The Doorknob Deity

Doorknob

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Tom P.

AA saved my life and set me on an exciting journey of personal growth and transformation. I am very grateful.

Yet, with regard to religion, it feels to me that AA recreates some of the trauma I endured growing up in a dysfunctional home, and in a well-known religious sect. In my childhood home, I rarely spoke my mind, preferring to stay quiet rather than getting myself yelled at or smacked. Less intense reactions by my parents were still hurtful; I was ignored, dismissed, told directly or indirectly that I was imagining things, that I was spoiled, that I was too young to know anything, that I was to be “seen and not heard.” At church, the standard dogma was taught, and it was taken as a given that I would be obedient and affirm it. As I started to think for myself, I shared some thoughts with my peers; they looked at me like I was a monster.  I can vividly recall the look of revulsion in their eyes. I quickly learned that others’ religious views held a privileged position in our society, and I decided to keep my mouth shut.

In AA, we are frequently told that the program is “spiritual” but not “religious.” Now, I know that this statement is false, but I am repeatedly told that it is true. Just as my parents did not want to hear that there was a serious problem in our home, most members of AA do not want to hear or acknowledge that the program is religious. If I hint at my true thoughts on this subject in a meeting, the group brings pressure to bear on me with thinly veiled crosstalk, or by members approaching me after meetings hoping to guide me back to AA orthodoxy. Most of the other members’ comments are well-meaning, but simplistic. Other times the comments are completely ludicrous. Recently, I was told that my Higher Power could be anything, it could even be a doorknob. The Doorknob Deity! Seriously? This idea is almost as bizarre as the dogma I was taught in Sunday school as a child. As I drove home from that meeting, I decided it was time to put pen to paper.

AA is spiritual and religious. It is both. I will present a brief rationale to support this statement, followed by some comments and a suggestion.

“Spirituality” is a vague term, but generally refers to personal growth / transformation, and finding meaning in life. I think we all can all agree that AA is a spiritual program. The definition of a religion is more specific: an organized collection of beliefs that relate humanity to the overall order of existence, along with any associated rituals, traditions, history and literature. AA clearly fits this definition. In literature and practice, AA advocates specific, organized beliefs about our relationship with God or a Higher Power, practices rituals based on this collection of beliefs, and advocates specific, related, private actions based on these beliefs. While AA’s unique organizational structure is both brilliant and beautiful, the G.S.O. does decide on all conference approved literature, and thus controls what messages and beliefs are promoted and re-enforced, and what messages are excluded.

The following is a brief outline of AA’s religious creed. For shorthand, I will use the word “God” to include the monotheistic concept of an omniscient and omnipotent, interventionist, personal God, as well as all concepts of a Higher Power. I will also make use of the traditional masculine pronoun for God, and will capitalize the word God and His associated pronouns, strictly for the purpose of readability.

  • God exists.
  • God can be described as possessing certain qualities.
  • In some sense, God is greater than any of us on our own.
  • God favors sobriety and personal growth over addiction, selfishness and self-destruction. He is not neutral in these matters.
  • God has an individual “will” for each one of us, meaning He has a specific, desired path He would like each one of us to follow.
  • God reveals His will for us at some point, but only if He is sought.
  • God has the capacity to take pre-meditated action that affects us directly, and sometimes does so by influencing our private thoughts or inclinations, or by manipulating the events in our day-to-day lives, or both. God can and will remove our alcoholism, if he is sought (How it Works).
  • The transcendent or eventual spiritual goal of AA is for us to seek and approach, as perfectly as possible, the knowledge of God’s will for us, so that our own will either disappears, merges with His, or we have the wish, intent and power to subordinate our will to His (Step 11).

While I understand that this sketch can be debated, the point here is that it unequivocally represents an organized collection of beliefs that relate humanity (alcoholic humanity at least) to the overall order of existence. If there are arguments against this view, I am curiously looking forward to hearing them. One might say that AA is a spiritual program with some roots in religion, or that AA is a non-denominational, mono-theistically informed spiritual program. Yet, to say AA is not religious is simply false. When I am told that AA is spiritual but not religious I feel like I am being asked to deny what I see and hear with my own eyes and ears. Religions often compel people to accept fantastic statements on faith alone, even when the statement does not hold up under scrutiny. In fact, having “faith” in something that goes counter to evidence is frequently portrayed as a virtue. AA is joining other churches when it repeats to the point of absurdity the demonstrably false statement that it is not religious, and expects us to believe it and repeat it. The issue stirs up the powerful, negative emotions I had as a child when I was expected to accept and believe the orthodox dogma of the church simply because I was told to, or was told by my parents that black was white and white was black.

So why does AA insist on making the “not religious” claim? I will say a few words about this question, understanding that there is a lot more that can be said.

First off, quite simply, most people do not realize or fully realize how deeply embedded the mono-theistic, interventionist view of God is in our consciousness as Americans, especially the Christian view of God. Many ideas, feelings and outlooks that seem perfectly natural to some people are easily traced back to a religious origin. For example, consider the idea that we are all stained with the original sin of Adam and Eve, and are lost (or damned) until we accept a savior and turn our life and will over to Him. This doctrine is easy to see within the 12 Steps, and in the sketch of AA’s religious creed, outlined above. In my experience, theists are often puzzled and confused why non-theists like me object to or are put-off by statements that seem so natural to them, things that are often said with nothing but compassion, concern and caring.

The reason most often given for AA’s “not religious” claim is that it represents an attempt to reach out to non-theists, and make them feel welcome. Yet, if this is the reason, I can say with authority as a non-theist that it is not advancing the cause. A claim that is clearly false will not attract atheists, agnostics and freethinkers, who are generally driven away by religions that make statements that are not true, contradictory, puzzling, or show an obvious lack of self-awareness. In 2013 the G.S.O. declined to publish a pamphlet written to reach out to atheists and agnostics still suffering from alcoholism, titled “AA – Spiritual Not Religious.” I support reaching out to our non-theist brothers and sisters, but it was probably best that this particular pamphlet was rejected. Before I hit bottom, I would have thought “Non-religious?  Yeah, right.” and thrown it in the trash. The proposed title of the pamphlet would have proclaimed to me that it was not credible, and not worth reading.

A less flattering reason why AA might make the “not religious” claim would be that it is an attempt to sound like it welcomes non-theists, while it simultaneously pushes them away. I admit, as a non-theist, I am used to feeling unwelcome, and may see the “Godless Atheists: STAY OUT” message at times when it is not intended. But also consider that AA has published pamphlets reaching out to the Armed Services, Native Americans, alcoholics with special needs, women, senior citizens, gay and lesbian alcoholics, health professionals, and convicted prisoners, but has yet to publish a pamphlet reaching out to non-theists.

I hope that AA can do a “searching and fearless” self-assessment regarding this issue, can be “rigorously honest” with itself, and go beyond “half-measures” in welcoming non-theists and some non-theist influence into the fellowship. I do not know exactly what that might look like, though a simple first step would be to discourage the use of the “not religious” mantra.

It was easy for me to leave the church of my youth, as it did not have a single positive effect on me. (The church opportunistically and wrongly takes credit for humanity’s morality. We are good people in spite of religion, not because of it.)  AA, however, saved my life, and the fellowship and wisdom is helping me become a better person and live a more contented life. I plan to stay an active member, and hope my contribution can help us to reach out our hand to those that feel put-off by, or even personally harmed by theism.

───────

Tom P. is a physician who spent twenty years working with addictions, when alcoholism unexpectedly descended on him like an invading army. He is now a grateful member of AA, and two other 12 Step fellowships. His beautiful, devoted wife has found deep meaning, understanding and guidance in Al-Anon.

Dr. Tom sees no evidence that the universe cares whether the Earth or us homo sapiens are here or not, but he also thinks that AA demonstrates the great good humanity can do when we hold hands, unite and take some responsibility for one another.


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The Doorknob Deity — 68 Comments

  1. Thank you sooo much. I’m new to this website and have a new enthusiasm for the state of my recovery and growth of my spiritual life. After 27 years in AA I’m tired of having to hide in meetings lest I offend AA members solid in the Cult of the Righteous.

  2. To speak up that you don’t do the HP path risks disappoval and judgement. People are sheep. I like Buddhism as we don’t have a HP. It is all practice.

    People feel insulted that I don’t believe in a god or HP, but don’t see I could be insulted by them not believing in Buddhism. God-centric or Christian-centric. And they think I am a Buddhist as a reaction to god.

  3. Regarding being retraumatized in AA:

    My retrauma takes the form of being told not to feel my feelings – in case it would lead to a slip. The big book and the12&12 readings take a stand in particular against feeling any anger.

    But the Big Book , written with all of 4 years of sobriety, also mentions:
    “We realize that we know only a little…More will be revealed…”

    And it certainly has! From the disease model, to codependency issues, to race & gender issues, to a now less-closeted atheism, the fellowship’s understanding of recovery keeps evolving.

    We who are in the forefront of these new evolutions can take strength from those before us.

    Having been through codependency treatment, I can talk about giving myself permission to feel. I share what I have learned about safely feeling anger and the healthy results of channeling it into positive actions. I may not reach everybody. But my honesty provides comfort to those who are ready to face feelings work. Our ongoing experience shows others that the admonitions against feeling our feelings in the early literature are not the final word on the matter.

    It does feel retraumatizing to hear others try to fix my feelings or even to outright tell me “Don’t feel that way about…”

    I have to remember that they are not in codependency recovery yet so how would they know what is appropriate. I can reply with “it’s okay for me to feel this right now” – both as a validation for myself and to gently set a boundary, and perhaps to educate them.

    The same can be applied to our atheism. Mentioning it casually when we share in a meeting is very important. (We don’t preach it, that would be as inappropriate as the proselytizing that some theists engage in during their shares.) Making eye contact with newcomers during the group’s closing ritual is also
    important. It may be reassuring to an atheist newcomer to notice someone else who is not reciting theist dogma.

    It is early. Atheists are still a minority in the culture. We are creating space for other atheists to feel welcome. At some point, the group will take for granted that the program works for atheists too – just as the earlier homogenous groups eventually accepted participation of women, blacks, gays…

  4. Whether or not AA is religious does not interest me anymore. Spiritual and Religious are just words. AA as a whole does make a curiously big fuss about it though. The founders of AA went to Oxford group meetings where the adherents ascribed to a World Order run by God’s will. Our own will was seen as evil and the problem. Humans could only get up to no good on their own will. The members regularly performed an exercise where they sat quietly in group to “listen” for God to speak to them as in receiving direct revelations from the big guy. Bill Wilson was one of them. There is an unmistakable undercurrent in AA to “Convert” members to this God centric view, that we are flawed and hopeless without God. Hence the admission, cleansing and confession of our sins, our flawed nature, embedded in the steps. Atheism and the 12 steps are like oil and water. I remain convinced that people get sober in AA not because of the steps but in-spite of them. Where AA does help alcoholics is to identify and legitimize the problem, (you are no longer alone) give them hope as they see that others can beat this problem, and support, understanding and the genuine love, caring, and empathy of fellow members. If I were King I would toss the steps and the God stuff out the window and focus on what really helps.

    • Atheism and the steps are compatible if an atheist redefines what is meant by a “power greater than ourselves”. I try not to say “higher power” which implies hierarchy. But plenty of things are more powerful than oneself: nature, ethical principles, the connection to the group or to other people.

      The steps are about becoming of maximum service to others – which is the goal you described above. This is the essence of Alcoholics Anonymous: The personality change from egocentric (not exclusive to alcoholics) to humbly empowered (not exclusive to spiritual or religious seekers).
      I practice the steps even though I know there isn’t a deity. To me, the character development / personal growth aspect of the introspection / restitution / helping process is the most attractive feature of sobriety in AA.

      • Helen,
        I don’t think that any sort of higher power, no matter what it is called or how it is twisted will get us away from being expected to slip back to the one true god eventually.
        It is embedded real deeply in AA dogma, but for the sake of recovery I can not see that it is needed at all. A level playing field of me and other AAs where I neither try to be bigger or smaller than is all that is needed.
        The founders of AA may have needed a power greater than themselves, because their own power was so great, surely bill wilson had a big ego, but me, I’m just me, an alcoholic.
        Or any outside power. Well, we need each other, but that is not a “power”, any manifest entity. We risk nonsense like “I found a power outside myself, it was my inner strength”, or whatever. It is this whole power concept we need to get away from, inner, outer, higher, lower, greater, whatever, we just need to work together.

      • i hear ya Helen. If you substitute the words “voodoo” or “door knob” for God or higher power, it blatantly shows us how crazy the concept is.

  5. “First of all, we had to quit playing God.”
    – Bill Wilson

    Thank you for this essay on the absurdity of the door knob as a higher power. I think the more religious members would also agree that a door knob is inadequate to the task.

    My experience as an atheist in AA is less frustrating ever since I realized that the atheist, with more information and more evolved thinking, has more responsibility to lead by example in tolerance of less evolved thinkers.

    I grew up in a religion and even then I could recognize the difference between religiosity (beliefs) and spirituality (faith), which is just another way of saying moral character development. Religiosity stopped at belief. Spirituality went beyond a set of beliefs to a set of actions. “This is the way to a faith that works.”

    Atheists too have to go beyond just having a set of beliefs against something nonexistent toward a practical faith in certain principles to guide our actions.

    By “not religious” they really mean “nondenominational”. There is a simplified non-theistic translation for everything the theists say in AA. Instead of taking offense and ridiculing their limited language ability, I just retranslate it in my head.

    Every time they talk of a higher power, I know they are trying to describe our connectivity to the whole; every time they say God I know they are trying to describe moral principles. Every time they say they trust God, I say to myself, I trust lovingkindness. They say God is love. I say love can be made into a god, for it is the greatest power in human experience.

    “Be quick to see where religious people are right”. Some of them have become quite enlightened in spite of themselves. So what, if they use a deity concept as a crutch to get there. We can become enlightened too, without a deity crutch. I’ve tried both methods. It works either way. So in the end it doesn’t really matter.

    It is good to find validation from other atheists in recovery that we do not have to abandon rational thought in order to recover. But let us recognize also that neither does the believer have to abandon their superstitions in order to recover.

    I do not let believers in AA take my inventory on my atheism. That would be absurd. I do not give them that power. I know the facts, they do not. But I do recognize how their faith (not their beliefs) can demonstrate useful universal human principles in practice. Their faith helps them stop playing God with other people, helps them let go of outcomes, helps them choose moral behaviors, and helps them become happy and usefully whole.

    • Their faith helps them stop playing God with other people, helps them let go of outcomes, helps them choose moral behaviors, and helps them become happy and usefully whole.

      Perhaps it’s only because I live in Toronto that I haven’t a clue who you are talking about.

    • I can say that in the time I’ve been in A.A., the only time I’ve heard of using a door knob is in rhetorical speech.

  6. We were a bunch of newcomers in a Women’s Step Study nearly 29 years ago.

    Two older female members were facilitating.

    It was the 4th week and we were on Step 3. “Made a decision”. Many of us had been the victims of religious and sexual abuse and voiced our reluctance to turn our lives over to a male god.

    At the end of this meeting the facilitators stood up and announced they were not coming back as we had clearly demonstrated that “god was not in the room.”

    The thing was, us newbies struggled on for another 14 weeks and left god on the sidelines.

  7. Yesterday I read this and the comments that like a snowstorm, blanketed the essay with white agreement. I didn’t want to dampen the rally. It seemed bonding or healing or something. I didn’t say anything because I don’t agree. I enjoyed the essay and I relate to having the feeling of being out-numbered by religious adherents. The reason I don’t agree that AA is religious (while most members and therefore most meetings are) is that every member, every meeting is free to express itself in a language that is true.

    There is no higher authority in AA than my own home group. I’m not religious, my fellow members aren’t. No one prays. We talk about alcoholism. We talk about recovery. We share personal experience. We are as AA as anyone, no more and no less. The last meeting I was at had three topics: Trust, Musts and Bursting forth into a new arena. Everyone who wanted to, shared their thoughts, feelings and experiences. Even among the 15 to 20 members, there were no strict “musts.” “Trust” never included theistic ideas; some shares were humanist in nature.

    99.9% of AA believing “god is doing for them what they can’t do for themselves,” obligates me to nothing. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, which never has to be proven to anyone. While our literature is full of religious overtone, it isn’t imposed upon me – not in my group anyway. There was a lot more talk of God here in this discussion than was ever touched on at my group this week. We can talk about god if we feel like it, but it is not doctrinally demanded of me or our group.

    Even in a run-of-the-mill meeting, discussion about Step One will be about craving, rationalization, hopelessness, chaos and practical ways of transitioning from habitual drinker to sober alcoholic. Sure, they will read the Steps and maybe pray at the end but it’s not contagious. It’s a ritual and not a condition of membership. I can leave early to demonstrate my disapproval of prayer and I won’t be cast out of AA. Or I can act like a guest in their meeting without having to betray my own creed.

    • Can you go to a Catholic mass and not be a Catholic? Yes you can. And you don’t have to take communion at the end if that is your choice. Ninety-nine percent of those present doing communion does not obligate you to follow suit. But it’s still a Catholic mass.

    • An organization whose published explanation of “How it Works” flatly declares “There is one who has all power, that one is God – may you find him now” isn’t inherently religious? If so, then what is the driving force behind the emergence of the AA Agnostica website, growing numbers of WAFT AA meetings and alternatives to “Daily Reflections” such as “Beyond Belief”?

      • If I may comment…
        The driving force would be the high degree of tolerance and democracy which the principles of AA have also always espoused. In that way, agnostic AA groups are as AA as AA has ever been. There is a challenge to the logical mind to think that AA can be inherently religious at the same time as being inherently welcoming of non religiousness, which agnostic groups prove quite well.

        Bob

      • That “inherently welcoming of non religiousness” may be there in theory – at least in some places – but absent in many more places and often in practice. Thus, as Russ points out, the work that needs to be done. A lot of work, as we all fully understand.

      • I’d have to disagree with “inherently” as many a regular AA meeting is far from tolerant, hence agnostic/atheist meetings.

      • The pragmatism of the “only requirement for membership is a desire stop drinking” will, in the end, win the day as Joe. C. suggests. But that doesn’t put him at odds with Roger C. who emphasizes quite rightly that a lot of work remains to be done. And alas, the inherent tolerance of AA suggested by our historian Bob K. is still but a seed and not a fully flowering plant but it’s nonetheless still there.

        Yes, much work is still required of us; we get our message out there weekly in forums like AA Agnostica, as Tom P. did this week; we remind our fellow AAers of our presence at monthly District meetings and at Area Assemblies; we support in every way we can our fellow agnostic, atheists, and freethinkers who organize WAAFT conventions; we continue to form new WAAFT groups across the continent and around the world.

        In these and in many other ways, we continue to grow our numbers so that the sheer pragmatism of our presence will either cause AA’s General Service Conference to de-list us en masse or learn to tolerate us and, perhaps, respect us for who we are and what we can offer to the still suffering alcoholic.

    • That small secular pockets of AA exist — often at the cost of great struggle — does little to affect the religious character of the organization as a whole.

      It’s sophistry to suggest that the god-speak in “regular” meetings doesn’t really matter, because it’s not “required”. I’ve heard this sort of thing before, from any number of majority groups insisting that their exclusionary practices aren’t exclusionary (e.g., advocates for Christian prayer in schools, or for male-gendered language).

      Language and ritual are not trivial things: the practices of inclusivity and exclusivity rely on them. We will readily acknowledge that Christian prayer by a secular institution is exclusionary. To claim that this somehow isn’t true for AA is to claim that religiosity somehow functions differently in AA than it does in other ostensibly non-religious contexts. This is absurd.

      Talking about this stuff seems “bonding or healing or something” because it is. That some people want to make their secular peace with AA is a fine thing, but it doesn’t help their efforts to pretend that trying to do so doesn’t impose additional burdens on them.

    • The preamble specifically does not state that it is not allied with any “religion”, but only mentions sects and denominations. I always wondered if there were any AA history buffs who could explain if that was an accident or if it was deliberate.
      “There is no higher authority in AA than my own home group.” True, this authority just about decided to bring back the LP, though I threw a fit way too big to be good for my serenity and averted that direct disaster, but incurred another one, of course. Throwing a fit didn’t earn me any brownie points with the fellowship. Unfortunately it was obvious that nothing less than throwing a fit would do. Having that authority to deal with is too much authority for me, but where do I go? I’m not in Toronto with lots of agnostic meetings, but in a small town with nothing else. Oh yes, the freethinker’s meeting I started here myself, which got me even more estranged, and that other authority, Intergroup, refused to list it.

      • The preamble was put together by the GrapeVine staff. I doubt much thought was put into it.

        I think it subsequently became “conference approved,” but it wasn’t originally.

        There are a number of preambles out there, the Baltimore, Wilmington, and Texas come to mind.

        The A.A. Preamble is almost a paraphrase of parts of the Foreword to the First Edition Big Book. It says, “We are not allied to any particular faith, sect, or denomination, not do we oppose anyone. We simply wish to be helpful to those who are afflicted.”

        This same Foreword also says “The only requirement for membership is an honest desire to stop drinking,” so that was changed, too.

        I suspect your question will elicit a number of opinions. I don’t recall reading anything specifically addressing it.

  8. Thanks Tom for writing this. Spooky to look at my doorknobs and ponder their interventionist powers. Wouldn’t be surprised if the idea originated at the doorknob to the AA room, which lends it a bit of sympathy, but of course a bunch of nonsense anyway.

    The thing that always gets to me is how the god people seem entirely unable to consider that the religious abuse that some of us have been raised with indeed is abuse. There is plenty of recognition of all other kinds of abuse, which is of course a good thing. Most people in AA have suffered some sort of abuse, but religious abuse is just something we will be told in an overbearing manner to get over, sort of with the inference that we’re imagining it or being too sensitive, or not being grateful enough to god to have put the abusers in our path. Talk to your sponsor about it, and pray about it. This is of course mostly an issue for those of us who one way or another realized at an early age (8 in my case) that there was no way we’d be able to buy into it all. People who became non-believers later in life probably had an easier time. Not that I want to make light of anyone’s plight.

    All things considered it is not so hard to let go of issues from the past. We learn tools for that in AA, after all. But what’s being perpetrated inside AA in the present time, and continues, that’s much harder. Because of some illness I’m dealing with I have not been able to attend the meetings in my local fellowship for several months, and I’m finding it harder to go as time goes by. Especially the cool Tuesday meeting, the fun one, the one everyone goes to. It’s a good one to attend, it does show that “we’re not a glum lot”, lots of laughter, and some pretty good recovery too. But it’s also where the most Christian people go, and they have shown some intolerance for my viewpoints. At least if I voice them. Well, they’re real tired of listening to it all the time anyway, the same shit over and over. But they can’t seem to wrap their minds around that that is how I have felt for 25 years. So I kinda don’t feel welcome anymore. Yes, a lot of that is just my feeling, they have all been asking how I’m doing, etc. – all? I don’t know if being tolerant and openminded comes with being an agnostic, or if it just seems that way because any agnostic or atheist I know in AA is, because if they/we hadn’t been we would not have been able to stay. But there are few religious people to whom it applies. Occasionally it happens. I read a story in my homeland’s newspaper by a woman who had met Jesus in a church while vacationing in a foreign land, and had formerly been an atheist. All her friends were too and she didn’t quite know what to make of the incident when she got home, and she was almost embarrassed about having become a Christian, it was kind of a funny read, kind of touching in its honesty and humility, so uncommon, and what’s more, it was embarrassing to see all the atheists who read that paper coming after her with talk about it being nonsense, when all she was doing was humbly sharing her honest experience, but humble Christians are far between. And there were indeed a few staunch Christians coming to her defense too, in the arrogant manner we know all too well.

    But I’m having a hard time getting back to that meeting. I’m glad I have this site to give me some focus on my sobriety. It is really important to have some way to focus energy for any endeavor, otherwise it all too easily goes the way of meditation, diet, exercise, and all the other things that are good for me.

    • So much to unpack in this comment, life-j… your point about religious abuse hit home… myself, I began to directly challenge what I was being taught by 9 and was pretty much a bonafide agnostic by 14 or 15. I also come from a pretty religious culture (I am African-American… a whole other can of worms). As my current sponsor (who is Jewish) had said, most Christians in the rooms just don’t get that they are in any way insensitive (at the very least) and can be outright abusive, at times.

  9. The Doorknob Deity is one of many AA memes whose ubiquity has made me wonder how they got started. Along with “stinkin’ thinkin'”, “people like you and rooms like these”, “my higher power whom I choose to call God”, “keep coming back”, “my best thinking got me here”, “itty bitty shitty committee”, and so on (I’m sure you can add to this list), the Doorknob Deity has been around longer than the 28 years I’ve been associated with AA, but you know that at some point it had to have a beginning. Some AA member trying to explain “God as you understand him” to a reluctant newbie started with, “Your higher power doesn’t have to be God. If the concept of God bothers you, pick something else.” Glancing around the room in an attempt to illustrate the concept, our old-timer spotted the doorknob on the entrance to the meeting and in an impressive display of miscomprehension exclaimed, “That doorknob right there can be your higher power”. And from that day forth the expression has been passed down as gospel.

    • There is so much AA “wisdom” that must have originated in such a fashion only to become dogma for generations which followed. The same thing applies to the “scripturisation” of the Big Book. The “parachute and ripcord” analogy drives me batty in a way the doorknob doesn’t. In some ways I like the doorknob god because to me it trivialises the importance of the god concept and that I find rather amusing.

  10. Thanks Tom. I owe my recent sobriety to this web-site, Roger, the writers and the comments as well as my Widening Our Gateway Group, in Richmond Hill, Ontario.
    This is a topic that needs great attention and I’m pleased that Tom has done it justice.
    I would like to add that I believe it is really putting down someone to say he isn’t spiritual, for I understand it to mean that a spiritual person is struggling with the meaning of life, or if given up on that pursuit is taking life seriously.
    For me not to be spiritual is to deny me the species of homo sapiens. Yes, we care and we think and we often struggle with all of this.
    It may be blasphemous, but I find some slogans ie. Keep it simple, or Easy does it, with their stress on not struggling and indirectly putting me in a place where miracles and magical thinking work best, to be a hindrance to the idea that as long as we’re alive, we struggle to be the best homo sapiens we can be, something I could not do as long as I used alcohol to end the pain of living.

  11. I shall forever be grateful that AA was there for me some 22 plus years ago when I was way past due. Many times I have thought of dumping AA from my non-believer life. I am active – sometimes chair at our VA hospital to help/work with our fellow veterans. AA will change – Semper Fi.

  12. For me, “spiritual” and “spirituality” are b.s. weasel words, which try to smuggle religion in through the back door. They can mean anything and everything; therefore, they mean nothing.

    Consider antonyms for these words (perhaps mine are a teensy bit tendentious):

    Antonyms to “spiritual”: physical, real, down-to-earth, rational.
    Antonyms to “spirituality”: rationality, common sense, sobriety.

    Aren’t words fun!

    • I totally agree!

      I don’t know why they need to put any “word” in there to replace God, or spirits, just leave it blank.
      (And auto spell seems to think God should be capped lol)

      So much bs, it does my head in.

  13. Thank you Tom! I’m in my first 70 days and I have trouble understanding having a higher power such as a door handle or can of Coke (yes that is really someone’s HP). Do I pray to the door? Do I ask it the serenity prayer? How do I think of the Coke can in the place of God? When I bring up this in meetings I took get taken aside later and given “the talk”.

  14. A wonderful, well-thought-out, adroitly expressed article indeed, Dr. Tom – Thanks !~!~!

    For decades I was one whose agnosticism was placated by the rationalization that AA was “spiritual, not religious,” since I’ve always been rabidly anti-religious, strenuously rebelling against my Judeo-Christian heritage, while exploring in the 70s and 80s a number of alternative New Age spiritual pathways. In the last number of years my “spiritual progress” has evolved so that I am comfortable describing myself as an “agnostic atheist” – just as I have no definite, rational proof there is a god, I likewise have no definite, rational proof that somewhere in the wide Kosmos there is not a god. I just don’t know. Period.

    I can readily see today there is no doubt that AA is blatantly steeped in religion, both in its foundational documents, as well as in its regular practice throughout most of mainstream AA, most certainly in North America. I am baffled how I could not understand how hypocritical I was to assert that AA was spiritual and not religious, so it helps me have compassion for those ardent believers in AA who are in denial about this rather obvious phenomena.

    What I understand about the evolution of Bill Wilson’s spirituality is that though his writings through the 12 & 12 were certainly heavily biased towards an evangelical-pietistic, Judeo-Christian religious point of view, in his later years as evidenced by a number of GV articles and correspondence, some of which is published in As Bill Sees It his spiritual views broadened considerably. For example, he was most pleased that Buddhists could readily adopt the 12 steps simply by substituting good for god.

    I’ve heard, and am trying to get documentation, that he actually wanted to rewrite the Big Book, but was turned down by the General Service Conference. Nell wing told me when I knew her during the 80s that in the latter years of his life she and Bill were writing a book about generic spirituality, but so far I haven’t been able to uncover any documentary evidence of this.

    What many folks in AA don’t appreciate is that Bill evolved and changed considerably throughout his sobriety, and it’s my belief that were he here today, he would be appalled at how rigid and dogmatic much of mainstream AA has today become.

  15. A real problem I have is that I often feel I must choose between the ‘fellowship’ which is so important to my recovery (in response to Juliet’s comment) on the one hand, and my commitment to personal integrity, honesty and, thereby, atheism on the other. I am fortunate to have found a couple of groups where my free-thinking is tolerated and even at times echoed. I was pleasantly surprised this morning to find others chiming in to oppose a heinously theistic reading that was used to start the meeting. They spoke of the third tradition, the importance of fellowship above religiosity, and they spoke of diversity and tolerance and how stupid Bill W could be sometimes. I keep coming back because I get support and help and encouragement and guidance from others in recovery. Still, I often have to bite my tongue in order to avoid alienating those very people whose support and friendship I cherish.

  16. When AAs say that AA is not religious, I think they mean that (if they think about at all, and are not merely parroting what they’ve heard) it’s nondenominational, so that AA’s practices and beliefs are generally acceptable to any member, so long, of course, that he believes in god.

    I think that the notion of a higher power is ludicrous. I believe that everyone in AA who stays sober is doing so without god, because there is no god. And from time to time I speak my mind at AA meetings. Once I went to a “Sermon on the Mount” AA meeting and made a few negative comments such as saying that Jesus was probably a fictional character and that the bible was not a good source of morality. That was really fun, and I may go back. Since I do not conform to the AA groupthink, some members aren’t friendly towards me, but, hey, that’s life.

    • Now in a situation like this, I probably wouldn’t be so antagonistic as to say things like that. There is enough decent morality in The Sermon on the Mount that I could give a good comment… although I have to say that is way too religious a topic for an AA meeting, IMO.

    • I remind them they are chanting from the Xtn Bible when they recite the LP. How is that not religious?

  17. Good essay. Although I would be a little more specific and say that the program as it is written in much of the AA literature is “religious.” AA as it is practised in most groups and meetings is “religious” to the extent that much of the group discussion revolves around an interventionist deity that gives you material and spiritual gifts for being a good person and not drinking (maybe even a parking space; given that Chicagoland is being hit with a snowstorm right now, I am confident that The Parking Space God is has worked OT for AA members today… at least in my neck of the woods). That would be about 90-97% of AA meetings that I have been to. Then there are the meetings that strongly focus on the “right actions that lead to right thinking” where a god is rarely discussed. Those are the AA meetings that I can and do attend. I do understand that it’s largely s function of living in a place where there are a lot of meetings. My issue nowadays is that my sponsor is a big-time “god guy” although I have to add that it’s of the “reformed Jewish” variety… plus he’s a good guy.

  18. Thanks for bringing clarity to the disingenuous pebble in the shoe of the spiritual not religious statement.

  19. Thank you Tom, for talking your time to write such a well thought out article/experience. With the deepest of admiration I envy yours, and others abilities to so eloquently pen the obvious without nasty words.
    We are all so lucky to have such a group of brilliant and sober contributors to this blog/website, thank you everyone, especially our webmaster Roger and gang. I don’t know where I’d be without you all.
    Another sober day to all,
    Andy

  20. From the author:

    Thanks to everybody who has commented. And, by all means, keep the feedback coming. The comments have already made me think in some new directions. Rather than responding to several individual posts, I think there is enough to say to do a follow-up piece.

    Thanks again,
    Tom P.

  21. Wonderfully written. This essay exposes the “spiritual not religious” claim for exactly what it is: a poorly disguised effort to replace the word “religious” with a less onerous descriptor – the word “spiritual.” This in the hope that the unaltered underlying message will somehow become less onerous. Shakespeare’s Juliet declares “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and, along the same lines, religion by another name also smells the same.

  22. I’ve always found that saying “A.A. isn’t religious”does not demonstrate “rigorous honesty” but a blatant lie!

  23. Thank you Tom for “passing the ammunition”. That is a very useful summary of things that have been rolling around in my mind for a while. I have often remarked that it should be easier for an omnipotent “god” who “has all power” to just give us the ability to drink “normally” without all the fooling around. Additionally I have never been able to come to terms with the fact that I, as an atheist, have been sober for a while when others, who purport to be totally convinced they have the help of the deity, are suffering in alcoholism. The arbitrary nature of god’s will is quite off putting for me and for them. She seems to be rather capricious in this respect. Additionally god seems to leave a lot of her fans with the impression that they are quite recovered when they are in fact crazier than the proverbial “outhouse rat”.
    I was taught to avoid magical thinking in order to recover and in recovery I often feel surrounded by it.
    I do not work for the AA program. I make it work for me. I just eliminate the theistic elements because for me they are quite irrelevant.

  24. Thanks for that piece and thanks for AA Agnostica. I have referred many people to this site who struggle with belief in God as a prerequisite fro sobriety. It is, along with agnostic meetings, an indispensable resource to the recovery community.

    Original sin is a perfect example of a doctrine that has become a groaning weight on the backs of western people, whether they know Christianity or not. One of the strongest teachers who helped me with such a belief is Swami Vivekananda, his well known work Pathways To Joy. The swami teaches that our belief in our smallness and sinfulness and pitiful nature is ITSELF the very thing making people feel small sinful and pitiful. There is little else to it, since such a belief is simply untrue. Though Vivekananda teaches the exact opposite of original sin – He teaches original amazingness and strength – he also teaches humility and service to others as of the highest importance.

  25. DR.Tom,
    Thank you for relating your childhood developmental experiences to your experiences within AA. Very helpful toward my understanding of the past. 🙂

  26. A great read. I’m an atheist, and don’t ‘do’ god, spirits, ghosts, zombies, mediums, reincarnation, ESP, alien abduction, yeti, paranormal events, pseudoscience, unicorns, or partridges in pear trees. (Although one could argue that birds in fruit trees actually EXIST). It’s been my experience that, in most cases, the simple act of asking for help is the only ‘higher power’ most people need. I’m not convinced that Bill Wilson ever completely discarded his conviction that drunks has to have a ‘spiritual experience’ similar to his in order to sober up. Cheers, Bobby.

  27. Outstanding, Tom. Thank you!
    Of course, evidence is abundant that A.A. is religious. To your summary I would add the idea that A.A.’s God is the kind that will remove your shortcomings if you humbly ask Him (Step 7).
    Also worth noting is that a number of state and federal courts have ruled that A.A. is indeed religious under the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
    As for doorknobs, I would note that whenever I pray to a doorknob, I get exactly the same answers I get when I pray to God. Again, thanks for your excellent piece.

  28. Very well written and presented. I like to describe Alcoholics Anonymous as “a religion in denial”. I don’t know why mainstream AAs are unwilling to admit that to themselves.

  29. I am always disappointed when I hear some “believer” tell of hanging their sobriety upon the hook of a doorknob deity or some other Big Book driven figment of their imagination. My disappointments are fewer and farther between these days. After 43 year of sobriety in AA, my needs have changed and my one meeting per week of “Atheists, Agnostics & All Others” in Boise is enough. Most of the sober folks in our group do not “believe”, they have “concluded” from information gathered from years of seeking and study regarding their concept of “higher power”. Usually, it’s our program interpreted to fit their needs, books, people and other non-celestial and non-supernatural items and entities. Thanks to Roger and AA Agnostica for introducing me to more such sober AA folks.

  30. Tom, some great points however I’d argue it is hard to work an “honest” program if you must keep defending AA’s claim it is not “religious” or that this God/He/Him is ingrained in America’s consciousness (it’s not in mine!)… With that said, you are being honest in how you see things and yet, I bet, you still couldn’t share these thoughts at an average AA meeting. That’s censorship – by the groups – and it doesn’t help anyone work an “honest program.” I fail to understand why the athiests/freethinkers don’t just cut ties with AA and realize AA will not change for them. “Courage to change the things we can.” Many other groups have successfully been run using the 12 Steps that are not attached to AA. One by one, each freethinker must concede, “I am an atheist/agnostic who is a member of a religious organization – do I want to pass this along or do I want to carry a different message?” Just my thoughts. And please, don’t praise doorknobs, lol.

  31. Excellent! This is the best I’ve seen on AA’s false dichotomy between spiritual and religious. I’m going to spread this article around.

    Was it on this site I read:

    Good people do good things; bad people do bad things; for good people to do bad things, that takes religion.

    That was certainly true of the Calvinist R.C. church of my youth.

  32. I went to a meeting this morning. The reading was from the book as Bill Sees It,on page 331. The topic was about letting “God” into your life.
    It is interesting that they claim it’s a non-religious group. They tell us not to be in denial about our drinking and drugging when in fact it IS a religious group. Who are they kidding?

  33. Excellent article Tom!!! I can identify with almost all that you have to say.

    The pervasive thoughts that permeate our culture are truly invisible, even thought almost any post secondary writing course hammers away at – we all read and see through a filter of biases and prejudices; AA’s reality tunnel wall’s are invisible to the majority of members and they simply can not, or will not, understand the non theist person. The most hideous of examples would be “I can not sponsor some one who does not believe in God.” I have heard this too many times at a meeting or from deflated beginners dealing with this rejection. Can you imagine the response if I was to state at a meeting that “I can not sponsor someone who does not earn 60K plus a year?”

    Thanks and I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    • I wonder if I must be open to sponsorship of those who don’t believe. It’s been over four years sober and I have sponsored no one formally. Have made plain my disbeliefs. And there are many who are clearly struggling, reaching for the interventionist higher power. Patience.

      • Hi Boyd. You have asked a question that I want to answer. However, not knowing you the answer is to complicated for this forum. If you want to we can connect thru email, FB, or SKYPE.

      • I sometimes think that reluctant sponsorship is the most desirable of all. People eagerly seeking out sponsees bears a resemblance to ambulance chasing lawyers. I also think that “informal” sponsorship is a noble form of service in AA. When other AA members ask you for help and you give them what help you have to offer you are doing a wonderful thing. If they ask you to be their sponsor it wonderful to do that too – just to the extent that they derive value from how you do that.

      • I sponsor both believers and nonbelievers! They each choose their own conception of a power greater than themselves. I work with what they believe to be true at the time. (Those beliefs necessarily evolve anyway. Mine did.)

        We give it away to keep it. Make a bee line to the newcomer after the meeting. Get to know them. Offer to meet for coffee, give them your phone number. Do not offer to be their sponsor, that’s their personal decision. If you have what they want, they’ll ask.

    • This is the exact reason why I now make it a point to mention my agnosticism in meetings as opposed to veiling it; there are far too many newcomers coming intp the rooms thst need to know.

  34. Thank you Tom!

    You have put forward a view of the fracture in a clear concise and compassionate way.

  35. Well done for a doctor of “medicine” I presume. Theists here refers to monotheists. Don’t forget the pagan polytheists. Colorful bunch. It’s all religious, tis true. So page 63 of the big book is another disingenuous example of reaching out, i.e. “The wording was, of course, quite optional so long as we expressed the idea (of God), voicing it without reservation.” But the liberal intent is still there. Write your own statement of faith, of mystery, of wonder, of the unknowable, etc. Join one another in the journey.

  36. Tom, thank you for the clarity of your insight and experience.

    The two most regrettable memes I have encountered in our collective wisdom are the doorknob-as-higher-power-substitute (which is actually from one of the personal stories in the NA basic text), and Dr. Bob’s apparent (explicit?) permission for muckers, thumpers, or simply well-meaning but traditionalist AAs to “feel sorry” for those who do not (or will not!) adhere to their God-centered cosmology.