Finding Meaning, from 12-Step Rooms to Vatican City

By Jesse Beach 07/14/17

One’s own conception (of God) isn’t a synonym to one’s own understanding although these words seemed to be interchangeably bandied about in AA literature.

Picture of Creation of Adam painting on Sistine Chapel
An agnostic assessment of God, addiction, and recovery programs.

At a 1934 Brooklyn kitchen table, Ebby Thatcher rebutted Bill Wilson’s irreligious stubbornness: "Why don't you find your own conception of God?" From there, a critical building block of 12-step lore was born—a “take what we like/leave the rest” higher power construct, born of our own imagination. One’s own conception (of God) isn’t a synonym to one’s own understanding although these words seemed to be interchangeably bandied about in AA literature. Understanding is concrete, literal; a concept is abstract.

Flashback to my 1970s stoner friends and me passing around the hash pipe. We debate, “If there was no God, man would create one.” We thought this was so mind-expanding to consider if Yahweh created us or if we create him, her, it or them.

Historians are looking for clues in Michelangelo’s conception of God depicted in the Sistine Chapel's mural, Creation of Adam. Adam’s God is in an orgy of angels. Yahweh and his heavenly hoard aren’t on a cloud or floating in space. The ensemble is draped in an unusual background shape. This shape, according to Scientific American, depicts "a perfect anatomical illustration of the human brain in cross section." Is this meaningful?

Let’s first thank a couple of noteworthy research projects that did the heavy lifting for this mystery. Frank Meshberger published “An Interpretation of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam Based on Neuroanatomy (1990)” in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Two decades later, neuroanatomy experts Ian Suk and Rafael Tamargo of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine expanded the research and subjected their findings and hypothesis to the academic scrutiny of a May 2010 Neurosurgery Scientific Journal. R. Douglas Fields, Ph.D., neuroscientist and adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, rescued this research from academic obscurity by writing about these findings in the mainstream via Scientific American and Huffington Post.

According to Scientific American:

“Meshberger published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association deciphering Michelangelo’s imagery with the stunning recognition that the depiction in God Creating Adam in the central panel on the ceiling was a perfect anatomical illustration of the human brain in cross section. Meshberger speculates that Michelangelo surrounded God with a shroud representing the human brain to suggest that God was endowing Adam not only with life, but also with supreme human intelligence.”

“Not so fast Meshberger,” my stoner friends would have retorted. “Could the depiction of God, encased in ‘perfect anatomical illustration of the human brain in cross section’ be instead, Michelangelo’s way of musing if God is an ego-projection of Adam’s imagination?” Isn’t the artist’s role to ask complex or unsettling questions?

A meme, making its rounds on social media at the hands of atheist bloggers, favors the “god created by man” theory and cites proof in the clues left by Michelangelo. Through the monocle of secular-literalism, extensive research has been reduced by a meme to a pithy bumper-sticker-like mockery of theism.

Fact check: Before we engage in a battle over what Michelangelo meant by God’s background brain silhouette—did the artist depict Yahweh endowing man with wisdom or is God a notion trapped within Adam’s brain and nothing more—what would Michelangelo know about brains anyway? He didn’t have the internet.

The research speaks to this:

“At the age of 17 he began dissecting corpses from the church graveyard. … Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was a master anatomist as well as an artistic genius. He dissected cadavers numerous times and developed a profound understanding of human anatomy.”

Michelangelo’s paintings and sculptures make it obvious that this artist understood the human skeletal and muscular systems. Now we know how. It’s not farfetched to picture the budding artist holding a brain in his bare hand and dissecting said brain to feed artistic curiosity.

Debate to your heart’s content as to whether this painting tells the story of the Creation of Adam or Adam Creating God. Did you even notice how God looks like Adam? And if you doubt their likeness, check out a Michelangelo self-portrait. Is the artist channeling Genesis 1:26, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” or is the Sistine Chapel God an anthropomorphic, stronger, wiser, more virile likeness of Michelangelo, himself?

What about other divas and deities? Look at images of Shiva, Brahman, Vishnu or Krishna. It’s hard to miss that the 33 Hindu higher powers are depicted in Indian likeness. Once you go brown, other Gods let you down. What place and era do images of the Greeks Apollo, Hera, Zeus or Aphrodite appear to hail from? Exactly; hardly a coincidence.

Jains and Buddhists don’t have anthropomorphic higher powers. Sikhism celebrates one deity but discourages adherents from dwelling on comprehending or rendering likenesses. For Muslims, to depict Allah by gender or image is blasphemous—bad Michelangelo and misguided Catholics.

Twelve step culture started adapting to more imaginative higher powers with secular acronyms such as Group Of Drunks or Good Orderly Direction. In 2016, Great Britain approved a leaflet, “The ‘God’ Word: Agnostics and Atheists in AA.” In North America, while the 2017 group and membership estimates show a 10% decline in USA/Canada year-over-year, Alcoholics Anonymous for atheist and agnostics is growing. The site posts over 400 no-prayer meeting times each week, and hosts a countdown clock for Toronto 2018, host-city for the biennial International Conference of Secular AA, following successful gatherings in Santa Monica (2014) and Austin (2016).

Some believers have heart-felt concern that secular AA is watered down AA or not AA at all. But the research bears out something else. The Journal of Studies on Alcohol (2002), “Atheists, Agnostics and Alcoholics Anonymous” reported:

“God belief appears to be relatively unimportant in deriving AA-related benefit. … The finding that atheist and agnostic clients reported AA-related benefit suggests there are multiple pathways for behavior change in AA, not all of which rely on spiritual beliefs and practices.”

In the 1990s, NA’s Bulletin #19 reported that new literature would have “non-gender-specific language and that all references to God be changed to ‘Higher Power’ or ‘Power Greater than ourselves.’” Online Gamers Anonymous, Internet & Tech Addiction Anonymous and Teen Addiction Anonymous are 21st Century 12-step fellowships with a contemporary narrative including gender-neutral higher power and secular 12-step options.

Who has placed Michelangelo or Bill W in a position of authority? Is there a supernatural power or isn’t there? Is the power of example in the rooms divine or secular? Who would trade their freedom-to-choose for conforming-to-authority, anyway? If David Bowie was staring up at the Sistine ceiling or reading 12-step literature with you, he might just say, “All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily what is implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.”

Michelangelo would likely be pleased by whatever meaning viewers derived. “There are no authoritative voices” in AA, either. In 1939, Bill W conceived of a power called God—a male God. It wasn’t authoritative; it was shared as a conception. We are compelled to interpret, conceive, build constructs and hold biases. Our ability to imagine is titillating; our tendency to argue about what it means is amusing.

Jesse Beach is a researcher/columnist for Rebellion Dogs Publishing. Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life (2013) by Joe C., Foreword by Ernest Kurtz, published by Rebellion Dogs, is the first secular daily reflection book for addicts/alcoholics,

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Jesse Beach may be a contrarian. Clean and sober since the disco-era, Jesse finds the prayer-answering, sobriety-granting higher power notion a wee-bit superstitious for his pallet. Still, he finds a secular view of 12-Step culture no impediment to contented recovery. As a rebel, he's no follower either. Anonymity is so-last-century in this next-Gen smiley faces and voices recovery culture. Jesse's not shy; he just finds the message is the medium - not the messenger. Be the face and voice of recovery; have at it; Jesse is kickin' it old-school. Psst, Jesse Beach might not even be his real name. 

Besides addiction/recovery lifestyle journalism, Jesse's word-smithary is also found in music, finance and cue-sport magazines and websites. Jesse hosts a radio show on Sirius XM called, IndieCan Radio, "the best music you've never heard!" When he's away from his computer, you'll find him mountain climbing, cooking or songwriting.

Lurk or make contact with Jesse B on Rebellion Dogs at his website, Twitter, and Facebook.