Carrying the message to atheists and agnostics is not substantively different from carrying the message to anyone else, except that there is more at stake. AA has always been better for the presence of atheists and agnostics in its midst. Jim Burwell, who was the main instigator 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 religious proved to be so crucial in AA’s success among the many who don't share the Protestant beliefs at the core of AA's original format. 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 hospitable fellowship.
That AA is not more inclusive of atheists and agnostics is AA’s loss for three reasons.
- Atheists and agnostics aren’t the only ones who are put off by the religious feel of AA. The unconditional acceptance of nonbelievers would provide an important reminder that AA does not endorse religion.
- AA is poorer for not fully benefiting from all the resources we bring to the table.
- AA is a smaller community than it could be were it to actively make room for us.
The 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, the situation 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. 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.
The first step toward creating a basis for carrying the message to nonbelievers is establishing the fact that our presence does not constitute a threat. That we might actually succeed in getting sober is not a dangerous idea. AA has far more to celebrate when even one addict overcomes whatever obstacles might stand in the way of sobriety than it has to lose from the erosion of presumed certainties. Wanting atheists and agnostics to get sober is a sign of strength and maturity. Coming from a place of security and stability rather than fear gives AA members the ability to be open-minded and to offer a positive message.
Twelfth-step work with atheists and agnostics comes with unique challenges. Even though carrying the message to non believers is not qualitatively different from reaching out to anyone else, there is more to it than just glossing over the god question. Even if newcomers can somehow filter out the platitudes and dogma they encounter in AA, they still have to deal with the looming question regarding whether there is enough left to stay sober, once AA is stripped of its religious content. If what we present to nonbelievers is to be attractive and translatable into a vision of themselves actually thriving, it has to be more than a version of the standard message which has been purged of god talk and the expectation of supernatural intervention.
Even if a newcomer 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 they end up with may not be tidy and comfy, but if they 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.”
There shouldn’t be two separate messages, one for us and one for everybody else. The entire AA fellowship needs to actively include us in its general understanding of what it means to do twelfth step work. And that involves doing what it takes to actually make room for us in AA. Working with nonbelievers introduces a whole different aesthetic into the equation. Most atheists and agnostics find more problems with AA’s ambience than the god talk. It’s not that we are hypersensitive; we have a point. We are like the canary in the coal mine.
AA could stand to be a lot less disdainful of intelligent questioning in general. Telling newcomers “your best thinking got you here,” with its not so subtle suggestion that their thinking is incapable of doing anything but making things worse, is insulting. Many newcomers are not lacking in insight. Expecting them to simply be docile is not a reasonable position. It is normal to have and express legitimate reservations. AA could stand to be a lot less condescending, more tolerant, less insistent about orthodox approaches, more respectful, and more cognizant of existing integrity, personal assets, and moral character. Not everyone has been reduced to a bestial state.
A Pandora’s Box of doubts, questions, and inconvenient truths threatens the most prominent tenets of mainstream AA’s conventional wisdom. But fully honoring the principles of “honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness” entails acknowledging the wrinkles in AA’s veneer that are in plain sight for the average thinking person:
- The first 164 pages of the big book are not incontrovertible and do not “contain everything necessary for sobriety.”
- What AA literature documents is not a divinely-inspired permanent revelation, but instead a historically-situated, unfolding process that has involved discovery, speculation, invention, experimentation, and erosion of certainties.
- When dissenting views are not welcome, the truth gets lost.
- Any version of the truth that is unnaturally smooth and neat is suspect.
- Complete consistency is unattainable, especially when we are dealing with the complexities of real life.
- Forced consistency dulls intellectual curiosity, stifles the imagination, and buries everything that isn’t orderly.
- Referring to a particular understanding of the program as “the solution” ignores the fact that there are radically disparate conceptualizations of what sobriety looks like.
- AA unity is about being inclusive rather than demanding conformity to a particular norm. AA is unified by the experience of addicts identifying with each other in spite of incommensurable differences in beliefs, values, and lifestyles.
- A reasonably accurate verbal representation of AA is not possible without some incongruity. There are many different experiences within AA, together composing an aggregate that is larger than anyone’s ability to put what it is into words.
- The only responsible way to deal with contradictions is to honestly acknowledge that they exist and to pay attention to what they suggest about realities that are deeper than what direct perception can illumine.
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.