This agnostic alcoholic hoped the new pamphlet would help attract those without a traditional God to the program, but was sorely disappointed
Reviewed by Chris G.
My name is Chris, and I’m an agnostic alcoholic, but to most of my more casual AA friends, the ones I see in meetings every week, I’m really an atheist alcoholic. Why is that? In my own mind, I just don’t know the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” – that’s agnostic. I also have no interest at all in an anthropomorphic interventionist god. Most of the AAs I know have one of these, and for them it’s a Him they call God. Since they just can’t understand me not having one, preferably theirs, they call me an atheist.
A lot of them have also seen me over several years, and a recent shift in my overt behaviour at meetings has surprised most of them. I came to AA a little over four years ago at the nadir of a pretty low bottom. I was 65, it was my second try at sobriety, and time was definitely running out. Any thoughts or concerns about spirituality were well and truly buried under a sea of booze at that moment. I just wanted to stop, and I was ready to do anything to stop.
So, buried agnostic that I was, I jumped into the program as hard as I could. I got an old-timer sponsor, a real Big Book man, and at my urging, he drove me through the Steps, God and all. It was just what I needed, and I will thank that man for the rest of my life, literally. For three years I did the God thing in my program, along with the rest of the Steps, and life kept getting better.
Then a strange thing happened. As my mind continued to clear, my agnosticism began to surface. I was getting “restless, irritable and discontent” – when I went to meetings! Chapter four, We Agnostics, of the Big Book is based on the premise that an agnostic or atheist, if he sticks around long enough, will eventually see the Light. Well, I was doing it backwards. I went in trying as hard as I could to do the God thing, since I was told by most AAs that God was the key to sobriety, but I was snapping back to my lifelong agnosticism (or atheism, if you have one of those God things in your head).
I struggled very hard for most of my fourth year, and that is a whole story I’ll tell somewhere else. I finally “came out”; I started saying new and startling things in sharing. Surprise! Disbelief! “I wouldn’t give you a penny for his sobriety a month from now!”
The point is, at the end, I discovered that not only does the AA program work just fine without a god in your life, there are countless agnostic and atheistic AA members out there who have discovered the same thing. The program works, period. God is optional for many of us.
We are mainstream AA, we are part of Tradition Three. We are working the program, staying sober, and growing in life, sobriety, happiness, and usefulness to others, without the God of the Big Book.
But you would never know it, if you are an outsider, maybe a newcomer, looking at AA as the public sees it today. Today’s religious AA is scaring so very many people away.
And that is why an AA pamphlet, that tells how AA works very well for agnostics, atheists, or anyone at all without traditional Western religion, is so important.
Such a pamphlet was first proposed about 40 years ago, but was repeatedly rejected by one Conference after another. Since it was finally approved by the General Service Council in April, we hoped Many Paths to Spirituality would be the welcoming tract we have been waiting for.
While the intent of the Conference in approving this pamphlet is commendable, the pamphlet itself comes across as totally ignorant of our concerns, if not an outright insult.
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The words “atheist” and “agnostic” are used exactly three times each in the pamphlet. “God” is used nine times. “Higher power” appears thirteen times. Variations on “pray” are there nine times.
It is not the frequency of these words that is important, but how they are used that matters.
At the beginning of the pamphlet we find the first “God” reference:
Some members return to their religious roots, others find different spiritual paths. Some may find this “God of their understanding,” yet never become involved with organized religion. Still others make the A.A. group itself their higher power.
But one thing was sure – whatever our backgrounds, our beliefs or our lack of belief – our drinking had gotten out of hand.
This is pure “Chapter 4”, in my view. It tells me that a God of some sort, a higher power, is expected of us in the program.
The “our lack of belief” is as close as the pamphlet comes anywhere to recognizing atheists and agnostics.
And it gets worse, as in the next God reference:
As we became more familiar with A.A., we began to realize the deep significance in the phrasing of A.A.’s Twelve Steps, which emphasize “a Power greater than ourselves,” and “God, as we understand him.”
These words and A.A.’s traditional commitment to inclusivity provided comfort to many of us, leaving the door to spirituality open for alcoholics of all faiths, beliefs, and practices, and allowing each of us to determine for himself or herself just what to believe.
“Deep significance”, and “comfort to many”. What am I missing here? There is no comfort for me or other agnostics and atheists in emphasizing “a Power greater than ourselves” or “God, as we understand him.”
Where are the words for those of us who do not believe in mystical gods and powers? Is that supposed to be hidden in “all faiths, beliefs, and practices”? Where is an explicit reference to NON-belief? The authors can’t seem to comprehend that idea, and thus the pamphlet begins its apparent mission of dodging the issue as if it were not real.
The pamphlet is structured with paragraphs of AA advice, interspersed with quotations that are presumably the words of AA members. Presumably, the quotes from AAs are meant to give substance to the direction provided by the AA text. So we find the first “real AA” saying this about God:
“My sponsor encouraged me to choose my own conception of a higher power. It didn’t need a gender, or a name, or any human attributes – it just had to be ‘a power greater than myself’. It was then that I realized that the Fellowship, though comprised of human beings, represented a power greater than anything human. Even more surprisingly, by taking the Steps in my own clumsy way, supported by the unconditional love of my fellow alcoholics, I had discovered a quiet, inner voice – a God within.”
If the pamphlet was truly meant for agnostics and atheists, what are we supposed to make of this God within? This is telling me I can believe as I like, as long as I believe in something that starts with a capital G.
There are some references to prayer that might be humorous if this was not such a serious matter. Here are three quotes from the presumed “real AAs”:
“But I knew that the days I prayed seemed to go better than the days I didn’t, even when I thought I was praying to my bed spread.”
“… that my Higher Power was not the same as yours, that praying and the posture I use to pray does not alter my Jewishness but is necessary for my recovery. Today I can even recite the Lord’s Prayer without feeling guilty since it was pointed out to me in ‘How it Works’ that I have to go to any length to get and stay sober.”
“I pray to this inner resource and ask to know what it would have me do and to give me the strength to do it.”
Pray, pray, pray … it is all through the pamphlet. Whoever wrote this simply does not understand that we are people who, by and large, do not pray at all. Speaking for myself, prayer means a one-sided plea to a supernatural entity, and this sort of twaddle is just what I hear at meetings that drive me to d…, well, not quite that.
Several of the AA quotes in the pamphlet are complete nonsense if this was really written to attract atheists and agnostics. They have to do with other religions being acceptable to AA: someone incorporating “basic Buddhist practices” as “an awesome way to improve my conscious contact with the God of my understanding“, a Sioux/Blackfoot woman who was happy to be allowed to continue with the Great Spirit as her higher power, and a “devout, lifelong Catholic” who makes this remarkable statement:
“I’m uncomfortable, though, with anyone citing the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, or any non-A.A. literature as the truth in an A.A. meeting. But I certainly give them the right to refer to or even quote (briefly) from any of these texts if it’s part of their A.A. experience.”
So not only is our Catholic friend in the pamphlet in the first place, he seems to be hinting that A.A. literature is the only truth. Really? This is very confusing. How is that supposed to attract someone like me to AA? All the literature published by AA, so far, including this pamphlet, is founded on the God/higher power requirement, in spite of footnotes to the contrary, and it has become virtually canonized in many meetings.
The very last “real AA” quote in the pamphlet is probably the worst, for me:
“Using the inner resource I have discovered in A.A. as a higher power, I have been able to do the Steps just as they are written in the Big Book. I pray to this inner resource and ask to know what it would have me do and to give me the strength to do it. I carry this message to others. It works! I am experiencing a spiritual awakening and I feel all the promises coming true. I feel better inside than I have in years.
“I am now sponsoring several men and it is a wonderful feeling to see another alcoholic get sober. I am proof that it is possible to be an atheist on matters of the supernatural but still have a spiritual awakening and reap the rewards of the A.A. program of recovery.”
I do not do the steps exactly as they were written in the Big Book! I have taken the supernatural out of them for my own sobriety and sanity. I do not pray. I do not compartmentalize my atheism in one side of my brain so that I can pray to something with the other side. I do not have to do this to stay sober. I have all kinds of spiritual experiences, which I recognize as significant emotional events capable of helping to reprogram my booze-battered brain. These events almost invariably come from interacting with my AA peers, in and out of meetings, not from praying.
As the end piece in the pamphlet, this last quote should be a summary, a take-away in biz-speak. It shows just how little the authors have understood the ones they are trying to reach.
The pamphlet does not tell how AA works for atheists and agnostics.
First, it shows a deep misunderstanding of who we are.
Second, it confuses the issue with “other religions and beliefs”.
And third, it perpetuates the Chapter 4 myth that we will eventually get God if we stick around.
While I applaud the Conference for, at last, making this attempt, I wish they had found a few sober atheists and agnostics to help with it – that would have shown recognition and respect.
Many Paths to Spirituality fails to speak to the reality of agnostics and atheists in AA who have found sobriety within our fellowship without a belief in God or a Higher Power.
If the Conference thinks that it has satisfied any agnostics and atheists like me, it will find that the pamphlet will add to the problem, rather than being part of the solution.
Here is a direct link to the pamphlet: Many Paths to Spirituality.
A PDF of the ratings of and comments on the pamphlet (as of August 17, 2014) is available here: Many Paths to Spirituality – Ratings and Comments. Please feel free to share it with GSRs, Area delegates and others in AA.