it is regularly going to meetings and getting the emotional support that ends up being as equally effective as that of one on one therapy.  AA/NA helps because it provides support, not because of the specifics of the program.

But AA was supposed to be applicable to atheists from the start.

When these Steps were shown to my friends, their reactions were quite mixed indeed.  Some argued that six steps had worked fine, so why twelve?  From our agnostic contingent there were loud cries of too much God.

Others objected to an expression which I had included which suggested getting on one's knees while in prayer.  I heavily resisted these objections for months.  But finally did take out my statement about a suitable prayerful posture and I finally went along with that now tremendously important expression, "God as we understand Him" -- this expression having been coined, I think, by one of our former atheist members.”

Now what about the alcoholic who says that he cannot possibly believe in God?  A great many of these come to AA and they complain that they are trapped.  By this they mean that we have convinced them that they are fatally ill, yet  they cannot accept a belief in God and His grace as a means of recovery.  Happily this does not prove to be an impossible dilemma at all.  We simply suggest that the newcomer take an easy stance and an open mind; that he proceed to practice those parts of the Twelve Steps which anyone's common sense would readily recommend.  He can certainly admit that he is an alcoholic; that he ought to make a moral inventory; that he ought to discuss his defects with another person; that he should make restitution for harms done; and that he can be helpful to other alcoholics.

We emphasize the "open mind," that at least he should admit that there might be a Higher Power.  He can certainly admit that he is not Go   nor is mankind in general.  If he wishes he can for a time place his dependence upon his own AA group.  That group is certainly a Higher Power, so far as recovery from alcoholism is concerned.  If these reasonable conditions are met, he then finds himself released from the compulsion to drink; he discovers that his motivations have been changed far out of proportion to anything that could have been achieved by a simple association with us or by the practice of a little more honesty, humility, tolerance, and helpfulness. "

*next line reads presumptously*: "Little by little he becomes aware that a higher Power is indeed at work.  In a matter of months, or at least in a year or two, he is talking freely about God as he understands Him.”

Bill W. Co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous


Honestly, there is Rational Recovery as well.  You don't need the religious aspect for improvement.  In reality it is regularly going to meetings and getting the emotional support that ends up being as equally effective as that of one on one therapy. 

And therein is a problem with RR. There are no RR meetings, and haven't been for several years. The RR founder dissolved the whole meeting structure in the early 2000's or perhaps late '90's.

Oh there was one being run in ballard seattle last year.  Maybe it is a straggler program.

I am not familiar with the 12 step program. I read that the success rate is about 5 %. I looked at some lower and some higher figures, but then there's some ambiguity about the remission rates and the time interval involved. I guess it's safe to say you beat some pretty serious odds. That is wonderful.

But the trusting higher powers thing. I thought maybe the reasoning goes something like this: that it would be kind of implicit in the acknowledgment in the first step, namely the alcohol (or other drug) has taken control over you that therefore you are not in control of yourself. So you're not to be trusted by yourself.

Since you can't trust yourself and there is nothing internally that allows you to do anything about your own situation, you must therefore imagine something externally to put your trust in to possess the power do something about your own situation. So, the reasoning continues, what would be more effective to fulfill this role of a pair of imaginary crutches than an all-seeing, all-knowing, omnibenevolent power, for which there is no hiding, no cheating, no bullshitting to get your fix.

Like I said I'm not really familiar with this program and I don't know to what extent this is a sham to prey on the vulnerable to spread the meme. With a success rate of about 5% the methodology does seem questionable, those lucky few who were helped by the program notwithstanding. Even though it is always problematic to evaluate counter-factual statements like these, but their success might not have been depending on it anyway.

Most of the studies I've seen have shown a roughly 5% recovery rate for any method. The fact is, most people die of this disease, irrespective of how they treat it.

A wonderful book I found recently that addresses this very problem is Waiting: A Nonbeliever's Higher Power by Marya Hornbacher. I've been rereading it (again) and have taken to using it as my substitute for the "Big Book".

Thanks for the suggested reading Barry.

Hey Barry I just wanted to thank you again for putting me on to "Waiting" by Marya Hornbacher. It is such a beautifully written book. I read it just about daily and am very grateful to you for letting me know about it. I hope all is well in your world.

For me, the 12 steps are just ridiculous.  I had to 'go through them' as well at one point in my life and at the time, thought they were ridiculous then and still do.  

The leaders of the groups always tried to push this 'higher power' thing and it made me feel very uncomfortable because I kept telling them I didn't believe in the same things they believed in.  

The fact is, many many people have cured themselves of addictions without the 12 steps and without a higher power.  The program is to tell you that you will always be an addict and that you 'need' the program to save you from 'falling into the addiction' again.  Simply not true.  

If it worked for you, then that is great.  But it probably had more to do with emotional support from members that are like you and where you can talk about similar things.  I don't think completing '12 steps' was the winning factor although some of the steps are nice, such as coming to terms with those you hurt.  

Are you able to use yourself within an understanding of an always happening process place and within an understanding of consciousness, movement and communication that is placed to movement?

Life that understands as it always will does not use itself with the naming of this process place as God and the use of the name God has been toward telling someone something "do something different". Within what is peace and other continuable emotional experiences (love and celebration) there is no one saying do something different and all movement is over to what is experienced as interesting now.

What is called addiction is no longer addiction when the nervous system is not doing something different. There is information that has been placed to life about how to use themselves concerning addiction that is coming from a part truth when life is moving around in one area, but does not provide the full picture. There is more that this area is understanding now and it is able to be talked about fully.


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