Common Sense Recovery
Foreword to Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous,
By Reverend Ward Ewing
From the beginning there has been tension around theism in AA. The connection with the Oxford Group movement meant that, in Akron, a more traditional understanding of God would infuse the emerging fellowship of alcoholics and the book Alcoholics Anonymous. However, in New York, as the Big Book was being written, members expunged any theological positions and expanded the concept of God to “a power greater than ourselves” and to “God as we understood Him.” In addition, although the Big Book does not discuss AA groups directly, the use of the plural first person in the Steps and elsewhere indicates this dependence is also on other alcoholics with whom the alcoholic can identify.
Less than ten years later, as Bill W. was developing the Traditions, the ground for this position was made clear: There is only one requirement for membership – the desire to stop drinking. The only authority within an AA group is the group conscience. For the survival of the Fellowship unity is critical, and that unity is found not in agreement but in the primary purpose of living sober and helping the alcoholic. In my personal experience, the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous is, as a result of these principles, the most inclusive organization with which I have been privileged to be associated.
As Bill W. wrote in the Grapevine in July 1965:
Newcomers are approaching AA at the rate of tens of thousands yearly. They represent almost every belief and attitude imaginable. We have atheists and agnostics. We have people of nearly every race, culture and religion. In AA we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a common suffering. Consequently, the full individual liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy whatever should be a first consideration for us all. Let us not, therefore, pressure anyone with our individual or even our collective views. Let us instead accord each other the respect and love that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way toward the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive; let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she declares.
Despite these important points made by Bill W. almost 50 years ago, the tension remains. Recently I was privileged to participate in the first international conference of atheists, agnostics, and free-thinkers in AA. Clearly, many in AA who are atheists, agnostics, and free-thinkers feel excluded. Much of the language in the Big Book, in other approved literature, and in meetings is traditional theistic language. Certain parts of AA literature are at best condescending towards atheists and agnostics, if not downright disparaging, such as the remark in Dr. Bob’s story describing atheism, agnosticism, or scepticism as “intellectual pride which keeps [one] from accepting what is in this book.”
Admittedly the Big Book, including Dr. Bob’s story, was published in 1939 and reflects the earliest experience of AA whereas Bill W.’s statement in the Grapevine exhibits a view based on thirty years experience. Bill’s statement may well have been stimulated by his correspondence with Denys W., a self-defined “scientific humanist” from Cambridge, England, who sought to re-think the Big Book and revise the Twelve Steps to make them more acceptable to committed humanists. (Ernest Kurtz, Not-God, pp. 232-233)
Still, tensions continue in the Fellowship, largely as a result of members who believe the way they found sobriety is the best way. Many who have found sobriety through belief in a traditional theistic God search the Big Book for references that support their contention that their way is the “true way” and they seek to “restore” AA to conform to their understanding. Others, who would focus on the inclusive character of the Fellowship, including the absence of any religious or theological positions, often do the same. Should these tensions tear the Fellowship into hostile camps, the damage to AA would be severe, the ability to carry the message of hope to those who still suffer would be impaired, and the program would be diminished by the loss of the experience of a particular group.
The program of Alcoholics Anonymous developed in a pragmatic manner, based on the experience of members. The primary criterion seems to be “it works”. The heart of AA is the sharing of stories, of personal experience – the experience of limitation, that one is unable to control his or her drinking, that one cannot control life or the lives of others, and that seeking such control actually makes life unmanageable. They are stories of letting go of all that baggage and accepting a new way of living that is directed by a power outside the self, a power known primarily through the esprit de corps of the group. Some interpret this transformation as guided by God, as traditionally understood. Yet others see it as the result of “peer support, empathy, mentor guidance, and emotional reinforcement of group membership”.
I believe the health and future of AA requires this tension. We are dramatically different people. We have different experiences. We share different stories, seeking to be as honest as possible. The quality of this pragmatic program of recovery depends on the honest sharing by differing people of different experiences. I attend only open meetings and most of them are speaker meetings. What I experience in these meetings is honest disclosure – honest disclosure about drinking and about how the Fellowship has worked for the speaker. When I attend open discussion meetings, I am always impressed by the lack of cross talk and by the intense level of listening. I’ve come to understand that listening is one of the keys to recovery. We listen to hear truth – not dogmatic, theological, mathematical, or philosophical truths, but personal truth about feelings, faults, sneaky motivations – fearless honesty. “Identify, don’t compare” you tell me. Experience is the key. From such honest sharing comes the support that makes the impossible possible.
Adam N. has written an important book, sharing his experience as an atheist in the Fellowship, an experience that included dropping out of AA after twenty years of sobriety. As he describes what happened, “I grew restless, irritable, and malcontent. I heard nothing new, had heard it all before, and was totally over it. Meetings just felt like a waste of my valuable time. The slogans ceased to be wise aphorisms and morphed into moronic truisms.” For him AA had come to feel like a religious cult for “the simple minded” based on “mindless dogma” and accepting “fairy tales as profound truths.” He had come to find honest sharing of his doubts, his unorthodox, science-friendly free thinking, to be alienating, and that became a major factor in his leaving AA. Three years without AA and a “torturous year and a half of active alcohol and narcotics addiction” led to a return to treatment and AA. As he re-entered the Fellowship, he recognized that previously he “had held something in reserve all along. I am, when all is said and done, an atheist.” Fearless honesty – necessary for continued sobriety –led him to write this book with the hope of clarifying for himself how to interpret the religiously laden language of AA. This book has been published in the hopes that it might serve to widen the doors for others who suffer from this cunning, baffling, and powerful disease, whether they be theists, atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers, sceptics, or secularists.
What I like best about this book is its focus on experience. The narrative is essentially one drunk sharing his story with others who may be helped by that sharing. The heart of AA is the sharing of one’s story, of one’s experience. Adam’s journey is one of seeking fearless honesty and a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the AA Fellowship. In the end, I interpret him as moving to a new kind of faith. This faith is not in some unseen magical being but is in the program and fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. This is a faith based not on doctrinal (or Big Book) correctness or some theoretical belief, but a faith based on experience, a faith that is pragmatic, free of religion, transformational, and focused on concern for others. In the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, which developed over the years in a pragmatic manner based on the experience of members, his sharing represents the mainstream, even if it is not often heard. This is an expression of his experience, and we can identify with him if we look for the similarities rather than differences.
While this essay is written primarily for the atheist, agnostic, and free thinker in AA, I encourage those who see themselves as religious to read it as well. I have many reasons. First and foremost Adam is sharing his story. That sharing is the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous. This is the language of the heart; all need to listen respectfully, with an openness to learn. Second, many who claim to be religious worship a god that is too small, a god who seems to be a personal servant. We must listen to the critiques of belief and current religious practice. They provide an opportunity for growth and maturity. And finally, religious members should read this book in the name of all inclusiveness. In keeping with the third tradition, every member of Alcoholics Anonymous can benefit from becoming sensitized to concerns about excluding members and potential members. In the name of the unity of this Fellowship we must all be committed to affirm that there is common ground for all members of this Fellowship, be they theistic, agnostic, atheistic or whatever.
Adam speaks of “immersion in [a] fellowship [that] offers us exactly the life sustaining support we need, feeding us at a core level, bringing us an increased sense of personal value, purpose, emotional fulfilment and peace of mind.” The power of AA is greater than any individual person; it makes the impossible possible. Many in AA refer to this lifesaving force, this culture, this esprit de corps, this higher power, as God. Others who cannot bring themselves to compromise their rational understandings, to believe in some sort of deity, still experience this power within AA groups. I would suggest that the differences between those who wish to call it God and those who have a different understanding of its nature are small in comparison to our shared experience. What we believe about something is far less important to living than what we experience. Experience is what transforms us; belief is our attempt to explain. Experience trumps explanation. Experience provides the basis for the dialogue between those who are religious and those who are free thinkers, agnostics, and atheists in AA. I thank Adam for sharing his experience. I hope it will be a means for strengthening the unity of the AA Fellowship, as AA is all about supporting each other in recovery and in carrying the message – regardless of belief or lack of belief.
Reverend Ward B. Ewing Retired Dean and President of the General Theological Seminary; Trustee emeritus (non-alcoholic) and past Chair of the General Service Board