What might a higher power look like for atheists or agnostics?

Joe C. was a teenage alcoholic and drug user who almost died several times before he was brought to Alcoholics Anonymous. There, he went through all the motions, but eventually took his sobriety seriously and has been active in Twelve Steps ever since.

Joe C. writes, broadcasts, and podcasts (RebellionDogs) about addiction/recovery & mental health. He is also the author of Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life.

Joe C. is here to shed some light on atheists and agnostics, and how they understand the Twelve Steps and succeed without the belief in a supernatural higher power.



Listen to his reluctant journey through recovery and his amazing life in sobriety!

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Here are a few highlights from our interview. To get the full story please join us on the Podcast now!

Joe’s Recovery Routine

Joe C.’s recovery routine involves meetings, sponsorship, and more. Every Wednesday, he volunteers at a local treatment center where he lives in Toronto. Joe has been in recovery for many years, and he didn’t come to the Twelve Steps through a rehab, so he goes to the treatment center to learn.

Joe is a financial advisor by day and says he uses the principles he’s been taught in Twelve Steps to help cure people of their greed and fear. He’s a sober writer who has been clean for decades, but could not find a secular book on recovery. This is why he wrote Beyond Belief- Agnostic Musings for a 12-Step Life.

Joe also hosts the Rebellion Dogs podcast, a 21st century look at 12-Step Life, where he interviews authors, 12-Step members and addiction/recovery professionals to talk about 12-Step culture and history.

The First time

Joe C. grew up in the suburbs of the 60s and 70s where everyone had a well-stocked bar in their basement. As a kid, Joe felt like everyone fit in, but he didn’t. Everyone looked like they knew what they were doing, but he was lost. The first time Joe drank alcohol, it made him feel complete. He felt like it was the missing link to a complex childhood problem.

The Battle – Wreckage, Rock Bottom, and Recovery

You shake any family tree, one or two drunks fall out of it.

Joe was a teenage alcoholic and was only fourteen years old when he went to his first AA meeting. He had been hospitalized three times between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. Once, after a school dance, he was found passed out in his own vomit by the Zamboni driver. The school staff thought he was dead. After they pumped his stomach the doctor said, “I hope you feel lucky to be alive.” He didn’t feel that way at all.

The second time that Joe ended up in the hospital, he had cut his wrists because his girlfriend left him. Suicide made sense in a drunken stupor. But as he waited for his wrists to get stitched back together, he sobered up and suddenly felt foolish.

The third time he was put in the hospital was after got beat up by Hell’s Angels for a drug deal gone wrong. Through all his scrapes and near misses, Joe is amazed that no one ever said to him, “Hey kid, do you think you have a problem?”

They just dealt with my symptoms.

Atheists, Agnostics, and Addiction Recovery

What is the difference between atheists and agnostics? Atheist do not believe in the existence of God or any deities at all. For an agnostic, whether or not there is a god is unknown and unknowable. If there is a god, it is beyond a human being’s ability to comprehend it or communicate with it. There is a natural world view and a supernatural world view. In the natural world view, whatever we don’t understand isn’t supernatural, it’s just not explained yet. When it comes to Step 2 of the 12 Steps, both atheists and agnostics find an inner resource. There is a moral compass. It’s not supernatural. Joe says you must work with what you got.

There’s you and me and we’re in recovery.

Joe says there were Buddhist groups long before the traditions were solidified into what they are today. They just took out the word “God” and replace it with “Good.” People were in an uproar and said it was blasphemous. They said that these groups couldn’t consider themselves AA. But Bill W said that there isn’t a single invented idea in the 12 Steps. They borrowed the ideas from psychology and religion and medicine. People have the liberty to work with them as suggestions. Take what you need and leave the rest.

You don’t have to have a higher power, only a higher purpose.

The people who wrote the big book didn’t have all the steps yet. It was fluid and adaptive. There were different versions in different cities. Joe reminds us that the construct of recovery is manmade and believes it will do more for our future to come into the 21st century. Unity isn’t uniformity.

We just have to treat each other as respected equals and be authentic.

What kept Joe from staying clean?

“My impulsive idea of what sobriety was. I had to unlearn what sobriety was. Sometimes we think … Our thinking … Best thinking got us here. No. Our impulsive thinking got us here. Thinking isn’t the enemy of spiritual living. We have a slogan: “Think, think, think.” Which is way better than just think and act. It gets to a deeper thinking. We get into that inner compass, right? That inner resource, so I didn’t have to demonize my thinking, I had to heal my thinking.”

I thought sobriety would be boring.

The aha moment

“I had two and one was when my sponsor said, “If a word in this book or in these steps is stopping you from getting the benefit that they provide, change the word. The word won’t mind.”

That opened my mind and it happened again when I found a community of peers, when I found my sort of online agnostic AA community. I mean, and there you have your adamant … “They’ve got to rewrite the big book and la la la la la,” but I’m not waiting for it because it isn’t our master. We can read whatever we want, right? If you don’t like the book, close it. Or do what I call my “agnostic marking.” Use a black felt marker, cross out everything you disagree with, just read what you like.”

Favorite book from early recovery

“Living Sober, or Living Clean if you’re in a NA. They’re practical, they’re very secular, by the way. I did not read the big book until I was sober over nine and a half years. I’d already worked the steps. Some people, that was their introduction to AA but for me it was … If we read anything in a meeting, it was Living Sober.”

Best suggestion ever received

“Live and let live, because when I’m at odds with either fellow AAs or in my life, I have this … you know that old, “there’s only one thing you need to know about God, Joe, it’s not you.” It’s all of AA in three words and two of them are the same.”

Live and let live.

Suggestion to newcomer

Be true to yourself and trust that voice.

“You’re not at war with your thoughts, you’re not at war with your feelings. You just need to meet them where they’re at.”

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Disclaimer – The opinions shared on this show reflect those of the individual speaker and not of any 12 step fellowship as a whole and though we discuss 12 step recovery and the impact it has had in our lives we do not promote or endorse any 12 step anonymous program.