Al-Anon and other twelve-step programs seem to require faith in “God.”
For example, step three is:
“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
Since God doesn’t exist, how can anyone take a twelve-step program seriously?
Here’s my solution.
I use “God” as shorthand for higher powers, plural. This lets me embrace the program without deluding myself.
Let me explain.
With step three—turning our will and our lives over to God—we’re supposed to believe God exists, and he has a plan for each of us. “Don’t worry, everything happens for a reason. It all works out in the end.”
Such beliefs are delusional. There is obviously no cosmic plan.
So “turning your life over” to God isn’t comforting, because it requires turning off the logical part of your brain. (You know, the part that observes reality and wonders how an all-knowing, all-powerful being could allow such suffering.) (The part that hears people say, “Because the suffering is good/necessary, somehow,” and thinks “Really?”)
Treating the word “God” as shorthand for “higher powers” lets me reconcile step three with reality.
My higher powers are:
- the internet;
- art; music;
- nature; trees and mountains;
- water; rivers, rain, and oceans;
- the universe;
- (randomness) (chaos) (noise)
- logic and reason;
- (“rules” of the universe) (physics and math)
- science, broadly construed—the scientific method;
- the group conscience;
- humanity as a whole;
- human morality;
- my future self.
I got the future-self concept from advice columnist Captain Awkward, who wrote to a girl trapped in an abusive family:
“Listen: In the future, there is a small, quiet room that is just yours, where you are safe and you are free. […] Nobody can come into that room unless you let them. In that clean quiet place, you will work and you will study. You will love and you will heal. I know this is true because I am there with you. We are there together because you saved us. You saved us because you were brave and because you never stopped believing in that room.”
(These words gave me strength to leave my own abusive situation.)
Anyway. Some people claim, “All these higher powers are interconnected; they’re all branches of the same thing, so let’s call that thing ‘God.'”
But that makes no sense.
I mean, sure, mash it up and call it whatever you want—but don’t ascribe supernatural powers to it.
The higher powers I’ve listed are powerful, but not all-powerful. Even if you mash them together, you can’t escape the facts:
Sometimes bad things happen for no reason.
Most suffering is pointless.
Children have suffered and died and things certainly did not “all work out in the end,” for them.
To believe that last one, you’d need to believe in a fantasy afterlife for which there is no guarantee and zero evidence. In other words, you’d need to be delusional.
Also, you’d have to ignore the fact that some suffering is so awful that no heavenly reward could make up for it. In this world, it’s possible for a child to be born, live their entire life in suffering, and die at age two of diarrhea. If that were me, I’d wish I’d never been born—paradise be damned.
But thanks to the powers that be (human civilization, science, technology, etc.—and luck), that isn’t me. My life will probably go well.
Even if terrible things do come to pass, there’s not much I can do, because I’m only one person. Compared to my higher powers, I am powerless over people, places, and things. And not even my higher powers are all-powerful. Complete control is impossible.
But, I don’t have to completely give up “my will,” either. I get some control. Since my higher powers include my future self, I still have some say over my life.
In this context, the twelve steps make sense.
I can say the serenity prayer wholeheartedly:
“God, grant me the power to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
 The full quote, in context:
“It is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?”
Christians explain this last part (the KKK and fascists) as the product of “free will.”
But there’s an obvious response to that, too, which Russell gives in “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?”:
“If I were going to beget a child knowing that the child was going to be a homicidal maniac, I should be responsible for his crimes. If God knew in advance the sins of which man would be guilty, He was clearly responsible for all the consequences of those sins when He decided to create man. The usual Christian argument is that the suffering in the world is a purification for sin [or part of God’s plan] and is therefore a good thing. This argument is, of course, only a rationalization of sadism; but in any case it is a very poor argument. I would invite any Christian to accompany me to the children’s ward of a hospital, to watch the suffering that is there being endured, and then to persist in the assertion that those children are so morally abandoned as to deserve what they are suffering [or that it’s somehow good for reasons only God knows]. […] No man who believes that all is for the best in this suffering world can keep his ethical values unimpaired, since he is always having to find excuses for pain and misery.“
 Jennifer Peepas (Captain Awkward), “Question #122: Should I move away from my abusive family?” captainawkward.com/2011/10/18/question-122-should-i-move-away-from-my-abusive-family/.