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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I'll second the idea that 12-step recovery's primary value is as a support and discussion group. Interacting with others engaged in the same thing encourages you to to stay engaged with that thing, no matter what the 'thing' is.

On the 'higher power' note, as an atheist I see a 'higher power' as anything that you cannot change or control, or that you have surrendered your ability to change or control to. Obviously, it covers a lot of ground. When I was actively alcoholic, my 'higher power' was clearly alcohol. 12-step recovery simply encouraged me to reconcile myself to the idea that my attempts to manage or control my drinking were not working. It is possible that I might learn to drink in moderation, but clearly the way I react to being intoxicated makes that essentially unworkable for me. The risks of attempting it far outweigh any benefits I might receive from being able to partake in alcohol, and I understand this through dozens of attempts and the results of those attempts.

On the nature of a 'higher power', yes, theistic 12-step members see a higher power as a sentient, literally existing deity of some sort that gives sobriety with conscious intent to people who surrender themselves to him, her, or it. It is clear to me that a higher power need not have any such quality. When alcohol was my higher power, it clearly defined my life and its power showed in my life clearly. A great real-world example of a higher power that runs human lives without literally existing would be money. Our lives are largely defined by it, but it has no will or avatar and its value and influence are entirely arbitrary. It would also make a pretty crappy higher power for an addict to identify with, as its qualities have nothing to do with whether or not one is addicted to anything. But I find it is a good illustration of what I mean.

I'll stop typing before this becomes a book...

It is interesting what is said about money which also applies to alcohol, food and to the life of the internet under some conditions. There is an un-hearable to the ears, but experiencable communication that this life is set to as a result of their location and movement (place and composition) when there is something to be understood about it completely. Life that becomes addicted belongs to an area of life that will always do nothing different related to how they are understanding a continuously aware experience with movement and communication. Life that becomes addicted eventually will know about it completely and then the life of money, alcohol, food, internet that some call  “A separating god” will no longer use itself with someone in a way that results in changes to how they are understanding, experiencing, doing and saying.

It is not applicable to name the area of life (one field of being is okay as one way to describe) that is providing a continuous communication and experience. Within what is a continuous orientation and a continuous experience, life that I am describing here can eat, drink, use themselves with money, etc without the experience of non appreciated consequences. What can be called a return to things that were experienced as addictive when they are caused interesting and able to be had in your environment is able to be done when there are no more "teaks" being placed to your nervous system (there are a variety of ways this is experienced including aware internal dialogue and changes to circulatory rhythm) telling you to go over to another interest area united for your continuable understanding.

   "...implicit need for a higher power"?

How about 'requirement for reliance on a higher power'? Does that make more sense?

@Adrienne, I was hoping someone would bring this perspective.

I don't want to discount Ken's experience - serious kudos for your success, Ken! But I sort of think you could have done it without this particular group.

I spent quite a bit of time looking at these programs when a family member was required to attend. And the thing that really bothered me (in addition to the dreadful success rates) was the feeling that the program and/or higher power get all the credit and none of the blame. It's the classic christian line of reasoning - if you pray to resist temptation but fail anyway, you just weren't praying hard enough. But if through sheer willpower you make it, they seem to claim some part (or all) of your success. 

I'm sure the support group thing is helpful for some. But for others, the constant repetition that "I am a blank-oholic (insert your disease here)" makes that their sole identity. Sure, people have things they struggle with. And some of those things impact every area of their life. But no matter what, you are more than your struggle or your disease or your social status or whatever. Maybe it's a little too Stuart Smalley - but I do think there's more value in repeating "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggonnit people like me!"


On a different but related note, there's interesting research being done around the effect of sharing our goals with other people. Turns out, people who share their goals with others may actually have lower success rates. There's some brain chemical thing produced when you have a goal and you make steps toward it. For example, you make a goal to start working out, so on day one, you go to the gym. Brain says - well done! and pumps out some good juice. And this provides a sense of completion of the goal. Thing is, you get the same good juice just by telling a friend about your goal and getting a pat on the back from them. Weird, no?

I bring this up because I wonder if the low success rates of these programs is because it's the group therapy that actually impedes the participants from meeting their goals. I'd be really interested to hear others' views on this.


I was in al-anon and it helped for a while. Then I hit the same road block.  For a while, I tried imagining the higher power as Wisdom, sometimes found in the literature, meetings, and small personal insights.  That worked alright but it was awful 'meta' and a bit 'woo,' to boot.  I got turned off by the 'personalities' at meetings and also by their insistance of talking about Gawd and holding prayers at the end...it was very alienating.  I haven't been in a long time.

If you haven't dealt with it in 24 years, and you're still sober, maybe you're working the program well enough.  I don't know.  I always felt like a slacker.  Never got past Step Three.  I always wanted to get more out of it and give more, but I couldn't 'turn over' my problems to my vague concept of Wisdom.  No way!  LOL.

I am also involved with NA, and have always had a problem with the  whole god thing that is inherent(needless to say bias view point) in the literature. I do use a "power greater than", and that would be the principals contained in the steps, but they can only be a "power greater than" through my application of those principals in my life. That is the basic premise of the program, the application of the principals found in the steps, and you dont need a god to do so. Right now, I am addressing the fellowships pusillanimous stance on the choice that we are told we have a freedom to choose what works best for us as individuals. Im in communitcation with world services and Im working towards having that freedom more readily available.

I will post the outcome of my efforts.

I hope I have helped you Ken.


Where there is doubt, there is freedom.

When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.

                               Thomas Jefferson

I've been a clean and sober member of NA for 12+ years. I came into the program agnostic, went to school, studied psychology, physiology, became atheist at 5 years clean, worked in the field... I can tell you that "God" has nothing to do with changing patterns. To put it in a nutshell, it's the repeated pattern of positive non-destructive behavior when the amygdala part of the brain is experiencing fight or flight that builds new neuropathways of response. It doesn't really matter if you blame God or Satan or just go to meetings every time you feel like getting drunk or high. As long as you do that regularly for at least 18 months to 2 years, that neuro-response mechanism toward healthier choices will be naturally intuitive.

Just like they say in AA - "We will intuitively know how to handle problems that used to baffle us". There should be an add-on at the end that reads, "But, not for about a year and a half".

Like I have said in my earlier post, the underlinning basis of the NA program is the application of principles in ones life, by doing that, you do address some of those psychological factors that you are refering to Matt. I have never had the illusion of a belief in a god of some type or another, so I find I am more open to the idea of a principle centered life. I am a Satanist(Mondern). My whole way of life has been centered that way to an extent, until I gave the NA program a chance, the thing I was missing, was proper application.Which I am proficient in now. And I continue to learn new and intresting ways to apply such principles to my life through different applications of said principles.

Dear Folks:

I started writing a 12 step program for nerds once, but never finished it. A few suggestions:

a) I am powerless to be normal and need the help of other nerds to seek 'normality'.

b) I must appologize to everyone I might have insulted for being dimwited, or because they can not invert a 10th order matrix.

c) I promise to never learn Klingon....LOL

I just read the book "A Million Little Pieces" by James Frey about recovering from years of horrendous addiction without the 12 Steps.  Amazing book.  And congratulations to you, by the way. 


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