Newcomers to AA who wince at what they hear in the rooms of AA are often told “take what you like and leave the rest.” These words can become a veritable mantra for an atheist in AA. Obviously, it isn’t license to reject everything that makes us uncomfortable, but it tells us that if there is anything about AA that we find useful, we don’t have to adopt an entire belief system before we begin receiving the benefits of membership. We can even remain on the periphery and cherry pick what we need.
But there is more involved in sobriety than treating AA like a cafeteria. To a great extent what constitutes AA is in the eye of the beholder, but unless there is some deep and stable consensus as to what it is that holds AA together, the very basis for AA’s effectiveness is jeopardized. If AA loses the common ground upon which its solution is based, the result will be conflict, confusion, and bad feelings. That is to say, it is not enough to just encourage everybody to do their own thing.
If the main strategy involves filtering out everything that is objectionable, what’s left may not be enough for anybody to get sober on. 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 strenuous 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.
There are three challenges in the just-take-what-you-like approach. We need to:
- avoid using “take what you like” as an excuse for pursuing “an easier, softer way” and maintain clarity about what the bottom line is, what it actually takes in order to stay sober
- become at home in the often uncomfortable space where it is simultaneously OK for others to take or leave particular details of the program and for us to hold fast what works for us, which may be very different
- Strengthen, amidst radically disparate approaches, the unity upon which personal recovery depends
Putting together a mindfully engaged program entails being doubly vigilant. Not only must we work hard at sobriety just like anybody else, but we also have to embrace an understanding of responsibility that goes beyond blind obedience. It is at least as important that we be “willing to go to any lengths” if we question authoritarianism as it is for those who just “turn their will and their lives over to the care of” a strict, old-school sponsor. We need to be especially honest with ourselves about whether our intellectual scruples are but sophisticated rationalizations. We need to not allow the freedom to find what works for us to be license for seizing upon “an easier, softer way.” Getting sober demands rigor, and we have to follow through, especially when it’s hard.
The prospects for the atheist 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. An atheist approach to recovery needs to be at least as productive of good results as anything theism has to offer, thus enabling atheist addicts to live lives of integrity, achieve a sense of wellbeing, and maintain viable atheist lifestyle.
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. The 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? Step twelve says to “practice these principles in all our affairs,” but what are “these principles”? We need to look not only to the Steps, but also to the Traditions for guidance.