When we first get to AA, we can just “take what we like and leave the rest”, but eventually, we have to decide whether we’re even going to stay. And if we stay, we need to do what we can to get the most out of the experience. There is more to that than tip-toeing around the god talk and swallowing everything else pretty much as is.
The prospects for the atheist alcoholic shouldn’t be just having to endure the religiosity in order to have access to a few coveted crumbs under the table; we should be able to get what we need to thrive. Fully benefiting from what AA has to offer entails more than silently sitting in the back row.
Actually being a part of AA includes having a strategy for sharing our own “experience, strength, and hope” in meetings, even when the topic is about God. It is not particularly productive to just angrily challenge what is being said by others in the meeting, but there is more to sobriety than just learning how to fit in.
We need to creatively intersect with AA in such a way as to break down obstacles, thereby enhancing the recovery experience for everyone. We can be shining examples of what it is like to be accepting, encouraging, and supportive of anyone who is looking for the solution to the problem of alcoholism irrespective of what they believe or don’t believe.
But if there is no god, how do we account for AA’s success?
That can either be a troubling question or an invitation to enlarge and deepen our understanding of the recovery process. If we can satisfactorily answer the question, we are free to relate to AA on our own terms. And when we are told point blank by AA members that if we don’t find a higher power, we will eventually get drunk, we can just graciously decline their offer to help us with that. We can maintain a position of strength and security, refusing to be marginalized. We can see what they are saying for what it is, an opinion.
Attributing successful sobriety to God conveys the idea that getting God is a turnkey way to get sober. There are two obvious problems with that. First, there is the troubling theological question regarding what kind of loving god would choose to strike some people sober and not others. And second, it underplays the role that the individual alcoholic plays in her own recovery. Whether or not someone believes in God, they still face the same pragmatic challenges associated with cobbling together the day-to-day particulars of a sober lifestyle.
The fact is that AA is often ineffective even with those who firmly believe in a traditional god. This is largely due to how much mystification ordinarily comes with AA’s message. In particular, AA’s Twelve Steps place much of the recovery process in a black box, or if you will, a sort of an imaginary “God box.” The really hard stuff (i.e., my unruly will, my unmanageable life, the dilemma of my powerlessness, my need to be restored to sanity, and my stubborn character defects) is just “turned over.”
If many in AA get good results from turning things over to their god, it is because, first, surrender can break the vicious cycle that occurs when our own ideas about correcting a bad situation are only making things worse, and second, letting go of what hasn’t been working gives other possibilities a chance. Ultimately though, even believers need a more precise understanding of the solution than “Let go and let God.”
AA as a whole can benefit from greater clarity regarding down-to-earth strategies. For many, belief in God is a catalyst in a process that makes sobriety possible, but the process itself is all about tapping into “human power.”
Viewing AA’s solution as “God doing for us what we could not do for ourselves” is reminiscent of the old folk story about stone soup. In that story, gullible villagers are tricked into providing all the ingredients for a big pot of soup by a stranger with a special stone that, he claims, can magically produce extraordinary soup.
Unfortunately, the story ends before some obvious questions are answered. Was there a “Wizard of Oz” moment when everybody realized that the stone possessed no special powers after all? Did it occur to anyone to ask the stranger for the recipe? Did those who enjoyed the soup learn anything about how generosity and social cooperation can produce a rising tide that lifts all boats?
For many in AA, belief in God orchestrates a process that makes sobriety possible, but the abc’s from “How It Works” notwithstanding, all the ingredients are contributed by ordinary mortals. Explanations do not have to rely on anything magical or supernatural. All the resources necessary for sobriety are already in the possession of average human beings. With a simple recipe that brings inspiration, commitment, skill, and coordination into the equation, the results can seem miraculous.
Atheists and agnostics can model what it is like to talk about the solution without taking the shortcut that relying on a higher power can represent. This considerably improves the signal-to-noise ratio, and it shifts the center of gravity to a solution that can work for anyone.
The salient fact is that AA’s most significant assets are not inherently religious – in-depth identification, community, a last resort basis for hope, practical wisdom about addiction, and sometimes just having something to do that doesn’t involve using alcohol or other drugs.
Atheists can push the envelope by going beyond debating religion and beyond the intellectual dimension in general. We can simply endeavor to provide recovery resources to alcoholics that will enable them to live lives of integrity, achieve a sense of wellbeing, and maintain a sober lifestyle that is in accord with their own values. Many of us know the despair that can accompany having to make a choice between pretending to fit in and being ostracized by the people around us.
At the end of the day, we are simply recovering alcoholics. We’re in AA for the same reason that anyone becomes a member of AA. We simply want to be able to stay sober.
Ideally, a time will come when nonbelievers are not a subgroup that is begrudgingly tolerated, but instead epitomize a new definition of mainstream AA, an AA that is more concerned about being truly effective than about preserving AA orthodoxy.
The best way to hasten that future is to carve out for ourselves a reasonably comfortable niche where we are not “over against” but are instead “together with”, where we can confidently embrace the role of gracious hosts operating on our own home turf and become a prototype for welcoming not only those like us, but also to those who are radically different.
Actions speak louder than words. Some or all of the following might be helpful:
- Use humor, especially self-deprecating humor, to put people at ease.
- Share a positive message of recovery that even religious believers can relate to.
- Share your own experience, strength, and hope in a way that invites an empathic understanding of how atheists and agnostics experience AA.
- Build relationships with other members of the group, focusing on similarities and responding to differences graciously.
- Establish strong interpersonal boundaries. (Don’t argue when being accosted, but do push back or just walk away. We are standing on solid ground when we insist on being respected not only as equal participants, but also as contributors.)
- Don’t read silence as disapproval or distancing. (They may just not know how to respond to what they don’t understand.)
- Always assume that there is someone in the meeting who needs to hear that they are not the only one who feels the way they do.
- Reach out to individual newcomers (or anyone who is struggling) after meetings, taking care to avoid ambushing them with an agenda, but instead assuring them that, however different they might feel, they are not alone.
- Introduce topics like “Live and let live” and topics from the Traditions like the necessity of keeping the focus on a solution that includes everyone who has a desire to stop drinking and the importance of staying away from outside issues and affiliations.
- Participate in the group conscience (and don’t just focus on your pet issues).
- Look for opportunities to do service work.
- Prove the detractors wrong not only by staying sober, but also by embodying an attractive version of recovery.
Our attitude can turn the tables on the advocates of a religious approach. The message we have to carry represents a better understanding of AA’s core principles and a more robust solution than what is commonly espoused by AA members. It is a more realistic and straightforward accounting of AA’s success than “God doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”
JHG attributes his having become less rather than more religious during sobriety to AA’s spirit of theological experimentation. He was a Methodist minister when he got sober but, through an honest assessment of his actual experience, reached a point where he could no longer support the belief that his sobriety depends on higher power. He is currently working on a book for nonbelievers in AA and is seeking collaborators in the project. Visit his website AA Nonbelievers for more information.