The Great Divide
By Brent P.
It’s conventional wisdom. If, as an organization, you want to be as inclusive as possible and avoid controversy, you don’t allow sex, politics or religion to influence your mandate. Yet in merely allowing the word God to appear in its literature and its program of recovery, AA ensured that one day that word, and all its implications, would lead to division. And so it has.
The founders, in defying organizational convention, wisely codified AA’s absence of political affiliations, opinion and comment on outside issues. Members were, and are, encouraged to arrive at their own acceptable code of sexual conduct. But for whatever reason, lack of foresight or an inescapable, inculcated Christian consciousness, God, and therefore religion, made its way into the recovery equation. And all statements to the contrary do not change the fact that the word God is burdened by Judeo/Christian baggage. Insert the Lord’s Prayer, overly pious petitions to God in the 3rd and 7th step prayers, then dismiss those as spiritual exercises rather than religious, and you’re left with glaring contradictions. Those can be overlooked for just so long.
I have never believed AA’s references to God, or the dubious logic that justifies those references, to be insidious. In fact I believe, heartily, that it had much to do with being grateful for being sober and a humble stab at not glorifying the organization for whatever success it might be accorded for getting drunks sober. Regardless, God and religion are now sticking points for many who, like me, have a deep respect, an affection even, for what AA was and is, but recognize that in the 78 years since its inception, much has been learned about alcoholism and addiction. In addition, with AA’s international expansion and our diverse local culture, it is becoming more and more apparent, if AA intends to be accessible and relevant to alcoholics of every stripe, religion and race, the inclusion of the word God in the program is going to create greater and greater division. And the unwillingness to embrace new, quantifiable and verifiable data on the neurology of addiction ensures irrelevance.
I’ve maintained for some time that AA needs an overhaul, of King Jamesian proportions, of its printed material. Engineering that would be a massive undertaking, both from choosing the committee to oversee it, and achieving consensus on the final product. On the other hand, that process has in some way been started by some of the agnostic groups who secularized the steps. The actual secularization of AA may not be as difficult as many think. Conversely, finding the consensus to take such a step is likely harder than anyone can imagine.
The problem, as it exists today, is that AA is now divided. There are agnostic groups, not recognized by Toronto Intergroup, who, nevertheless, are operating and reading the steps according to their secular mandate. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Regardless of what we who have been around AA for awhile think, there are still people wandering into meetings, minutes, days or weeks sober, or maybe still drinking, who are looking for answers to their alcoholism. They aren’t looking for a debate and likely the last thing on any of these people’s minds are the finer issues of metaphysical discourse. But what happens if the first meeting that new person goes to is an agnostic meeting? He/she hears a version of the steps for the first time, then forgets them only to eventually learn those “suggestions” are read at every meeting and constitute the backbone of the program of recovery. Yet depending on which meeting he/she attends a different version of this critical component of the program is presented? Knowing how confused and rudderless most alcoholics are when they finally concede to attending AA, isn’t this a disservice? Just adding to their confusion? As much as I oppose any references to God in our literature, I don’t believe the arbitrary abridging of the steps is a good move. If AA is to be effective, a certain unity and consistency to the message is key. In other words the secularists and the believers have to build bridges rather than moats, at least if the intention is to remain a viable option for new members.
In most enlightened communities, faith is a personal issue. Believers are free to believe, doubters free to doubt. AA states, it’s single purpose is, “to carry the AA message to the still suffering alcoholic”. What’s getting lost as we quibble over God or not God, is what that message is. Is it hope? Is it that it is possible for a defeated, demoralized, destitute and debilitated drunk to recover and begin life anew? That he can find support and community among folks, once like him, who no longer need to drink? I say yes. And I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that. If as an organization AA can agree that its singleness of purpose is what is most sacred, then that is the neutral ground from which discussions on keeping AA relevant in a world that is much different than the one Bill Wilson and Bob Smith lived in can begin.
It is said that every system, at the moment of its very origin, contains the seeds of its own destruction. AA got it two thirds right when it excluded sex and politics from its mandate. But that one third, religion, is now the corrosive, destructive element. It is hurting AA as a whole. It is dividing people rather than bringing them together. It might be argued that AA is due for its own Reformation. Perhaps all that remains is the emergence of our Martin Luther to lead that. Maybe division is necessary. Maybe it’s a revolution that’s required instead of evolution. Still evolution seems ever less messy and more humane.
I started this talking about conventional wisdom. Yet AA’s genius was its unconventional approach to relieving alcoholics of the compulsion to drink. Put two or more together in a room and there indeed existed a power greater than the sum of the parts. A power that in enough cases worked to keep hopeless drunks sober, so that it was validated. The only mistake in acknowledging that power was calling it divine. But at this juncture AA needs to recognize some conventional wisdom and fearlessly acknowledge the elephant sized issue in the room(s). Because, as we all know, denial for alcoholics can be fatal.
Brent has written everything from epithets on bathroom walls to television commercials, TV shows, a blog, films and magazine articles. He’s enjoyed a love/hate relationship with AA for thirty years, but concluded it’s easier and better to love than to hate.