Reviewed by Chris G.
Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous is a series of essays by Adam N. It was never meant to be published. Written over time as a personal project of trying to understand what it means to be an atheist in AA, it is the distillation of his personal thoughts on just about every aspect of the situation, and there are many. It contains the essence of his journey towards completeness, as an atheist and an anonymous alcoholic, a person who has found his way in sorting out the tension between the two and arriving at peace and wholeness for himself.
Part of that peace is also being at peace with the theists – acknowledging the comfort they get from their gods, celebrating the values they brought to AA when it was founded, and being able to translate their language into his own language of rational recovery.
Beginning in a very traditional AA manner with “his story”, qualifying as both an alcoholic and an atheist, he starts in familiar territory. Many of us who share this dual citizenship will immediately feel at home here: the beginning, the bottom, the early success in AA, the growing tension with the unremitting religion, a break from the meetings, a relapse, and finally success as an atheist in AA; this is a familiar story.
What is remarkable in the book is the depth of thought on all the various factors that go into that simple phrase: Success as an Atheist in AA. And why? Why on earth should we have to go through such mental contortions to achieve this? Where did this situation come from? How can we improve it?
Adam is a spy in a subculture within a subculture; he has to figure out the language and mores of this strange place in order to survive. What does one do in such a situation? First, he wears the local dress, speaks the local lingo, visits the local temples, and tries to blend in. But as the clothes start to itch, the language seems dull and repetitious, and the local deities turn out to be powerless, he has to find another way. He finds many.
The basic texts of AA are really terribly religious when you read them with an open mind, and since a major principle in AA is “keep an open mind”, this leads to some interesting consequences. For many people, the “open mind” leads straight to more and deeper religion. For some, who can’t partake of the religion, maybe because they require some evidence in their diet, it leads out the open door. But for Adam, it led to wondering what principles might be under, or hidden by, the religion to make AA work – because it most certainly does work, sometimes for some people.
The important, operative principles, though at one time associated with god, religion or spirituality, are all strong enough to stand on their own. And it is these operative principles, devoid of theistic interpretations, which should be our focus.
Throughout the essays, he points out the solid, human, values and concepts in AA, brought in perhaps by the religious roots, but equally valid without them. We have all heard that “the group can be your higher power” (implied: until you find the real one), but what if we take that literally? Sociology knows all about the power of “peer support, empathy, mentor guidance, and the emotional reinforcement of group membership”. Stop right there, as Adam argues:
The tribe functions as the disseminator and teacher, the source of encouragement and reinforcement, that which empowers the addict to live a better life on a daily basis. The fellowship offers new ideas, role models who practice them, wise guidance and counsel, reinforcement of values and goals, and essential emotional rewards to its members. It empowers us to practice new and different behaviors until they become new and different habits. As time passes our membership within the tribe is the source of life enriching friendships. But it also becomes an important source of a new-found sense of value and purpose as, over time, we transform into seasoned members who reap significant benefits from passing guidance and support on to the next member in need. This life sustaining mutual exchange is a huge part of recovery. It builds a web which sustains us all, a web of support that is fundamentally tribal. Our lives are saved, shaped and defined by the herd. We survive by running with the pack. The fellowship is the most tangible instantiation of a ‘higher power’ in our lives. I would argue that we need seek no further.
Science gets a very bad reception in most AA meetings here in the 21st century. Yet science in the past few decades has given us a great deal of knowledge about alcoholism, knowledge that can reinforce our success in AA. Why this gap? Adam brings together several factors to explain this.
Simply put, when we do not understand how something works, we chalk it up to god. God serves as a metaphysical caulk, a generic all purpose filler that effectively fills in the gaps in our understanding.
Scientists have long known this. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson puts it in Death by Black Hole, writing of the history of science and religion, “They call on God only from the lonely and precarious edge of incomprehension. Where they feel certain about their explanations, however, God gets hardly a mention.” That’s pretty easy to see if you are into science history, but applied to AA it hits close to home:
I find it very difficult to relate to the sharing of AA members whose Higher Power arranges the world to fix them. They utilize god to fill in the void in their understanding when interesting and impressive things happen in their lives. To me this just smacks of mental laziness. I feel very uncomfortable in meetings where this sort of thing takes place. I think they are dismissing the power of genuine willingness in their lives, denigrating the incredible capacity of humans to embrace change and transform for the better.
Adam does not come across as a scientist and does not pepper us with scientific jargon; his point is that science provides new information, facts, evidence, that not only explain how AA works in the rational (as opposed to the spiritual) world, but how it might be improved. Yet meetings shy away from it, to the detriment of many:
Secular recovery paradigms encourage research and investigation into these types of questions. But chalking such things up to the work of an unfathomable higher power does not. Increased knowledge and understanding might help us develop a deeper, richer tool kit. We might be able to help more alcoholics and addicts into lasting recovery.
And in fact it is this understanding of where the spirituality we hear at meetings is coming from, along with a strong sense of what is actually working here, that has allowed him to find his atheistic success in AA:
Understanding that spirituality and god are terms employed when people have come to the edge of their comprehension helps me on a daily basis when I sit in AA meetings and listen. Whenever I hear god, spirit or higher power, and can avoid falling into resentment or giving in to feelings of alienation, I try to think of it as a kind of shorthand for the life sustaining, beneficent values, attitudes and actions. I just delete the religious implications and substitute my own understanding. I have always had to do this. The difference for me this time around is that I no longer feel like I am cheating, or faking it, or hanging on until I finally ‘come to believe’. This is it! I have arrived. I am exactly where I need to be.
Throughout the essays, Adam maintains the idea that there is a rational basis for all the tools and techniques that AA uses, however religiously or spiritually they are presented. He has learned how to translate the jargon that AA has built up and canonized over the years into his own terms, for his own sanity and sobriety. Yet he fully recognizes the values collected by the religion he does not share:
But I say we thank god. Thank god for AA. Religion was prominent before AA. This is where most of our founding members got their ideas. I, for one, am grateful for what has been handed down to us, the guidance and direction proffered by religion in getting us this far along the path. The importance of fellowship, for example. This obviously pre-dates religion. Understanding the deep and essential role of community, peer and tribe in recovery is vastly important. Evolutionary biology and social psychology will continue to offer us insights in that direction. But its current practical role in recovery stems directly from religious traditions like Christianity, the Oxford Group in particular. Confessional: straight from Catholicism. Prayer: speaks for itself, and remains a valuable tool even for atheists like myself.
And he has managed to make peace with the very jargon that we non-theists find so nerve-racking that we often find ourselves, to our peril, avoiding meetings:
Interestingly, since coming to accept the fact that I am an atheist, I have felt LESS frustrated and alienated by the religious language used in AA meetings. Every time someone uses religious language, without fail, I find myself able to calmly interpret what they say and understand their sharing in my own secular manner. I am no longer doing battle, with them or within myself. I have finally achieved a measure of peace as regards this integral subject. Now I can get on with life.
I myself find my non-theism being driven to anti-theism all too easily, too often, by what I hear in meetings. I can forget that I’m an alcoholic first, and without sobriety nothing else matters, even my delight in the laws of physics and my need for evidence to support any belief. I need to get to a meeting and practice some of this.
Based on his own success in making a secular framework with which he can succeed in today’s AA, even as a spy in the enemy camp, he hints at a vision for a future AA where atheists are not only more tolerated, but where they actually add to the value of the program:
Taking atheism seriously, and in particular the “Recovery Sciences”, is not really a threat to AA. On the contrary, such an approach is all about taking what works in AA and expanding upon it, a synthesizing approach which guarantees the kind of elasticity and flexibility which will ensure the survival of the best of what AA has to offer for the generations to come.
But he recognizes the strength of the social pressure that mitigates against this, which is a very pernicious sort of pressure: “From the religious point of view, the problem of alcoholism is completely solved. They turn a blind eye to our abysmal 5% success rate, to the non-believers who don’t make it. From their point of view, any further inquiry on recovery methodology is, by and large, considered to be pointless.” This is just the sort of pressure Galileo faced in trying to take the heavenly spheres holding the stars away from the Catholic church – there is no problem, but you are creating one, and we really don’t like that. An excellent description of where many of us are now, in our own meetings.
In summary, the essays in this book explore in depth the confrontation of AA’s religious culture and practices with this rational atheist alcoholic. They explore the place of science in recovery, and explain why traditional AA struggles to embrace new scientific findings and incorporate them into its agenda. The supreme importance of the fellowship, as a healing community or tribe, with all that implies for social human beings, is examined. Powerful arguments are presented for the idea that a secular AA would not lose any of its present efficacy, but could be even more effective, maybe much more effective, and would certainly help those alcoholics now repelled by religion.
Adam has quite remarkably in this book woven a practical and viable way forward for AA. Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous offers an understanding and appreciation of AA’s early religious culture that nevertheless and inevitably calls upon us to embrace new research and scientific findings – as well as the experience of women and men in recovery over the past 75 years – and incorporate them into an understanding of our program and fellowship.
The book ultimately offers an enticing way forward for AA. A must-read for all of us in AA, and especially those of us who recognize that it is time for our fellowship to take the next crucial steps forward.
An expanded second edition of Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous is now available. It contains several additional chapters as well as a Foreword by Ward Ewing, former chair of the AA General Service Board.