A Lesson for AA from our Betters

Girl Scouts

By Frank M.

“You’ve got a higher power problem,” my old AA sponsor told me.

It’s something he’d asserted on a number of occasions when the subject of God and the Steps and my atheism came up. He repeated it when we were working on my Fifth Step. I had just informed him that Chapter Four – We Agnostics – was on my resentment list. He decided that my finding Bill Wilson’s rather lame version of the cosmological argument irksome represented a serious higher power problem. He was wrong, of course; I didn’t have a higher power problem. I had a God problem, and it’s not the same thing. Not a bit.

The truth is I was perfectly okay with all the salient points and actions that we’d been discussing together. I both wanted and thought I really needed a higher power, and I was ready to surrender to it. It was clear to me I didn’t run the universe, and that I had been behaving as if I did. That had to stop. I was also convinced it would be a good idea to turn over my warped decision making process (particularly regarding getting loaded) to a more reliable source of truth and direction. However, I’d tried before to imagine that as God, or a Power, or a Being, or some vague Cosmic Energy and it flat out didn’t work.

What I wasn’t willing to do anymore was to keep repeating this same theistically-oriented approach over and over again while expecting a different result. They have a word for that in recovery.

* * *

It’s widely accepted in the rooms of AA that you can effectively use just about any good source of direction for your higher power in doing the Steps. Just please call it “God.” This is essentially the psychological approach to recovery (with a little accommodationist bone thrown in) that James Burwell and others have used from before the Big Book was a gleam in Bill Wilson’s eye. And it works.

That is not, however – even with its muddy and humanistic version of the God concept – what Bill believed was going on here. And it is not how AA’s basic texts describe our quasi-supernatural Program of recovery, with its numerous prayers for miraculous intercession by (and psychically transmitted instructions from) an all-powerful Heavenly Father.

Of course the psychological view of recovery doesn’t have to square with Wilson’s conversion experience theory [1]. AA as a fellowship is not defined by its historical texts – to which we have never been required to pledge our allegiance. We are to some practical extent, though, limited by those same books. And that ought to be remedied in an appropriate manner, one that recognizes the historical value of our literature while incorporating our growing experience as a fellowship. I’m going to suggest one way to do that right here, and it is by following the example of a bunch of little girls.

* * *

On October 23, 1993, the Girl Scouts of the USA voted 1,560 – 375 to permit individuals to substitute another word or phrase for “God” in their promise. This is from the motion itself:

For some individuals, the word “God,” no matter how broadly interpreted, does not appropriately reflect their spiritual beliefs. Since the belief in a spiritual principle is fundamental to Girl Scouting, not the word used to define that belief, it is important that individuals have the opportunity to express that belief in wording meaningful to them.” [emphasis added]

And this is what the Girl Scout National President had to say: “Affirming that the belief in a spiritual principle is fundamental to Girl Scouting, Girl Scouts USA recognizes that some religious groups such as Buddhists… use words other than ‘God’ to express their spirituality.” (B. LaRae Orullian)

So there it is, a quite simple solution to the “God problem” as faced and met in a very similar context. No changes have been made to the original Girl Scout Oath, it’s still there for anyone to take in the traditional form. But an option has been added. And by doing this, Girl Scouts of the USA has recognized officially that spirituality, one of their organization’s defining values, is broader than theism. It should be noted that this is not a theory, this is just recognition of an historical fact of the world and its peoples. It is simply coming to understand, as Bill Wilson did later in his own life [2], that spirituality and God-belief aren’t necessarily the same thing. You can actually have either without the other. Imagine that.

* * *

My old sponsor would have an objection to this approach that we’d do well to address here, I think. He often said to me, “God is just the word we all agree to use to describe this thing which we can’t really define. You could call it anything. We just call God by convention.” And he’s absolutely right. Most folks in AA are talking about the very same thing when they speak of that intangible Power that governs the universe, and which can be accessed through prayer, and then used as a guiding light.

And many of us are talking about something else altogether.

That’s why it makes no sense to use the same word here. It is at best confusing and at worst fatal. Because this de-facto theism can lead unintentionally to the abandonment of a meaningful spiritual life for those of us with more naturalistic bents. No, the God idea is not just a word. It has practical ramifications related to prayer and study and philosophy of life and more.

Many religious or non-religious spiritual and humanistic groups (and their followers) not only use words other than “God” to describe a healthy and true relationship to reality, they use ideas that can in no sense be correctly identified with the God concept. For example, a Buddhist alcoholic might use “the teachings of awakened ones” the Dhamma, as her higher power. Only in AA would someone try to call a practical set of wisdom teachings “God” in some ad hoc attempt to rescue orthodox 12 Step recovery theory.

As a practical example, it isn’t effective to ask in prayer for the Dhamma to “take away” your obsession or character defects. The instruction manual for accessing the Dhamma is not the same one a theist would use to form a conscious contact with God.

The truth is that some of us use God and some of us use totally non-theistic systems of spirituality in our recoveries and we accomplish exactly the same ends. [3] I heard someone say once that this was like comparing a milkshake to a soy shake. Without milk (God) it’s not really a milkshake, is it? That is, he meant to say, it’s not really AA.

Well, analogies can’t prove, they can only illustrate. So here’s mine: AA is more like teaching a man who’s freezing in the dark woods without any matches how to build a fire. He’s not going to think his way warm, he needs to access a power that is in a real sense greater than himself. But it doesn’t matter whether he does it by clacking two rocks, rubbing two sticks, or applying a bow and a spindle. It doesn’t matter what he uses for tinder and kindling either – as long as it catches fire.

* * *

In conclusion let me say there’s no need, as far as I can see, to rewrite the Big Book and take out the word “God.” I don’t think that would be very honest of us. That book and the Twelve and Twelve are historical records of the actions and thoughts of some, not all, of AA’s founding members. We cannot alter our past, but we can recognize today, officially as a fellowship, that the spiritual path of recovery is wider than our founders imagined. In doing so we will be honoring our own Fifth Tradition of maximizing our service to the alcoholic who still suffers. We will be doing what is in a very real sense our duty.

When AA does this, officially recognizes the fact that the God concept – no matter how vaguely you wish to define it – does not encompass all effective forms of spirituality and belief, it will have finally caught up with tens of thousands of girl scouts.

It’s about time.

[1] See Wilson’s letter to Carl Jung, January 30, 1961: “If each sufferer were to carry the news of the scientific hopelessness of alcoholism to each new prospect, he might be able to lay every newcomer wide open to a transforming spiritual experience. This concept proved to be the foundation of such success as Alcoholics Anonymous has since achieved. This has made conversion experiences – nearly every variety reported by [William] James – available on an almost wholesale basis.”

[2] Bill Wilson, AA Grapevine, April 1961 – The Dilemma of No Faith, wherein Wilson says of an atheistic doctor he had once lectured about God: “This was the story of a man of great spiritual worth. The hallmarks were plain to be seen: humor and patience, gentleness and courage, humility and dedication, unselfishness and love – a demonstration I might never come near to making myself. This was the man I had chided and patronized. This was the ‘unbeliever’ I had presumed to instruct!”

[3] And some of us, of course, use neither. And our AA fellowship accepts that too, and always has. But that is beside the point of this incorrect conflation of theism and spirituality, so we’ll leave that discussion to its proper place.

Frank is a practicing Buddhist and fond of Stoic philosophy. You can read Frank’s other posts on AA Agnostica here: Is the AA Program a Procrustean Bed (January 6, 2013), An Atheist’s Guide to 12-Step Recovery (August 12, 2012), and The Willow Tree Bark (May 13, 2012).

16 Responses

  1. Michael says:

    That was a very excellent essay addressing many of the issues I’ve had with AA over the years. I’m not atheist, probably agnostic but ‘religious’ at the same time, for lack of a better term. I came into AA as a Buddhist and today I’m an animist, practicing pagan traditions and rituals of First Nation people. I call myself an agnostic because my beliefs are always evolving and I don’t know what my spiritual experiences mean exactly. First Nation people often call ‘Higher Power’ the ‘Great Mystery’.

    I probably have many of the same concerns as atheists and agnostics who may have no use for my religious practices. Using the history of the Girl Scouts shows how simple it could be to address the outdated language that has a Christian overtone. Because of the nature of AA it will probably never happen. AA has been so successful partly because no one is in charge, this may also keep it stagnant and unable to move forward. It also keeps it from moving in a negative direction, becoming more religious based.

    There needs to be room in recovery for all of us to be comfortable. More importantly, AA has lost many potential members because of the language and as we all know, this can mean great suffering and even death for some. There is no way to calculate how many people have left or refuse to even show up because of the restricting language. It may have been evolved for the 1930s but our culture has changed. It’s a complicated and difficult issue to address. Perhaps there will have to be a whole new organization for atheists and agnostics.

  2. Michael says:

    Buddhism is a non-theistic religion that led me to sobriety. Non-theistic is not the same as atheistic. A Buddhist can believe in a higher power or not. I believe that AA, and the Girl Scouts, can be approached in the same way and this essay makes a good case for it.

    Not everyone qualifies for 12 step meetings, the place where so many of us find community and emotional and ‘spiritual’ support, and not everyone can afford group therapy.

  3. Lech Lesiak says:

    I have faith that abstaining for imbibing booze will give me a contented, sober, positive, serene life. Productive, I’m not sure about.

    I also have faith that I will continue to think AA principles as expressed in the Sacred Steps are crypto-christian horseshit.

  4. John L. says:

    The Big Book and the *Twelve and Twelve* may indeed be “historic records”, but this does not mean that they cannot be re-written or even abandoned. In the Boston area, one group displays only *Living Sober* on the table, and another group promotes *Living Sober* rather than the BB.

    Those who wish may follow a “spiritual path of recovery”, whatever this may be, but most recovering alcoholics face more practical concerns: recovering physically, paying off debts, getting a job, forming or restoring human relationships – and we need human fellowship, which is not the same as, or a by-product, of “spirituality”. At meetings we should really talk to each other, about our lives, rather than just parroting “god-talk” or platitudes from the BB and 12&12.

  5. Thomas B. says:

    Yes, Frank, in some of my recent browsing on the Internet, I came across a Christian Fundamentalist website that castigates both Bill and Bob as being denizens of Satan for advocating “New Thought” ideas of Emmet Fox and others during the writing of the Big Book.

  6. Frank M. says:

    There’s a sutta, a lesson in Buddhism, called the Kalama Sutta. Basically it suggests that nothing be taken on priestly authority, or because it sounds good, or is appealing, or is widely accepted, or venerated. If it works, use it. If not, chuck it.

    AA indeed has always had this same kind of pragmatic bent.

  7. Frank M. says:

    Bill is virtually despised by a subgroup, cultish faction of AA for just this reason. He grew, and changed in his beliefs and understanding.

    If you’re clinging to something as the ultimate answer in its final form, change is always going to be the enemy.

  8. Frank M. says:

    I came into AA with nothing but hope that there was something here to help me. That turned into faith and confidence that a certain amount of honesty, humility, love and service could keep me sober.

    Faith comes in all flavors.

  9. Frank M. says:

    “The finger that points at the moon is not the moon.”

    I have met a number of long time sober AA’s whose source of strength and direction, as they continued seeking, transmuted from a personal God into something non-theistic. I even know one whose higher power has gone full-circle back to God! Not out of despair or failure, but out of sheer utility.

  10. Eric T says:

    Note to self: all this talk of Girl Guides reminds me – pick up box of cookies for the next meeting LOL

  11. steve b says:

    Nice essay. I suppose the Girl Scouts were able to make their transition to greater inclusion of nonbelievers more easily than AA has done so far because religious belief is less central to the Girl Scouts than it has been to AA. I don’t know if this is a fact, and I haven’t looked into it.

    To me, Buddhism is a crock of bull– it is a religion, after all — which may have some useful practices and ideas that could just as well be utilized on a secular basis.

    I am one of those people referred to in note 3: someone who has no use for either religion or “spirituality” in his recovery. For me, my recovery is based, insofar as I am able to tell, on simply maintaining my commitment to sobriety, which I find easier to do within a group than by myself.

  12. Thomas B. says:

    Yes, an excellent essay, Frank. I especially appreciate your references indicating how Bill’s thinking about spiritual experience broadened and evolved from his early theistic notions derived from the Oxford Movement, while writing the Big Book. Throughout his life Bill remained an avid spiritual seeker, which is revealed in the many letters and Grapevine articles he wrote.

    My experience is that many “Big Book Thumpers” are totally unaware of, or dismiss as heretical, the rich legacy of Bill’s other writings. They know nothing about, or ignore, the evolution of his thinking about spirituality. Like fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist AAers regard the Big Book as gospel truth (pun intended).

  13. Laurie A says:

    “The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). I’m a nontheist liberal Quaker in the unprogrammed (silent) tradition. Our British book of Quaker Faith and Practice has this entry (27:23):

    We do not in the least deprecate the attempt, which must be made since man (sic) is a rational being, to formulate intellectually the ideas which are implicit in religious experience. But it should always be recognised that all such attempts are provisional, and can never be assumed to possess the finality of ultimate truth. There must be room for development and progress, and Christian thought and inquiry should never be fettered by theory. Among the dangers of formulated statements of belief are these: a) they tend to crystallise thought on matters that will always be beyond any final embodiment in human language; b) they fetter the search for truth and for its more adequate expression; and c) they set up a fence which tends to keep out of the fold many sincere and seeking souls who would gladly enter … some (people) are finding a Reality which is much too great to be confined to the narrow limits of a creed.

    In a funny sort of way AA accepts this with the Big Book’s assertion that “God will constantly reveal more to you and to us” – even that he doesn’t exist!

  14. Dave says:

    Excellent work Frank. I think you illustrate the fundamental problem with AA which is a Buddhist philosophy misinterpreted as Christian doctrine…..and we’re probably not gonna’ fix that…..the last guy who tried was crucified. I too love AA. I owe it my life but the longer I’m in and it’s been decades, the more I realize how much smoother the ride would be if acceptance replaced obedience. All the best out there in Alan Watts Land lol.

  15. Jo-Anne K says:

    I have a FAITH that by incorporating the principles contained in the 12 steps I will continue to live a sober, productive, positive and somewhat serene life.
    Thanks Frank

  16. Joe C says:

    An awe inspiring blog, Frank. Man, do you have game. The girl guide reference–slam dunk. The analogy of a person freezing in need of heat–brilliant.

    Tasteful, unabashed and inspiring. I sometimes reflect on Bill W’s choice of title, “The Dilemma of no Faith,” and quip that the dilemma isn’t having a worldview without a school-master god; the dilemma is to be treated as an equal in A.A. The pervasive slight that “you can have any God as you understand Him” is more of a warning to fall in line than an invitation that AA is all-accommodating. It certainly falls short of empathy.

    Thanks for your story and your insight, Frank.

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