The “higher power” problem in A.A. is an intentional design flaw

One theme that invariably emerges when I regularly attend AA meetings — something that happens only when I get bored or lonely enough, which between mid-December and mid-January tends to be more often —  is people with at least a couple of years of sobriety describing themselves as doing generally well in life, maybe even better than they expected at the start of the boozeless journey, but unable to settle on a higher power and feeling like they’re failing as a result. All signs are there that quitting drinking and being active about sobriety have been a smashing success for them, but the nature of “the program” compels them to fret needlessly about this “missing” element.

Even to those unaware of the history of the Big Book’s authorship, it should be clear that the chapter to the agnostic is a bald-faced bait-and-switch. It doesn’t really offer a path to working the steps for the godless, but rather unpretentiously cajoles the nonbeliever in the direction of faith. This is because the chapter was only included because a prominent businessman who happened to also be a prominent atheist (rare in those days) insisted on it; the Big Book was essentially Bill W’s sole creation.

The A.A. mantra that a higher power can be “anything you want” was clearly not a part of the worldview of Bill W, himself a full-force Born Again Christian. This is even more evident in the steps themselves; the scheme depends not just on any old “HP,” but one that is capable of not only moral judgment but moral enslavement. The “program” through Bill W’s lens is at least as much about atonement to a critical deity and adherence to its unknowable whims as it is about living well. Any higher power that could function within this scheme would have to possess all of the essential characteristics of the Abrahamic rage-god, even if we’re allowed to nominally declare it something else.

Nothing Bill W wrote suggests he believed that anything other than a “burning bush” moment could produce a lasting spiritual transformation, even if he appears to offer latitude in this area. This is cynical in the extreme and sets people up to fail, because some people have “spiritual experiences” they see as tantamount to a cure, and the next thing you know, they’re living in a van down by the river subsisting on government cheese and MD 20/20 in its whole grotesque range of flavors.

Some people simply aren’t constructed to approach sobriety with the metaphysical demands Bill W’s “suggestions” make on would-be step-completers. In my case I simply gave up and realized that I had managed half-consciously to set up my life over a period of years in such a way that I would basically have a hard time sustaining a return to drinking for more than a couple of hours without someone knowing about it. That’s as close as I can get to the level of absolute accountability the steps seem to demand.

If you are among the people who has been actively or passively convinced you’re cheating somehow by not having a reliable concept of a higher power, maybe just giving up on that part and taking recourse in Tradition Three is sufficient. Also, where I attend meetings, most people are receptive to such viewpoints; when I lived in the Bible Belt, not so much, and you may not have ready access to meetings where you won’t be silently or openly accused of excessive freelancing.

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