AA Needs to Grow Up
An adapted Buddhist quote: “I do not see any other factor that is as helpful to sobriety as this: good friendship.”
By Maureen H
The chairperson at the “As Bill Sees It” AA meeting selected the topic of “faith.” I have attended this meeting since my fourth day of sobriety, one of four separate meetings I have attended every week for the last year. The meetings are diverse in style and philosophy, and I consider them all “home.” The chair that evening pointed out that not everyone there believed in a traditional god (me) and asked that we focus on the role of the group as a Higher Power. It didn’t happen that way.
The first reading included a St. Paul-like experience of conversion and a miraculous cure of depression. The second involved turning control of our lives over to God. The discussion that followed was entirely theistic, with some even ridiculing the concept that the group could be considered a higher power.
I thought carefully about what to share, or to simply pass. I have always been respectful to the deists, admitting that I simply had no idea about what was possible in that area. I have always stood and bowed my head during the Lord’s Prayer, and even participated out of respect and the realization that as a newcomer I didn’t want to assert myself. I am open-minded and read literature like “One Big Tent”. I do feel the responsibility to state, however, that the higher power concept can be framed in a different way for everyone.
I had found an agnostic sponsor and was working the Steps, using The Alternative Twelve Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery, although my sponsor repeatedly (gently) reminded me not to mention that to anyone or discuss non-AA approved topics at meetings or afterward during fellowship.
I avoid the Big Book completely. After reading the chapter “We Agnostics” that assured me I would find God or God would find me, I never went back.
In retrospect, I wish I had done what I usually do at “God” meetings: breathe, meditate, and listen to the qualities of voice. But at this particular meeting I elected to share the quote at the top of this page. I began in the usual way of my practice: “The Buddha said…” And I was stopped cold.
“You can’t quote Buddha. It’s not AA approved literature. You can paraphrase, but not quote.” I was speechless.
I live in a coastal resort area. The majority of AA members are Christian retired upper-middle class white folk. There are no people of the Jewish or Islamic faith, and people of color or other ethnicities are essentially absent. I understand that differences may make these decent people uncomfortable and defensive, and lead to the safety and security of dogma. But rules about what is acceptable to say violate what I believe about AA – “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
Once, after sharing my concept of a higher power, I was told by a member of this group there were other places to stay sober if “God” in AA didn’t work for me.
At another group, the mere suggestion that we consider closing with something other than the Lord’s Prayer was rather violently opposed, with the same “If they don’t like it, they can leave.”
And yet, I have been attending this meeting since my fourth day of sobriety. There are two women there who practically scraped me off the pavement as I stumbled in hours after my last drink. I was fond of the regulars and looked forward to seeing them. I could not have gotten sober without AA.
But I fear there is no continued place for me in AA if I cannot share my deeply held spiritual beliefs and be treated with the same respect I offer others. My agnostic friends advise “speaking in code.” Isn’t that the dishonesty we try to avoid?
I find the discussions about choosing your own higher power disingenuous, particularly the one about “it’s not the words, it’s the principle”. Being told you will “come around” or “just try it” is demeaning, and the insistence that without accepting god one can never stay sober is simply untrue. The particular arguments in AA about choosing your own higher power are often circuitous, always coming back to a male deity. We cannot continue to hide behind “Higher Power” or “God as we understand Him.” Words are powerful. They do matter. They can make people feel unwelcome, disrespected, and ashamed.
I am often thanked after meetings for my courage in speaking up, and I wonder how much more difficult recovery must be for those who are afraid to say what they believe.
Secular AA meetings exist in larger urban areas, but the few here are an hour away and difficult for me to attend. A group of us – theists and non-theists – started a sangha (community) of Refuge Recovery, a Buddhist association, using the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path adapted for addressing addiction, including a daily traditional meditation practice. We are all active AA members, and consider Refuge Recovery an adjunct to AA, and Refuge Recovery encourages continued regular AA participation. None of us have decreased our AA meeting attendance. However, since this is not an AA-approved organization, I am told I cannot talk about it.
Tradition Five states: “Each group has but one primary purpose: to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” I don’t understand how I can do that if I’m not allowed to discuss what is working for me and what options are available for non-Christians and non-theists.
Many of my professional acquaintances – doctors, psychologists, and social workers – have mentioned to me the reluctance of people to attend AA because of the “God thing.” Those that do try AA often never return to a second meeting. As we move forward, we must grow and change if we follow Tradition Five. Bill W. said as much in his later writings as he warned of the dangers of rigidity and conformity.
There are no restrictions on race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or lack of them in the Responsibility Statement. If we follow the Steps in all our affairs, we cannot pay only lip service to it. No one is saying to “Throw out the Big Book” but we must welcome people with open-mindedness and compassion, realizing and accepting that our world is no longer like Bill’s. By encouraging open discussions, we can interpret Bill’s words into principles that are universal, independent of a particular spiritual belief system.
The Buddha said: “In separateness lies the world’s greatest misery; in compassion lies the world’s true strength.”
Maureen’s education was at Catholic schools, including college. Her aunt was a nun, and her father spent two years in the seminary preparing for priesthood. He approached the Church, but never his faith, with skepticism that influenced his only child. Early in her medical career, Maureen began to question the religious interpretation of the suffering around her. The challenges of her career, major depressive disorder, and a serious assault at work left her without a spiritual life of any sort for many years. She never developed her interest in Eastern philosophy until after she reached that point of desperation and surrender and faced her alcoholism.
During her first year of sobriety, she has used a multi-disciplinary approach to recovery, composed of four AA meetings and several hours with a sponsor every week, psychotherapy and medication, reading, yoga, and daily mindfulness meditation in the Buddhist tradition. This has been the most difficult year of her life. But as the Promises come true, mostly slowly, she knows that it has also been the best.