Sunday, December 7, 2014

claiming a seat

As atheists and agnostics in AA, we can feel like we are in a fishbowl.  How the message is carried to us and how we are treated often relies on default settings that come out of the kind of thinking that is found in Chapter 4 in the Big Book (i.e. that we need to be tolerated in order that we will eventually find God).  It is up to us to signal that we expect to be treated with respect.  In general, things will go better if we:
  • Establish a receptive yet confident posture
  • Claim the high road
  • Maintain a positive, friendly attitude and stay focused on the solution
  • Gently redirect discussions about God
  • Temper honesty with discretion
It helps to have some talking points handy:
  • According to AA’s third tradition, anyone who has a desire to not drink is entitled to all the benefits of AA membership. 
  • AA is a volunteer organization in two senses.  Like all other volunteer organizations, its work is carried out primarily by volunteers.  But in addition, AA’s very character is by design fluid, transient, and amorphous, the product of countless individual choices that are not only wholly voluntary but are unplanned, unmapped, and uncoordinated. 
  • The concept of “attraction rather than promotion” from the eleventh tradition is about AA’s public relations policy, but it is also a good general guide for carrying the message.  One of the implications is that individual members have the right to resist being told what to believe.
  • At the heart of AA’s own message as spelled out in its literature is a clear denial that belief in a god, submission to AA orthodoxy, or even working the twelve steps is indispensible to getting sober. 
  • Even though there is broad consensus in AA that certain spiritual ideas are indispensible, they are optional, no matter how mandatory almost everyone considers them to be.  What is always more important than the preservation of AA’s orthodoxy is the imperative that the solution be made available to anyone who is willing to do what it actually takes to get sober, irrespective of what they believe or don't believe.  And besides, AA wouldn’t work for anyone if it was about being told what to think. 
  • Deeper than the consensus around some of the more prominent ideas that are expressed in meetings and in the literature is the single, central idea that our unity is our strength and that that unity is larger than the ways we go about trying to make sense of it. 
  • The very fact that we can disagree about almost everything and yet defend each other’s right to be included is what that unity is about. 
  • The very power of AA’s solution is that it bridges seemingly insurmountable gulfs between cultural experiences, value-systems, and worldviews. 
  • AA unity is stronger for the very fact that it operates at a deeper level than the ways that we are almost totally different from each other, different in every respect but one. 
  • An atheist who can overcome prejudice against the messenger and get to the real heart of the solution has a better chance of staying sober than a theist who can’t.
  • There are many ways to clothe the message, but whatever doesn’t directly advance the singular imperative to focus on getting the core message right is superfluous.
  • A common metaphor in AA is the notion that a recovery program is like a tool chest.  One of the implications is that a variety of tools are available to be used if and when they are needed.  Not all tools are helpful to a given addict at a given point in time.  Just because a tool is available doesn’t mean we have to use it. In fact, that there is an abundance and a variety of tools is a good thing.
  • Atheists and agnostics not only have the right to participate in the process that defines what the AA experience is about; we have the duty to bring to the table what we uniquely have to offer.
  • Being true to ourselves represents the greatest contribution we can make to the greater recovery community.
Most of what we communicate comes through our affect.  Some or all of the following might be helpful:

  • Use humor, especially self-deprecating humor, to put people at ease.
  • Share a positive message of recovery that even religious believers can relate to.
  • Share your own experience, strength, and hope in a way that invites an empathic understanding of how atheists and agnostics experience AA.
  • Build relationships with other members of the group, focusing on similarities and responding to differences graciously.
  • Establish strong interpersonal boundaries.  (Don’t argue when being accosted, but do push back or just walk away.  We are standing on solid ground when we insist on being respected not only as equal participants, but also as contributors.)
  • Don’t read silence as disapproval or distancing.  (They may just not know how to respond to what they don’t understand.)
  • Always assume that there is someone in the meeting who needs to hear that they are not the only one who feels the way they do.
  • Reach out to individual newcomers (or anyone who is struggling) after meetings, taking care to avoid ambushing them with an agenda, but instead assuring them that, however different they might feel, they are not alone.
  • Introduce topics like “Live and let live” and topics from the Traditions like the necessity of keeping the focus on a solution that includes everyone who has a desire to stop drinking and the importance of staying away from outside issues and affiliations.
  • Participate in the group conscience (and don’t just focus on your pet issues).
  • Prove the detractors wrong not only by staying sober, but also by embodying an attractive version of recovery.

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