Sunday, December 7, 2014

a rising tide that lifts all boats

Virtually no one in AA would outright bar atheists and agnostics from becoming members, but there is more to actually including us than begrudgingly accepting our right to be members.  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.  It is not enough to be able to sit meekly and silently in the back row. 

The overall environment that greets nonbelievers is replete with mixed messages at best.  A common response in AA to persons who have difficulty with the religious ambience is to say that AA is “a spiritual not a religious program.”  Unfortunately that ultimately exacerbates rather than solves the problem.  It is based on the illusion that AA's so-called spirituality rises above the limitations that characterize religion as we know it.  The implicit message is that, while “their religion” is obviously flawed, “our spirituality” is unassailable. 

Buying into AA’s open-ended concept of a higher power can at times feel like sort of a halfway house on the way to fully believing in God the Father and Jesus His Son.  While AA’s ecumenical approach to theology may well make it possible for atheists and agnostics to carve out niches for ourselves in AA, actually inhabiting the space can feel fairly tenuous.  One of the first things atheists discover is that the reason AA is so tolerant of atheists is so that we will eventually find God.  It is obviously insulting to be magnanimously tolerated if it comes with being told, “Keep coming back.  Eventually, you will either recognize the necessity of having a higher power or you will get drunk.” 

When it comes time to actually working the AA program, it becomes clear that the problem goes deeper than can be fixed by linguistic and theological sleights of hand.  While empowering each recovering addict to craft her own understanding of a higher power promotes a roomy and welcoming space and even encourages creativity, changing the terminology from “God” to “a higher power” is merely cosmetic.  The terms are entirely interchangeable in how they are used in actual speech.  

Nonetheless, whatever its shortcomings might be, AA actually gets a lot right.  Its most significant assets are not inherently religious: refuge and encouragement for the hopeless, in-depth identification, community, practical wisdom about addiction, and sometimes just having something to do that doesn’t involve using alcohol or other drugs. 

There is, not surprisingly, a proliferation of books on how to recover from addiction without God; however, these books generally either disdainfully reject AA or they present a rather superficial approach to fitting into AA and offer advice on how to work the AA program, often including a neutered version of the Steps.  For most atheists and agnostics, the problem with AA goes deeper than the god talk.  By the same token, many of us still want much of what AA has to offer.  Merely ridding the Steps of their overt religious language in order to make them available to atheists and other non-Christians are inadequate at best.  There is more involved in being a full participant in AA than getting around the god talk. 

What is missing is an appreciative assessment of AA’s strengths accompanied by an uncovering of deeper principles of recovery that can work for believers and nonbelievers alike, an approach that is neither a knee-jerk rebuff of AA nor a tepid translation that invokes some sort of vague "nontheistic" spirituality, an approach that lies somewhere between the extremes of, on one end, expecting atheists to meekly fit in and not rock the boat, and on the other end, generating unnecessary and counterproductive controversy, an approach that goes beyond the question of how to get the most out of an extant AA experience, exploring the question of how an atheist or agnostic alcoholic can creatively intersect with AA and in so doing maybe even evoke a greater spirit openness and thereby enhance the recovery experience for everyone. Atheists and agnostics who struggle with addiction to alcohol and other drugs need recovery resources, but AA also needs to look at how to be more inclusive and more effective.    

There is more at stake than wanting to do what it takes to save the lives of alcoholics who happen to be atheists or agnostics.  The presence of nonbelievers can play an important role in making AA a truly hospitable place for a diverse set of religious and nonreligious beliefs.  A lot has happened socially and culturally since the big book was first published in 1939.  AA now has global reach.  Cultural pluralism is a far more of a mainstream experience.  Given rapid expansions in communication and mobility, seemingly incompatible worldviews are constantly in collision with one another.  Intense polarization around religion and politics has reached a point where it undermines basic human decency and social cooperation.  Achieving universal agreement on anything seems impossible.  By the same token, our lives inextricably overlap, and that means finding common ground when we can.  In the world outside AA, a secularist framework is absolutely necessary for purely pragmatic reasons.  It is no less so within AA.  We don’t get to decide who walks in the door or what particular issues they bring with them.  We need to build a robust culture that can accommodate monotheists, polytheists, pantheists, pagans, agnostics, atheists, “nones,” and anyone else who has a desire to stop drinking.  There are a lot of people who fall through the cracks. 

Atheists have a significant contribution to make.  At first, we can just “take what we like and leave the rest,” but eventually, if we are going to fully participate in the recovery experience, we have to have a strategy for sharing our own “experience, strength, and hope” in meetings when the topic is about God.  It is not particularly productive to angrily challenge what is being said by the theists in the meeting; however, there are two significant assertions that sober atheists bring into the discussion.  First, we can offer credible direct evidence in our own persons that the god question need not get in the way of finding lasting sobriety.  And second, we can model the discipline involved in talking about the solution without taking the shortcut that relying on a higher power can represent.  This shifts the center of gravity to a solution that can work for anyone.

We need to carve out for ourselves a habitable space where we are not “over against” but are instead “together with,” where we can come from a place of security, lead with strength, refuse to be marginalized, fully embrace the role of gracious hosts operating on our own home turf, and become a prototype for extending hospitality not only to those like us, but also to those who are radically different.  Ideally, a time will come when nonbelievers are not a subgroup that is somewhat begrudgingly tolerated, but instead embody a new definition of mainstream AA, an AA that is more concerned about being truly effective than about preserving AA orthodoxy.

AA’s basic formula for success, though often neglected, very much depends on the idea that being united around a shared mission is more important than striving for correct beliefs.  AA openly acknowledges that the very possibility for anyone finding sobriety depends on finding common ground around one primary purpose – carrying a message of recovery to alcoholics.  There is a need for a deeper understanding of what constitutes a solution even when the solution for a given addict will not involve participation in AA.  Carrying the message should not be reduced to membership recruitment.

Actively and boldly leading the way toward a “big tent” AA is a rising tide that lifts all boats, but the right to be protected from being forced to adopt someone else’s religious beliefs cuts both ways.  If we expect tolerance, we need to work for tolerance rather than work against religion.  The fact is that, for many AA members, having a higher power is central to their recovery experience.  It is what works for them and what is meaningful to them.  To deprive them of their own truth or to expect them to keep it to themselves would clearly violate the very spirit of tolerance that we ourselves expect with regard to our own differences from the mainstream.  If we are condemning of other people’s beliefs and practices, we feed the claims that atheism is just another religion whose values get imposed on everybody else and that secularists are more dogmatic and intolerant than most Christians. 

Putting up with a certain amount of religious trappings isn’t just about picking our battles.  It is a piece of a larger strategy with regard to the end game of advancing a vision of AA that fosters freedom, creativity, intelligent dialogue, and peaceful coexistence.  It’s about rising above the fray and placing the focus on a bigger issue than the personal demand that our sensibilities not be offended and that we not have to endure the indignity of other people’s insensitivity to our needs.  It transforms the whole conversation.  A robust commitment to broad-mindedness would redefine mainstream AA culture, reframe AA’s basic message, and offer a viable alternative to AA’s current default settings. 

A true understanding of secularism doesn’t exclude religious points of view nor deny their inevitable influence in public life.  The true goal of secularism is not for everyone to be magnanimous and “politically correct,” but is instead to create a cultural space where it is OK for everyone to be true to themselves.  Minority positions have special importance because their voice being in the mix provides the opportunity to transform tolerance from a mere abstract commitment into a concrete reality.  It is as important for minorities like atheists to put skin on diversity as it is for the majority to accept the minorities’ right to claim chairs.  

doesn't AA's success prove that there is a god?

Even the most hard core atheist has to admit that AA works enviably well for a lot of people.  There are millions who were hopelessly addicted to alcohol and/or other drugs for whom AA was absolutely the last resort and who not only are now sober.  They are not only free of the negative tendencies that formerly set them up to fail; they have embraced a whole new way of life and have become remarkably productive, generous, loving, serene, and happy.  There is something there worth emulating.  The problem for atheists and agnostics though is that AA members commonly attribute their success to a higher power. 

If there is no god, how do we account for AA’s success?  That can either be troubling question or an invitation to enlarge and deepen our understanding of the recovery process.  If we can satisfactorily answer the question, we are free to relate to AA on our own terms.  And when we are told point blank by AA members (as we undoubtedly will if we are open about our lack of belief) that if we don’t find a higher power, we will eventually get drunk, we can just graciously decline their offer to help us with that.  We can maintain a position of strength and security, refusing to be marginalized.  We can see what they are saying for what it is, an opinion.

This turns the tables on the advocates of a religious approach.  The message we have to carry represents a better understanding of AA’s core principles and a more robust solution than what is commonly espoused by AA members.  It is a more realistic and straightforward accounting of AA’s success than “God doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.” 

AA’s Twelve Steps place much of the recovery process in a black box, or if you will, a sort of an imaginary “God box.”  The really hard stuff (i.e., my unruly will, my unmanageable life, the dilemma of my powerlessness, my need to be restored to sanity, and my stubborn character defects) is just “turned over.”  If many in AA get good results from that, it is because, first, surrender can break the vicious circle that occurs when our ideas about correcting a bad situation are only making things worse, and second, letting go of what hasn’t been working gives other possibilities a chance.  Ultimately though, even believers need a more precise understanding of the solution than "Let go and let God."  AA as a whole can benefit from greater clarity regarding down-to-earth strategies.  For many, belief in God is a catalyst in a process that makes sobriety possible, but all the ingredients are contributed by ordinary mortals.  Explanations do not have to rely on anything magical or supernatural.  

beyond orthodoxy

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.  

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.

going to any lengths

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. 

breaking out of the AA bubble

If you were to go into an AA meeting and offer a calm, rational critique of belief in God, you would certainly be cut off and probably be fiercely jeered by many in the room.  If you were to go into that same meeting though and contemptuously mock researchers who are “wasting their time” seeking a better understanding of the problem of alcoholism, the response would probably be approving nods and self-righteous chuckling.  Many in AA consider it self-evident that everything they need to know about recovery from addiction is in the first 164 pages of the Big Book.  Even those who might silently disagree with the sentiment would probably just nervously laugh along with everyone else.  That there are so few in AA who find this situation strange bears looking at. 

The point I’m making is not that bashing religion would accomplish anything.  The problem isn’t that AA includes people who hold religious beliefs; the problem is the overt hostility on the part of many toward the whole idea of using science as a test of truth claims.  AA meetings are not the place to debate science or religion or to pit one against the other.  By the same token, those who value science and critical thinking should be able to feel just as at home in AA as religious believers.  Being hostile toward science is not a neutral position.  We shouldn't go to an AA meeting to convince others to embrace a scientifically informed approach to addiction, but at the same time, we shouldn’t have to be on the defensive just because we are interested in an honest appraisal of the facts. 

It is useful to know whether research shows that a particular approach is more effective than a placebo solution.  AA claims that its spiritual solution to addiction works.  Much of the solution’s effectiveness is in its visceral quality, but that doesn’t mean that AA should hide from what a more intellectual examination might reveal.  If AA works, it has nothing to fear from scientific scrutiny.  If a rigorous evaluation of AA’s approach leads to clearer understanding of the actual nature of the solution, AA would be one of main beneficiaries.  While AA meetings aren’t the place for technical discussions of scientific research into addiction, being open to scientific evidence ought to be perceived as a good thing rather than as a threat.  Unless AA is a religious cult, it shouldn’t be out of place for someone new to AA to want some assurance that the solution that is being presented isn’t just based on superstition and magic.  While getting sober might involve more than what science can explain, if aspects of the solution are placed above scrutiny, the credibility of the entire solution is undermined.  

the twelfth step and the nonbeliever

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.