A Rose By Any Other Name

Rose II

By Adam N.

Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge experiences a radical personality transformation, moved me to tears last year. Like most of the men I know, this is not a common occurrence. I don’t cry much. Nothing against it, it just doesn’t happen very often. When my wife asked me why I was crying, I realized that I was deeply moved by the depiction of this man’s resurrection precisely because his story is my story. I was moved, and deeply grateful, because of the similarity between myself and Ebenezer Scrooge.

In the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous this intense personality change is described as a ‘spiritual experience’. This is how our founding members interpreted the changes they experienced. For many of us, this spiritual experience is a sweeping transformation of our character. The college dropout returns to graduate with highest honors, the unemployable wretch becomes a model employee, the deadbeat dad becomes father of the year, the philandering husband becomes a more faithful and loving life partner. I can relate. As exaggerated as this might sound, this is actually my story. And I know that this is many of your stories as well.

For some members the spiritual experience is less sweeping. For these members the story is less of a caterpillar become butterfly. Yet one can never underestimate the value of any change sufficient to break the chains which bound us to the bottle in a fatal pattern of obsession and compulsion. For all of us, most importantly, the result included freedom from alcohol. The problem is simply removed, as the big book says. What was once an impossible task simply ceases to be an issue. We are placed in a position of neutrality, and, if ever tempted, we recoil as if from a hot flame. This, too, I have experienced.

In addition to this ‘spiritual experience’, our book also talks about the ‘spiritual principles’ which we live by. These are the principles which guide our daily actions and attitudes, ensuring that our lives remain on the different path which we have been blessedly placed upon. Such principles range from the honesty which serves as a bedrock foundation, the love, tolerance and unselfish charitableness which come to more and more characterize our social relations, and the humility and anonymity which serve as overarching moral principles, guiding us like the North Star as we strive to practice these principles in all our affairs.

In 1935 most of our founding members interpreted the personality change and the guiding principles as spiritual. This was a normal way to understand and describe the phenomenon in question, following in the traditions long established by Christianity and the Oxford Group which served as the fertile soil from which Alcoholics Anonymous blossomed. However, if these experiences and principles were interpreted and described today, they would probably not be described as ‘spiritual’.

The transformative experience which we are so fortunate as to benefit from, sweeping and all encompassing though it may be, is far more likely to be described as a psychological phenomenon than a spiritual one. Likewise, the principles which guide our lives as persons in recovery would probably be interpreted and described as some combination of psychologically and morally beneficial. Living this way means employing attitudes and actions which leave us feeling good about ourselves, good about how we have comported our relations, when we come to lay our head down on the pillow at the end of each 24 hour period. Accordingly, they would be experiences and principles interpreted as psychologically, morally, and socially beneficent.

As an atheist member of Alcoholics Anonymous, I have experienced what the big book describes as a spiritual experience, and I live, to the best of my ability, one day at a time, according to what are referred to as spiritual principles. But I do not interpret or describe either as spiritual. I get that this was how they were understood 80 years ago. But I believe, as a grateful member of Alcoholics Anonymous, that this interpretation is antiquated and no longer best describes the relevant phenomenon.

Many might tend to think that this is merely a semantic issue, a quibbling over words. This is a very common attitude in the fairly liberal Alcoholics Anonymous where I live. What we believe is somehow held to be distinct from, and irrelevant to, how we live our lives. As I heard one member say recently, apparently quoting the Dalai Lama: “God. No God. No problem.” This captures the spirit that believing members and non-believing members are functionally identical, and that there is no fundamental gap which separates us. What one believes is, in this view, entirely irrelevant to how one lives one’s life generally, to our process of recovery more specifically.

According to this view, everyone should be free to believe whatever helps them to stay sober. I fully agree with this obviously laudable view. I have known the lower hells of addiction and alcoholism, and I would not wish such on my worst enemy, if I had one. But I would like to suggest two reasons why what we believe is not as irrelevant as we might like it to be.

First, spirituality places the problem, and the solution, outside of the realm of the natural. In accordance with long standing Christian tradition, such thinking assumes humanity to be intrinsically sinful. But we know now, scientifically and factually, that this is not the case. Humans are as naturally cooperative as we are competitive, as naturally compassionate and giving as we are selfish, as naturally kind and tolerant as we are mean spirited. What matters, we have found, is what we cultivate. Human goodness does not flow from some other realm, just as human evil does not. We no longer look to supernatural realms to explain human goodness, nor should we.

Such naturalistic interpretations of the experiences and principles which come to shape our lives as recovering persons have the dual advantage of being both more factually accurate and, at the same time, offering the potential for increasingly improved understanding, knowledge and progress. Super-natural interpretations, as our founders were forced to employ by virtue of their historical limitations, do not share these advantages.

Recovery consists precisely of we humans cultivating those beneficent, psychologically sound and morally pro-social traits which are entirely natural and very much an integral part of human animal nature. It is high time we recognize that recovery is not un-natural. On the contrary, it is entirely about humans learning to emphasize and live by the finest of our natural traits and attributes.

Second, a more contemporary, evidence friendly interpretation, without supernatural components, will improve our accessibility and overall effectiveness. When I left that treatment center years ago I was told that only ten percent of us would make it. Today, there are millions of alcoholics and addicts all around the world in need. It would be very generous indeed to assume that AA has sobered up 10%. In fact, membership is falling of late, if I am not mistaken. And this is not because we need to go backwards, “back to basics”. Exactly the opposite. Our primary purpose should be to figure out how we can better help those in need, not to defend Alcoholics Anonymous as it was in 1935, to sanctify the ‘first 164’ and divine them holy writ. We need to move beyond “My AA, right or wrong”!

Many will not come to AA because we have a reputation as a religious organization, a reputation confirmed by the United States legal system itself. Even worse, our fine organization is sometimes imagined to be a cult of some kind. In order to shed such preconceptions and others, in order to reach the highest possible number of those brothers and sisters in need, I believe we need to consider emphasizing the more humanist, secular, natural, and thereby universal, components in our most excellent and diverse tool kit.

Removing the overused, ambiguous concept of ‘spirituality’ from our parlance might be a first step in moving closer to a naturalistic, universally applicable, and scientifically accurate account of the transformative experiences we are so fortunate to have deliver us from the bondage of alcoholism and addiction, closer to a more accurate, naturalistic account of the important guiding principles which we come to live by as long term recovering members in the fine fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.

CSR CoverAdam is an alcoholic and addict, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and an atheist.  He is the author of Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous and is currently working on a second manuscript whose subject matter concerns reinterpreting the tools and modalities of recovery for our increasingly secular world.

A number of chapters from his book and other articles by Adam have been posted on AA Agnostica. His most recent article, posted on July 5, 2015,  was The Great Chain of Being.

33 Responses

  1. dave b says:

    As mentioned in this forum several months ago, the Santa Monica mtg last year had a “spiritual” subgroup. The elephant in the room was, everybody, including the leaders, had a different view of the concept. When there’s no consensus on a definition, how can its value, if any, be assessed? It’ll likely never happen, but I vote (if I had one) that AA dump this word.

  2. Laurie A says:

    So what does ‘mean SPIRITED’ mean. It’s clearly not supernatural, but if spiritual is redundant so is spirit (except in alcohol!). There can be no such thing as an ephemeral human spirit. That’s not my belief or understanding.

    • daniel says:

      To me spiritual means connection. I was disconnected from life and people. Coming here joining a group, getting a sponsor, starting to take actions that I would not have taken on my own was because of my connection to you folks.
      Wilson talks of the spiritual malady,being restless, irritable and discontent, the destruction of all my relationships, being full of fear, unhappiness etc. etc., all these things are problems of the inside, the spirit if you will. Until I started to look and do something about them I did not change. This is why I think the program is spiritual. Yes we have plenty of religious folks running around pontificating of what we should do, we also have a group of atheists shouting how they got sober, I simply avoid these groups and associate with people who carry the AA message daily.

      • Johnny says:

        I love the AA message keep coming back, don’t drink no matter what, do the next right thing in life, keep it simple. As far as all the our father, my creator, lord, him, God mumbo gumbo it’s a bunch of horse shit. IMHO. But Love yes I can go down the road with that, day in day out!

      • Jim says:

        Restlessness is a human condition. The human condition is not a spiritual malady.

  3. John S says:

    Adam has influenced my thinking about the program more than any author that I’ve read since I started this journey of AA without God.

    I seem to go back and forth constantly as to whether spirituality has any place in my life. My most recent opinion has been that spirituality is like poetry, it’s a way of communicating and sharing my experience with others.

    I do think it’s best to be more specific about what I mean by spirituality by describing the actions I took and the results I received from those actions.

    So, I’m rethinking the whole thing now and have pretty much come full circle to where I started a few years ago. Maybe, it’s best to just be real. Reality is always much more interesting anyway.

  4. Mike in Busan says:

    Thanks, Adam, great stuff. I appreciate immensely receiving these articles each week. Being a member of a very small home group in Asia with a job does make it hard to stay connected with other aaaa’s, though I do my best to keep “not-god” open as a possibility to newcomers. All in all, I know that honesty and self-revelation and behavior change lead to a change in attitude and that somehow the obsession to drink went away. I also know that when I’m helping others, my thinking gets less self-centered, less crazy.
    I’m also pretty sure that these are actions that I am choosing to take, and that other people with the same issues and mine are connecting, sharing, and overcoming those liabilities together, and not alone. And like folks here, I don’t see any need for a supernatural explanation for “do useful thing – feel less useless.” Seems simple enough to me! Again, thanks!

  5. Bob C says:

    So well written and so much said.

    My only challenge with a stark atheism is a belief in a mechanical universe, which itself has been transcended in ways by contemporary science. It seems to me that only European modern cultures have made spirituality and healthcare a dichotomy. In some ways, AA was part of a return to understanding the sacred in the material. The world of organisms is not straightforward at all, and often conforms to the nonsensical rather than logic or the laws of cause and effect. It is in my opinion, science and healthcare need to evolve from a mechanical view of the universe and ourselves.

    • Mike in Busan says:

      If I may, I don’t see that atheism and strictly mechanical universes have to go together. That’s too much of an over-conflation. Happiness, laughter, and joy make for improved health, yes? Why is that? Possibly hormonal, maybe chemical? I have no idea, but it’s certainly not sterile, even if mechanical. Look at the world of the very small–yes, even physicists can’t explain how it works, and there is a sense of awe that we can say what happens, but not why, and we can predict probabilities, but not certainties. The world is quite mysterious. Does that require the existence of a sentient overseer? I don’t believe it does. There is awe and mystery – and maybe we will find better explanations in time – maybe not. We probably will if we keep looking.
      Beyond that, I want my healthcare distinct from spirituality. I do not look with fondness at a time when mental illness was “demons” and the prescribed treatment was a good exorcism or a nice burning! I like my medicine evidence-based!!

      • Bob C says:

        Thanks, I agree, my wording gets black and white at times. Im working on it. Although you did bring the point back to the idea that the world around us is a mechanical one. I believe this is simply untrue.

        As for medicine? Yes! I agree! evidence is wonderful.

        Slip into the strange world of MENTAL health, and it’s a different beast altogether. Under psychiatry’s short and fuzzy tenure, we have seen a mental health epidemic take root in North America. And in stark contrast to any other profession, where actual results determine merit, respect and public resources, these rules simply don’t apply in the baffling world of psychiatry. This is largely due to the fact that we have tried in vain to find chemical roots to mental illnesses, and no matter how much this approach has never paid off, we proceed- in my opinion, in as stubborn a fashion as the folks who brought you cupping, bleeding and exorcisms as regular medical practices.

  6. Andy says:

    The only spiritual I know is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” We had to sing it in junior high choir. It’s pretty good, but it wouldn’t keep me sober.

  7. Mark C. (MarkInTexas) says:

    Adam, and Roger, Thank You for yet another excellent, and highly relevant investigation!

    Your work is always stimulating and thoughtful, and I for one, and damned glad to be able to READ this kind of material from our secular, Naturalistic membership.

    It is very refreshing to see thoughts, essays, and articles coming out of one of the three identifiable language games within AA’s larger membership. It is my “belief” that if AA can be salvaged away from supernatural pietism, that it will be “our” language game that will provide the relevant understanding of the processes for the fastest growing segment of the North American population.

    There is no question in my mind that the FACT “our” voices are now being put into the mix with the other two, highly dominant language games, that the gates are being widened.

    I see the two dominant “language games” as:

    1. A Big Book “Literalist” approach.
    2. A Big Book “Liberalist” approach.

    Both are extremely cult like, and those two large schools of thought, and postures of interpretation, are both at odds with “our” thoroughgoing “Naturalistic/Secular/Empirical/Philosophically Precise” language game.

    Those of us who are indeed concerned to understand Nature, the Natural, ourselves and others, “this” world of “cause and effect” with no recourse to “supernaturalistic explanations,” and those types of “Liberalized” concepts of those supernaturalistic explanations, are well served by this essay.

    While it would seem the fist two language games/orientations in AA, the Literalist, and the Liberalist would be diametrically opposed to one another, they are in tandem in opposition to “our” more philosophically, and empirically precise orientation, and our description of our stories.

    Roger C. mentioned he’d like to post this thought provoking essay on another “secret” site. Yet he thinks it would be removed along with a sharp rebuke.

    Post it anyway. Would that be the Rowdy Rum? I’ve found as many “Liberalizer” folks there who are in fact as hostilely opposed to our language game as are any garden variety fundamentalist Big Book Literalist. 🙂

    Happy Sunday Heathens!
    Peace from the West Texas Bible Belt!

  8. Eric C. says:

    I disagree that “spirituality places the problem, and the solution, outside of the realm of the natural,” as the author states.

    Not all uses of the words “spirit,” “spiritual” and “spirituality” point to anything supernatural.

    Most people recognize that the “human spirit,” the “fighting spirit,” the “spirit of cooperation,” the “spirit of love,” and “team spirit,” for example, are entirely natural human phenomena that are powerful enough to effect the kinds of transformative changes the author describes so well.

    I won’t be holding my breath for AA to drop the use of the term “spiritual” anytime soon. In the meantime, atheists and agnostics in AA should not shy away from using the term, but should make it abundantly clear what we mean by natural, human spirituality.

    • Adam N says:

      Excellent points. At the same time, the historic root of ‘spirituality’ is in a duality which, as a materialistic atheist, I think is factually misleading. The historic schism between the material and the spiritual necessarily implies the existence of a super-natural realm. This is in fact the historic tradition from which the Oxford group and Alcoholics Anonymous both stemmed. As such, anyone who attempts, as you suggest, to co-opt the term and apply it in more humanistic manners is, to some extent, buying into this scientifically misleading and Christianity induced schism. Perhaps, though I laud your sentiment, ‘twould be better to simply employ alternative, entirely non-conference approved, original language to the project. We can talk about a psychological transformation or living by moral or ethical principles. Utilizing ‘lingo’ is a part of what makes people think we’re a cult anyway. Freethinking should perhaps go hand in hand with free-speaking. Just some thoughts. All in all, though, an excellent critique, Eric. Thank you for your thoughtful input to the dialogue.

      • Mark C. (MarkInTexas) says:


        You put, “We can talk about a psychological transformation or living by moral or ethical principles. Utilizing ‘lingo’ is a part of what makes people think we’re a cult anyway. Freethinking should perhaps go hand in hand with free-speaking.”

        This is quite the challenge, isn’t it? And it surely takes quite a bit of time, and THOUGHT to find our individual narrative that describes our stories in ways that are not “polluted” by the confusion of the vestiges of Supernaturalistic Theism in it’ two basic forms, the “Literalist,” or “Liberalist.”

      • Eric Carlson says:

        If you haven’t read it already, I would recommend you consider reading “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion” by neuroscientist Sam Harris. “Spirituality” is too useful a word to let the religious own it.

    • Mark C. (MarkInTexas) says:

      Eric, sure, IF one is very careful from the OUTSET to define and describe this IDEA of “spirit” in Naturalistic terms as you do above.

      Unfortunately, all to often, this is not what happens in real time.

      What occurs in real time in many meetings, is that a “Liberalized” “language game” is being expressed.

      What is being “Liberalized” is a demonstrably false, original, “Literalist,” Theistic, Supernaturalistic conception, and language game.

  9. johnny says:


  10. life-j says:

    Adam, I always basically agree with you, and appreciate the things you write. Spirituality is hopelessly mixed up with religion. And yet, here, in the BB of all places is a definition of spiritual experience:

    … in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.

    This is, presumably Carl Jung, on page 27. This to me is a sufficient description of a spiritual experience, though then he goes on to tell whoever it is that… I have never been successful with an alcoholic of your description.

    This then is the point where god enters the picture in Bill Wilson’s program. Maybe there are people so messed up that all there is left for them is to pray.

    Only later did Bill Wilson backpeddle, because he wanted his movement to get big, very big, and include as many as possible, and I guess he also realized, after the religious folks had taken his movement and run off with it, that maybe insisting on the god stuff had not been such a good idea.

    • Brent P. says:

      Spiritual, going all the way back to to the 1200’s and its Latin origins, meant “of breath”. It’s easy to extend that to the idea that the spirit is life itself, breath being the “life force”. As long as we’re breathing we are among many other things, have a spiritual experience.

      Bill Wilson’s experience at Towns Hospital was a psychedelic experience. He had been administered the psychotropic hallucinogen belladonna (deadly nightshade). Standard procedure in those days. Similar to LSD and latterly used to bolster LSD experiences, it fostered hallucinations, heightened perceptions and, in some cases, psychotic breaks.
      However, there isn’t a story teller alive who won’t admit to enhancing the truth in order to make a point. Wilson saw God. So did a lot of younger folks who took LSD a decade or so later.

      Bill lost his way after his basic insight, one alcoholic helping another. It was likely the need to codify what stands now as “the program”. Given the times and his personal experiences growing up, religion was a thread that bound Americans from coast to coast, border to border. While certain pockets of the States were clearly more devoted to the church than others, God explained what man couldn’t.

      Bill’s appendix was likely added due to a sort of “lunch bag letdown”. Nobody else was having the kind of psychedelic experience Bill described as a “spiritual experience”. So he probably leapt for joy when he came across William James and his “educational variety” of the same experience. Except James was describing something that occurs to all people of relatively sound mind who experience the passage of time, they know more than they did when they were younger.
      I have yet to be drawn to the mystical since I quit drinking. Everything about it was banal, prosaic. Getting accustomed to functioning without my drug of choice. Learning to have fun without chemically altering my state of mind. Getting back to being productive. Eating humble pie when I saw my friends enjoying the fruits of their labour while I was still labouring. It was called, where I came from, growing up.

      Fortunately I never lost my spirit. If I had I would be dead. And every time I take a breath I’m having a spiritual experience.

  11. John says:

    Alas, I am a member of a sect! I try to apply the serenity prayer in relation to the evangelical comments and just take what good I hear! I am 81 and came into AA when I was 35. I try to help the free-thinkers when they express their doubts. If AA does not grow, it will fade like the Oxford group! Alas!

  12. Thomas Brinson says:

    Bravo Adam !~!~!

    I’d comment more, but it’s onerous on an iPhone; maybe later this afternoon when I’m home after the Beyond Belief meeting.

  13. Jeb B. says:

    I am happy to read a reasonable understanding of the underlying process in lifelong recovery AA literature has tried to convey from its beginnings. The evolution of understanding and our fellowship has produced many helpful, as well as unhelpful interpretations and dogma in some groups. I often say in those religious meetings (because they chant prayers of any kind) that AA as such has nothing to do with religion, it is about the spiritual, meaning non-material in our lives, our thoughts, feelings, ideas and dreams, of those invisible things that affect our behaviors and relationships. It is the continued use of the process of thinking things through outlined on pages 60 through 88 or 103 that can produce the desired result.

  14. Roger C says:

    Marvelous article. Wish I could post it on our secret FB site that goes out hither and yon. Unfortunately, it would almost certainly be removed immediately by an administrator, and with a sharp rebuke.

    • life-j says:

      Not that I go on facebook anyway – they only accept people with real names – so I once instead signed up as Bob with no problem, but what’s the point?

      Anyway, curious what that facebook page is…

  15. Ed W. says:

    HarperCollins English Dictionary has one definition particular of spiritual that I can vibe with:

    “spiritual (adj.) … 4. having a mind or emotions of a high and delicately refined quality.”

    To me such a quality thus defined is closer to a nauralistic transformative experience than something divine or supernatural.

    My point: There is a definition of spiritual that can work for us in the meantime. A.A. seems to have two rates of change, super-slow and stopped…

    Thanks for sharing such a well thought out article.

    • Lon Mc. says:

      Of course, Ed, it is clear that you have come upon one definition of “spiritual” with which you are comfortable. But to try to redefine “spiritual” for the entire AA fellowship is an impossible task. Fifty-three years ago (before I could recognize that I was an incubating alcoholic) I was told live by an AA member, whose story is in the Second Edition of Alcoholics Anonymous, “AA is not a religious program; it is a spiritual program.” To this day this same cop-out by the majority in our fellowship is being used as chum to hook the yet-ill and vulnerable newcomer to follow the yellow brick road in order to find the fictional Wizard.

      The common interpretations of “spiritual” in AA reinforce fundamentalist convictions. We will not be able to change this even with your higher-speed “super-slow” approach. Your concept is not the problem. The word “spiritual” is.

      • Adam N says:

        Lon Mc:
        I wholeheartedly agree. The word carries so much dualist, anti-science, religious, anti-evidence baggage that, frankly, I am genuinely surprised at how often and loud and vehement is the protest I hear from those who do not agree that we should just stop using the term altogether. That is what I do. What I propose is simply that we each find our own personal, clear, precise and hopefully more baggage-free means of expressing our experience, strength & hope.

      • Ed W. says:

        I’m all for changing the language, I’m just realistic on the outlook of how and when it will happen. I use words like ‘spiritual’ and ‘H.P.’ only in the context of traditional meetings to explain my secular/scientific equivalents to our believing fellows, which are usually well received.

  16. bob k says:


    There are many things here with which I agree, not the least of which is that the religiosity of AA is off-putting to an increasing segment of our society. Perhaps we should “let go of our old ideas” in a different way.

    I love “A Christmas Carol” and the need for transformation. A danger in Heathen AA is the notion that quitting drinking, hanging with the folks a bit, and knocking what we don’t like is the answer. I don’t think it is.

    I myself have been “transformed,” albeit, not in any religious way, but I have undergone “a profound alteration” in my reaction to life. No longer is there a daily struggle to NOT drink. There was no magic to this – I see it as a matter of psychology.

    AA offers some powerful potential for change through self-examination, amends, letting go, helping others, etc. Too bad the good stuff is hidden beneath the hosannas. I fear that increasingly smaller numbers of people will stay around long enough to weed through it.

    Thank God for the agnostic, atheist, freethinker movement in AA!! 😉

    New meeting, Ajax Freethinkers, starts in two weeks. OUR portion is GROWING!!

  17. dave b says:

    This is a great article – perpetually upbeat. It recognizes the inadequate religious terminology used when our basic social, co-operative human nature goes awry – SIN. Humans are as naturally co-operative as we are competitive … etc. Well put. I might add one of the worst parts of our evolutionary heritage is being able to dehumanize our perceived enemies, thereby listening exclusively to our baser side. I have long recognized that choosing to pay attention to that positive side of my human nature is the same thing my religious friends do. The difference is, they think they’re being guided by a higher power.

    • Lance B. says:

      This is indeed a great article, as are all I’ve read by Adam N. As usual I am left thinking that he did not say anything I did not know and almost could have said – but not quite. I thought there is nothing I can think of to add to this treatise. And yet what you say Dave, certainly does add to the easily understood positive explanation. Your comment is also a clearly stated view which caused me to just wish I could have put it into those same words. Thank you both.

      The article has been printed and shall be present at our 10 AM WAAFT this morning. It may or may not be read as we always seem to have plenty to talk about, but I hope to study these thoughts with others’ input. I’ll bring my copy of “Common Sense Recovery” along also. I read that on the internet immediately upon getting a teaser from aaagnostica, spending a great Sunday on little else.

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