“The 12 Steps are so formed and presented that an alcoholic can either ignore them completely, take them cafeteria-style, or embrace them wholeheartedly.”
(from the Conference-approved pamphlet, A Member’s Eye View of Alcoholics Anonymous)
When I was editor of “Share”, Britain’s AA magazine, I commissioned this article by Anthony K., an atheist member who attended the same meetings as me. It appeared in the June 2006 issue and was reprinted in “Share and Share Alike”, the book which I also edited to mark the fellowship’s 60th anniversary in Britain in 2007.
By Anthony K.
Essex, United Kingdom
It is routinely suggested in AA that recovery is dependent on developing a working faith in a higher power. I have not found that to be the case and would like to record the experience I have gained in sobriety. I began this period of sobriety, my second in AA, in January 1999. I was convinced of my alcoholism and willing to do what was necessary to recover. From my first time around I had a rough idea that that would involve finding a way to live sober through the 12 Steps.
I spent a short period going to meetings and looking around for people who had what I wanted. I found them, and soon after I took part in a Big Book study and went through the Steps. The major downside of this approach to recovery is that the reverence it can inspire for the text sometimes leads to fundamentalism and intolerance, but its upside is better quality of life for many of those who complete it, and that is what I got.
Whilst I had been an atheist for as long as I could remember, I was willing to believe. The importance of this was impressed on me strongly by people I liked and respected. Motivated by sincere convictions formed by their experience I picked up a daily practice of Step Eleven and made a sincere effort to acquire faith, but it did not come. Quietly, and quite soon afterwards, I stopped seeking and reverted to my former position of non-belief.
I had a period of keeping my own counsel, feeling that there was still pressure on me to conform in regard to spiritual matters and wanting to be sure before speaking up in AA. After a while I decided to be clearer and more open within the Fellowship about my views and experience, partly out of a wish to be myself, but mostly because of the following reason. I’m still in AA – mainly to help the suffering alcoholic – and especially anyone who is led to believe that they will drink and die if they don’t adopt a set of beliefs and practices that they cannot accept.
I have been met with acceptance and/or concern from some members and a mixture of surprise and enthusiasm from others, particularly among the newer ones. I have been patronised, too, though there has been no outright hostility. The most common response has been to let me get on with it and I think that’s a good sign that we probably aren’t a religious organisation.
Instead of trying to rewrite the Steps to reflect my beliefs, as many atheists and agnostics seem to try to do, I have come to some pretty simple conclusions – among them the fact that Steps Two, Three, Six, Seven and Eleven can’t be part of my life. I am quite happy with that.
I know I am powerless over every drink but the first one, so I stick to the decision to remain totally abstinent that I made after my last drink. My life had obviously become unmanageable, so I manage it differently, rather than placing it under “new management”, as Step Three would have me do, according to the Big Book. I am not, and never have been insane and I do not believe in a “power greater than myself” as it is meant in AA. Taking inventory, discussing it with someone else and making amends are the tools I have used to manage better and the state of my life and the ease of staying sober suggest that it is working.
I live a very normal life these days, being happily married, professionally successful and socially active, and I don’t believe I’m really any different from the non-alcoholics with whom I spend most of my time, except that they can drink. Being married to a social drinker and moving in wider circles than when I was drinking has helped me to see the similarities.
I don’t subscribe to notions in sobriety of “typical alcoholic behaviour”, or of the stereotypical alcoholic who is unable to think straight. I think these concepts are open to a great deal of abuse and often seem to diminish the self-esteem of those who buy into them. Powerless, when applied to matters other than alcohol, will come to mean useless or hopeless for some people and since low self –esteem appears to be a common trait in many alcoholics, this can cause serious problems, rather than being part of any solution.
I prefer an approach that allows the individual to build that esteem by giving her/himself credit for any success they might have. People of faith will doubtless say that their belief in a God who loves them helps them feel good about themselves, and I would not argue with that. I have no wish to convert anyone to my beliefs or to equate faith with self-abasement.
When I sponsor people now we go through as much of the Big Book as is consistent with their beliefs. The results have been the same with atheists, agnostics and believers. They have retained their earlier belief, stayed sober and become happier in their sobriety.
I don’t know whether “faith without works is dead” or not, but to my delight and relief, I have found that works without faith can be very much alive.