When “We Agnostics” Fails Us

If you’re like me, the idea of an interventionist god, who is going to fix you, who is going to save you, simply does not resonate. And if you’re like me, you were probably told that you don’t need to believe in God to practice the 12 steps. You may have been told that there is a difference between Spirituality and Religion. And when you insisted that there was too much God talk in the steps, you were probably pointed to the chapter “We Agnostics” in the Big Book.

And if you’re anything like me, when you read “We Agnostics” you probably read it for what it is — A half assed attempt to cover up the religion that dominates the steps as written in the Big Book. Indeed the entire chapter seems to focus not on acknowledging that you don’t need an interventionist god to get sober, but rather to convince you that you do. The story of Bill Wilson’s conversion figures prominently in this chapter. So too do stories designed to prove that science and reason are not always right — such as the recounting of the widespread belief that man would never fly until the Wright Brothers developed the airplane.

When I finished it, I felt like it read as follows:

Yes, we were like you too. We were men of science and reason. We didn’t believe in God. But we couldn’t reason our way out of drinking and in our moment of utter defeat, we succumbed to the idea that we needed to believe in God to get sober. And you will too, just you wait.

And just in case you don’t get it, in the first paragraph of the next chapter “How It Works” we are told “Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program.”1

Every time I hear that in a meeting I cringe because I know that there are many paths up the mountain.

My relationship with organized religion is complicated. I’ve written about my challenges with the phrase “a God of my understanding” in the past. I’ve struggled with the notion of spirituality without the heavy handedness of evangelical christianity (and make no mistake, the Oxford Group from which the 12 steps came was an evangelical group).

My last post explored the idea of Faith rather than Belief. After reading it, one of my friends on Twitter pointed me to the book The Alternate 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery. I wondered if I would find it valuable. So many of the things that I’ve been pointed to on this question have failed so miserably that I had my doubts. But I knew that Paul was a kindred spirt and that there just might be something worth reading in this book.

So I bought it.

As I read the first chapter of the book, “What is Your Suffering?” I immediately felt at home. The chapter lays out the intent of the book, which is not to change the 12 steps, but to explain them in non-theistic language. As I read this chapter, I became excited that I might finally read the 12 steps without feeling my skin crawl. I felt that the authors were speaking my language and when I read the final sentence of the chapter I knew it. The authors write, “It isn’t important how we climb the mountain, as long as we commit ourselves to the journey.” 2

I found the book to be true to it’s intent. While the steps have been re-written to remove the theism that dominates the 1935 version of the steps, the intent does not change. The book provides clear guidance for those of us who wish to approach the steps without approaching god. The book makes clear the distinction between the religious and spiritual.

There are a couple of really great quotes from the chapter on Step 2 that really resonated with me:

“The word spirit comes from a Latin word that means breath, life, vigor. We call something spiritual when it represents life or when it enhances life.” 3

“Spiritual power comes from whatever gives us peace, hope or strength and enhances our humanity.” 4

This is what people mean when they say that anything can be your higher power. As Nietzche wrote, “He who has a why to live, can bear with almost any how.” Anything that is life giving, anything that gives your life meaning can be your “why” — a.k.a. your higher power. (That said, you’ll never convince me that a fucking light bulb or a doorknob is your higher power — you’re just being obstinate.)

One final note, is that this book really puts the onus of recovery on the individual. “What matters is to have faith in our spiritual selves – in other words, to have faith in the energy that gives us life.”5 This really resonates with me — after all is said and done, no one can do anything for anyone else. No one can make us better. We are not dependent on an interventionist god to make us better. We have to accept our responsibility to ourselves in order to get better.

So, if you’re like me, and you struggle with the god talk in the recovery community, I highly recommend you read this book. It made a big difference for me.


  1. A.A. World Services Inc. Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition (Kindle Locations 973-974). A.A. World Services, Inc.. Kindle Edition ↩︎
  2. Cleveland, Martha; G., Arlys. The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery (Kindle Locations 205-206). AA Agnostica. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
  3. Cleveland, Martha; G., Arlys. The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery (Kindle Locations 496-497). AA Agnostica. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
  4. Cleveland, Martha; G., Arlys. The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery (Kindle Locations 502-503). AA Agnostica. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
  5. Cleveland, Martha; G., Arlys. The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery (Kindle Locations 499-500). AA Agnostica. Kindle Edition. ↩︎