By Steve B.
I have come to believe that God is to sobriety what diet pills are to weight loss.
The diet pills I’m referring to are the over the counter supplements you see on non prime time commercials on cable TV or obscure channel infomercials. As a rule, these supplements have little pharmacologic value for weight loss.
Nevertheless diet supplements are promoted as essential ingredients for weight loss. So you plunk down some hard-earned cash to get this miracle product. The pills arrive in the mail along with a brochure. It tells you these supplements are meant to work in conjunction with an exercise and food restriction program. So the simple math is Eat Right + Exercise + Diet Pills = Weight Loss.
In AA the equation is Go to Meetings + Participate in Fellowship + Believe in God = Sobriety. In the diet pill analogy the food restriction and exercise are the essential components of weight loss and the diet supplements are basically functioning as placebos. Placebos can be effective. Nearly half of people who take what they think is a pain pill will report a reduction in pain. If you think a diet supplement will decrease your appetite you may actually experience a reduction in appetite. Moreover, when you pay money for some diet pills you are more likely to be compliant with all aspects of the program. So, in that sense, the supplements are working.
For many in our society belief in God is much more deeply ingrained than the belief in pharmacology that results in the placebo effect. Functional MRI studies have shown that, in a believer, the areas of the brain affected during prayer are the same areas affected when interacting with another person. So God is real in the praying persons brain if you’re a believer. The non-believer does not activate these areas of the brain if saying the same words to himself. I’ve commented to my home group that the religious person probably does have an advantage in maintaining sobriety in AA. The religious person who comes to AA is very likely to believe that the God in AA is the essential ingredient in sobriety. This attitude is held to as tightly as religious beliefs are in general and is fostered by the AA literature and the sharing at most meetings.
This poses a challenge for agnostics in AA.
For most agnostics fellowship, participation, and being of service are the essential components to sobriety in AA. Yet at the same time our personal philosophical outlook makes us less likely to relate to the group and to be shunned.
One solution is to have “We Agnostics” meetings. AA sanctions several other speciality meetings and a few agnostic ones, although some agnostic meetings have been delisted.  I’m fortunate to have one agnostic meeting near me but it’s still a 40 mile drive and only once a week. I also participate in a Life Ring meeting, but that is also only once a week and about a 40 mile drive. I live in a densely populated area. There are hundreds of AA meetings a week within that 40 mile radius of my house. Most AA members do not have the option of attending an agnostic oriented meeting.
Another thing that can be done is the agnostic can talk about her or his belief or lack of belief with shares and in one-on-one sessions with other alcoholics. When I am open and honest about my opinions with shares in meetings people may not agree but they can’t stop my words. For every five or six people who shuns me someone will come up to me after a meeting and thank me for my share and may say something along the lines of “I’m agnostic too but I just don’t talk about it.” I think there are more closeted atheists and agnostics in the fellowship than we realize, although data on this is obviously hard to come by.
I’ve seen a lot more people leave AA because of all the God stuff than leave because of all those damn atheists in the group.
The fifth tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous states: “Each group has but one primary purpose – to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” I’ve done an informal survey of several AA members asking if my contrarian sharing is violating this tradition. Am I poisoning the message with my shares? Everyone, even the majority of religious members, seem to think I’m not in violation. Diversity of opinion may not be completely welcome but with the attitude of “take what you need and leave the rest” the primary purpose is not violated. Believers are free to ignore my sharing.
I’ve been in 12 Step programs since 1990. I made the mistake of not sharing my opinions and keeping silent about my atheism while I went to meetings for about 12 years. I therefore was dishonest with the group and not participating in the fellowship. I’m not blaming AA or claiming I was victimized by the fellowship. I was dishonest. I dropped out of meetings but managed to stay sober for about five years before relapsing. I’m now back in the program and have about 20 months sobriety. I’m not being silent this time around. I’d much rather be rejected for who I am than accepted for someone I’m not. I’m in the rooms of AA to stay sober, not to make friends. But, by being open and honest, the friends have materialized.
I encourage agnostics, atheist, freethinkers, and skeptics to share openly at meetings. I know this may be more of a challenge in red states versus blue states and in smaller towns with less diversity. Even there though are people who will relate to you and those are the ones you want to be friends with or to have as sponsors. I believe there are many people in AA who don’t feel comfortable going along with mainstream Big Book philosophy. By letting them know it’s OK to not be an AA mainstreamer in order to stay sober you are being of service to a substantial minority of people in the room. As one AAer told me, “I’ve seen a lot more people leave AA because of all the God stuff than leave because of all those damn atheists in the group.”
Unless the Alcoholics Anonymous WSO amends the Third Tradition to read “The only requirements for membership are a desire to stop drinking and a belief in God,” they can’t kick you out.
Steve has been in recovery since 1990. Presently retired and living the good life in sunny southern California, he has a particular interest in the neuroscience of addiction and how this affects treatment programs. He is also interested in the neuroscience of religious beliefs and non-critical thinking. He has just finished reading “The Believing Brain” by Michael Shermer. Another one of his passions is comics, from the Golden Age to contemporary off the shelf. He is active in the Facebook group: Agnostics and Atheists in AA.