Dear Mr. SponsorPants,
Thank you for your blog. I have read it compulsively since I stumbled over you and it has helped me a lot.
I am [around six months sober] and I am an atheist. And I have a very specific and personal favor to ask you. I am very serious about getting through the 12 Steps. I completely buy the whole Psychic Upheaval idea but not the Spiritual Experience in the way most people in my meetings mean it.
But since I am serious about my Steps I need help with the 3rd Step. I read the email you answered a while ago about making a group your higher power and that made a lot of sense to me. [Surrendering to AA's sober experience and letting that be kind of your higher power.] But even though I don't pray I want something to say when I "do" my 3rd Step. You've written all those prayers and letters to and from God and stuff. Can you please write a non God "prayer" for me to say?
Newly Sober Atheist
Dear Newly Sober Atheist,
First, thank you for all the kind words you said in your email, and I apologize for editing down your heartfelt letter, but I wanted to focus on the crux of your request, with enough context so that it made sense to other readers.
Most importantly, CONGRATULATIONS on your sobriety. If you take working the 12 Steps seriously (as you clearly do), you'll have a strong foundation, experience relief from active alcoholism and have a powerful transformative experience. I have seen it time and again, I know this is true.
In the book "Alcoholics Anonymous" (AA's Big Book) when it discusses the 3rd Step Prayer (and for the new kids, the 3rd Step is: "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him") it says very clearly that the wording is quite optional, and that the key factor in taking this step is to really mean it in your heart. And over the years I have found that worrying about if you "really mean something" can drive you crazy - just assume that if you're worried about really meaning it then at some level you probably really mean it. But I respect wanting to take an action to make "taking your 3rd Step" real. So... you asked, and though I feel somewhat inadequate to the task... here goes.
The 3rd Step Prayer for Atheists
(or The Non-Prayer 3rd Step)
I commit myself to a set of principles, for my ongoing sobriety and my growth.
I am now open to accepting whatever life brings me, as I know that through living by AA's principles of love, tolerance, service and sobriety, every day is a chance to do and be better for myself and towards others.
I will continually turn away from self obsession and self involvement, and rather, in a healthy and balanced way, focus on how I can be of service to whomever I meet, wherever I am and however I can.
I affirm that walking this sober path of service will transform what appear to be difficulties into opportunities;
opportunities to help others, to embrace humility and to try to bring a little harmony to my corner of the world. In so doing I demonstrate to others and myself that this is a real and vital commitment, and a way of living which will ensure my sobriety and my ongoing growth out of addiction and into a rich new way of being.
May I live this commitment today and every day.
I hope that is helpful, Newly Sober Atheist. I won't try and sell you on any form of spirituality whatsoever in this email reply, as I know from what you've written that plenty of people are doing that to you and it's really not very helpful. I respect that. Let me offer you three final things:
1. AA says at every point in the literature that it is God/Higher Power as you understand them. Some will say that the 3rd Step is very clearly that you turn your will and life over to God. So, no God, no 3rd Step. I would suggest that if how you understand god is that there isn't one, well, that's how you understand them. I might further suggest you lay that on a couple of the most ardent proselytizers you encounter as a way of getting a little breathing space. Remember, they really are only trying to help, even though from what you wrote it feels a lot more like condescension or a sales pitch.
2. What I wrote above was a lot harder to come up with than I thought. I tried to capture the essence of what we are saying when we make that prayer, but I fear still there may be more focus on self than is healthy for an alcoholic. Many AA's have prayed even though we didn't believe. I have continued to pray through long (long) stretches when I did not have any faith whatsoever, and the act of praying was still helpful to me. The body of your email was so passionate and sincere that I had to offer the above to you, but my strong suggestion -- without sliding into "selling you" on anything -- is that you try prayer anyway, and just table the question of belief for a little while.
3. If that's not palatable, okay. I know you are taking deeply to heart every other suggestion AA makes, so it is not really a question of willingness for you. All I will do in conclusion is echo the idea set out in the Big Book in "Bill's Story," in the "Chapter to the Agnostics," in many of the personal stories in the back of the book and in the Appendix titled "Spiritual Experience" (and in much of what I've written here over the years): We don't know everything there is to know about the world around us. Keep an open mind. There is clearly -- even from a solely scientific perspective, rather than a spiritual one -- far more to the Universe, and thus our existence, than we can perceive with our limited intellects and puny five senses. Maybe reflect on that when considering the Big Questions.
And please, keep coming back. By your own admission you feel better after you leave a meeting than when you walked into it. Keep coming back, don't pick up the first drink, and continue to believe in AA's sober experience as a path to keeping your balance and sobriety through life's ups and downs (and twists, turns, switchbacks and loop-de-loops).
Do that, and if you are capable of being honest with yourself and others, you'll be fine.
I sincerely wish you the best and hope that you have found in this answer something helpful.
Please keep in touch. Regardless of what we call ourselves, believers or agnostics, we are all brothers and sisters in recovery from a deadly disease.