There are two questionable ideas that are fairly frequently espoused in AA – first, that AA will work for anyone who is “willing to go to any lengths” and “thoroughly follow[s] our path,” and second, that the prospects for recovery outside AA are hopeless. They are both fear-based ideas. Those who hold them are desperately clinging to what they believe got them sober and cannot abide anything that contradicts that. However, a more inclusive AA community wouldn't hurt anybody. And appreciating the successes of other approaches would only strengthen AA's approach.
Measured objectively, AA’s success rate is fairly dismal. AA is often ineffective even with those who firmly believe in a traditional god. Hard core “Big Book thumpers” acknowledge the grim numbers but use it to bolster their claim that anyone for whom AA doesn’t work is clearly unwilling to do what it takes. It’s somewhat strange that what ought to be an obvious concern, the concern about possible flaws in AA’s assumptions that its poor track record might reveal, is almost never voiced within AA. After all, how to more effectively put into practice AA’s commitment to carrying a message of recovery to anyone who wants to quit drinking is a very pertinent question.
A more reality-based understanding of what it actually takes to get sober would take AA’s success into account but would also honestly examine why it doesn’t work for so many. The smug dismissal that they have not thoroughly followed the path is insulting and less than helpful. Someone not being willing to go against their own values, beliefs, or lack of belief doesn’t equate with unwillingness to do whatever it takes. It might just be that they have integrity and dignity.
Platitudes about what it takes to recover never got anybody sober. AA orthodoxy does not automatically lead to lasting sobriety nor does it represent the only approach available. No matter how helpful certain beliefs may be for some, those same beliefs can present an insurmountable stumbling block for others.
Why do so many AA members deem it more important to push God than to offer an understanding of sobriety that anyone can use to get sober? It seems to go against AA’s principle of “attraction rather than promotion.” Wouldn’t it be better to follow AA’s basic rule of thumb – offering our own “experience, strength, and hope” in a way that leaves open the possibility for other approaches? After all, that’s what AA's Preamble says AA is about. An apt introduction to any communication of the AA message would be, “I want to share what has worked for me, but I am confident that anyone who is honest, open-minded, and willing can get sober.”
The hostility in AA toward anyone who questions AA’s theology goes beyond the natural human tendency to protect “the herd” by attacking anyone who seems to be a threat to its wellbeing. It is hypocritical and disingenuous. On the one hand, “honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness” are supposedly indispensible spiritual principles, but on the other hand, anyone who draws conclusions that are different from the straight and narrow is scorned. Ostracizing people because of differences of belief is regrettable for reasons that are deeper than the indignity of it; it represents a gross misunderstanding of what a real solution to the problem of addiction consists of, the greatest part of which is usually large doses of unconditional acceptance.
The way the message of AA is often articulated can feel like a full court press, much like the threat of Hell functions for proselytizing Christians. The Twelve Steps and belief in God are presented as a do-or-die proposition. The implicit belief seems to be that atheism represents a pernicious threat to AA’s effectiveness, as though leaving the back door open would be too inviting and lure many addicts to their deaths.
Attributing successful sobriety to God conveys the idea that getting God is a turnkey way to get sober. There are two problems with that. First, there is the theological question of what kind of god would chose to render some people sober and not others. And second, it underplays the role that the individual addict plays in her own recovery.