The concept of a 'spiritual experience' is one that gets all tied up in religious concepts among AAs... because most AAs are religious to one degree or another.  But all 'spiritual' means is relating to the human spirit, it need not refer to 'souls' or other magical/mystical concepts.  Throughout history humans have had a tendency to attach supernatural significance to anything intangible, but a 'spirit' describes nothing but the way one approaches life, the totality of emotion and thought and action... not that these are really separate things.

For me, AA has boiled down to a very simple program: figure out how you believe a human being should behave, then do my best to behave in that way.  When I was drinking, I had some ideas about the way a good person should act.  My behavior was quite different; the more I drank, the more it diverged.  So of course I felt like a crappier person, and the crappier I felt the crappier I acted.

It doesn't need to be complicated to me... though once I expected it to be.  I looked at a big book and lots of steps and principles and suggestions and thought it ought to be complicated and difficult.  That meant for a while I made it complicated and difficult.  Funny how that works.  I obsessed over the mentions of 'god' without really realizing that it was the base concept that was useful, and that the supernatural had nothing to do with it.

Once I realized how simple the whole thing is, I found myself working all 12 steps without difficulty.  If someone else wants to complicate things by trying to placate a mythological figure at the same time, well, that's their look-out not mine.

My personal experience was that I came into the program as an agnostic, and once I got the honesty with yourself portion of the program, I had to admit I was lying to myself and to others in an attempt to please them.  I acknowledged my atheism to myself in AA.  I came to identify myself as a philosophical taoist as well.  No conflict or magical thinking, what I call the Tao most other people would simply label 'cause and effect' and a concerted effort to pay attention to how things actually work in the world (as opposed to how I wish they would work or think they should work) and behave accordingly.  This makes the 'god' steps very simple.  Turn my will and my life over to the care of my higher power?  Not hard at all.    It just means accepting some truths about myself and the world.  For example, there is no deific force to come and save me from my own foolishness, so I cannot afford to sit on my ass and complain how much it sucks that I can't control my drinking if I choose to drink.  Humans have needs, I have specific needs to avoid falling back into my old addictive behaviors.  I need the support of friends and like-minded individuals.  I need to continue to be honest with myself in all things, because if I start BSing myself about one thing it is easy for that to bleed over into BSing myself about others, such as the reaction of my body and mind to alcohol. 

All that is really too much explanation, but I might as well leave it there.  Turning my will and my life over just means 'accept what I can't change and work to change the things I can'.

Just my experience.

I also  wish the whole AA thing was more secular.  But it's not surprising it's not, it was created by people who were deists or active religious, and it populated mostly by those sorts. 

It is an excellent illustration that while belief in supernatural beings is damned silly, not everything such believers come up with is as silly as what they believe.  You just have to look to the basic principles and ignore the magic window dressing.

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I agree with what you say but it's often difficult to get AA members to show tolerance towards that view. Sometimes I feel the temperature in the room drop by several degrees if I speak my mind.

By the way, have you read Hitchens on the secular numinous experience?
I've gotten the temperature drop too, but more often I just get slightly concerned looks from folks who wonder if my non-religious experience is 'enough' for continued sobriety. A few ask me questions, most don't. My sponsor is a non-religious deist, his only question to me was "whatever you believe in, is it more than just you?" The answer was that it definitely was, and his only comment was, "good." Early on he was a bit concerned that I favored interaction online over the phone, but now he asks how my sober contacts on Twitter are doing, and thought it was pretty awesome that I joined Atheist Nexus (in part) to get in touch with some like-minded sober folks and/or just some more people to talk with.

The longer I go to meetings and the more I share, the less concerned I am with the possibility of the temperature drop. It's just their business, and not mine. When someone shares and 'god' is every sixth word out of their mouths, I have my own temperature drop and have to remind myself to listen to them; if nothing else their experience staying sober may suggest something of use to me. I generally don't seek them out to have a talk with after the meeting, and they generally don't seek me out. I don't mind talking to them, but if it turns to religion it's time to change the subject or find another conversation, that's all. The freethinkers and the atheists and buddhists, etc tend to gravitate to me... folks with some form of common ground.

So in my book, it's all good. Let the ones who doubt me doubt me, it's not my business to change their minds. If they come back in a few years and I'm still sober, who knows... if anything will change their minds, that's what is going to do it, not my words.

On the numinous experience... I haven't read deeply but I've encountered the concept. It didn't make a giant impact on me... of course I like a 'wow, that's awesome' moment as much as any theist. It's a human thing, not a religion thing. It WAS nice to see someone else speak on it in those terms.
I had a lot more issue with this in Ohio than here in Seattle. Ohio AA tends to be less tolerant of atheism.

I think the literature is pretty reasonable when it comes to being agnostic, but doesn't accept that others (such as myself) are really atheists...
Thank you so much for this post. I have been in AA for several years and only recently admitted to myself that I don't believe. I relate so much to what you're saying. It reminds me of when I was trying to get sober and couldn't even explain what I thought or how I felt and then I heard someone else express what I was going through, only they were further along and had made it through. My sponsor knows that I don't believe, and she is also a vague deist who is unfazed by it. I have a feeling in the back of my mind that she thinks it is just a phase, but that could be some sort of silly worry on my part.

I just need to know that I can stay sober while seeking the truth. I know that what I had was "belief in belief" and I do want to be successful in the program. I like the part of the Big Book where the doctor describes the spiritual experience as casting aside the attitudes that have been guiding forces, and finding new conceptions. This has definitely happened to me throughout sobriety.

It's been my experience that seeking the truth is what keeps me sober, so I think you definitely can. :-)  The part of the book you describe is exactly the core of sobriety in my view... the so-called (and accurately so, once you understand the 80 year old phrasing that sounds a little weird to the modern reader) entire psychic change.  Before, even though I came to absolutely hate being addicted to alcohol, my whole life was devoted to drinking.  Thinking about doing it, thinking about not doing it, thinking about maybe doing it tomorrow, thinking about buying alcohol, whether or not I would open the bottle now or later, how much I would drink, how much I actually drank, and of course just plain ol' being drunk.


Then, in the early days of sobriety, my whole life was devoted to not-drinking.  And it kind of sucked, and I wondered if being obsessed with not consuming alcohol while kind of wanting to would be my whole life forever.  But of course, I was trying to shed an obsession with an addictive substance, so it was a phase I needed to go through, sort of a counter-obsession.  But I was afraid it was going to be like that forever.


Now, my whole life is devoted to the things I like to do, want to do, or need to do.  Sobriety is a condition that I do a few things to maintain because it is a good way to be for me.  It's like a healthy person not eating too many treats and going to the gym once in a while... not an obsession, just a damn good idea and one that makes more sense the longer I do it.  Once it stopped being a counter-obsession and simply the way I live a life I enjoy, I stopped worrying about whether or not the beliefs of the majority of my fellow AAs were essential.  I'm sober and happy, so I'm guessing I have the essential part.  The 'entire psychic change'.  The big change of mind and mental habits, of 'spirit', from being a drunk to being a sober human with a real life.  I think that part of the book you're talking about is the real deal.


And, probably not too much of a coincidence, my sponsor is a vague deist as well.  He has a few other sponsees that I'm aware of and they run the gamut from christian through buddhist to myself.  Deists tend to be pretty flexible so far as spiritual tolerance goes, pretty live-and-let-live.  If my sponsor thinks my atheism is a phase, he's certainly never said so.  The only direct question he asked me about my higher power was early on when I started working with him, and it was 'whatever it is you believe in, is it bigger than you?'  And that's another biggie... I may not believe in a deity of any sort, but as an active alcoholic I thought like some kind of tinpot godling.  I got pissed off when it rained and I didn't want it to be raining, I got pissed off when people didn't pay me the attention and adulation I thought I deserved.  Very old testament mindset.  And who the hell can live a decent life acting like an old testament god?  Ugh, nasty thought.  But there it is.


Anyhow.  That was a big ol' book of a response.  Glad you're sober and thanks for a great reply. :-)

You too, thanks for taking the time to write about it. I never thought of it as a counter-obsession, but I know what you mean. I am just now really coming out of it, I think, and learning to live life for its own sake. I still feel guilty for not sponsoring anyone right now (not that they've asked), not being at every meeting, not "doing enough." I keep having to consciously remind myself that no one is watching me. I think the anthropomorphic god talk really did a number on me, even though I don't know if I ever thoroughly believed in it.


It was cool, I was just at a meeting and the topic sort of went toward living life to the fullest, and people were talking about how they got sober so they could live their lives (and not just living life to be sober, is what I mentally added). It's nice to get something out of a meeting, and appreciate that without having to think that someone out there arranged it just so I would hear what I needed to hear. 


Again, it helps to hear this because I have to admit I'm a little scared that my sobriety is somehow in danger because I'm not praying, professing belief in a personal god, and seeking someone else's will for my life. Not that I believe a God is out there, but I am just told over and over by people in meetings that these things are necessary for sobriety. However, I think if I could just get over the guilt and doubt I would have some time free to enjoy my life more, as I do have a really good life overall.


I think the phrase "tinpot godling" is funny and I'm going to remember that. AA has actually helped me mature a great deal over the past few years, ironically to the point where I became a rationalist nonbeliever.

The praying thing... yeah, a lot of folks put a lot of stock in it, and sometimes it really is hard to hear everyone talking about it without thinking 'gee, maybe I should too'.  Same for the god's will over my life thing.


But I don't have to be thankful to a deity to be thankful.  Prayer is essentially an expression of being thankful for what is good in one's life, and a self-reminder of what one needs to work on.


You certainly don't need to be talking to a deity to say out loud to yourself, 'I'm thankful to be sober today' and 'Let me remember to do what I need to maintain my sobriety today'.  A little reminder to myself of what is important to me.  And much like a 4th/5th step, it's helpful to say it to another person once in a while too.  Which is what I'm doing right here today by responding.  No deities involved, just me and another human being. :-)


As for the seeking someone else's will part, what religious AAs call 'giving my will over to god'... it's nothing but remembering what your will is good for.  What AA calls 'the proper use of the will'.  When I want to work in the garden and it's raining its butt off out there, I can either get resentful and unhappy, or I can let go of my own will in the matter.  My will that I work in the garden isn't something I have to hand off to 'god' like a baton.  It doesn't have to go anywhere, it doesn't have to be lifted by some sentient power any more than a river has to be sentient to take a boat downstream.


I let go of my resentment that it's raining, and let go of my will that I work in the garden today.  It doesn't have to go anywhere, because it doesn't literally exist.  It's a thought and an emotion I have, and I can examine it, understand that it is irrational, and in that understanding it simply dissolves.  Then I am free to do something else.  Like respond to someone here. 


Now, if you (or anyone else) can make any sense out of that, I release my will over it and await your response if you wish to respond. :-D



It does make sense. I know that psychologically prayer makes a big difference in some people's day-to-day lives (although I can't say I ever felt much more than guilt at not doing it right or doing it enough). I never really knew of a secular alternative. I got uncomfortable at a meeting last week when the topic (from some cheesy non-AA meditation book) was prayer, and everyone was going on and on about how great and important was. I kind of danced around the issue, but I admitted that I'm not really doing it, and that seemed to worry people. I thought I saw pity in their eyes (but could be my perception).


I also don't want to be "willful" in the sense that I do whatever I feel like and damn the consequences (which was the drunk modus operandi). So I will try to imagine it dissolving, going away. I have never heard anyone say anything like that. I guess that my acceptance of reality is enough submission to keep me sober.


Thanks again for a thoughtful response. This is a quite interesting take on these things. I feel like it's been so long since I heard anything genuinely new or revolutionary (to me) in a meeting.


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