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God and the 12 Steps

Religion and politics remain controversial topics that good etiquette would suggest you leave out of Thanksgiving and Christmas Dinner conversation. However, though 12 step meetings have no opinion on politics, they do talk about God, and quite a bit.

God and the 12 steps are so closely aligned that they’re pretty much inseparable.

The idea of God is vast and limitless; however, the word God brings up a lot of mixed feelings for many people who enter into the rooms looking for help to stop their addictive behavior. 

I was raised in the Catholic Church, so the idea of God was not new to me when I first came into Cocaine Anonymous (the 12 step fellowship I claim as my home). Step 2 states that we “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” 

This step (strategically in my opinion) leaves out the word God. If step 1 leaves an addict hopeless, then we need step 2 to give us hope of recovery. Even if a person does not have any concept of God or has no belief in God whatsoever, they can work a good step 2 by believing that the 12 steps worked for their sponsor or their friends who have maintained some semblance of happy sobriety. 

My first experience with meetings was when I was a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. My girlfriend at the time basically forced me to go, and I am sure I was high and drunk when I went to the 2 meetings I remember going to. In those rooms, I remember sobriety sounding awful. The people sharing sounded miserable, like they were gritting their teeth at every step, but by golly they were sober. 

I’m sorry, but the idea of living out a life with that kind of sobriety sounded terrible, and at the time, I would have much rather died the death of an addict in active addiction. 

This is why I got so excited when I met my current friends in Cocaine Anonymous–they were happy in sobriety, and it showed. My first sponsor didn’t tell me I needed God (although I wouldn’t have had a problem with it if he did). He just told me that the 12 steps could change my life and that I could feel better quickly and lose the obsession to get high.

That sounded grand, and I believed him, and I really wanted both of those things. 

But what if he had told me I needed God? Or what if I hadn’t been okay with the idea of God at all?

What if I had deep spiritual beliefs that didn’t include a deity? What if I was a Taoist for example, or a Buddhist, and didn’t believe in a higher power in the same sense?

Even if someone explains that, “oh, it’s a God of your understanding,” that’s still a god. That’s still a deity.

Why leave that language in there at all when it would be so easy to take it out and just call it a higher power the entire time?

In order to dig into this, let’s look at the origins of Alcoholics Anonymous.

God and the 12 Steps — The Origins of God in the Steps 

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded by two alcoholics who helped each other get and stay sober. These men were Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. Bill was technically the first to get sober. The person who brought the idea of recovery to Bill was his old friend Ebby Thatcher. 

Ebby Thatcher sobered up in a Christian fellowship called the Oxford group. The Oxford group believed in: 

  1. deflation of the ego
  2. surrendering to God
  3. self-examination
  4. admission of character defects
  5. restitution to those harmed
  6. helping others

It is easy to see that, out of this, the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were born. 

Bill Wilson was desperate when he met the now-sober Ebby Thatcher. He attended the Oxford Group, gave his life to Christ, and proceeded to try to help other alcoholics. 

He didn’t have much luck with any alcoholics until he met Dr. Bob Smith in Ohio. 

For different reasons, Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson along with other sober alcoholics broke away from the Oxford Group. These alcoholics were the pioneers of what became Alcoholics Anonymous. 

My experience with Alcoholics Anonymous, and other substance addiction 12 step programs, is that they are passionate about reaching the newcomer–the beat-up guy who can’t keep a drink out of his noggin, or a needle out his arm.

How were they going to best reach the newcomer? Well, I would imagine they figured it wasn’t by telling the newcomers that they were sinners and needed Christ.

Not Affiliated With Any Religion–Literature Riddled with Christian Ideas and Concepts

Even though in A.A. and other such fellowships you can choose any conception of God you like, there is language in the Big Book (as well as other A.A. literature) that talks of God in the modern Christian sense. 

What I mean by this is that God is referred to as the Father and like a king of the universe. If you do God’s Will (which is a very abstract concept to begin with), then you are in the good graces of the Big Guy, and he will grant you blessings… hopefully.

You will hear members of 12 step fellowships say all the time that everything that happens is God’s Will, and nothing is a mistake. 

Here is my response to that–remember that I grew up in Catholic School. 

So if God is a person who is king of the universe, then that guy is a psychopath. That means God made sure that little Susie got a job promotion while Larry and Marsha’s daughter was born without any arms. That means World War II was meant to happen and so was every murder and rape that has ever occured.

All a deity’s will?

I certainly hope not. 

So as you can see, I have a definite disdain for the Christian concept of God and the idea that we are all sinners. (By the way–the Oxford Group would for sure say we are all sinners, so I understand how A.A. still has a hint of that sinner taste to it.) 

Thankfully, despite all the language in the Big Book that is clearly Christian derived, someone had the sense to say “God of your own understanding.” The great thing about A.A. is that I can have my own concept and it’s OK, even though it can be hard for someone to get that message from the Big Book itself because it says the word “God” over and over and has some pretty clear assumptions underlying the way that word is used.

I have many Christian Friends in 12 step fellowships, and we can talk about God at length, and we have great conversations, not arguments. That is a pretty cool thing. Even though I have friends who undoubtedly believe I’m going to hell, I am so comfortable with my view being different that I don’t need anyone to believe as I do. 

Now I am able to use the word God without much prejudice, even though I don’t believe how many of my friends believe. However, I think it is much more difficult for some other people to swallow the word God when they get to the rooms, and if anyone is turning away from the 12 steps because the book is stuck in Christian language and ideas, then that’s a tragedy.

You might say, “Well, too bad–they haven’t been beaten down bad enough yet. They’ll come back.”

First of all–will they? Many won’t. They’ll die because A.A. was too stubborn to change its language. That’s a character defect right there.

Second of all, what about people in countries where Christianity is illegal, like Somalia, or where Christianity might as well be illegal, like Iran? What if a Bhuddist wants to get sober? Do they all have to get down with Christianity or die?

That would actually make sense given how Christianity works.

So even though the book and fellowships (especially in Texas) may talk of God in the Christian sense, I always make it a point to let people old and new know that I believe God is an all powerful energy of unconditional love. My concept of God comes from the Taoist and Hindu traditions.

On the same day, you could easily see me chanting Hare Krishna and saying the Our Father prayer. It is helpful for me to sometimes personify this power. Sometimes I use the image of Krishna while sometimes I even use the image of Jesus Christ. (I am really into Jesus Christ and some of the gnostic gospels, but that’s for another time.)

The whole point of this is to say that God–whatever it is–can be accessed in many different ways. And if that’s the case, then anything we can do as a fellowship to facilitate that is something we should consider.

Like taking out the word God entirely.

Should The Word God Be Removed From The 12 Steps? 

Yes. At the very least, the word God should be removed from the 12 steps, if not from the entire Big Book.

Now before you get your shorts all in a bundle, let me explain. 

The word God has a massive amount of toxic baggage attached to it, especially in modern North America. It needs to be redefined, and I believe that the word God needs to hang out on the sidelines for a while.

A person who has been brought up as a Christian in North America, whether they know it or not, has a deep-rooted conception of a God who not only punishes them when they do something wrong, but of a God who is actually hoping and waiting for the moment they mess up so He can pounce on them.

And even if you say that this isn’t the case, there’s a powerful argument to be made that God created all those laws knowing that we could never live up to them (because God created us to be imperfect also I guess…), forcing us to come to him.

If that doesn’t sound like a severely codependent relationship, I don’t know what does.

For someone brought up this way, no matter what they say their current belief about a higher power is, they walk around with this idea that may have been instilled in them as children. That’s an idea that’s going to push them away from seeking help, from seeking life.

Should we really be okay as a fellowship with pushing people away because we’re so attached to a few drops of ink on a page? Is A.A. really so fragile that it will fall to pieces if we change the words around a bit? They’ve already changed the words a number of times, and nothing horrible has happened yet.

Further, there are hundreds of successful 12-step fellowships in the world, and many of them have their own literature. They seem to do just fine.

If the word God in the 12 steps is replaced by the term high power or a power greater than ourselves, many more addicts might grasp onto the recovery process with more ease.

It might save lives.

Or we can be stubborn and let them die because we’re unwilling to be open-minded.

Do You Think That the Removal of the Word God in the 12 steps Will Do More Harm Than Good? 

I am really interested in anyone’s opinion on this matter. I would particularly like to hear from people who are Christians and are members of 12 step fellowships 

Reply in the comments section below. I look forward to hearing from you.

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2 years ago


Adam Fout
2 years ago
Reply to  Alex


Keith Lucia
Keith Lucia
1 year ago

Very well put together argument. It never sat well with me that meetings in my area and mostly everywhere end with the Our Father. All I can think of is the Buddhist who’s first meeting it is who will never come back because it’s not for them. Anyway good luck changing peoples mind on this, you know how die hard AA is about the Almighty Big Book. Maybe deep into the future this might change but for now Bill/Bob’s ink is King of the Universe. In the meantime keep being open about your God it’s important we need to hear that.

Adam Fout
1 year ago
Reply to  Keith Lucia

Thank you! I agree, it’s going to be very hard to change minds around this, but I’ve already seen some AA meetings that approach the higher power issue differently, so maybe that will become more common (or at least get rid of the dang Our Father). Thanks for reading.


Michael Palma

Michael Palma is a drug addict in recovery who is passionate about recovery and recently has taken to writing about his own experience, strength, and hope and hopes to share this with as many people in recovery as he can. He has been a professional jazz pianist for over 20 years. He has performed with Wynton Marsalis, Jimmy Cobb (drummer for Miles Davis), Daniel Platzman (drummer for Imagine Dragons), Robert “Sput” Seawright (drummer for Snoop Dogg and Snarky Puppy), Greg Osby, and Terri Lynn Carrington to name a few.

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