The Many Paths To Spirituality Pamphlet

Many Paths Image

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.

* * *

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”:

Many Paths Pamphlet“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.


68 Responses

  1. John M. says:

    Dear Jo,

    There is always the paradox involved with any group or society that promotes tolerance for a variety of views: the more variety (which is what we want), the more chances that something is said that will seem to offend the very spirit of tolerance on which the promotion of diversity is based.

    We are a very autonomous bunch of individuals here at AA Agnostica it seems!

    There is an old Jewish joke and its wording only changes depending on the size of the population of Israel at the time the joke is spoken: “There are 8 million Jews in Israel, and 8 million political parties.”

    There is probably not a single contributor to AA Agnostica who hasn’t, at one time, wanted to lash out, trash, or “correct” another fellow contributor who has offered a comment or opinion he/she finds suspect, nuts, or simply wrong. A diversity of reactions to what is said or written is, of course, the price we pay for a commitment to democratic principles.

    With that being said. I think you and Bob C. are in good company with another fellow atheist who saw that we often make another belief out of our “unbelief.” I’ve quoted the following on this website before in another context but I offer it here again. It’s Nietzsche from Joyful Wisdom:

    But you don’t understand it? As a matter of fact, an effort will be necessary in order to understand us. We seek for words; we seek perhaps also for ears. Who are we after all? If we wanted simply to call ourselves in older phraseology, atheists, unbelievers, or even immoralists, we should still be far from thinking ourselves designated thereby: we are all three in too late a phase for people generally to conceive, for you, my inquisitive friends to be able to conceive what is our state of mind under the circumstances. No! We have no longer the bitterness and passion of him who has broken loose, who has to make for himself a belief, a goal, and even martyrdom out of his unbelief!

    Perhaps some us are still stuck on words (the AA traditionalists certainly are) and still stuck within a bitterness toward a traditional AA that has abused us, or not welcomed us fully by not living up to its central tenets that the only requirement is a desire to stop drinking, and that our gateway must be wide enough so that all who suffer may pass through, regardless of belief or unbelief (as, of course, Bill Wilson phrased it).

    You have “broken loose” and no longer (if you ever did) have this bitterness, perhaps. Be patient with those of us who still need to get “stuff” of our chests, or who are trying in good faith, sometimes by trial and error, to come up with the best strategies to fight the “good fight” so that one day, yes, all who suffer may pass through regardless of belief or unbelief.

    I offer one last quotation from religionless French writer, poet and playwright, Jean-Christophe Bailly. I believe you, Jo, are coming from the same recognition that something more still has to come from we atheists, we agnostics, and free spirits: “Atheism has not managed to irrigate its own desert.”

    Personally Jo, I hope you surprise us and we find you in Santa Monica in November. —John

  2. Jo says:

    Thanks Bob. I completely agree with your sentiments. This group is a bit too heavy handed and rigid for me and I am glad to learn now so as not to waste my time and money at the convention.

    I am an atheist who prays and I absolutely know that self-will run riot almost ran me to an early grave.

    Best to all

  3. Denis K says:

    I hope that after reading this post and our collective comments some GSO people will understand that this pamphlet was ill conceived and does not reflect the reality of AA in 2014 and requires an honest review and rewrite.

    Perhaps its time for the GSO and the folks who are/were responsible for this to put Step Ten “Continued to take personal inventory and when wrong, promptly admitted it” into practice.

    The AA fellowship is too valuable to allow the close mindedness demonstrated in the history of the pamphlet and the behaviour of some Intergroups to jeopardize its future.

  4. Eric T says:

    I see what I look for in this pamphlet. When I was new to AA, I may have responded better to “Many Paths to Sobriety”, and the handshakes and phone numbers written on the back of pamphlets mattered more to me anyways and still do. I responded better to compassion than anything else. Having said that, today I see this pamphlet as progress very similar to my own recovery – slow, gradual, and mostly beyond my immediate control. For me, AA works when we all speak out own truths, honestly. Let’s keep moving forward. Grateful to be sober today.

  5. Ian B says:

    The point at which I join this community is in support of freedom of thought. I see the inherent and often explicit anti-intellectualism in AA culture as extremely dangerous. Too often I have heard the same litany, from different people, in different meetings. “Yes, AA is brainwashing. When I got here, my brain needed washing.” “Your best thinking got you here.” “I knew I needed to quit the debating society.” There was even a letter posted in a recent Grapevine where a woman expressed her gratitude to old timers who “corrected” her thinking in early recovery.

    To label myself, if I must, I’d say I am an evolving secular humanist with Buddhist tendencies. But I want AA to be there for atheists, Christians, and everybody else. I also want people to be able to be free and true to themselves. I was in a meeting last year where a member spoke up about his atheism, and how uncomfortable he was with the lords prayer. Guess how the meeting ended, with a prayer of another member’s “choice”. This shouldn’t be happening.

  6. Bob c says:

    Swami Vivekenanda was a major factor in bringing yoga to the west in the late 1800’s. In Pathways To Joy, he talks about vedantism, as well as other religious ideas. In it he discusses other spiritual and religious ideas and experiences, such as Christianity, as part of the greater movement towards wholeness. Our apparent separation from the rest of nature, and even from god, is given a kind of consolation… Our having become lost in “things” and belief in a cold dark universe, is seen as a natural part of progression towards truth and realization of our connectedness and inherent enjoyment of “life”. From this perspective we are life itself, and I don’t have a life but am life. The swami also puts to rest the idea that we are born separate and “in sin”, but rather we are born free, in joy and power, a creature who must come to terms not with our inherent sinful nature, but with our amazing power and perfect nature. The human is the miracle it has always been searching for, and books beliefs and institutions are secondary, limiting things. Therefore, the idea that “the program is perfect worked by imperfect people” is a mistake, an the opposite of the truth. One of the results of the practice of yoga is the consolation of opposites that might seem to “never meet”. The holding of paradox in the mind is freeing and necessary.

  7. MarkInTexas says:

    Great IDEA!

  8. Michael says:

    Well said. It’s a difficult topic, I agree with many if not most concerns that atheists have with AA culture but when it crosses the line to asserting their non-belief as a superior point of view, nothing much will be accomplished. It reflects the larger debate in society which is nothing but more divisiveness.

    I think it’s interesting that a Muslim, a Jew, a Sikh, a pagan, or myself, a gay agnostic Buddhist, may feel as much a threat from Christian fundamentalism as an atheist might feel. This is the same with AA, any sign that a meeting or AA as an institution is becoming Christian is a threat to many people, some of these people might be very religious. People believing in god or their particular religion doesn’t bother me, I don’t see my non-theistic Buddhism as superior, but hearing the Our Father at meetings has always made me cringe.

  9. MarkInTexas says:

    Science may not be incompatible with a loosely defined, and fuzzy “spirituality” as in Einstein’s perceived pantheistic monism, however, it is starkly incompatible with theism proper. Therein lies the rub.

    This basic incompatibility goes to the heart of AA’s problems with informed nonbelievers.

    It is the ancient, historical problem of forms of Supernaturalism vs. Naturalism in all its forms.

    The one is a Bronze Age “religious” answer, the other is in line with all lines of modern human empirical investigation and philosophy.

    The one says the Emperor is fully clothed and standing in the middle of the room, the other says, and can demonstrate, the Emperor, if he exists is starkly naked.

    Never the twain shall meet.

  10. Michael says:

    Thanks for your post. As an agnostic, I view the spiritual experience much like the experience of joy or love. I think it’s undeniable that some people have had the experience. The difference between spirituality and joy is that spirituality is often associated with religion so some people want to dismiss it as delusional because they’ve never had the experience. We don’t do the same with joy even though it may be very difficult for many people to experience.

    I think that many spiritual people don’t really care about the source or about religious institutions or doctrine any more than someone might care about the source of joy or love. It feels good and it can be healing, maybe it’s just the production of endorphins in the brain or maybe it’s some sort of quantum experience or maybe a combination of the two. Who cares?

  11. henryhalfmeasre says:

    Spirituality is the sugar tit or rubber pacifier in place of sucking your thumb. Recovery means no more momma, poppa, big sister or brother. It’s time to grow up, shed all those childish fears and go out and live life to the fullest while free of whatever substance you were hung up on and leaning on.

  12. Laurie A says:

    Excellent. You speak my mind.

  13. Chris G says:

    Einstein put it this way:

    The scientist’s religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work… It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.

    Albert Einstein, Mein Weltbilt, 1934.

    I’ve always liked this, although I question “an intelligence”; not that I totally reject it, I just wonder where in time and space it might “live”.

  14. MarkInTexas says:

    “Death closes all: but something ere the end,
    Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
    Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
    The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
    The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
    ‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
    Push off, and sitting well in order smite
    The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
    To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
    Of all the western stars, until I die.

    It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
    It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
    And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
    Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
    We are not now that strength which in old days
    Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
    One equal temper of heroic hearts,
    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

    Alfred, Lord Tennyson in “Ulysses”

  15. Paul T. says:

    On Spirituality

    Historically, the words religion and spiritual have been used synonymously. This is no longer so. The significant increase of people claiming SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) status and philosophical considerations of spiritual as differentiated from religion has led to a separation of the two terms.

    I personally do not equate a spiritual experience with a religious one. It can be both for those who have a religious inclination. However, a spiritual experience can be simply that, without any religious overtone or association.

    Consider the two following examples, from Carl Sagan, the atheist cosmologist famous for his popular books and the show “Cosmos.”

    Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, than sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

    And, here are some of the examples I used in the story I submitted to the trustees’ Committee of Literature when I thought they were actually interested in stories from atheists and agnostics as well as from theists.

    I wrote about how reflecting on the location of Earth in a lesser part of the Milky Way and that our galaxy being only one of millions helps me put my issues and problems into perspective.

    I commented on the feelings of awe I experience when looking at the stars, realizing that their light is vastly older than I am and that many of those stars no longer exist, their last light has not yet reached us.

    I challenged the readers to reflect on the nature of light and its speed and not be moved (a spiritual experience) by the realization that light travels at over 186,000 miles per second but slows to 77,500 miles per second while passing through a diamond, and then resumes the 186,000 per second when it exits the diamond.

    These are but a few awesome, moving, spiritual experiences I shared in my unused story, in which I also told of my atheism.

    I hold that anything that moves one, anything that fills one with wonder or awe, anything that inspires one to positive action is spiritual. It does not take a god or a religion to move me to the core.

  16. Laurie A says:

    … this was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through regardless of their belief or LACK OF BELIEF. (AA Comes of Age, on origin of the 12 Steps)
    Alcoholics Anonymous does not demand that you believe anything (Step Two, 12+12)
    In such an atmosphere the orthodox, the unorthodox, and the unbeliever mix happily and usefully together… (As Bill Sees It, p158)
    Every AA has the privilege of interpreting the program as he likes. (As Bill Sees It, p16)
    AA must never … enter the field of dogma or theology. (As Bill Sees It, p116)
    Most Steps are open to interpretation, based on the experience and outlook of the individual (As Bill Sees It, p191)
    I have had many experiences with atheists, mostly good. Everybody in AA has a right to his own opinion. It is much better to maintain an open and tolerant society than it is to suppress any small disturbances their opinions might occasion. (As Bill Sees It, p276)
    And so on.

  17. bob k says:

    Now you’re getting it!

  18. daniel says:

    About 12 years ago my home group, which has membership of about 200 members had a motion on the floor at our business meeting to stop saying the Lord’s Prayer, the motion passed. Some members were unhappy , most members stayed to become stronger members, some left and started their own group.
    My suggestion to people who have a problem one way or the other, start your own group; that’s the way AA grows. Cheers Daniel

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