God and Diet Pills

African Mango

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. [1] 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.

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.

[1] Does religion belong at AA? Fight over ‘God’ splits Toronto AA groups


18 Responses

  1. Bruce C. says:

    Thanks Steve, at least no one has told me not to come back. One guy with 36 years sobriety gave me his phone number & told me that he considers himself agnostic but keeps it to himself in meetings. Most seem to want to fix me. Seems that the don’t ask don’t tell policy is in place here.

  2. Steve B says:

    Sorry to hear of your rejection in the fellowship. Has anyone reached out to support you? Or at least been tolerant of you? In a small Texas town there are probably not any SMART or Life Ring meetings but both offer on line virtual meetings.

  3. Steve B says:

    Thanks for your comments Ed. Your friends attitude reminds me of stories of people who recover from a critical illness only to thank God. Never mind the Doctors, Nurses, Hospital and all the science and development that went into developing the treatments for that person.

  4. Steve B says:

    Thanks for your comment Thomas. I’ve gone so far to tell my group that I don’t have a defined higher power. I consider the fellowship important. If they want to say that’s a higher power thats fine with me.

  5. Steve B says:

    I agree that there is increasing secularity of younger people. The 2010 Pew religious survey confirmed that. Perhaps that is why per capita membership in AA has been declining despite about a million newcomers per year pumped into AA by the courts and rehab centers. http://www.orange-papers.org/The_Mathematics_of_Alcoholics_Anonymous_-_Part_1.pdf

  6. Steve B says:

    Thanks Mark. Appreciate the feedback.

  7. Steve B says:

    Thanks for your comment Somen. I certainly agree with the Buddha here. On AA tokens it even says “To Thine Own Self be True”

  8. Somen C says:

    Thanks Steve! Your post reminds me the words of Buddha who said, “Be light unto yourself. Hold fast to the truth. Look not for refuge to anyone besides yourselves. Know for yourself that certain things are unwholesome and wrong. Give them up. When you know for yourself that certain things are wholesome and good then instinctively accept the same and adhere wholeheartedly.”

  9. Mark C. says:

    Steve B., thank you for your encouraging article. And thank you AA Agnostica for your existence and your willingness to publish insightful information for we nonbelievers in AA.

    Mark C.

  10. Steve B says:

    Thanks for your comment Laurie. As your quote says AA cannot censor your remarks. However, individual members can criticize. A friend of mine shared recently. After the meeting an elderly woman pulled him aside and told him to stop spreading his atheist filth in AA. She couldn’t kick him out though.

  11. Laurie A says:

    The quote from Bill’s essay on Tradition One in the 12+12 actually reads: “We believe there isn’t a fellowship on earth which lavishes more devoted care upon its individual members; surely there is none which more jealously guards the individual’s right to think, talk and act as he wishes. No AA can compel another to do anything; nobody can be punished or expelled.”

  12. Laurie A says:

    Maybe best not to share opinions, which anyone can dispute. In AA we share our experience, strength and hope – and no-one can dispute my experience (though they might think I’m mistaken). My experience is that being an open-minded agnostic has not prevented me staying sober and “happily and usefully whole” in AA (more or less) for approaching 29 years. Concept Five enshrines AA’s respect for the minority, and Tradition One reminds us that “there isn’t a fellowship on earth …which guards the individual’s right to think, talk and act as he wishes.” So take courage, put your head over the parapet and speak your truth.

  13. EssDee says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    While I am not currently a big fan of AA, I make it a point to let people know that I am not a theist. While I don’t really believe in any kind of deity, I definitely do not believe in any kind of interventionist power.

    I was fairly involved in AA for about five years and I made a point of letting people know that where I stood. I took this position because I recognized that there were quite a few people who found the religious element troubling and it was helpful for them to know that other people had contented sobriety without being “spiritual”.

    I was asked to speak a few times and I wove it into my story with the notion that AA was a “big tent” and could accommodate all sorts. The reaction was mixed. One groups was quite open, the other was dead silent.

    I think that AA has to recognize that it is being shackled by those members who dogmatically cling to what they consider the “true” version of the program.

    It is time for it to change so that it can accommodate the changing face of its members. Many young people are increasingly putting no religion or atheist down as their religion in census after census.

    The Big Book could also use a re-write to make it gender neutral. Any competent professional editor could easily make it general neutral without altering any of the meaning of the original. Even as a man, I find the sexist language appalling.

    I do have one agnostic meeting in my area, but it is quite far away, and I don’t drive. I still might manage to check it out in the next few weeks.

  14. Thomas B. says:

    I love the “God as a Placebo” idea. Thank you Steve. For decades I’ve used g.o.d., group of drunks/druggies as my higher power. Today in a small town on the coast of southern Oregon I still do. I live in a very fundamentalist Christian, deeply red community after getting sober and living most of my adult life in or near New York City. I’ve been continually sober since 1972. Believe me, when I say today I am learning just how much progress in recovery I have yet to experience — living here the past year has stretched my tolerance for the 12th Tradition’s dictum “principles over personalities” to the thinnest of membranes. BUT, I still don’t drink and go to meetings, striving for progress, never perfection, in practicing love and tolerance for my god-fearing fellow AAers.

  15. T. says:

    I would like to offer a friendly amendment to the standard AA formula:
    Go to Meetings + Participate in Fellowship + Believe in God + DON”T DRINK = Sobriety

  16. Eric T says:

    Thanks for sharing Steve! You’ve inspired me with the phrase “I’d much rather be rejected for who I am than accepted for someone I’m not.” I’m finally getting honest in the face of prejudice, and aspire to keep practicing that. What I’m finding is that typically two reactions occur – a) someone shares with me a similar experience in a supportive way, or b) someone tries to “control” by telling me I’m doing it wrong, judging/disapproving, etc. This has turned out to be an effective tool in deciding who I’d prefer to go for a coffee with for fellowship. The challenge for me of course is not to shun/judge/control others who don’t share my own agnostic beliefs. Live and Let Live comes to mind. At least today I know I don’t need to drink over ANY of this, and that I am not alone in AA.

  17. Ed S. says:

    Great article about the God placebo! Just yesterday I was talking with a believer after a meeting who said belief in God helped keep people sober. I explained to him that God was a placebo and it was the unconditional love received in the rooms that keeps us sober. I look forward to seeing you when I visit Southern California in a couple weeks.

    Ed S. Columbus, OH

  18. Bruce C. says:

    My story is kinda similar to Steve’s. I sobered up in 1984 & stayed that way for 14 years. I never discussed my lack of belief openly. I still loved the fellowship but just tired of all the god stuff. I’ve been a chronic relapser ever since but I’ve recently been trying once more to get get clean & sober again. I don’t hide my atheism any more but it doesn’t win me too many friends. And I’m in a small town in Texas so you can imagine the difficulty.

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