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Different Forms of Higher Power in Recovery

It isn’t God that drives the changes in recovery.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has helped millions of people to stop using alcohol and drugs. The 12 steps of AA remains the primary model in most in- and outpatient treatment centers. For as many as AA and its 12 Step model have helped, perhaps just as many have avoided or left AA or a 12 Step treatment program because of the Christian conception of God that undergirds the 12 Steps. For those people who are not Christian but identify with another faith tradition or who identify as a humanist or as an agnostic or atheist, turning our wills and lives over to what seems to be a Supernatural and paternalistic deity is not an option. When and where we try, we might feel as if we are being untrue to some of our core beliefs and being dishonest with other people in the Program. Since the Program demands “rigorous honesty,” and its absence may make recovery that much more difficult, failure may seem inevitable to some.

The co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W. and Dr. Bob, wrote the 12 Steps in a way that assumed a Christian notion of God. They themselves were Christians or had been raised as such, which means Christianity comprised their “overbeliefs.” Overbeliefs are propositions, values, and even worldviews that an individual holds habitually or without rigorous reflection. Overbeliefs may themselves lack rational grounds, but they provide the grounds for other beliefs and values. Had they paid attention more to their own overbeliefs, Bill W. and Dr. Bob may not have enshrined them in the 12 Steps. How might they have avoided this mistake? By paying more careful attention to the work of William James, whom Bill W. regarded as another co-founder of AA even though James had died decades earlier.

When Bill W. was in the Charles B. Towns hospital in 1934 undergoing “the belladonna cure” and probably suffering from delirium tremens from withdrawal, he had what he later called a conversion experience. He felt he was on a mountain and that a wind of spirit was blowing. It was at that point he felt a free man. Not long after this experience, afraid he was losing his mind, a friend gave him a copy of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE), published in 1902, to help him understand his experience. In VRE, James is concerned with spiritual experiences of individuals and how such experiences are radically transformative. People become regenerated, rejuvenated, or as James says, “reborn.” James assembled an extraordinary set of examples of spiritual experiences from a wide range of sources, which is amazing to consider, as he was doing so in the late 1890s and early 1900s. It is true that many of the examples he discusses are Christian, but there are also examples from Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu traditions. Just as important, James offered examples that had no basis in faith but rather in moral commitments.

James also offers several accounts of “reformed drunkards” who had similar experiences to Bill W. The men claim it was God who removed the desire to drink. Small wonder that those examples spoke volumes to Bill W. These experiences involved a great external force moving through them and removing the desire to drink. These men were powerless over a force that had an origin outside themselves. With these examples, however, come several cautions from James.

James argues that these “sudden conversions” may feel as if they are driven by an outside force, but may, in reality, be driven by one’s subconscious mind breaking through the rigid borders the rational mind maintains. Such experiences, however, easily fit within Christian doctrine of an infinite God who exercises causal power over humans and intervenes in human life. In fairness, James does concede if there is a God of this sort, it enters through the subconscious. But note the “if”: the experience doesn’t constitute proof of God.

It is in VRE that Bill W. encounters the term “higher power.” Here, too, James offers many examples from Christian traditions right alongside other non-Christian examples. One of the best examples of “higher and friendly power” James borrows from Henry David Thoreau walking in the mist at Walden Pond feeling a sense of connection to pine needles. Other examples of “higher power” include moral principles, patriotism, civic engagement, and quite importantly, a higher or better self. James is quite clear that higher power is a very personal conception. It may be simply the belief that you can be or have been in the past a better person.

Individuals have spiritual experiences, while religions may be founded on those experiences. Religions are more like corporations and tend to traffic in “second-hand experiences,” James might say. A religion is both a doctrine and the people who live by that doctrine. It is entirely understandable and laudable that Bill W. and Dr. Bob and others wanted to create a program to help others achieve sobriety. Bill’s experience worked for him; he lived a very different life with respect to his relationship with alcohol. The issue is when an individual’s experience, along with all the overbeliefs, comes to undergird a program for others. Though Bill W. and Dr. Bob were clear the Steps are suggestions, they do function more strongly than that, even to the point of being doctrine for some. The Steps suggest turning our lives and wills over to the care of God (even with the proviso “as we understood Him”), becoming ready to have God remove our defects of character, asking Him to do so, and praying for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry it out. Some people will be able to “work the Steps,” by finding enough latitude in the “God as we understood him” qualification. Perhaps some others will be like the atheists and agnostics who appear in the chapter, “We Agnostics,” in the Big Book aka Alcoholics Anonymous. These atheists and agnostics might pivot, and God will come to those who honestly seek Him.

Some people are neither willing nor able to square themselves with a Christian God, which means they will have a difficult time “working the steps” and staying in the fellowship. One’s honesty rather than dishonesty may be the reason why one leaves the fellowship. This is truly unfortunate because AA—both the program and many of the people—can be helpful in the right circumstances.


James, William. (2012). The Varieties of Religious Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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