How does an agnostic or atheist work the 12 steps?

by Alan S.  

I rarely use the terms agnostic or atheist to describe myself, and the question of “Is there is a God?” is not one I give much thought to. The big questions on how the world works, does some entity direct it, is it preordained or random or some mix—while these are interesting topics, I have never believed I had the ability to answer.

I observed that many people had religious answers to this, others had spiritual answers, and other had scientific theories. It was clear that these groups often believed these narratives with passion and certitude. It occurred to me that it is hard to imagine them all being true because many seem contradictory, and just because you believe something doesn’t mean it’s true. I think about the many thousands of years people thought the sun circled the Earth or that the Earth was flat. So at the end of the day, I came to believe it would be intellectual arrogance to believe I had even a clue how the universe worked. So the many God stories that exist have never been of much interest to me. Last year at an OA retreat the speaker shared something I think of often, and it helps me work OA without a God story:

Imagine a goldfish in a bowl watching its world happen. Sometimes the lights are on, other times off. Sometimes bits of food drop into the bowl, other times not. Sometimes the water is clean, sometimes not. Now imagine this goldfish with its little brain trying to understand what is going on (i.e., the owner is turning the lights on and off, fish food is being made and then purchased at a pet store, etc.)… The goldfish would not even have the slightest chance with its brain to understand it the way we do.

So now here are we humans who have been on this planet as civilization for 10,000 or so years of a 4.5-billion-year history. Now add in that we are part of one solar system out of many trillions in a 14-billion-year history. You start to get the picture. It seems that to think, believe, claim that we have the story of how it all works makes as much sense as the goldfish knowing the greater story.

This prompts the question how do you work the steps, which have many God references, if you simply don’t have any idea how the world works—and suspect that nobody else does either, despite what they believe, claim or report.

I joined OA over 27 years ago and feel very grateful that the vast majority of that time I have been able to keep 150 pounds off and not compulsively overeat. A critical part of that has been working the 12 steps of OA, which has been a challenge as I don’t have a belief in God.

God comes up a lot in our steps and is mentioned in steps 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, and 11. That is half of them. It also uses terms like “spiritual awakening” and “higher power.” It also says things like “asking for knowledge of His will for us.” Now the literature says things like you can choose your own definition of a higher power and a few other things along those lines, but then many times says that the way you recover is find God and turn your life over to Him. It feels like they are politely letting nonbelievers join the club providing they know that need to buy into God or similar down the road.

For years I recoiled at this language and sometimes still do. I came from a very orthodox religious background, and it took quite a bit of searching to come to my current worldview.

For years I recoiled at this language and sometimes still do. I came from a very orthodox religious background, and it took quite a bit of searching to come to my current worldview.

I have no idea how the universe works. To think, feel, and believe some all-knowing supernatural entity runs the show and is linked to names like Jesus, Mohamed, Moses, Buddha, Zeus, or Vishnu makes no sense. I appreciate that the world has been a mystery for humanity for millennia, we want answers, and one answer is to name people as gods, but that is not my story.

So, that all said, I also want to abstain from overeating, and OA works for many people, including me. So here is where I am at with this journey as it related to the 12 steps:

  1. For Step 1: I know there is a power that can make my life unmanageable, and it is called compulsive overeating or binge foods and behaviors. In step 2 I will be looking for a power stronger than food.
  2. For Step 2: Very simply, that power is OA. Here is a fellowship that has many members working together to not overeat, and every time I go to a meeting I see evidence that it works.
    I just need to be open to the idea that there is something MORE POWERFUL THAN COMPULSIVE OVEREATING. What I call it or how it works is NOT important. For me OA is a power greater than me that has allowed me to keep 150 pounds off for the better part of 27 years. Another way I think about it is that when two or more people come together to help each other not eat, their combined efforts are more powerful than their efforts alone. Put quite simply, I can't stop overeating but WE CAN.
    The WE is how I interact and serve others. I regularly review how much I can serve the world around me, which happens at a host of levels from listening to my sweetie tell me about her day, to trying to do right in my professional life, to doing OA service, to supporting causes I believe in, to being thoughtful to the environment, etc.
    So step 3 to me is managing the ME-WE balance. It is just a simply shorthand to helping me part of the world vs. being lost in a world of self-centeredness.
  3. For Step 3: When I started I was told all this step means is you commit to keep working steps 4 and beyond, so I did that. Today I am still exploring what this means, and here is what it means at present:
    The essence of life is what I call the ME-WE balance. I put much time, thought, and energy into ME, MYSELF, and I. I try to take care of myself, eat right, sleep, exercise, earn a living, have some fun, etc.
    The WE is how I interact and serve others. I regularly review how much I can serve the world around me, which happens at a host of levels from listening to my sweetie tell me about her day, to trying to do right in my professional life, to doing OA service, to supporting causes I believe in, to being thoughtful to the environment, etc.
    So step 3 to me is managing the ME-WE balance. It is just a simply shorthand to helping me part of the world vs. being lost in a world of self-centeredness.
  4. For Step 4: This step makes no reference to God or anything of the like and is simply a thorough inventory of our morality.
  5. For Step 5: The self-reflection and sharing of step 4 with another has worked quite well for me. I have at times turned some things over to more than one person. The fact that I am sharing this with another brings the WE part of OA into play, which in my experience is a key to OA working. This is a WE program.
  6. For Step 6: First, when I hear the term “defect of character,” it makes me think/feel I am defective or broken. I learned that when Bill W. wrote the Big Book, he used a number of terms interchangeably, and the term “instincts out of balance” was an alternative to “defects of character,” so I prefer that one. In essence, we all have natural instincts for security, social needs, sexual needs, safety needs, etc., and when the ME part gets out of the balance with the WE part, it can create havoc.
    So I experience step 6 as realizing that I am out of balance from what I learned in step 4, and I have a real desire to change. In essence, my “instincts out of balance” are not working, and I am ready to come back into balance.
  7. For Step 7: To me this is using the program, my efforts, and any other resources to come back to being in balance. Cleary if I am plagued by greed, resentment, pride, etc., I need to try to move in the opposition directions such as generosity, kindness, and humility. Again, this is where the WE part comes in. I can’t do it alone and need help to make these changes, which can come from sponsors, OA members, professionals, friends, family members, etc. The other key idea is that these changes take time, and it is often a lifelong journey to keep moving toward balance. OA is a program of progress, not perfection.
  8. For Step 8: This step makes no reference to God, and writing the list is very straightforward. The willingness part for me is linked to abstinence. If I want to stay abstinent I have to forgive others and get ready to make amends.
  9. For Step 9: This step again makes no reference to God. As a personal note, my list has over 70 items on it, and I was quite intimidated by it. I realized the reason I had such a large list is most of my life I had a total ME focus. In order to survive a very difficult childhood, I learned that getting my needs met at any cost was the way to survive. So I gave little or no thought to how my behaviors affected others. I realized that if I was going to make these 70+ amends, I had to change my fundamental world view from a ME focus to a WE focus. I now choose to consider others in my choices as I work on the ME-WE balance, which I do imperfectly but do make progress.
  10. For Step 10: This step makes no reference to though it is a mini version of Steps 4 to 9, which do reference God. Again I treat it as described above.
  11. For Step 11: This is probably the most challenging step for someone that does not believe in God, does not have any understanding of Him, does not pray, does not believe He has a will for us, and does not believe God provides power to those that pray to Him. Wow, what a tall order for an atheist, agnostic, or someone like myself who has no idea what words even describe the way the world works, yet alone what to call or not call myself.
    So for me I have used meditation in various forms for many years. I do it not to communicate with God or “be spiritual” but simply because I think it helps give me some inner peace and is good for my general well-being. There are many ways to meditate, and my experience is to just find what seems helpful and do it so long as that is true— if it is not, try another form. Right now for me I have a few forms. Mindfulness with a recording to guide me, biking to affirmative music, being present in my life, reading OA literature, meditating when it comes up at my OA meetings, mindful eating where I am present to the taste and texture of my food as I chew slowly.
    I will sometimes say the OA prayers simply because I enjoy that. When I hear the “God” word, I think about it being an acronym for either Good, Orderly Direction or Great Out Doors. When I was into dance, it was for Go Out Dancing.
  12. For Step 12: The first part uses the term “spiritual awakening,” and for me this simply means that—one day at a time—I have a way of living that allows me to not compulsively overeat. That simple.
    To me the important part of this step is to carry the message to others and live a life of OA’s principles, which in short is to keep working the ME-WE balance. The world is not just about me or you. It is about US.