The Atheist Embedded
This is the second chapter of the book: Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous by Adam N.
The Atheist Embedded
Like it or not, the religious viewpoint predominates in Alcoholics Anonymous. An honest reading of the primary text is enough to convince anyone. The chapter entitled We Agnostics, for example, is not a welcome embrace so much as a sales pitch intended to draw non-believers gently into the fold, towards the inevitable end of their being convinced. The stated goal of the book is to guide us toward the kind of spiritual awakening which will solve our drink problem and put us on a better path. From the point of view of the more devout religious members, this means to get us to god consciousness.
Hard as it might be to tell based solely upon my arrogant, atheistic ranting, I have seriously tried throughout my life to put on religious garb. I have lived and worked all twelve steps, numerous times, reciting the various step-prayers associated with them for decades; gone to numerous Catholic retreats; joined Unitarian churches; studied Buddhist belief, behavior, written word and visual art; practised yoga and meditation; read Aquinas and Anselm, Tillich, Buber, Thich Nhat Hanh and many more, studiously immersed myself in every drop of approved AA literature and recovery oriented self-help works, from Emmet Fox to The Road Less Traveled, that I could get my hands on; practised daily prayer and meditation for years; prayed to icons of Sakyamuni & Maitreya, Saint Francis, Jesus Christ, The Christian Cross, to giant redwoods, the ocean, to door knobs, and, perhaps most importantly, the ever infamous Porcelain God. You name it, I’ve tried it.
In spite of my very best efforts, I am unable to be convinced of god, spirit or soul. Perhaps that formative first decade of life, being raised from birth in an entirely atheistic environment, was definitive. But, fortunately, I am in good company. Many excellent and devout persons, from Milarepa to Muhammad to Mother Theresa, have grappled with faith, have struggled with doubt. Many good and wise people have also given up the struggle, have contentedly embraced life as non-believers. What I am proposing is the unconditional acceptance of this latter alternative. This is the viewpoint with which I am most comfortable, which seems right to me.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Alcoholics Anonymous. I truly believe it is the best game in town, as far as beating alcoholism and drug addiction is concerned. Today I am a grateful, active and involved participant, having attended AA meetings for over half my life. Yet I have always grappled with the religious components of AA. At best it’s been ‘fake it till you make it’. Yet all along I’ve been plagued by the nagging sense that I had joined a mind numbing cult whose membership requires a 40 point drop in IQ.
I have been able to achieve lasting sobriety through AA. But I have had to do a lot of reading between the lines along the way. I’ve had to make sense of religious language. Like a spy forced to remain in a foreign land, I’ve had to learn the interpretive skills necessary to survive, to understand their experience in light of my own. I’ve become adept at translating what is said so that it makes sense from a humanistic, secular and scientific point of view.
The following is a series of reflections based upon my years of experience as an atheist embedded in Alcoholics Anonymous. My claim is that god is optional, not required, for a successful recovery program. But you will get seriously chewed out by some well meaning, protective old timers if you talk like this at an AA meeting. The fact that the thoughts that I am articulating here would be considered blasphemous if spoken aloud at a meeting, well, that’s why I’m writing this essay. My hope is to see atheism normalized within the recovery community. Atheism should not be stigmatized. We should not have to hide our beliefs, to ‘come out of the closet’ and risk being ostracized. But the truth is that atheism is mostly just tolerated. The most common response we encounter is a charitable smirk implying that, if we hang on long enough, we will eventually “come to believe” as the theists do.
A further point worth considering, however, is whether we might be more effectively of service, reach more suffering alcoholics. We might save more lives. There may be millions of alcoholics and addicts out there suffering and dying while we sit comfortably in the rooms of AA proclaiming its effectiveness. I will not cite the various studies which have thrown this confidence into doubt. The reader can easily find them for him or herself. Suffice to say that, as a matter of fact, the number of alcoholics who come to AA and remain long term is much smaller than the number of potential members who stay away from AA altogether, or who come to AA and don’t ‘get it’. If we truly care about the alcoholics who still suffer, if we truly wish to be of service to others, we have an obligation to be open-minded about exactly what message we are carrying, its effectiveness and accessibility.
I firmly believe that, while the religious emphasis may indeed be beneficial for some, it sends away at least as many as it saves. Many of these go on to suffer the horrid fate, the ‘hell’ if you like, that only addicts and alcoholics can know. We sober members remain in the rooms, patting each others’ backs, consoling ourselves with the thought that the man or woman will return ‘when they are ready’. ‘If the god thing scares them away, alcohol will beat them back’, we like to say.
We also like to say ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. But don’t such self-congratulatory recitations merely serve to salve our feelings, consoling those few of us who do ‘get it’ so that we do not have to face the hard, stark possibility that recovery methodology might be made roomier, more all inclusive? If god is truly optional, we may be unnecessarily turning away people who need and want what we have. We then compound this sin by consoling ourselves with the a posteriori rationalization that ‘they weren’t ready yet’. As recovering alcoholics, certainly we are familiar with this process of erring, then subsequently rationalizing our behavior. This was a primary modus operandi for us for years, and we all know it did not automatically cease when we put the plug in the jug.
In spite of my ego, I am not one to say that all this talk about god, religion or spirituality is right or wrong. What the hell do I know, really? I am simply sharing my experience as a non-believer in my efforts to make sense of and employ the main concepts and practices. I write this essay as a project to help me get clear on all of this for myself, to come to terms with the gap. But, as I write, I gain hope that others will be aided by this interpretive narrative, that these kinds of thoughts might make the contemporary recovery methodology more accessible to those who are similarly unable to buy the religious slant of Alcoholics Anonymous.
A second edition of Common Sense Recovery is available at Amazon.