Even the most hard core atheist has to admit that AA works enviably well for a lot of people. There are millions who were hopelessly addicted to alcohol and/or other drugs for whom AA was absolutely the last resort and who not only are now sober. They are not only free of the negative tendencies that formerly set them up to fail; they have embraced a whole new way of life and have become remarkably productive, generous, loving, serene, and happy. There is something there worth emulating. The problem for atheists and agnostics though is that AA members commonly attribute their success to a higher power.
If there is no god, how do we account for AA’s success? That can either be troubling question or an invitation to enlarge and deepen our understanding of the recovery process. If we can satisfactorily answer the question, we are free to relate to AA on our own terms. And when we are told point blank by AA members (as we undoubtedly will if we are open about our lack of belief) that if we don’t find a higher power, we will eventually get drunk, we can just graciously decline their offer to help us with that. We can maintain a position of strength and security, refusing to be marginalized. We can see what they are saying for what it is, an opinion.
This turns the tables on the advocates of a religious approach. The message we have to carry represents a better understanding of AA’s core principles and a more robust solution than what is commonly espoused by AA members. It is a more realistic and straightforward accounting of AA’s success than “God doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”
AA’s Twelve Steps place much of the recovery process in a black box, or if you will, a sort of an imaginary “God box.” The really hard stuff (i.e., my unruly will, my unmanageable life, the dilemma of my powerlessness, my need to be restored to sanity, and my stubborn character defects) is just “turned over.” If many in AA get good results from that, it is because, first, surrender can break the vicious circle that occurs when our ideas about correcting a bad situation are only making things worse, and second, letting go of what hasn’t been working gives other possibilities a chance. Ultimately though, even believers need a more precise understanding of the solution than "Let go and let God." AA as a whole can benefit from greater clarity regarding down-to-earth strategies. For many, belief in God is a catalyst in a process that makes sobriety possible, but all the ingredients are contributed by ordinary mortals. Explanations do not have to rely on anything magical or supernatural.