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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According to A.A, if you're not continuously sober, working the 12 steps, have found God, working with the new comer, and consistently going to meetings, you're not truly sober.
The majority of the fellowship considers sober alcoholics outside of A.A "dry drunks," which is nonsense.
I agree Belle, that the higher power aspect is a detriment to their success, on account of lack of personal responsibility being the result.
In their Big Book, chapter 4 is titled, "we Agnostics."
It's an insult to free thinkers and agnosticism, as it says in black and white, "Well, that’s exactly what this book is about. Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem. That means we have written a book which we believe to be spiritual as well as moral. And it means, of course, that we are going to talk about God."

The credulity on offer in A.A, is dangerous.
There is zero science behind AA . It's methods haven't changed since their inception in 1937 . AA is a cult that is probably causing more harm than good , and it's entrenchment in the mainstream as a treatment for dependency and addiction , have impeded the advancement and implementation of evidence based scientific treatments for this very serious , often life threatening disorder . It makes no sense to me .

@Belle - I think we all need something outside ourselves.  We're not meant to be stuck away and isolated.  I've read a lot about finding "meaning" by working with a wider network of people on some kind of project.  Perhaps the two key points there are "people" and "project". 

That was always my problem with AA and NA.  I never could do things by the book and as a result I felt I was looked down upon.  I realized early on that I needed to learn some things from them but I didn't want to be going to meetings 5 days a week in 10 or 20 years.  I wanted a different life, which in retrospect is certainly what I've had, strangely enough.  It's just not the different I had in mind.

People told me I couldn't go to college with two babies.  Really?  "Watch me," I said.  They said I wouldn't stay clean or sober if I didn't commit wholly to the program.  Really?  Many many years later here I am, clearly a strong and capable person with no desire or need to use drugs or alcohol. .  I have been told that I am going to have an empty life without a god in it.  I don't think so.  I have a real life with joy, sorrow, struggles and victories just like the rest of humanity.  I will thrive just to spite everybody.

And they tell me I am stubborn!   Harumph!  : )

@Belle - you might be surprised what the right kind of love can do for a person.  Pain that is worked through becomes a strength, I think.  I agree that you have to do 90% of the work yourself.  Discipline, strength, self-reliance and self-knowledge can help provide a good basis for someone else's input, otherwise it's a waste of time.  The best anyone could ever do, I believe, is make you see that they love you in the right way that you need.  This kind of basic acceptance is what we all need, whether most people are aware of that or not. 

I'm going to be accompanying a friend to AA soon (I hope).  It's the only show in town for people with no resources. 

"the chain smoking air in the room full of a bunch of whiners..."  - you make it sound so attractive.  There is a higher power - it's the same power that mends your broken leg in hospital.  How to access it - that's the crucial question.  I believe the right conditions have to be in place, otherwise it's only partially successful.  For a start, we have "do the right things, and don't do the wrong things".  Beyond that, most people with an addiction have psychological problems, which, as you say, need to be tackled.  I've never had an addiction myself, apart from smoking, which is just a bad habit. 

Hey, it made me chuckle. 

Hello. I'm brand new to the site, and want to add some thoughts and questions. First, I'm very interested to know if Ken has any updates or insights since writing the original post?

I've been going to AA for awhile, sober 10 months. I do believe that the 12 steps will benefit me in many ways: searching my soul, trying to make amends for past indiscretions, and learning to accept that I cannot control others or life. I actually lost one sponsor because of my inability to find a Higher Power, and it is only recently as I'm struggling with my current sponsor over this same thing (she is far more gentle, but still believes I must stay on step 3 until I am confident in my Higher Power) that I've come to accept my atheism. I simply do not believe in a Higher Power, meaning a benevolent being that is looking out for me (and will help me resist the urge to drink when my own will power does not suffice).

I'm struggling with this, because the folks I attend meetings with insist that belief in the HP is essential to longterm sobriety. I have found some websites, which I hope to find helpful and others may as well:


In addition to being overall resources for atheists in AA, they can let you know of AA meetings in your area that are geared towards atheists (and agnostics). These resources are brand new to me, I can't vouch for them, but I am comforted to know of them.

My question differs from Ken's. Mine is: How do you, as an atheist, find peace amid the struggles and suffering of life?

"How do you, as an atheist, find peace amid the struggles and suffering of life?"

Hi Sherstin,

I've applied deductive reasoning skills throughout my sobriety.
When I'm going through anything difficult, I look at the fact that the reason I interpret something as a struggle, is due to my emotions.
Alcoholism and addiction are Limbic based, meaning our feelings are at the center of it.
When I counter the emotional desire to use and drink with logic and deductive reasoning, the feelings pass, and I remain sober.
There is no situation that requires, or that would be made better, by altering my perception of it through substances, I know this, logically.
Bottom line, my feelings aren't a priority over logic, critical thought.

Although I'm no longer active in A.A, my daughter is, for the support of the fellowship.
She says her "higher power" is her "PFC, (prefrontal cortex, higher brain)." And no one has given her a hard time in response.
Good luck!

Hi Sherstin. I stopped reading this discussion after a while as there seemed to be a general trend (largely from people who had no experience of AA or NA ) to discredit and criticize 12 step recovery. I am still a committed NA member who is a non-theist and have learned to recognize that I don't need to have a god thing or even an external higher power. What I do need is to be part of a community which understands and cares and I need to be actively involved in helping others. In my case this often includes helping others understand that there are a huge number of successful freethinking NA and AA members and that freedom of belief or non-belief is a rock solid truth in 12 step recovery even if the language needs some serious tweeking (ie For the Wives!!! Seriously how loud does the AA literature scream for modernisation?). Also if you look at this discussion stream early on I was put onto a fantastic book by Marya Hornbacher titled "Waiting - a non-believers higher power". The use of this book as a sort of filter or prism with which to view the "intention" of the 12 step process (as a spiritual practice) has helped me a great deal so the placing of the question on this forum has paid dividends. It may also be useful in answering your question. I recently celebrated 26 years in clean in NA. I wish you well in your recovery and thanks for the links, I will have a look at them.

Hope I hit "reply" in the right place. First, thank you Aim, Ken and Belle for your thoughts (my apologies Aim, I was new to the site and somehow didn't see your reply).

I've ordered "Waiting" and look forward to reading it. Since initially posting I now have an atheist AA sponsor and have helped start a new "Beyond Belief" AA group in the Portland area. Our two first meetings have been phenomenal. I had no idea how cautious I'd become about expressing myself freely at other meetings!

Congratulations to each of you for your time in recovery. In addition to the book, I take to heart the value of using AA and the steps in whatever way works for me, and that the importance of fellowship cannot be denied.

Thank you, all!

You made my day Sherstin. I would be grateful if you could let me know how you find the book. I wish I could come to your new meeting and am inspired to consider starting one here in Melbourne. Let me know when you get to a year ok and I am pretty sure you will. Take care.

From "Waiting" ...."The upside of step three-made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of god as we understand him - is that the step explicitly says it is our own understanding of god that's required. The language does seem to assume a deity, a him, of some kind, but if our understanding of spiritual sustenance is other than theistic, there is still room for us, and our beliefs, in this program."

This Sunday will be our fourth meeting and we will have a business meeting to discuss which modified steps best fit, and the format for the meeting. The other fellow who helped start this put something in place to get us started. And even with the five of us, we realize the need to modify some language - for example "turn our will and our lives over to..." I have PTSD. I've been abused. I'm not ever going to turn my life and will over to any one, or any thing. Etc., etc. But... I wanted to mention that it really was AAAgnostica.org that helped us get started. Roger I think is the engine behind the site. He offers resources for starting your own atheist/agnostic/free-thinker AA meeting, shares successes from other groups, and he helps like-minded folks in the same area connect. He and the site have been invaluable in bringing this about. Do it! :)


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