One of the features of the problem of addiction is that it is naturally resistant to sledge-hammer approaches. In general, the most attractive, effective, and unencumbered approach to communicating a message of recovery is to share “experience, strength, and hope” and, in particular, to mostly stay away from preaching, lecturing, and giving advice. Most people, especially addicts, don’t like being told what to do, and it turns out that what is actually compulsory is a relatively short list anyway. Even if we approach the task of communicating what recovery is about with humility and grace, most of what goes into sobriety is not about following a recipe.
But for most AA newcomers who are actually ready to get sober, the only thing worse than being told what to do is not being told what to do. It is a natural human tendency to want to eliminate ambiguity. In addition, the particular experience of active addiction leads many addicts to a palpable longing for a clear set of directions. They are often fairly desperate for some ideas about what to do differently. As the big book puts it, “alcohol was a great persuader. It finally beat us into a state of reasonableness.” Once an addict is ready to get sober, the burning question she has is what does sobriety require? Getting straightforward information about AA’s bottom line is not an unreasonable expectation.
Many AA members are eager to oblige. Unfortunately, their portrayals of AA’s bottom line are often anathema to atheists and agnostics. The handiest and most commonly offered summations of what it takes to get sober tend to be heavy on the god theme and adamant about the need to work the twelve steps as they are written, especially the part about admitting powerlessness. After all, AA is “a twelve-step program.” God and the concept of powerlessness are clearly central to the steps. The idea that having a higher power is necessary seems to be strongly indicated in AA literature. For example, the big book says on page 45, “We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves.” So if believing in God is a requirement, why would any self-respecting atheist want to have anything to do with AA? Why are we even talking about this? Most atheists and agnostics naturally assume that AA is not for them and dismiss AA based on what seems obvious, i.e. that AA is a religious program. Nonetheless, there actually are atheists and agnostics in AA. And they are sober – some of them for decades. How can that be?
This question of whether to give AA a chance is not unique to atheists and agnostics; all newcomers have to come to terms with what AA’s solution actually entails and whether it will work for them. The choice is usually not based on a calm, circumspect consideration of the facts. Most people who end up in AA, whatever their belief or lack of belief might be, are there because they resonate with the sentiment behind the trope that refers to AA as “the last house on the block.” Virtually no one joins AA because they like everything about it. There are plenty of reasons to not like AA. Ultimately, the willingness to give recovery a chance is usually based more on a blend of blind desperation and slender hope than on any sense of certainty that it will actually work.
For atheist and agnostic newcomers, this tenuous state of affairs is compounded by the fear that AA requires belief in a higher power, which can be heartbreaking if they are already at a point of despair at not having been able to get sober on their own. Even if they can somehow filter out the platitudes and dogma they encounter in AA, the question remains whether there is enough to stay sober on once AA is stripped of its religious content. Even if they can reach a point of believing that it is theoretically possible to get sober in AA without some sort of belief in a higher power, there is still the pragmatic challenge involved in cobbling together the day-to-day particulars of a sober lifestyle. What I end up with may not be entirely comfortable, but if I want recovery badly enough and believe that AA is a valuable resource, having to put up with the god talk, the evangelistic fervor, and the moralistic tenor, even though that is still annoying, becomes but a nuisance rather than a deal-breaker. It’s easy enough to appropriate what AA has to offer by means of the slogan, “take what you like, and leave the rest.”
But AA is not a cafeteria. No one gets sober by only doing what suits them. “Take what you like, and leave the rest” glosses over the question about AA’s bottom line. To not be straightforward about the hard truths of recovery is an unsettling omission. We owe newcomers as straight answers as are possible. There is already enough unavoidable angst associated with early sobriety without having to deal with a lot of vagueness about what is required. Getting to the bottom line and offering a simple, direct response pierces the bewilderment, reduces anxiety, and increases trust. Too much open-endedness is source of unease for anyone, but it can be especially so for atheists and agnostics. At least those who believe in a god can latch onto ideas about their god that promise comfort, security, and a basis for optimism.
But does anyone really understand how and why AA works? This is not a rhetorical question. If we had a better understanding of AA’s success, we could extend it even further. Even skeptics have to acknowledge that AA is doing something right. Millions of recovering addicts credit AA with saving their lives. Nonetheless, there is plenty of room for improvement. For every AA success story, there are dozens of failed attempts. There are various explanations for AA’s poor track record, including a growing movement within AA that is actively promoting the claim that AA has lost its way by drifting away from insistence on a fairly narrow Christian understanding of God, a claim that involves significant rewriting of history. What is clear is that AA could stand to do a lot better, and not only with atheists and agnostics, but with many others who, for any number of reasons, haven’t found the solution in AA. Newcomers frequently encounter contradictory and ambiguous information. Even apart from the god question, there is a lot of uncertainty, confusion, and opaqueness about what, among the many tactics that people employ in pursuit of sobriety, is effective, what is counterproductive, and what is just harmless stuff to do instead of using.
There is thus a need for greater clarity regarding which beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors fit into each of the following categories:
- Doing what is actually required to stay sober
- Being open to suggestions that have proved helpful to some but not necessarily to all (e.g. God and the steps as they are written)
- Harmless time-occupiers and pursuits that produce joy, relief, or a sense of satisfaction
- Well meaning but counterproductive efforts
- Obstinate resistance to good sense and constructive input
- Flirting with immanent danger
- Being on the verge of relapse
AA’s bottom line is often judiciously obscured, undoubtedly due to a desire to not alienate anyone or create unnecessary barriers by coming across as too demanding or narrow. Beyond the obvious musts like not drinking, AA literature is surprisingly tentative. Even the steps are offered as suggestions only. And after they are introduced, the Big Book attempts to mitigate their anticipated emotional impact with: “No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles . . . The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.”
Some of the absence of absolutes is simply a rhetorical strategy. Most addicts don’t like being told what to do. However, AA’s reticence is clearly also about being mindful of the fact that there are many paths to sobriety. What is helpful to me should not become an obstacle to you. Thus AA literature is more interested in encouraging “love and tolerance of others” (cf. p 84) than in pushing any uniform standard that would formalize the requirements for recovery. The Third Tradition emphatically says, “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
One of the more annoying slogans in AA is “Keep coming back,” especially when it feels like what is really being said is “The only hope for someone as sick and misguided as you is prolonged exposure to the AA program.” Frustratingly, “keep coming back” is a frequent response to what seem like obvious questions for which straightforward answers would not be too much to ask. Nonetheless, it is preferable to what is often a more tempting alternative – earnest attempts to offer a comprehensive overview of the program, resulting in glazed eyes, listless demeanor, and furtive searching for the exit. It is all too easy to try to download too much too soon onto the hapless newcomer or to sternly stipulate too many burdensome musts. Seemingly well meaning efforts to offer overly helpful answers can be driven by a need to reduce our own anxiety or by a need to be needed. Frequently the questions newcomers have are purely the result of impatience or a desire to distract themselves from the mess that their lives are in. The confusion and chaos in early recovery can be excruciating. It is natural to want relief from that, even if the relief that is sought would come through jumping through arbitrary hoops. “Keep coming back” is a way of encouraging patience, an enlarged perspective, and radical questioning of the assumptions upon which addictive thinking is based.
On the one hand, AA can sound fairly permissive and laid back, but on the other hand, the fact that recovery is demanding isn’t hidden. AA literature is quite clear about the necessity of seriousness, diligence, and perseverance. At the beginning of almost every AA meeting, “How It Works,” an excerpt from chapter 5 of the Big Book, is read. The very first sentence, “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path,” implies that that the program might not work for those who have not followed that path thoroughly. Prospective members are urged to be “willing to go to any lengths” and are warned against seeking “an easier, softer way” because “Half measures availed us nothing.” The reading implores, “With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the very start. Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas, but the result was nil until we let go absolutely.” The book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (commonly referred to as “The Twelve and Twelve”) states, “We perceive that only through utter defeat are we able to take our first steps toward liberation and strength.”
These are startlingly direct words, but they fit the circumstances. They are designed to command attention because of who they are targeting. Most addicts have to hit bottom before they are ready to do what it takes to get sober. Thus the first step says, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol.” It is said to be the only step that has to be worked perfectly. Does that mean that admitting powerlessness represents a nonnegotiable requirement for AA members? Many atheists and agnostics have a problem with AA’s understanding of powerlessness. It is impossible to consider the idea of powerlessness in the first step without noticing a link to the second step. The reason for admitting powerlessness in Step One is to become open to Step Two’s solution, which is “a Power greater than ourselves.”
But let’s step back and examine what’s behind the claim that the first step has to be worked perfectly. The “Twelve and Twelve” equates the first step with hitting bottom and explains why it is essential: “few people will sincerely try to practice the AA program unless they have hit bottom. For practicing AA’s remaining eleven steps means the adoption of attitudes and actions that almost no alcoholic who is still drinking can dream of taking.” Arguably, the part of the first step that has to be gotten perfectly right is not the part about admitting powerlessness. What has to be perfectly accomplished is reaching a point of being “done.” That generally involves hitting a bottom, unflinchingly facing reality, and fully conceding “to our innermost selves” that being able to “drink like other people” is not a reasonable expectation (cf. BB p 30) – but even then, it’s not about meeting a requirement for AA membership. The third tradition, “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking,” conspicuously leaves out any reference to working Step One perfectly. Fulfilling the core intent of the first step is not so much an AA rule that has to be obeyed; instead, it seems to be what it takes to get sober for most people. In order to stay sober, the addict has to not use alcohol or other drugs, and in order to quit using, the addict usually has to hit bottom.
There are several places in the Big Book that seem to imply that finding God, if not exactly a prerequisite for AA membership, is at least a minimum requirement for staying sober. For example, shortly before introducing the steps, it says, “Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power – that One is God. May you find Him now.” And in chapter 4 (“We Agnostics”) we read that continuing as an atheist or an agnostic “means disaster” (p 44) and that “We had to have a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves” (p 45). But after the Big Book was originally published, its authors had second thoughts about what might be perceived as a claim that it was not possible to get sober without belief in a god. They didn’t go back and revise anything in the first 164 pages of the book, but they did add Appendix II, “Spiritual Experience,” which said that while belief in a higher power is a central ingredient for many, it’s not a necessity for everybody. The language could not be clearer. “Most emphatically,” it says, “we wish to say that any alcoholic capable of honestly facing his problems in the light of our experience can recover, provided he does not close his mind to all spiritual concepts.” (BB p 568)
There is a difference between, on the one hand, a bottom line for AA membership and, on the other hand, opinions about what it takes to get sober, however common or sanctioned by AA literature those opinions might be. Most opinions are moot anyway. In the end, the final authority on what it takes to get sober is not opinions, but is instead to be found only in evidence from the lives of real recovering addicts. Philosophers tell us that we can’t prove the nonexistence of black swans, no matter how many white swans there are, but one black swan proves that they do exist. One sober atheist proves that atheists can get sober.
Some AA members cite the first tradition (“Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends on AA unity”) and the second tradition (“. . . there is but one ultimate authority – a loving God . . .”) as a justification for excluding, silencing, or marginalizing those who don’t subscribe to AA orthodoxy. They equate the common welfare and AA unity with conformity and narrow traditionalism. It should be clear though, especially viewed in the context of all the traditions together, that the first and second traditions were not only never meant to exclude anyone; their actual aim is to be as inclusive as possible. The path to AA unity is finding common ground around the common cause of carrying the message to the still suffering alcoholic (cf. Tradition 5). The common welfare is in being able to offer a solution that will work for anyone who needs and wants it. “Alcoholics Anonymous,” says the preamble read the beginning of almost every AA meeting, “is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.” There is nothing in the preamble about the steps or God. Instead it says, “A.A. is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes.”
Narrow-minded people don’t view themselves as narrow-minded. They are certain that what they believe is the absolute truth. Many Christians in AA have a hard time seeing beyond the only version of recovery they recognize, their own. They might give lip service to the idea that it is up to each individual to define her own understanding of her higher power, but what they are smugly telling themselves all the while is that the experience of sobriety will eventually lead to a recognition of the one and only true god. Many of them are even quite explicit in expressing their hope that atheists and agnostics will just get drunk. Having them around disputes their belief that it is impossible to stay sober without having a higher power. As many times as they hear the words from preamble, “AA is not allied with any sect,” they never translate those words into an understanding of the importance of not allowing religion or a lack of religion to be a barrier for anyone.
Some of what is involved here stems from a tendency among recovering addicts to think in absolute terms. Some AA members’ idea of carrying the message is to say things like “if you want what we have, you have to do what we did” and “if you don’t work the steps and find a relationship with a higher power, you are going to get drunk.” What this mostly has to do with is the reality that those who begin their sobriety in desperation often form a death grip on what seems like their only hope. Many addicts don’t have the luxury of leisurely, circumspect reflection, so what they come up with is not the most broad-minded approach. They are like the carpenter whose only tool is a hammer and thus to whom every problem looks like a nail.
Where many addicts are, having endured the emotionally impoverishing depredation of active addiction, is in an emotional state of being driven by fear and desperation rather than being guided by any interest in or appreciation of nuance and complexity. All they can hear and relate to is a clear and simple set of directions. They have no capacity for dealing insightfully with the large existential questions that loom before them, yet those questions represent a yawning void that begs to be filled. Nature abhors a vacuum. The void gets referred to glibly as a “god-shaped hole.” There is no shortage of directives in AA circles that can occupy the newly sober addict’s restless mind and empty schedule, but there’s a difference between, on the one hand, what must be done to get sober and, on the other hand, what will do to fill the void. Ideas about what can be done might be helpful, but that’s not the same as what must be done to stay sober.
The prevalent tendency in AA to talk down to newcomers and issue bottom-line imperatives is more alienating for many than the god talk. There are many in AA who smugly wield the threat of relapse like a club to bludgeon newcomers into submission, insisting on some very definite imperatives like finding a higher power, getting a sponsor, and working the steps. A certain amount of paternalistic attitudes is probably inevitable given who ends up in AA. Having a captive audience of fresh recruits who can be told what to do is a delicious fantasy, especially for recovering addicts whose self-esteem took a beating during their years of being social pariahs. It is not as though newcomers aren’t already vulnerable to fears around the ever present danger of relapse. They come in desperate for something solid to grab onto, but maintaining sobriety is never as simple as following a recipe. That’s why “keep coming back” is one of the most useful slogans.
Newcomers to AA are routinely told they have to be “willing to go to any lengths,” but lest we rush too quickly to the conclusion that what that means is to submissively obey the commands, no matter how offensive, unintelligent, and ridiculous those commands may be, of veteran AA members whose only qualification is not having taken a drink recently. Being “willing to go to any lengths” need not require anyone to abandon critical thinking or personal values. And it shouldn’t mean having to put up with hazing practices, rituals of dominance and submission, or ridiculous tests of commitment.
It’s tempting to tie the chances for success to how willing a newcomer seems to be when she first arrives. Addicts tend to be pretty impetuous, so it is refreshing when someone shows up with seemingly boundless willingness to do what she is told to do. Compliant might look like receptive and willing, but actually, a lot of addicts have learned how to con, and having gotten a lot of practice doing it, they’ve gotten really good at it. Appearing compliant is an all too familiar con game. The fact of the matter is that most recovering addicts do a lot better if they are not afraid to push back. This is not to glorify defiance but is instead to acknowledge that it is actually healthy to have a certain amount of skepticism, resistance, and personal dignity.
Everybody has reservations. The question is not whether someone has reservations; it’s how she views them. She could take the approach of cherry picking from among what she is told she needs to do based on whether she feels like doing it or not, but then she’s probably not going to be very successful in her sobriety. By the same token, going to any lengths doesn’t mean just doing what someone else thinks she is supposed to do. Reservations can’t just be wished away. It’s important to have access to an environment where it is safe to be open about them. Harshly attacking newcomers for being unwilling to do exactly what they are told to do is counterproductive. If they are shy about acknowledging their reservations because they’re afraid of being criticized or harassed, they can’t very well sort out the essential from the superfluous and work through the emotions behind their resistance. Buried reservations fester inside us and sabotage us at the points of our greatest vulnerability. The principles of honesty, open-mindedness, willingness cut both ways. If we are open to what AA has to offer and willing to follow directions but are not honest in our assessment of what the program actually requires, we will not be able to differentiate the solution from the agendas and biases of those who aggressively press their ideas on us. The point is that we need to base decisions on accurate information and sound reasoning rather than blind obedience.
Merely being obedient is at best a temporary fix. It doesn’t provide a viable long term strategy for putting together a successful sober life. One of the main themes in sobriety is the development of self-respect. Self-respect suffers when we give up our ability to stand on our own two feet and to think for ourselves. A compliant and submissive approach displaces basic common sense. Newcomers are told, “Your best thinking is what got you here.” In other words, the reasoning abilities of newly sober addicts are deemed to be completely tainted. But there is more to recovery than using a wrecking ball to demolish addictive patterns, and babysitting newcomers and micromanaging their lives is neither realistic nor productive. Unless newcomers can find something positive within themselves to build on, they will remain helpless and dependent indefinitely. It is far more economical to work with the good that’s already there than to construct an entire life completely from scratch.
Recovery has to be something we want rather than something we feel obligated to do. It’s about freedom. What often drives addiction is an insidious need to escape the uneasiness associated with freedom. However bad the consequences of addiction are, they can be reassuringly familiar and predictable. Being open to new experiences, even if they are good, can be uncomfortable and unsettling to the using addict. A central theme in lasting sobriety is overcoming the fear of the uncertainty and volatility that come with real freedom. The easier, softer way is to submit to authoritarian commands.
The greatest part of staying sober is adopting new behaviors that make good sense and that promote sanity, many of which are even satisfying and enjoyable. There is more to staying sober than dutifully enduring hardship and deprivation. Ongoing sobriety is about putting together a life that is sustainable. Particularly crucial are pursuits that produce joy, relief, a sense of satisfaction, and an enhancement of real freedom. There is a reason the Big Book emphatically states, “We absolutely insist on enjoying life.” (p 132) An absence of joy is the greatest threat to sobriety. Unless what I’m doing is producing an attractive and sustainable life, my commitment and willingness will wane.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating the kind of joyful, fulfilling life of integrity that is the best defense against relapse. Embracing successful life strategy that is robust enough to replace the using lifestyle is indispensible, but most of the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that support ongoing sobriety can only grow out of the particular life circumstances of the individual addict and are purely a matter of personal preference. To use an analogy, there are a number of ways to achieve a nutritious diet. I might not like broccoli, but if I want to be well, I will need to find other healthy foods that I do like. There are a lot of lifestyle choices that are discussed in AA that many find attractive, but not everyone finds them helpful.
Much of what contributes to recovery is about having something to do instead of using, which is helpful to buy time, but there is no way around that awful moment when the basic existential choice between sobriety and using comes to the fore. So does that mean that, when all is said and done, the only real bottom line is to not use? After all, the whole reason for going to AA is to quit using. If “keep it simple” is our guide, “don’t use” would be an ideal version of the message. But if that’s all there is to it, what’s the point of AA? If I can “just say no,” why do I need to go to all those meetings? And so we are back to the original question: If I want what AA has to offer, what do I have to do to get it? But has what I have presented so far brought us any closer to being able to answer that question? We’ve ruled out most of the commonly offered answers like believing in God and working the steps. Where does that leave us? After we’ve stripped away all the hoop-jumping, the communal-bonding rituals, the symbolic acts of belonging, and the tests of organizational allegiance, what’s left?
The preamble that is read at the beginning of virtually every AA meeting says, “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others recover from alcoholism.” The common quest to solve the common problem and help others recover from alcoholism forms a unity of purpose that supports the recovery process for everyone. Schoolteachers use the term “scaffolding” to refer to efforts that facilitate the learning process without getting in the way. What the AA fellowship does is to scaffold the personal space and the individual freedom within which each member is able to find recovery. It is up to the individual to embrace a recovery process that works for her, but that process is scaffolded by a supportive community and by the wisdom of that community. In order for each individual to find exactly what she needs, the collective norm has to be to do what it takes to be the kind of community that welcomes, encourages, and equips its members.
So it’s not surprising that when AA goes on record regarding its bottom line, it’s mostly about “what we can do together that we couldn’t do alone.” The essentials that receive the most emphatic and unequivocal endorsement by AA are:
- The welcoming of anyone who has a desire to stop drinking (Tradition 3)
- A shared concern that keeps the groups directed toward carrying the message to the still-suffering alcoholic (Tradition 5)
- Unity around the common welfare (Tradition 1) and agreement on the basic character of the solution (BB p 17)
- Love and tolerance of others (BB p 84)
- Anonymity (Traditions 11 & 12)
- Honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness (BB Appendix II)
- Enjoying life (BB p 132)
- Keep AA’s twelfth-step work nonprofessional (Tradition 8)
- Don’t ally with or endorse anything outside AA (Tradition 6)
- Decline outside contributions (Tradition 7)
These musts are qualitatively different from the usual markers that define what it means to be “in” or “out.” They are the very opposite of requirements that would keep certain people out and are instead specifically intended to keep the fellowship open to anyone who wants to quit drinking, no matter who they are. My personal bottom line may not match anyone else’s, but my stake in what we do together urges me to be on the same page with other AA members when a newcomer shows up. That there are many different approaches to the personal pursuit of sobriety is all the more reason to come together around a shared commitment, because building an environment where there is room for freedom and diversity at the level of personal beliefs and practices requires a unified effort.
The obligation to do what’s good for AA as a whole is not a burden that we want to too quickly foist onto newcomers, but neither do we want to hide it. Hearing that part of the message was crucial to me personally when I was new to recovery. One of my main questions was why are these people being so nice to me? It’s a bit like the question, why would I want to be a member of an organization that would have me as a member? I knew there had to be a catch. I wanted to know what their expectations of me would be. When they said, “We keep what we have by giving it away,” that made sense and was immensely reassuring. What I most wanted was to be able to feel good about myself. The prospect of gaining the ability to give something back is one of the most attractive promises recovery has to offer.
Whether are not to participate in AA is a personal choice, but it’s important that the choice be available for anyone who needs it, even if she is an atheist. While we may never come to a complete agreement with regard to the question of what it takes for an individual to get sober, we can at least work toward creating a good signal-to-noise ratio when we carry the message, zeroing in on the heart of the solution rather than being distracted by what divides us. As the first tradition puts it, “personal recovery depends on AA unity.” The greatest part of AA’s bottom line is about what has to be honored if it is going to be available for anyone who has a desire to stop drinking. This honoring of what is good for AA as a whole just happens to correspond with attitudes and behaviors that are conducive to ongoing personal sobriety. We may not agree with each other on anything else, but it is essential that we at least stand together with regard to our commitment to be there for the still suffering alcoholic and for each other.