By Adam N.
Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge experiences a radical personality transformation, moved me to tears last year. Like most of the men I know, this is not a common occurrence. I don’t cry much. Nothing against it, it just doesn’t happen very often. When my wife asked me why I was crying, I realized that I was deeply moved by the depiction of this man’s resurrection precisely because his story is my story. I was moved, and deeply grateful, because of the similarity between myself and Ebenezer Scrooge.
In the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous this intense personality change is described as a ‘spiritual experience’. This is how our founding members interpreted the changes they experienced. For many of us, this spiritual experience is a sweeping transformation of our character. The college dropout returns to graduate with highest honors, the unemployable wretch becomes a model employee, the deadbeat dad becomes father of the year, the philandering husband becomes a more faithful and loving life partner. I can relate. As exaggerated as this might sound, this is actually my story. And I know that this is many of your stories as well.
For some members the spiritual experience is less sweeping. For these members the story is less of a caterpillar become butterfly. Yet one can never underestimate the value of any change sufficient to break the chains which bound us to the bottle in a fatal pattern of obsession and compulsion. For all of us, most importantly, the result included freedom from alcohol. The problem is simply removed, as the big book says. What was once an impossible task simply ceases to be an issue. We are placed in a position of neutrality, and, if ever tempted, we recoil as if from a hot flame. This, too, I have experienced.
In addition to this ‘spiritual experience’, our book also talks about the ‘spiritual principles’ which we live by. These are the principles which guide our daily actions and attitudes, ensuring that our lives remain on the different path which we have been blessedly placed upon. Such principles range from the honesty which serves as a bedrock foundation, the love, tolerance and unselfish charitableness which come to more and more characterize our social relations, and the humility and anonymity which serve as overarching moral principles, guiding us like the North Star as we strive to practice these principles in all our affairs.
In 1935 most of our founding members interpreted the personality change and the guiding principles as spiritual. This was a normal way to understand and describe the phenomenon in question, following in the traditions long established by Christianity and the Oxford Group which served as the fertile soil from which Alcoholics Anonymous blossomed. However, if these experiences and principles were interpreted and described today, they would probably not be described as ‘spiritual’.
The transformative experience which we are so fortunate as to benefit from, sweeping and all encompassing though it may be, is far more likely to be described as a psychological phenomenon than a spiritual one. Likewise, the principles which guide our lives as persons in recovery would probably be interpreted and described as some combination of psychologically and morally beneficial. Living this way means employing attitudes and actions which leave us feeling good about ourselves, good about how we have comported our relations, when we come to lay our head down on the pillow at the end of each 24 hour period. Accordingly, they would be experiences and principles interpreted as psychologically, morally, and socially beneficent.
As an atheist member of Alcoholics Anonymous, I have experienced what the big book describes as a spiritual experience, and I live, to the best of my ability, one day at a time, according to what are referred to as spiritual principles. But I do not interpret or describe either as spiritual. I get that this was how they were understood 80 years ago. But I believe, as a grateful member of Alcoholics Anonymous, that this interpretation is antiquated and no longer best describes the relevant phenomenon.
Many might tend to think that this is merely a semantic issue, a quibbling over words. This is a very common attitude in the fairly liberal Alcoholics Anonymous where I live. What we believe is somehow held to be distinct from, and irrelevant to, how we live our lives. As I heard one member say recently, apparently quoting the Dalai Lama: “God. No God. No problem.” This captures the spirit that believing members and non-believing members are functionally identical, and that there is no fundamental gap which separates us. What one believes is, in this view, entirely irrelevant to how one lives one’s life generally, to our process of recovery more specifically.
According to this view, everyone should be free to believe whatever helps them to stay sober. I fully agree with this obviously laudable view. I have known the lower hells of addiction and alcoholism, and I would not wish such on my worst enemy, if I had one. But I would like to suggest two reasons why what we believe is not as irrelevant as we might like it to be.
First, spirituality places the problem, and the solution, outside of the realm of the natural. In accordance with long standing Christian tradition, such thinking assumes humanity to be intrinsically sinful. But we know now, scientifically and factually, that this is not the case. Humans are as naturally cooperative as we are competitive, as naturally compassionate and giving as we are selfish, as naturally kind and tolerant as we are mean spirited. What matters, we have found, is what we cultivate. Human goodness does not flow from some other realm, just as human evil does not. We no longer look to supernatural realms to explain human goodness, nor should we.
Such naturalistic interpretations of the experiences and principles which come to shape our lives as recovering persons have the dual advantage of being both more factually accurate and, at the same time, offering the potential for increasingly improved understanding, knowledge and progress. Super-natural interpretations, as our founders were forced to employ by virtue of their historical limitations, do not share these advantages.
Recovery consists precisely of we humans cultivating those beneficent, psychologically sound and morally pro-social traits which are entirely natural and very much an integral part of human animal nature. It is high time we recognize that recovery is not un-natural. On the contrary, it is entirely about humans learning to emphasize and live by the finest of our natural traits and attributes.
Second, a more contemporary, evidence friendly interpretation, without supernatural components, will improve our accessibility and overall effectiveness. When I left that treatment center years ago I was told that only ten percent of us would make it. Today, there are millions of alcoholics and addicts all around the world in need. It would be very generous indeed to assume that AA has sobered up 10%. In fact, membership is falling of late, if I am not mistaken. And this is not because we need to go backwards, “back to basics”. Exactly the opposite. Our primary purpose should be to figure out how we can better help those in need, not to defend Alcoholics Anonymous as it was in 1935, to sanctify the ‘first 164’ and divine them holy writ. We need to move beyond “My AA, right or wrong”!
Many will not come to AA because we have a reputation as a religious organization, a reputation confirmed by the United States legal system itself. Even worse, our fine organization is sometimes imagined to be a cult of some kind. In order to shed such preconceptions and others, in order to reach the highest possible number of those brothers and sisters in need, I believe we need to consider emphasizing the more humanist, secular, natural, and thereby universal, components in our most excellent and diverse tool kit.
Removing the overused, ambiguous concept of ‘spirituality’ from our parlance might be a first step in moving closer to a naturalistic, universally applicable, and scientifically accurate account of the transformative experiences we are so fortunate to have deliver us from the bondage of alcoholism and addiction, closer to a more accurate, naturalistic account of the important guiding principles which we come to live by as long term recovering members in the fine fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Adam is an alcoholic and addict, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and an atheist. He is the author of Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous and is currently working on a second manuscript whose subject matter concerns reinterpreting the tools and modalities of recovery for our increasingly secular world.
A number of chapters from his book and other articles by Adam have been posted on AA Agnostica. His most recent article, posted on July 5, 2015, was The Great Chain of Being.