Which God, Whose God, What God?

from AA Agnostica

By Paul W.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, “God” is simply defined as a Higher Power or a Power greater than ourselves.  Or so it is often said.

In the Twelve Steps, AA members are clearly told that they may have their own, individual definition of “God.”  Steps Three and Eleven use the words, “God as we understood Him.”  (Emphasis in the original wording.)  Nothing in the Big Book limits this understanding to the definition(s) of the authors[1] and editors of the Big Book, and its “textbook”[2] Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

With the permissive “God as we understood Him,” AA members are allowed (actually encouraged) to have their own concept of a god. This permissive stance allows many to be comfortable with the god of AA, since this god can be one of any individual’s imagination.

However, this presents a problem, actually, several problems.

Problem I: Many Gods

Logically AA’s allowance for personal definitions of god throws the window open to gods such as Bacchus, Neptune, Mars, Aphrodite, Venus, Diana, Vishnu, Isis, Juno, or any of the other gods of India, Greece, Rome, the Americas, etc. Remember, in AA there is only one stated limitation to the self-defined “god,” that is god must be a “power greater than oneself.”

With every AA member allowed to define god to his or her liking it is possible that at a meeting of, say 20 people, there could be twenty different gods? Is it possible for each person to be in the presence of 19 heretics? Or, is the meeting composed of a collection of heretics, filled with false gods? If everyone’s definition of god is acceptable, then are all the gods god?

This brings us to the question, if everyone is allowed her or his own god, and that god may not exist in another’s belief system, why the objection to a god which is not, which does not exist? If the AA member next to you has Maat as god (don’t Google it, I made it up), and you just know that there is and never was such a god, do you accept that person? If so, why the objection to nontheists, to people without a god, to agnostics, atheists, free thinkers, humanists, Buddhists, etc.?

Problem II – Is AA’s God Masculine?

Unfortunately, an argument can easily be made that however an individual defines and describes “God” AA assumes that “God” is masculine. God is in the masculine three times in the Steps and once in the “pertinent ideas” of Chapter 5, “How it Works.” Recall, “God as we understood Him, and the assertion that “God could and would (relieve us of alcoholism) if He were sought.” This portion of the Big Book is read aloud at many open meetings of AA. Thus, newcomers are informed and members are reminded that “God” is masculine.

Further, the practice at many meetings of using the Lord’s Prayer, which begins with, “Our Father.” Two more indicators of a masculine god; a lord and a father.

Problem III – Is AA’s God Christian?

Granted that in a letter to an AA member, Bill Wilson asserted that the wide acceptance of the Lord’s Prayer overcomes its Christian nature. While it is arguable that Bill was wrong about this, as many theologians assert, it is still clear that god in the prayer is masculine.

Even if Bill were correct and the prayer has become nondenominational, it is a prayer. And, it is generally associated with Christianity. Credit for this prayer is given to Jesus Christ in the New Testament (NIV) Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:1-4. Christians are followers of Jesus and routinely recite this prayer during church services and privately. Reciting it at an AA meeting and having the attendees join in, strongly resembles a religious ceremony and gives pause to the “spiritual not religious” claim of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Problem IV – Characteristics of God

Another problem: at many meetings theistic members share about their concepts or definition of god. Many comment that, for them, god was a vengeful being, who condemned you for certain practices or thoughts. God kept a record and would punish you for infractions. For many, god was not a friend, nor a loving entity. Continuing, these members comment that, after gaining sobriety in AA, they have come to see god as a loving entity, a caring being.

Has god changed or has the member changed god? Do Christian AA members have their own god or their denomination’s god? And, did Jesus change who god is, or did god change himself from the Old Testament “kill all the men and children but keep the unmarried women for yourself, and drown all people but a few” god to a merciful and loving god?

Problem V – Reconciliation

The attempt to reconcile one’s freedom to have a customized, personal god in spite of AA’s focus on a singular masculine god and one of a Christian nature can send a person’s head spinning. I choose not to even give it serious consideration.

Problem VI – Ask a Member

When questioned about “AA’s” god, experienced members may state that everyone is free to their own definition god, including the accompanying qualities, attributes, powers, intentions, etc. The only caveat being that your god be a power greater than yourself.  (So we’re back to problems I through IV.)

If dealing with an admitted alcoholic who is a nontheist and has a problem with “the God thing” the nontheist is often told that he can make anything his Higher Power. The AA group itself is often recommended. This suggestion has some merit. Groups are stronger than the sum of its members. Think synergy. Being in the company of people who have achieved sobriety and learning the secular parts of their journey is powerful.

Unfortunately, some suggest that the nontheist can use a chair, a doorknob, electricity, a lightbulb, and the like as a higher power. If an AA member offering this advice isn’t being sarcastic or trying to insult the nontheist but is sincere he is either ill-informed or just plain ignorant. Just imagine handing one’s “life over to the care of —” any of the above examples. I’ve had some theists suggest that I use the power of the universe as my higher power, reminiscent of, “May the Force be with you.”

Another piece of helpful advice given to a nontheist is to “act as if” or to “fake it till you make it.” I suspect that this is generally offered in the belief or hope that the nontheist will come to believe, to become a theist. It calls to mind the popular, “Came, Came to, Came to Believe.” Pause for a moment and consider the basic flaw in this advice. Members of AA who suggest this forget that they are in a program which has honesty as a basic principle. Acting as if and faking it are acts of dishonesty. It is telling a person to lie until he becomes honest – when he was honest in the first place by disclosing his non-theism.

Sometimes the doubter is simply told to believe that others believe. What does that accomplish? Quite frankly, I don’t have to believe that you are a theist, I know it.

Freedom Not to Believe

The felt, and frequently acted upon need to bring nontheists to believe in a god is covered by Bill Wilson’s comments in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age. On page 81 Bill wrote, “we must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us.”

Suggesting that Bill would state this meaning membership only and not recovery is patently ludicrous. On page 105, Bill quotes the end of Tradition Three (Long Form), “Any two or three gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that as a group they have no other affiliation.” He then goes on, “This means that these two or three alcoholics could try for sobriety in any way they liked. They could disagree with any or all of AA’s principles and still call themselves an AA group.” Keep in mind that AA’s principles are the Twelve Steps, the Twelve Traditions, and the Twelve Concepts of Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill’s statements, after twenty-two years of experience[3], acknowledges the fact that nontheists do not have to believe in a god, are allowed to modify (change) the Steps for their own use, and can achieve sobriety without a god and be a part of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Which god, whose god, what god? It matters not what any individual theistic member thinks, what any Intergroup holds, how any Area delegate thinks, or what AAWS, Inc. declares. In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age Bill Wilson acknowledges the rights of people to have no god at all and to modify the Steps to suit that stance.

[1] The plural “Authors” is used since, of the first 164 pages chapter 10, “To Employers” was not authored by Bill Wilson but by another alcoholic, Hank P. who, along with Jim B. was instrumental with softening the “God” references in the Twelve Steps before publication.  Both Hank and Jim were nontheists.

[2] In the Conference-approved Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, in direct reference to Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill Wilson clearly states, “This small volume is strictly a textbook which explains AA’s twenty-four basic principles and their application, in detail and with great care.”

[3] The Big Book, which is all but ubiquitously called the “Bible” of AA, was written after just a few years of AA experience. Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age was written after twenty-two years of growth and experience. Unquestionably, this Conference-approved volume contains Bill Wilson’s more considered thoughts.