By Tom P.
I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts.
― Albert Einstein, The World As I See It
While I was actively drinking, I was convinced that AA would not work for me. There were many factors behind this belief, the most important being the religious nature of the program. Having felt harmed by the religion of my youth, then ostracized as a non-theist, I could not picture getting any help in a program where I would be “praying only for knowledge of His will for (me) and the power to carry that out” [Step Eleven]. I had also heard from my own patients over the years that AA tried to “shove religion down your throat”; this common complaint reinforced my misgivings.
I was pleasantly surprised, even shocked, by the reality of what I found in AA meetings. The references to God in members’ personal sharing were few and were fairly low-key. The “God-talk” did not seem overbearing or coercive, at least at first. The members were just sharing about themselves, and if God was important to them, then God was important to them, and it seemed reasonable to mention it. After all, I did want to hear from all members about their experience, strength and hope – as long as they did not push anything on me. Contrary to my expectation, I did not feel that anybody was trying to shove anything down my throat. Rather, the absence of crosstalk, the lack of interrupting and the undivided attention we give to one another while sharing was the most respectful way to fellowship with others that I had ever experienced. From the very first meeting, I felt that I belonged and that there was a solution to my problem.
Now with almost a year in the program I remain high on AA, and am attending Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics as well. Yet, my relief and amazement at the seemingly low-key nature of the program’s religiosity during those first few months has given way to mixed feelings of respect and admiration on the one hand, but also sadness and concern on the other hand. I will share a bit more about my background, and then come back to my current thoughts and feelings.
It was not hard to leave the religion of my youth. Not only did the dogma seem absurd, but thinking of the church as a “club” that had insiders and outsiders, I definitely wanted to be an outsider. I wanted nothing to do with it. My own opinion is that the primary psychological driver underlying the religious impulse in our species is the wish to belong. How else can you explain people’s willingness to suspend critical thought, and profess to believe the most ridiculous of ideas? For many reasons, I felt I did not belong in the church, and did not want to belong. It was easy for me to become a non-theist, as I did not think I was leaving anything of value behind, and I hoped to escape the burden of guilt and shame that it drilled into me. Excited by my newfound freedom of thought, I mentioned my de-conversion once at my public school. My peers looked at me with such disgust and loathing, I quickly concluded that I had best avoid the topic altogether.
The dominant AA creed I have found in meetings and in the Grapevine is that there is a God who is always with us, watching us, and He sometimes arranges coincidences that have good outcomes, or, if something bad happens, He allows it to happen in order to teach us important lessons, or because it leads to personal growth. Sometimes members talk like God is all one God, and is involved with everybody. At other times, members talk like each person has their own God, so there would be as many Gods as there are people.
In the big scheme of things, this AA view of God is relatively benign. There is no talk of eternal fire, and when God does arrange events in people’s lives or allow bad things to happen, they are always toward a greater good, not to harm people as the gods of classical Greece sometimes did. So why am I concerned about this dominant AA creed? If the view of God is relatively benign, why not just “let them [most AA members] have their God,” as one fellow non-theist AA member scolded me?
My concern is not so much about individual members, as it is about AA as a whole. Thinking again about AA as a club, most of us see it as overwhelming good, and we want to belong. I do feel like I belong. Yet, it seems that in members’ wish to belong to the AA club they adopt the dominant AA creed of the “God of Coincidence.” How else can you explain that otherwise intelligent and savvy people would discount the obvious explanation that coincidences are inevitable, and positive coincidences are more likely for those who are drug-free, grateful, willing, and working to overcome their selfishness. Just as members of a church accept the sect’s religious teachings in order to belong, and show this acceptance by professing their faith, members of AA seem to look for positive happenstances in their lives, and attribute them to God in order to (unconsciously of course) cement their feeling that they truly belong with AA. In another context, I expect that most of these members would see the same events as simply fortunate chance happenings that occur now and then.
So, for those members who adopt the AA God of Coincidence there is no problem. They adopt the creed, feel like they fully belong, and go about their recovery. Yet, the doctrine creates some problems.
First off, this doctrine alienates people like me, makes me feel like an outsider, like I don’t belong. It rekindles the painful ostracism I have felt in society as a non-theist. At one meeting last Fall, one member started by describing a bad accident she was in, and attributed the fact that it was not worse to the God of Coincidence working in her life. As we went around the table, member after member described something that had happened to them as the God of Coincidence working in their lives, and some of the examples were as trivial as God leading them to the right store to find the item that the member was looking for. (At least nobody mentioned parking spots!) I felt like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room, and I couldn’t breathe. When it was my turn to share I choked out something about feeling on the outside, and how painful it has been for me over the years. They assured me that I belonged there – and then they closed with the Lord’s Prayer. Arghh! I have not returned to that particular meeting.
Secondly, the God of Coincidence doctrine is a barrier to helping other alcoholics who are still suffering. Almost all religious beliefs can make perfect sense to insiders, but seem ridiculous to outsiders. When I was an outsider I would have thought, and still think, that the idea that God micromanages our lives is silly and childish, that it was just one of many nonsense beliefs that would prevent me from getting anything out of AA. Yet, if I just had walked in the door five years ago just to check things out for myself, and seen that the religious stuff was not as big an obstacle as I thought, I might have come back, and saved myself and the people I love a lot of grief. How many alcoholics are out there destroying their lives, convinced that AA’s religious bent means it could never work for them? Does AA exist just to nurture the insider (a primary focus of many churches, though my childhood faith focused on obligation to the church above all else), or do we also take tradition five seriously – “to carry (the) message to (all) the alcoholic(s) who still suffer”?
In summary, my view is that humanity’s need to belong, and the insider/outsider dynamics that go with it, goes a long way to explain why AAs often embrace the God of Coincidence. These dynamics help explain why we get blank stares or opposition from most AA members when we discuss the religious nature of the program. What’s the problem, asks the insider. If people want help, they are welcome to join the club, accept some kind of Higher Power, and they too can get the riches the program has to offer. Yet, we also want people to discover and embrace their true selves, and for some of us adopting the God of Coincidence, or labelling anything as a “Higher Power,” would be a self-betrayal. I love AA, it saved my life, and I have no Higher Power. All three of these statements are true. For me, step three is about becoming willing to swallow my pride, and accept the help, wisdom and love the program has to offer. I wish I did not have to talk-around the Higher Power issue when I am sharing in meetings, to hide a part of myself. But then again, it has not been too hard for me to do. I have had a lifetime of practice.
Tom P. is a physician who spent twenty years working in mental health, when the ability to control his own drinking vanished. Having seen it happen in his own life, he now understands addiction in a way he never did before. He is a grateful member of AA, and two other 12 Step fellowships. His beautiful, devoted wife has found deep meaning, understanding and guidance in Al-Anon.
Dr. Tom sees no evidence that the universe cares whether the Earth or us homo sapiens are here or not, but he also thinks that AA demonstrates the great good humanity can do when we hold hands, unite and take some responsibility for one another. He is also the author of another article posted on AA Agnostica on February 1, 2015, The Doorknob Deity.