Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The ‘Higher Power’ doesn’t have to be God


The discussion of whether religion belongs in spaces like Alcoholics Anonymous has many larger moral arguments tied into it. Can something be spiritual without religious aspects? Can the power of ritual and prayer have positive effect even without personal belief in a higher power?

Such questions are complex and have very few straightforward answers. Not many theological questions do. More accessible debates come down to something more basic: who is entitled to the kind of care AA can provide, and how far can we go to make recovery a welcoming and accessible process for everyone?

It has been a long time since I’ve been a Christian, despite the cross that hangs around my neck. In day-to-day goings-on, when everything is peachy keen, I rarely think to stop and pray or meditate or do anything but go on my merry way. But when everything falls apart I do find myself reconnecting with my own spiritual side. My set of beliefs is complicated and often contradictory, but it gives me a certain comfort in particularly dark times. I know this to be true of many other people. That being said, there are those who find no comfort in prayer or the thought of God or in any sort of spiritual guidance, and it is the constitutional right for atheism and related theologies to have a home in America.

I often forget that my spiritual inclinations and Christian roots give me privilege. Growing up liberal meant growing up surrounded by very vocal atheists who did not hesitate to question my faith. On more than one occasion I have had someone tell me that believing in God is stupid. Richard Dawkins wrote a book that basically called me delusional for having faith. So it is easy for me to forget my religious privilege. When the subject of faith in twelve-step programs came up, I was eager to defend it. Faith has helped me heal, and it has helped countless others as well. But that does not mean it has a place as an important element of the most accessible and well-known recovery groups in America.

America is a very Christian nation, and despite what my hippie bubble childhood would have me believe, atheists are a minority. For an atheist, or anyone who feels discomfort with religious practices for any reason, to walk into an AA meeting and be confronted with a prayer, nondenominational as it is, could be a complete turn off.

And for those running out of hope, to see a major option suddenly become just one more faith-based space could be a major deterrent in recovery.

Does this mean that recovery programs like AA should scrub their steps clean of all religious and faith based references? Maybe not. As someone who has had my fair share of encounters with state-run mental health facilities, let me tell you, they are soulless places. The pills, the doctors, the white concrete walls and the clinical starkness of it all presents an environment where many people are sedated, but few people heal.

The success of AA, I think, can be attributed in some part to their references to a force larger than oneself. I just think there may be a more inclusive route that does not leave out those who do not believe and do not want belief to be part of their recovery.

The ideas behind the religious language in the twelve steps can exist without the religion. Believing in a power greater than ones self does not always mean believing in  God. There are many things in this world greater than a single being, and it would be possible to turn your life over to those things instead. Recovery is an incredibly personal process, and I think that can be reflected in a more inclusive twelve steps.

It is important to remember that God and religion have played incredibly important parts in many recoveries. In the process of changing a program like AA it would be critical to not minimize the legitimacy and power of those recoveries. There must be a way to structure a program that provides many options and structures towards recovery without isolating those who are already isolated by society.

Obviously these are deep and complex issues, on both topics of spirituality and addiction. There are many experiences to consider, and each of those cannot go invalidated. The most important thing is that all people who suffer from addiction – or any mental health related issue – have as many options and routes towards good health as possible. We must labor to ensure that no one ever walks away from recovery because of religious exclusion.

Victoria Knobloch is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].

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    AdrienneApr 8, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    I tried AA for two years, trying to believe in a “higher power” (Step 2) that fit into my atheist views. It didn’t work. Any suggestion of medicine or science that might work against the physical craving for alcohol that controls our lives was rejected and eventually I got tired of being ignored. There “advice” is unprofessional and no one is accountable. I urge any addicts to seek medical help and professional counseling and reject AA’s cult.

  • J

    John F. FelixApr 8, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Dr. Robert M. Price, PhD, “the Bible Geek,” has an interesting take on a non-religious approach to such programs, specifically dealing with AA in his 01/02/2010 podcast (Theology of Alcoholics Anonymous) beginning at 00:27:18 and running for 00:09:31 here: Enjoy.