Getting sober in AA is more embarrassing than being a drunk. Many alcoholics who never worried about being spotted in a bar shutter at the thought of being recognized in an AA meeting. Part of that is the fact that no one likes admitting the kind of defeat that ending up in AA represents, but to be perfectly honest, it’s also that AA turns a lot of people off. The unadorned frankness of AA’s solution is inherently unpalatable, and the smug and strident way it is often presented makes it even harder to take. An addict doesn’t have to be an atheist to find all the earnest god talk and dogmatism in AA to be decidedly unattractive.
And that’s not all that is off-putting. Pretending to laugh at the sometimes cruelly self-mocking humor in AA meetings can be uncomfortable. There are also the many hackneyed slogans and pat formulas for sober living that get strung together in response to any crisis, large or small, as though something profound is being said. “Just keep it simple, take it one day at a time, do the next right thing, and let go and let God.” AA can feel so indecorous. There are in fact worse fates than dying a drunk. The prospect of marching mindlessly into a boring, glum, and unimaginative existence is one of them. Not wanting to join AA can be a little like the sentiment behind the graffiti I once saw in a bar restroom, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” How is it that a program that is supposedly about finding freedom and coming into possession of a sound mind can at times be such an obstacle to real freedom and sound thinking?
It’s not entirely surprising that many AA members fall short of intelligently pursuing the ideals of freedom, retreat into fear-driven legalism, and become belligerently intolerant of the freedom they see in others. The mental and emotional patterns that go along with addiction don’t go away overnight. The experience of addiction has crushed their imagination and impoverished their sense of what is possible. That can easily lead to a fairly rigid adherence to conventional understandings of AA’s solution. The best some people can do is to adopt a clear set of guidelines that provide a clean departure from everything associated with their former way of life. While I have no desire to interfere with something that is already working for many people, not everybody who arrives at AA has been reduced to a brutish state. The hard-line paternalistic approach that is in abundant display in AA can feel like an insult to the intelligence and sense of dignity of many who would otherwise find help in AA.
But suppose I am addicted to alcohol or another drug, and I truly want to get clean. I’m impaired by my using, but I’m not stupid. I’ve looked into the science of addiction. I am capable of observing my behaviors and of understanding that there are some strong, primal tendencies in my brain and in my general biology that can overpower the higher order thinking of my brain’s frontal lobe. I conceive of some ideas about what a solution would look like. I am willing to do anything except two things – embrace a belief in a higher power and join a twelve step fellowship. I can’t stand all that god talk and the glib references to powerlessness, and besides, I just don’t indentify with low bottom junkies and drunks.
Let’s say then that I’m doing everything in my plan, but I am still plagued by feelings of isolation and a sense that no one understands me. And I can’t stop using. Where do I find a human connection that can break down my isolation and dissolve the stigma that my using has likely created? In a perfect world there would be a vital recovery community to plug into that includes, but is bigger than, AA and that offers pockets away from god talk, from abject worminess, from moralistic smugness, from stupid hazing rituals, and from the implicit promotion of what feels unmistakably like an AA creed. But none of us lives in a world where that ideal community is available on demand. There are other programs besides AA, but they are not as widespread as AA. Ultimately many of us just reach a point of finding the intolerable and embarrassing prospect of joining AA more palatable than continuing on the course we’ve been on.
Thus the dilemma many atheists and agnostics addicted to alcohol or other drugs face – while it is theoretically possible to quit using without participating in AA, they may find the actual prospect of having to go it alone to be even more daunting than just enduring the god talk and all the other indignities that come with AA. There are plenty of examples of addicts who have been able to get sober without AA, but one of the most valuable ingredients in successful sobriety for many addicts is being able to identify with and connect with other people who have experienced the ravages of addiction, especially those who have found a way out. AA might, in many cases, be the only reliable place to find that.
As often as AA is scathingly satirized or reduced to a cartoonish stereotype, most people still tend to view it as the most effective solution to the problem of addiction. Even the existence of all the books on how to recover without AA is evidence that AA is the 800 pound gorilla in the room that has to be contended with. There are other recovery programs, but because AA so dominates the scene, achieving a critical mass outside AA is difficult. Those other programs are not available in every community, and even when they are available, they might not feel like home any more than AA does. The question of whether to join AA is unavoidable for anyone who wants to overcome addiction. The decision often hinges on how the addict feels about the religious tone that AA sets or about AA dogma in general.
Even if an atheist or agnostic is willing to put up with AA’s god talk, dogma, quasi-religious rituals, and rampant anti-intellectualism, she might still find herself at a loss when it comes to actually adapting the AA program to her own needs. She might hear people in AA say, “Take what you like and leave the rest,” but there is more to recovery than treating AA like a cafeteria. What an addict most needs from AA might not be the lowest hanging fruit. What gets offered most freely and forcefully is not always the most helpful and user-friendly. The addict might have to put some real effort into finding what is really going to work for her – sifting through and sorting what is presented, actively mining the resources she needs, salvaging what is useful, and maneuvering around what is not so useful.
If the only strategy is to filter out what is objectionable, what’s left may not be enough to get sober on. The prospects for the non-believing addict shouldn’t be just having to endure the god talk in order to have access to a few coveted crumbs under the table; she should be able to get what she needs to thrive. A godless approach to recovery needs to be at least as productive of good results as anything theism has to offer, thus enabling atheist and agnostic addicts to live lives of integrity, achieve a sense of wellbeing, and maintain viable sober lifestyle.
Realistically, it is inconceivable that the prevalence of god talk in AA is going to go away any time soon, but neither is the dilemma presented by atheists and agnostics seeking sobriety. The only real solution is to work toward building a culture within AA that can accommodate the needs of both theists and atheists, and everybody in between. It is not enough to give lip service to the ideal of inclusivity. The heart of AA’s solution may be unconditional acceptance of everyone who wants to quit drinking, irrespective of what they do or don’t believe, but if the cultural norms, expectations, and cues are inextricably connected with belief in a higher power, the message to atheists is that they don’t belong, will never fit in, and are thus deprived of the most important element in the AA recovery experience, in-depth identification with other recovering addicts.
The idea that atheists and agnostics have the right to take part in the AA experience is not a subtle or abstruse argument. AA’s third tradition explicitly says, “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.” Virtually no one in AA would outright bar an atheist or an agnostic from becoming a member, but there is more to actually including someone than begrudgingly accepting her right to be a member. Anyone who has ever been in a typical AA meeting knows that there is plenty of de facto exclusion. All the god talk and the frequent assertions that it is impossible to get sober without a higher power represent significant obstacles for atheists and agnostics.
Greeting atheists and agnostics with open arms would be good for AA. It would prompt more probing reflection on the nature of the solution. The presence of newcomers in general is a challenge that keeps veteran AA members focused on “the solution;” when the newcomer is an atheist or an agnostic, that challenge extends further and deeper. The ideal approach lies somewhere between two clearly undesirable extremes at opposite ends of a spectrum – on one end, expecting atheists to meekly fit in and to not rock the boat, and on the other end, generating counterproductive controversy by angrily challenging the status quo.
AA has always been better for the presence of atheists and agnostics in its midst. Jim Burwell, the AA member who, together with Hank Parkhurst, was the impetus behind the softening of the god language in the steps, is sometimes referred to as the third founder of AA because his insistence that AA not be so rigidly religious proved to be such a crucial piece in AA’s emerging identity. Some years after the publication of the Big Book, Bill Wilson expressed deep gratitude for those early AA members who resisted the strongly religious influences that AA inherited from The Oxford Group. Because of those courageous alcoholics, AA became a much more effective program.
While the most noticeable attribute of AA might be its explicitly religious character, the greatest part of AA’s solution has more to do with its having positioned itself, however precariously, atop a continental divide that runs between religion and secularism. The god talk is what stands out, but the back story is that AA, by refraining from officially endorsing any particular set of religious beliefs (apart from the de facto endorsement through practices like the use of the Lord’s Prayer to close meetings), comes down more on the side of secularism than sectarianism (just barely). AA’s Twelve Traditions seek to eliminate any political or religious doctrine that would get in the way of anyone finding a solution; instead, they support the proposition that each member is free to decide for herself what to believe. That is an inherently secular move, and it was an eminently practical move. Because of it, AA became able to welcome many who would have been turned away if there were a narrow definition of what a member had to believe.
The basis for AA’s success is very much about embracing the essentially secular idea that finding common ground is more important than whose version of ultimate truth is affirmed. It wasn’t until AA began distancing itself from the dogmatism of the overtly religious Oxford Group (in whose debt AA was for the seminal ideas that led to its birth) that a not insignificant number of alcoholics would even have access to AA. Being aligned with the explicitly protestant, evangelical Oxford Group ruled out the involvement of non-Christians and even Roman Catholics. Obviously, AA didn’t reject all religious dogma. Since its beginning, there has been a relentless tug-a-war within AA between the more religiously inclined status quo and the more secular minded minority.
AA explicitly aspires to provide a solution that will work for anyone who wants to stop drinking, but there is no one-size-fits-all formula that can achieve that. There’s a saying in AA, “For every nut who walks in the door there’s a wrench that will fit them.” If I expect to find the right wrench for me, I owe it to AA to not get in the way of any other nut finding a wrench that will fit her. Since I can’t be all things to all people, I should be grateful for rather than condemning of those who bring to the table wrenches that are different from mine. In other words, I need to not interfere with anyone else’s prerogative to carry the message in a way that makes sense to them (as long of course as they aren’t undermining the efforts of other AA members or AA as a whole.)
We inadvertently and unnecessarily alienate some of those who most need what we have to offer by insisting on a narrow understanding and by being blinded by our own prejudices. Most addicts are already sensitive to being stigmatized and condemned. They are used to being held in contempt and being talked down to. They won’t push back; they’ll just become resentful or demoralized and retreat into a permanent, insular (and sometimes fatal) state of hopelessness.
The addict who comes into AA looking for recovery brings to the fore the only real focus that matters – the question of what it takes to get and stay sober. We don’t get to decide who walks in the door or what particular issues they bring with them. That each of them brings unique challenges is what keeps the experience of recovery fresh for everybody else. The vitality of the fellowship is fed by trying our best to help addicts get sober rather than by meeting some test of purity, orthodoxy, or correctness. What holds the effort together is not an ideology, a belief system, or “brand loyalty,” but is instead a commitment to do whatever it takes to provide crucial, needed resources to addicts who are seeking a solution.
The actual experience of carrying the message to addicts with whom I have nothing in common except addiction confounds attempts to conceptualize AA unity in terms of any monolithic version of recovery. Joining together with people whose political views and social values might well be abhorrent to me demands a somewhat enlightened perspective, in other words, an ability to embrace an approach that is larger than what is produced by my own limited conceptions. As in the old folk story about blind men trying to understand what an elephant looks like based on each of them being able to sense by touch a different part of the elephant, each individual is only able to perceive a small piece of the whole picture. The coexistence of radically different stances with regard to everything except one common goal, staying sober and helping others find sobriety, gives us a glimpse into the complexities involved in the question of what unity is about.
The paradox of AA unity is that it is strengthened rather than imperiled by the fellowship’s heterogeneity. The only two things that everyone who finds sobriety has in common is that they have all experienced addiction and they have each put together their own particular approach to recovery that works for them individually. “We are,” the Big Book says, “people who normally would not mix.” The reality of radical diversity unseats the artificial, brittle unanimity of fearful conformity. When everyone is welcomed, honored for who they are, and encouraged to pursue recovery in a way that is consistent with their own highest values, the result is a vital and true community whose unity is deep and robust.
In the effort to establish common ground, it is fairly typical (and understandably human) for AA members to pursue unity by impatiently demanding that everyone conform to a certain set of beliefs and practices. In AA, this often involves insisting that everyone acknowledge the necessity of having a higher power. That is unfortunate – and not just for atheists and agnostics. Theological affirmations are notoriously divisive. Whatever we might base unity on, it obviously can’t be about God. Besides the obvious fact that not everybody believes in a god, there is little or nothing about which even religious believers can agree. Any assertion about who God is and how “He” operates is guaranteed to create controversy and division. In fact, there are not many sources of conflict that are as destructive as controversies around the god question. Discussions about religion are quite commonly volatile. Religion is a topic that is considered too hazardous for polite conversations. People go to war or commit acts of terrorism because of religion. Clashes between disparate religious beliefs hook primal emotions, threaten personal identity at the core, and rock people’s worlds at the very foundations.
The concept underlying a secular approach to recovery is not about excluding or neutering religious points of view, but is instead about ensuring that no one religious point of view is allowed to suck all the air out of the room and that any point of view, including atheism, is acceptable, welcome, and included, as long as the devotees of the points of view in question are sufficiently respectful with regard to proponents of other points of view. Living by the slogan, “to thine own self be true,” is meaningless unless I allow others to do the same. The idea that no particular set of beliefs is necessary for sobriety needs to be implicit within any attempt to carry the message.
The whole basis for AA’s success is in the idea that actually wanting other addicts to get clean is more important than being right. In the spirit of its eleventh tradition, AA is a program of “attraction rather than promotion.” Modeling what worked for me is attractive. In contrast, promoting my beliefs just gets in the way. Insisting on a correct understanding of the program is a turn-off. If AA works, it’s not because an infallible understanding of the solution is spelled out in the first 164 pages of the big book, but instead because addicts with a wide variety of worldviews and cultural values are able to find connection and in-depth identification with other addicts.
The sole purpose of AA is to help alcoholics get sober. That is not the same as membership recruitment. Fulfilling AA’s mission entails making resources available which anyone can use to find sobriety, whether or not they choose to join AA. That would involve:
- Remembering the principle of “attraction rather than promotion”
- Removing needless obstacles to AA
- Extending what AA has to offer without strings
- Practicing unconditional acceptance
- Being open to and encouraging of other possibilities besides AA orthodoxy
- Finding unity in the common cause rather than being put off by differences