The Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous was written in 1938 and published in early 1939. This was a little over 3 years after AA itself began. The terminology in it, including the Twelve Steps, contained a lot of the typical Oxford Group and Protestant concepts common at the time.

Jim B(urwell), the “self-proclaimed athiest” of the early group, after several heated debates, reached some compromises with Bill and the others, including the phrase, “God, as we understood Him.”

Throughout the Big Book and other AA literature, there are a lot of the use of “God”, “Higher Power”, and “He/Him” to describe God. This can be quite a stumbling block for athiests, agnostics, or even those who simply have a bad experience with organized religion. The claim that AA is spiritual and not religious is hard to buy for many people. Even the use of “He” and “Him” can be irritating to people who do believe in a god.

In an article in the AA Grapevine in 1961, The Dilemma of No Faith, Bill said:

“In AA’s first years I all but ruined the whole undertaking with this sort of unconscious arrogance. God as I understood Him had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude. But either way it was damaging -- perhaps fatally so -- to numbers of non-believers.”

Alternative Twelve Steps

You can find many examples where people have re-written the Twelve Steps in various ways. You may find these helpful. But if you are going to regular Twelve Step meetings, you will hear the original version, probably exclusively, modified only to reflect the particular addiction.


We have used the term Program in this manual as a kind of shorthand to indicate a secular spiritual form of guidance — what theists would probably call God, and which was what some meant by the term “Higher Power”. Here is why we chose to use it.


One of the authors used to be a Certified Instrument Flight Instructor. When you are piloting an aircraft under instrument conditions, things can get very busy. You are holding a heading and an altitude, checking to make sure you are still following a prescribed flight path, talking with Air Traffic Control, juggling maps, approach charts, other radio frequencies, monitoring fuel conditions, possible icing, and many other factors. And all this may be done with a good bit of turbulence. Pilots have to train to do this without an electronic autopilot control, but we can say that being able to switch on the autopilot makes things tremendously easier.

Recovery feels similar. Things get rough, and the Physical, Emotional, and Mental processes of the disease start getting loud. Going on autopilot can be an analogy for making contact with a sponsor or others in the program, reading some literature, meditating, or getting in contact with that still, small voice within that can give you the guidance that the addiction tries to deny you. You could call this autopilot your Program.

Cruise Control

You may be more familiar with the cruise control in a car. Imagine being on a highway while there is some kind of crisis going on, maybe with the kids or whatever. It would be much easier if you could switch on the cruise control, and you would at least not have to worry about the speed, traffic and road conditions permitting. The Program can give you guidance similar to that which the cruise control gives the car.

Self-driving Cars

We will soon start seeing an option for cars that drive themselves, safer than humans can drive them. Then it will be even easier to think of responding to a crisis, like an emergency phone call, or the kids fighting. We might not call that a Higher Power, but it gives us an idea of how that guidance would make things much easier.

So, if it helps, think of or use the term Program when you see “God” or “Higher Power”. Or substitute another term if you like. There are lots of recovering addicts who have a spiritual program that does not involve a deity.

Program, see also: Beliefs Higher Power Openmindedness Power Prayer & Meditation Secular spirituality Serenity Spirituality

Updated 27 Sep 2015

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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