We Tread Innumerable Paths

Paths in blue

By June L.
El Granada, California.
Copyright © The AA Grapevine, Inc. Published in November 1996.

Desperation, and insistence by my estranged husband forced me to call AA nearly twenty-six years ago. I had misgivings because I knew that AA’s program included beliefs that might be incompatible with my own atheism. I felt sure I’d have to find another solution, or at least look for other atheists in AA, if there were any.

My fears turned out to be unwarranted, and my lack of belief in God didn’t prevent my sobriety. Members tolerantly accepted my atheist views. Their support and advice overcame whatever limitations in working the program I might have from not believing in a God or Higher Power. I was encouraged to interpret the program to fit my needs. I got sober, developed a good life, and gained loving relationships with AA friends, without becoming a believer or finding other atheists to guide me. AA’s Higher Power simply was little problem to me, and I never felt particularly excluded by believers nor in conflict with the Big Book. I never found it necessary to look for groups of other atheists.

And so I spent my first sixteen years in AA blindly naive to the fact that many people outside of the Fellowship see AA as a religious approach to alcoholism recovery. And in the past two years, I’ve noticed a trend to infuse AA with concepts from traditional western religions. My observations may be, in part, because I moved from home groups that encouraged varied spiritual viewpoints and found only a traditional God in the AA meetings where I now live.

After my long and mutually tolerant relationship with AA, I’ve been having increasing discomfort with a pervasive Christian influence and with Big Book fundamentalism. I’ve revised my earlier opinion that special groups for nonbelievers aren’t needed. I now think a special group that encourages the atheist or agnostic is crucial in some areas. Such groups help to counteract the perception of AA as a recovery method suited only to people who share certain religious views.

In news articles about AA, the implication frequently is that AA is strongly religious. Just a few weeks ago there was a hot discussion going on before the meeting about a TV program several people had seen. Some lawyers are taking issue with drunk-driving sentences and jail-house regulations that include mandatory AA attendance. The lawyers claim the sentences are violations of individual freedom. Several members noted that AA specifically states that the program is nonreligious and they couldn’t understand why anyone would consider it so. However, I can understand why AA is perceived as religious–it meets the standard criteria associated with worship practices. There’s a set of principles or tenets of belief (dogma). The members and the writings base much on belief in an omnipotent entity (God). Most meetings have a standard format, and prayers are said (ritual). There’s a body of literature that’s approved literature (sounds like catechism to me). AA sponsors and other trusted servants are not unlike the elders and frocked teachers of religions. Nearly any aspect of religion has an AA corollary. How can we in AA be surprised that many people outside equate us with religions?

Furthermore, a large number of people inside AA have lost touch with keeping AA nonreligious. Many must think that nondenominational is the same as nonreligious. Newcomers (and older) are admonished to get in touch with God and to pray for solutions to problems. So long as there is no specification to do it like the Protestants, Catholics, or Jews, then it is deemed nonreligious. If saying the Lord’s Prayer at a meeting isn’t religious, what is it?

The attitude within AA toward a Higher Power can foster the notion that AA is a religious group. I’ve noticed how much more frequently God is mentioned by members when sharing at meetings and how anthropomorphic the concept of God has become. God talks to members, tells them when they are making mistakes, shows them paths, takes their hands. Sometimes the statements members make sound more like testifying on salvation than sharing of experiences regarding alcoholism and recovery.

When I first got to AA, God was not often a discussion topic, as it is in many of today’s meetings that I attend. We talked about easing physical discomfort of withdrawal. We talked about how to handle real-life situations when sober and how to confront family and friends with our commitment to abstinence. We talked about fear and anger, making amends, taking responsibility, trusting our decisions. We didn’t discuss struggles with belief nor what God is really like nor how God works in our lives if we let him. If anyone wanted to mention God, they usually said “higher power” or “HP.” Somewhere over the years those references were reworded to “my higher power whom I choose to call God.” And finally, simply, to “God” – a male, Judaeo-Christian God at that.

Dogmatism and “preaching” within the program perpetuates the image as religion. I see a far more dictatorial approach to sponsorship than greeted me. I am disturbed when I hear of incidents where sponsors have told their charges that they must do this or that to stay sober. Has suggesting techniques for recovery been replaced by telling others what to do? Is sharing what worked for one’s own experience passé and the authority of the Big Book now the only authority?

Dictates from sponsors to do it exactly like the Big Book says and the strong Christian flavor of Higher Power concepts make AA less attractive to agnostics. AA is unacceptable as a program of recovery for many atheists if they must follow AA word for word. Fortunately there is no such requirement, either stated or practiced in most places.

Even so, I’ve witnessed AA’s atheists being instructed to pray or pretend belief. I think that shows disrespect to the nonbeliever and is harmful to the individual and to AA as a whole. Instead, let’s encourage them to find their own interpretations of Steps, Traditions, and other AA advisements. It’s a more reasonable path for the recovering alcoholic and it adds strength to the Fellowship by maintaining its universal character. We like to say AA works for everyone. Then let’s make it work for everyone, not just for Christians or Jews.