By Laurie A.
“His religious education and training may be far superior to yours…”
(Working With Others, Big Book, page 93).
That almost certainly applied to me when I was 12 Stepped by two AA members in August 1984; one man was a retired banker and the other an unemployed labourer. I had studied religion for degrees at two universities and was a qualified teacher of religion. I recall receiving a commendation from an examiner for an essay in which I compared and contrasted the apocalyptic millenarianism of the synoptic gospels with the eschatology of the fourth gospel – at the time I was drinking myself to death!
Today, I sponsor a Catholic priest who ended up in a treatment centre before finding AA. He wrote in ‘Share’, the British AA magazine:
The God of church didn’t seem to help. Thousands of times I asked Him to stop my drinking, even on my knees… Eventually, totally defeated, in AA I was told not to pick up the first drink a day at a time and get to meetings…
He had spent six years in a seminary, I, six years at university. Our problem was not lack of religious knowledge.
I was a fervently religious teenager, worshipping at a fundamentalist Pentecostal church. I was “saved” by Jesus and baptised in water by full immersion. I attended “tarrying” meetings where we waited expectantly to be filled with the Holy Spirit. At one gathering, after much prayer and fasting, I experienced the ecstasy of speaking in tongues. Ablaze with zeal, I joined a team of young evangelists who toured the coastal resorts in “brother” Arthur’s ancient van preaching to the seaside crowds and spoiling their Sunday out!
But then I was conscripted to serve in the Royal Air Force and a long way from home and church “backslid”, as evangelicals say. Soon afterwards I discovered another holy spirit – alcohol. The first time I got drunk I felt like a space explorer in my head. In “The Varieties of Religious Experience” William James wrote:
The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates and says no; drunkenness expands, unites and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the Yes function in man. It brings the devotee from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him for a moment one with truth. To the poor and unlettered it stands in the place of symphony concerts and of literature; and it is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something we immediately recognise as excellent should be granted to so many of us only in the fleeting phases of what in its totality is so degrading a poison.
Carl Jung made a similar connection. He wrote to AA co-founder Bill W.: “You see, alcohol in Latin is ‘spiritus’ and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is spiritus contra spiritum.” In the same letter he wrote, “I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in the world leads the unrecognised spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community … an ordinary man … isolated in society, cannot resist the power of evil…” (Emphasis added).
To begin with, alcohol seemed the solution to my existential dilemma. I was unable to relate to others. Drunk, I seemed to connect with the rest of humanity but it was a delusionary cul de sac. I spent 25 years in my alcoholic wilderness, during which I achieved those academic qualifications in religion. But by then I’d become a cynical agnostic. I rejected the primitive infantilism of fundamentalist religion. (As a Pentecostal I had accepted Bishop Ussher’s calculation that God created the world on October 23rd, 4004BC! I also believed that my family, and anyone else who was not “saved”, would perish in the eternal flames of Hell).
At age 45 my life seemed unbearably pointless. I’d tried everything I knew not to be a drunk but couldn’t stop drinking, so I decided to end it all. A determined suicide attempt landed me in hospital where a psychiatrist suggested I contact AA. I was now scared of dying but didn’t know how to live so I called AA and the men who 12 Stepped me invited me to a meeting. My wife, who was with me, thought I would walk out when she heard the Steps and Traditions read, with their references to God.
But I was beaten and knew I needed help so I listened intently to what would keep me alive; I filtered out anything I didn’t agree with or understand. Bill W. wrote, “Any number of alcoholics are bedevilled by the dire conviction that if they go near AA they will be pressured to conform to some particular brand of faith or theology”. (Grapevine, April, 1961) If that had happened to me where I got sober I would have been smoke and ashes a long time ago. I’m grateful that the AA I joined was not full of proselytising zealots. My first sponsor just encouraged me to find my own way. I was sufficiently willing, honest and open-minded that the dated language and mindset of the Big Book did not deter me, e.g. Dr Bob’s patronising and sanctimonious admonition in his story, “If you think you are an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, or have any other form of intellectual pride which keeps you from accepting what is in this book, I feel sorry for you.” Thankfully, the chapter We Agnostics points out, “When we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, too, to other spiritual expressions which you find in this book. Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you…”
I’m grateful that Jim Burwell dug his heels in and insisted that allowance must be made in the program for problem drinkers of no faith. (“Nor ought AA membership ever depend upon money or conformity.” Tradition Three, long form).
The AA group I joined met at a Quaker meeting house and I became interested in the similarities between Quakerism in the un-programmed tradition and AA, something which I have written about (see Liberal Quakerism and 12 Step Spirituality). I began attending silent Quaker meetings and eventually applied for membership. I was welcomed and found that my now open-minded, enquiring agnosticism was no barrier. In time I joined the Quaker Universalist Group, which is based on the understanding that spiritual awareness is accessible to everyone, of any religion or none. In turn this led me to the Sea of Faith Network, which explores the implications of understanding religious faith as a human creation and affirms the importance of religious thought, practice and the inspiration of sacred stories in our personal and cultural lives.
I now belong to the Nontheist Friends Network. One member wrote, “The nontheist sees this life as the only life we will ever experience and is focussed on the living of this life to the full, now, and in accordance with those human principles that make for happiness and dignity for all.” The main Quaker website in Britain, Quakers in Britain, notes, “Some Quakers describe themselves as agnostics or nontheists and describe their experiences in ways that avoid the use of the word God entirely.”
In Christian atheist: Belonging without Believing, the author, Anglican priest Brian Mountford, wrote:
The phrase Christian atheist seemed such a good description of all the people I know who value the cultural heritage of Christianity – its language, art, music, moral compass, sense of transcendence – without actually believing in God … and I use it now as a catch-all for a wide variety of questioning and sceptical, but usually affectionate, takes on Christianity.
The Big Book urges, “Be quick to see where religious people are right” (not where they are wrong)! And William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience wrote
Taking creeds and faith-state together, as forming “religions,” and treating these as purely subjective phenomena, without regard to the question of their “truth,” we are obliged, on account of their extraordinary influence upon action and endurance, to class them amongst the most important biological functions of mankind. Their stimulant and anaesthetic effect is so great that Professor Leuba goes so far as to say that as long as men can use their God, they care very little who he is, or even whether he is at all. “The truth of the matter can be put,” says Leuba, “in this way: God is not known, he is not understood; he is used … sometimes as moral support, sometimes as friend, sometimes as an object of love. If he proves himself useful, the religious consciousness asks for no more than that. Does God really exist? How does he exist? What is he? are so many irrelevant questions. Not God, but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is in the last analysis, the end of religion. The love of life, at any and every level of development, is the religious impulse”.
So, in rejecting bad religion and its unhelpful, sometimes malign, influence on parts of AA, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water; or, as Al-Anons say, “Take what you like – and leave the rest.”
Laurie celebrated 30 years of continuous sobriety on August 10. He is a retired national newspaper and BBC journalist in the UK. He served on the Great Britain AA literature committee and edited Share, the British fellowship’s national magazine, and Share and Share Alike, a book celebrating 60 years of AA in Britain in 2007. Laurie’s last post on AA Agnostica dates back to April 27, 2013, and you can read it right here: My Last Binge.