An Atheist's Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous

By Adam N. 10/28/19

Simply put, when we do not understand how something works, we chalk it up to god.

woman in red shirt praying
Sometimes a genuine spirit of willingness will create moments of inspiration, moments of sudden change. Photo by Diana Simumpande on Unsplash

The following is an excerpt from a longer work.

Spiritual Caulk and the Great Puppeteer in the Sky

One of the most profound insights I’ve discovered in atheist literature is that god concepts serve the purpose of filling in gaps in our knowledge. “Miracles” like lightning and earthquakes and sudden changes in personalities were considered inexplicable. In order to satisfy the natural human hunger for explanation deities were invoked. To this day god serves the same purpose. Simply put, when we do not understand how something works, we chalk it up to god. God serves as a metaphysical caulk, a generic, all-purpose filler that effectively fills in the gaps in our understanding.

One time at an AA meeting at San Francisco’s 1010 Valencia I heard a woman talk about a ride on a city bus. She was fairly new to sobriety, feeling pretty shaky at the time. As she rode the city bus she looked up and, there on the seat directly before her, she recognized a fellow member of AA. This chance encounter and their subsequent interaction helped her through a difficult time. She interpreted this as a miracle. She described it as “god working in her life”, a very common expression in the rooms of AA.

This is what I have come to refer to, yes, somewhat derisively I confess, as the puppeteer god. It refers to the idea that god arranges worldly matters to reinforce our AA lifestyle, to miraculously guide our “spiritual” development. This god is very helpful, offers us numerous opportunities for growth, but never gives us more than we can handle. On good days god even finds us parking places when we are on the verge of being late for some important event, like an AA meeting or a job interview. The puppeteer also likes to miraculously inspire our sponsor to call us just when we most need to hear from him or her. I understand the comfort such beliefs bring. A safe, orderly world. Like a household in which a caring, attentive parent oversees all.

But I wondered as she spoke, hadn’t this other fellow been on that bus before? Undoubtedly when she was still “in her cups”, that same rider was right there, sitting before her unnoticed. In fact that very same rider might have been sitting across the way, waving a Big Book directly in her face just the day before. But she would have been unable to acknowledge this fortuitous encounter and all the mutual good that it afforded. Perhaps she had been blinded to the world around her as she obsessed over how and where she was going to get her next fix, pill or drink.

Wasn’t the difference, the real deal maker in this scenario, our speaker’s newfound willingness to perceive and imbue with value this most excellent opportunity for enhancing her recovery? Wasn’t her newfound openness and willingness really the crux of the matter, regardless of theistic interpretations?

I find it very difficult to relate to the sharing of AA members whose Higher Power arranges the world to fix them. They utilize god to fill in the void in their understanding when interesting and impressive things happen in their lives. To me this just smacks of mental laziness. I feel very uncomfortable in meetings where this sort of thing takes place. I think they are dismissing the power of genuine willingness in their lives, denigrating the incredible capacity of humans to embrace change and transform for the better.

If you choose to interpret recovery experiences in this way, you are left with some inexplicable and particularly onerous implications. For example, why did god not similarly come to the rescue of Freddy, or Jim, or Alice, or Tom? Each of them has relapsed and are now out stumbling drunk or shooting up in an alley somewhere. Why did the puppeteer not come to their aid? Is there a merit system involved? Is it karma? Unlikely to be the case, as we all know miscreants who have been spared, yet sweethearts who have succumbed.

I believe that the real work in our bus rider’s life is being done largely by her newfound attitude. She is open to solutions and opportunities to grow her recovery that, prior to this time, she could not even have recognized. She is ready for new, life changing experiences that could move her forever away from the needle and the bottle, and instead towards sober well-being. This mindset, of open-mindedness and willingness, is essential to recovery. Theistic interpretations are not. And it is this newfound mindset that’s really doing the heavy lifting here. Not god.

Courage to Change

Prayer and meditation are among the most obvious examples of definitively religious practices considered essential to recovery. This morning, ironic though it may be, I prayed before returning to these blasphemous writings. Why? Because I need a daily restoration to sanity and this activity is a learned and habitual component in that process. 

But the heavy lifting in prayer is not done by anything outside of us. The puppeteer deity does not meet our requests, or deny them, or even hear them. Through prayer and meditation we make fundamental changes to ourselves. It is an act of commitment and recommitment to a new set of values. But there is nothing that is literally miraculous involved, no outside deity at work. Praying for people, places and things does nothing to affect the people, places or things in question. What it can do is change us, and thereby our relationships with the people, places and things in question. What prayer does is simply change our thinking, our emotions, our action choices, and thereby everything about our relationships with the rest of the world.

AA members often jest that we should be careful what we ask for. A common interpretation is that, when you begin to pray for something, to ask god for something, god will present you with opportunities to develop or earn that thing. Say, for example, you discover in your inventory process you suffer from impatience. Recognizing this as a defect in your character, you subsequently pray for increased patience.

The popular mythology in AA is that, at this point, The Great Puppeteer in the Sky will place before you a frustrating series of circumstances intended to shine a spotlight on your impatience. “Our higher power presents us with opportunities for growth.” Having become ready to have this defect removed, god now tests, or forges, us through exposure to temptation. That god gives us what we need in order to allow us the opportunity to develop our character is a historically common theistic interpretation.

But it is fairly easy to see how a non-believer, or conversely, if you will, one who believes in human potential, can interpret such experiences as simply highlighting our newfound sensitivity and awareness, along with our newfound willingness to change. Occam’s Razor, or the Law of Parsimony, suggests that, all other things being equal, we should employ the explanation which posits the least extra parts, as it were. Certainly employing supernatural deities to explain straightforward psychological and social phenomenon directly conflicts with this most common sense philosophical principle.

Consider, for example, the sixth and seventh steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. These prescribe for us that we become willing to have god remove all of our defects of character and humbly ask him to do so. If we work the steps with genuine honesty, open-mindedness and a willingness to change, we will come to identify our negative tendencies and reach a state of willingness to change. From here on out, if we are genuinely interested in changing, we will be hyper-aware of these traits and their consequences in our daily life. This newfound sensitivity to both the trait and its impact on self and society are sufficient, when coupled with an awareness of viable alternatives, to fully explain the process.

This is what happens when we identify problematic tendencies (steps 4 and 5), and subsequently become willing to change (steps 6 and 7). Through this process of honest and critical self-reflection we are now more acutely aware both of the behavioral propensities and of their negative effects upon self and society. We have heightened our awareness and see these things at work in our lives with greater honesty than ever before. Most of us are aware that some practice is then required, as we strive daily to employ different behaviors when the occasion arises to do so. In this manner we slowly but surely change our habits of word and deed regarding the problematic behavior.

An introduction to viable alternative attitudes and actions
A genuine willingness to change
The passage of time
All the defect removal we need.

The result of this process is that we can be significantly transformed. Some defects are removed quickly and easily, perhaps because they are directly correlated with using behaviors. These fall to the wayside as physical sobriety begins. But many defects of character we must grapple with slowly over time. Willingness to change includes being honest enough to identify the defects, to face their effects on ourselves and those around us, to see the daily flare-ups, to learn alternative attitudes and actions from our fellowship or literature, and then to practice the implementation of those alternative methods in our daily lives.

On this “one day at a time” basis we experience slow, yet certain, incremental change. We gain nothing by understanding these profound transformations as dependent upon theistic intervention. In fact, we may be inclined to take less responsibility, to wait for the miracle rather than work for the change.

Sometimes a genuine spirit of willingness will create moments of inspiration, moments of sudden change. This, too, should come as no surprise. These rapid changes are miraculous, indeed, in the sense that they are often life-changing and profound. But whether the change is slow and incremental or sudden and immediate neither requires theistic interpretation. In fact, by so doing, we denigrate the amazing and wondrous capacity of humans to change for the better. Perhaps taking the blame for the bad, while giving god credit for the good, is an antiquated and counter-productive tradition.

The changes brought about by a life in AA can indeed seem profound, even miraculous. We are surprised. One day we could think of nothing but alcohol or drugs, and would obsessively, energetically and compulsively shape our lives around the need to use them constantly, regardless of the horrendous damage done to ourselves and to those around us. The next day (seemingly) we are caring, sober, responsible, unselfish and kind people, almost entirely transformed. We do not recognize that there is within us this capacity for transformation which is perfectly and entirely explicable on humanistic grounds. Because the change is beyond our understanding, we apply the spiritual caulk, the fill-all in our understanding that is “god”. But the caulk is not needed. Miracles happen every day. I know. I am one of them. If you are reading this, you are probably one too. But god is not required to make sense of them. In fact, in so doing, we denigrate and belittle our own innate capacity for transformation and positive change.

The above is an excerpt from the book Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist's Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous. The book was originally written as a journal by long-term member Adam N., as he sought to bridge the gap between the religious language and perspectives of AA, and his own increasingly secular, atheistic understanding of the fundamental principles of recovery. Now in its third edition, this work continues to be a valuable guide for many who struggle with the religious nature and language of AA and contains important insights for the future of the fellowship.

An audio version of Common Sense Recovery will soon be available through

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