It’s Not You, It’s Them: How Zealots Threaten Your Safety

By David Bohl

It seems to me that now, more than ever, religion and religious beliefs have been at the forefront, infiltrating our lives, whether we like it or not. As a member and a follower of a few secular recovery groups, I’ve observed several discussions where people have voiced their frustration with what they were experiencing in traditional groups. A lot of people believe – or say they believe – that god will get them through this tough time in their lives, and it is the ones who have a god who claim to be thriving better under the dire circumstances of lockdown life. Whether that’s true or not, it is the typical nonchalance of faith enthusiasts, and it doesn’t do much for their fellows other than make them feel inferior or defective because their beliefs are different or not as strong.

I am inclined to think that those who shout about god being great and getting them through COVID-19 are so loud because they need to deafen the insecurity and fear they feel. Those are the natural human emotions when going through a crisis, but, of course, if you have god, you should feel no fear or insecurity, so you better proselytize about the benefits of prayer and conscious contact and so on.

Recently, I got a text message from a friend, and in the message the friend has referred to Jesus. It was Easter Sunday. It baffled me that a friend who knew of my beliefs – or lack of – would send that kind of text. It’s not like getting it would get me to suddenly get down on my knees and shout, “He has risen!” In the end, I knew that was about her, not me, even though she disregarded who I was as a person and what my values were, at that moment. I considered sending a witty reply but decided it would be pointless, and it would probably result in some back-and-forth that would potentially lead to an argument that neither of us would win. At the same time, it is frustrating to me that I must continually take the high road and ignore religion flaunted in my face – in my former recovery groups, on television and everywhere else. My boundaries are strained, and I feel exhausted.

Of course, many respectful and reasonable people have religion out there, but they tend to stay quiet and only offer their opinions when asked. This is how I too conduct myself. I write this blog and offer my beliefs here because my readers seek me out – I would never think of sending a link to, let’s say this post, to a friend who goes to church.

The truth about recovery movement is that a lot of groups are based on 12 steps, which are, in turn, based on the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, which contains a lot of references to god and which uses a lot of religious concepts (“defects of character” can easily be a euphemism for “sin,” and doing a “public inventory” is not that different from confession). Unfortunately, many people join groups where those teachings are prevalent. Yet, we tend to forget that people come to these groups looking for a solution to their addiction problem, and when they do, they are often told they need to concede and embrace things that go against their deepest-held beliefs.

But what happens when vulnerable people are told what to believe?  It damages them. It damages them because it makes them feel misunderstood or not cared for. They feel misplaced even within the community of seemingly like-minded individuals who share the same problem. They feel unsafe and unheard. They often feel manipulated, controlled, and instead of being validated and accepted, they find rejection and disapproval. Imposing one’s beliefs and philosophy will lead not only to a lack of safety and trust, but it might also ultimately result in shaming the recipient – humiliation and disgrace that could be lethal at the time a person is seeking support.

I know this might seem harsh, but it’s the truth. In my practice as a consultant and counselor, I’ve found that treating someone with unconditional positive regard is the way to build a relationship of safety and acceptance. If you are a part of a group that makes you feel unsafe, unsure, or aggressively ignored because of what you do or don’t believe, you need to get out of there. If you feel that you’re questioning your sanity now because some ecstatic individual in your group has found god and this god is helping them through COVID-19, then you need to find the place where you can share honestly and where not having god in your life is not a liability, or worse, where it means you’re more vulnerable to a deadly virus.

Ultimately, we better get better at beneficence.  If we cannot be accepting and supportive of each person, providing a safe place for them to develop personally, then we should, at the very least, do no harm.


David B. Bohl, author of the memoir Parallel Universes:  The Story of Rebirth, is an independent addiction consultant who fully understands the challenges faced by so many who seek to escape from, or drown their pain through, external means. His story offers hope to those struggling with the reality of everyday life in today’s increasingly stressful world.

Through his private practice substance use disorder consulting business, Beacon Confidential LLC, David provides independent professional consultation, strategic planning, motivation and engagement, care coordination, recovery management and monitoring, and advocacy services to individuals, families, and organizations struggling with substance use issues and disorders.


 

43 Responses

  1. Mike B says:

    David, thought provoking article, thanks.

    I’ve been out of traditional meetings for almost two years now, and without secular meetings anywhere within fifty miles, that leaves this website as my meeting. I feel like I graduated from AA school and have had no thought or desire for a drink for five years now.

    I’m still in touch with a few members, two of whom send me God bless you messages and occasional religious tracts, but I just put it down to who they are and understanding that’s the way they communicate.

    I don’t feel they’re disrespecting my atheism, just that they aren’t where I am on their respective journeys.

    I took on several battles during my time in AA. I called out thirteenth steppers and fought hard to change the culture of my home group to make it harder for them to exploit and harm newcomers and those less comfortable with calling the practice out. That was a fight worth having, and I’m proud to have won it. On the other hand, the Big Book Bashers and God bothering zealots took me on and won, but not until I was in a safe enough place for it not to affect my sobriety.

    I find myself in the position of knowing and liking these people enough to believe their contact is well intentioned and being entirely unthreatened by their beliefs. It’s the way they communicate with everyone, I’m familiar enough with their language to know they’re not trying to convert me. And if they are, then my life is rich and full and busy enough to let it go.

    That I believe something different is irrelevant to our friendships, their belief in God has no bearing on my belief that there isn’t one, a belief I’m comfortable enough with that somebody blessing me isn’t going to spoil my day.

    They, and other “believers” were there for me in AA when I needed help, which I was happy to take. In the last year, I’ve bumped into people who had also walked away from meetings I used to attend because of the God stuff and were in a blind panic about the inevitability of picking up again. I was able to reassure them from my own experience that it’s not inevitable, and they’ve all thanked me for it.

    So I ask myself, should I fall out with my friends because we disagree over something they consider fundamental to their recovery but to me is a complete irrelevance? Neither believed in God before they came into AA. What if either or both of them was to wake up one morning and decide to revert to their heathen ways? Who do they know who got through the program without God and stayed sober? And who wants to do their bit for the alcoholic who still suffers, just not in God bothering AA? That would be me, their mate who carried on not drinking and not judging people and got on with their life.

    I used to really hate the laminated sign on the wall that said “let go let God”, but was much happier once I chose to let that resentment go, along with all the other poison. Doesn’t mean I don’t still consider it sanctimonious twaddle, or think it has any business being there.

    Am I being naive? Should I be wound up by my friends’ choices in what they consider appropriate? As a pacifist, I’m a lot less tolerant of celebratory militarist posts on Facebook, or rants from the far end of the political spectrum to where I sit than I would be about somebody praising a mythical being. I still have buttons, we all do, what makes life so interesting is trying to figure out what they are and why they matter.

    As I said, thought provoking post, which is why it’s set me off on such a lengthy think. Thanks my friend, take care

  2. John says:

    I’m just glad that I’m not the only AA member who shares these same sentiments. It’s very difficult to deal with, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left a meeting just for the sake of my soundness of mind. Thanks for the lead David.

    I’m convinced that the god stuff is here to stay. We’re making a very little impression on the whole of the fellowship. I put myself on the same level as my fellow primates. Chimps stop suckling after puberty, and they’ve gained enough self-confidence to take on their lives in their jungle. Humans never seem to acquire enough self-confidence to stop suckling on that metaphoric teat “god”. Apes are very fortunate to have 1 less chromosome as humans. They will never have to be worried about the truth.

  3. Thomas K. says:

    Why do all alternate programs basically use AA methods but use the extreme cases in the group’s which are the expected outliers you would find in a group of upwards to 2 million worldwide, to demean AA and promote themselves? Just tell folks how your program works and go forth helping folks. It will prove its own value without unnecessary comparison.

  4. Mike O says:

    You often have to be very strong in yourself and know who you are and what you believe when you’re a secular person in recovery going to mainstream 12 Step recovery meetings. The whole basis of the program as so many old-timers see it is to achieve a “spiritual awakening” as a result of “working the 12 Steps” and developing a “relationship” with your “Higher Power”. It’s the framework and worldview they operate off of. Like a carpenter who only has one tool, a hammer to work with, every situation and every problem becomes a metaphorical nail to be hammered down. Every situation in sobriety is seen through the prism of “spiritual growth”. I’ve had several people in the program outside of meetings sneeringly ask me over the years, “why are you here?” when I mention that I’m agnostic and have no intention of working a traditional program. My first sponsor called me “terminally unique” and said “you think you’re better than the millions of alcoholics who’ve found recovery before you with this program”. Then again, I’m still sober and last I saw him he looked in rough shape after an extended relapse.

    It’s ironic that the cliché from the rooms that I’ve found the most value in over the years is the one on the chips themselves, “to thine own self be true.”

    • Mike,

      I am a pragmatist, a clinician, and a businessperson. It seems imprudent to offer a solution when the problem can be so complex, doesn’t it? That treatment plan certainly works for some, yet it would be more than disingenuous to suggest it should work for all.

  5. Dan L says:

    Hi David. Thanks for sharing that essay.

    Like so many others I am trying very hard not to react harshly to the god-people in AA. It has been difficult. My first copy of Dat Big Ol’ Book got a second story defenestration when I got part way through “We Agnostics”. Then I cried. As a life long atheist and drinker my time to quit had come and I was sent to a very good recovery center. I had abandoned the Roman Catholic (Irish variant) religion of my family as a child and found nothing lacking in my life for fifty five years. My lack of faith got me through drug addiction and a war and some other nasty business and not without considerable struggle. I did notice others who were believers did no better or worse in adversity than I did. Yes we are found in foxholes. Those who say that we aren’t are just lying poseurs. Anyway.

    As life went on I finally limited my chemical vices the alcohol and in the way we sometimes do I made that work for a long time. I had been living a drunk but well intentioned secular humanist kind of life until treatment caused god to raise her head again. Fortunately I had a very good counselor who told me if I looked to my higher self or higher purpose for guidance and MADE the “program” work for me I would be fine. Ironically he is a very religious man but an ace counselor. When I came back to real life and saw what an amazing monkey jungle AA in the wild is I nearly had to leave.

    Looking to an external and magic “cure” to fix a dysfunction in my own brain (muh alerrrgy “of the body”) simply struck me as illogically demented. Much of alcoholism can be seen as a programmed response as far as I am concerned. I knew that what can be programmed in can be programmed out. Fortunately local atheists heard my screams for help and I was saved from going to prison. Murder had been on the menu for a little while.

    I have several years of abstinence punctuated by increasing clarity and occasional maturity as I get to my mid 60’s. I still know pretty much nothing about recovery but I am okay with that. The arrogance and faux wisdom of the religious are annoying still but only like an Arkansas Ozark accent is annoying. (Funny how I always picture them together these days). I work hard to make room in my heart for those stuck in piety and missing sobriety but it is hard.

    Nowadays when somebody reads Bill’s impassioned FALSE DILEMMA, “…either God is everything or else He is nothing. God either is, or He isn’t.” I can just reply, “Whatevs dude.” and when that silly choice is offered, “What was our choice to be?” I can say, “You can suit yourself. I am quite okay with nothing. Nobody answers the phone there.”

    The most amazing thing about AA is that so many people get it right when just about everybody is doing it wrong.

    • Dan,

      One heck of an experience! I think it was profoundly straightforward, eyt accurate, when you said “I have several years of abstinence punctuated by increasing clarity and occasional maturity.” That sounds like recovery to me.

  6. George says:

    Great article, David. There was a time that I wondered if I was the only one that felt this way. One can be very lonely in AA if they don’t find Their People.

  7. Gavan B. says:

    I am so happy my ma bought a copy of Erik Hoffer’s home 50 years ago.

  8. Tracey R says:

    “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

    ― Eleanor Roosevelt

    IMO, it would be worthwhile to respond to your friend, who knows how you believe, in a way that respects you both.

    For example: “[Friend], when you text me about your religious beliefs knowing that I do not share them, I feel disrespected. I value our friendship. And that includes valuing our differences. I would appreciate that, in the future, you refrain from communicating with me in a way that assumes your beliefs are all that matter. If you’d like, I’d welcome the opportunity to discuss this with you further.”

    My two cents.

    • Tracey, I appreciate your suggestion. I’m beyond that point. I tried communicating as you suggested. I laid down boundaries. The response? More of the same, not less or elimination. Time to block contact? Not yet, but always an option.

      • George says:

        Have had the same experience multiple times. Obviously there is hope that I will one day see the light. Life is full of disappointments.

  9. Melinda says:

    Yes, I get very frustrated when people who are Christians wilfully ignore my agnostic beliefs. I don’t send them pro-atheist or pro-agnostic material. The least they could do is respect my belief system too!

    • Melinda, you have every right to feel good about taking the high road. That’s what matters most. And the people who truly support you will never question that.

  10. Lisa M. says:

    Great article. Just what I needed today. I feel I am walking among land mines in the Traditional Women’s AA meeting I used to go to once per week (shut down w/ Covid -19). This pablum dished up to the religious just makes me gag and there are no safe ears for me to talk to so like another person commenting said – this website is a life line. I agree with all the historical references. Maybe me writing this doesn’t really change anything but it does me a world of mental good to be able to agree “out loud” to the non-god theme. Once my late step mom told me “religion never hurt anyone” – but IT DOES hurt people. Many examples are cited here. When people make comments like “every day I get up and hit my knees and ask god (they say GOD) what his will is for me” in AA meetings is one more push driving me out. I have a few years of sobriety and now I just don’t feel I have to go back to that once per week meeting. I don’t think I could stand it! Thanks for this opportunity to post.

    • Lisa, thanks for your thoughts and experience. You;re in the right place. It’s safe here. We understand. Your concerns are valid, as is your resolve to protect and take care of yourself. And you;re offering hope to others similarly affected. Thank you for that!

  11. Mark C. says:

    Hi David, enjoyed your article. You raise some very solid points. I staggered into AA here in the West Texas Bible Belt looking for help for this thing I could not seem to “fix” all by my lonesome. There were two AA groups in town. So, only two options were available.

    I’ve been watching conversations among atheists, agnostics, and non-theistic freethinkers in AA online for over 10 years. They are sharing their “experiences” within “conventional” AA when they are Honest about being an atheist, etc… If one is OUT OF THE CLOSET, the very high probability is that some pretty toxic stuff arises from various sorts of religious, “spiritual,” reactions from dogmatic, rigid, 12 Steppers… there will be social consequences for “that” kind of honesty. So much for Honesty and Tolerance….

    At the end of my fourth meeting, I asked a “guru,” “12 Step,” “expert” “oldtimer” dude, “How does an atheist work the Steps?” It was an honest, even desperate question… He flew into an instantaneous rage and screamed “You BETTER get GOD MotherF*$%er, OR YOU ARE GOING TO DIE!!” (that’s verbatim)

    That little exchange… (well, it wasn’t much of an exchange, but a straight forward attack on me as a human being… I don’t shock easy, but that was a wake up call… about “AA” here, at least) apparently started a “Holy War” of sorts that lasted for a full 3 years. Every day, at every meeting, some “toxic” shit would go down… started by religious/spiritual 12 Step fanatical zealots. That time period included three physical assaults, and numerous threats to violence – before meetings, during meetings, and after meetings.

    Yet, the very practical problem remained… there was nowhere else to go that on paper at least was focused on Drunks getting and Living Sober…. those who were fully engaged in the “Holy War” were a minority… yet, there they were… at every meeting talking shit about atheists in general, about non-believers in general, and some of them, about me… as the only atheist sitting in the room….

    All that shit above? That’s on THEM…. No doubt such an atmosphere (largely created by the Rhetorical Situations arising from “Conference Approved Literature – the Big Book, the Twelve and Twelve, and the Daily Reflections) is highly toxic. Find yourself in such situations and you’ll figure out pretty quick what you are made of. Most simply fold the tent, hide, or RUN away… can’t say as I blame them much.

    And there is no doubt in my mind that such general atmospheres in conventional AA has sparked and motivated the phenomenal growth of folks starting so-called “secular” AA groups, and meetings… friendly places for atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, who have a desire to stop drinking….
    All the above, in one form or another, is the proximate cause for why AA Agnostica, AA Beyond Belief, and other “secular” venues online exist… and why many of us have started groups and meetings… And I think it could be said, the “necessity” of having to do such is Standing Indictment of conventional “AA” as it is today.

    Are there many babies in all that toxic, even harmful bathwater… and many MUST leave IF they are going to figure out how they are to live sober… legions of people simply walk away in despair for damn good reasons.

    In my case, I’m just one who had “nowhere else” to go… it was either “deal” with the toxic shit you speak about, or it was going away from the people who DID in fact support me in my quest to learn to live sober… I’m thankful for those… some of those were in fact “believing Christians” and spoke out against what they were seeing what others were doing to me, or attempting to do to me.

    I decided to stay put, and double down on Honesty and Tolerance… that has widened the gates for some others… but after 10 years of this shit…and in the context of Covid-19, I am reevaluating how I want to use whatever time left on the planet.

    • Mark, thank you for sharing your experience. Sadly, many people have experienced same, including the resulting attack. How does this actually help people I wonder?

      Fight, flight, or freeze? The latest response is most dangerous to self, as you’ve illustrated. That’s why we need choices of where to go to find recovery support.

      I applaud you for immersing yourself in your values as a response. That’s clearly healthy and working for you. Keep fighting the good fight.

  12. Mark P. says:

    Another excellent article. I wonder, does ‘handing over’ problems such as covid-19 to a ‘higher power’ really relieve anxiety? Or is it rationalizing simply ignoring issues over which we have no control? As has been said, anxiety over this is normal and rational, simply burying it under a higher power is not, and may be harmful.

    Maybe they do get genuine relief from anxiety, in which case best of luck to them, but I choose to rationally accept my anxiety about Covid-19, anxiety makes me act with caution, that is its function, I hope their god based security does not cause them to be incautious and endanger themselves and others.

    • Mark, this sounds like the definition of “spiritual bypass” – a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks”. ~ Wikipedia

  13. Guy H. says:

    I’ve had it with true believers. Sometimes I think they’re stupid even though they’re more successful and richer than me. I especially can’t stand their saying that god wants us to…

    Or other statements that show that they know what god is thinking. That millions of people worldwide subscribe to this nonsense is terrible. Faith is what enabled the Mayan priests to keep cutting out the hearts of their victims. Faith enabled the Spanish to burn down the vast libraries of the Incas and others.

    • Guy, I think it’s great that people have found things that work for them. There’s nothing like autonomy and freedom of choice. My support for these folks wanes when I’m told what I should think and do, whether in the form of values, beliefs, or actions. And when those mandates hurt someone, all gloves are off.

  14. Gordy says:

    Good article. I take a different tact though. I live in the ‘burnt over’ zone of Upstate NY – a Northern bible belt. Outside of a meeting I’m a reason based atheist who attempts Socratic questioning methods -“How do you know your god is the ‘true’ god?”, “Don’t Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Jewish, Buddhist, and other religions have their divinely inspired holy books too, and have evidence and faith that is equal to yours?”, etc.

    But in a meeting, my response is directly proportional to the zealousness of the BB or ‘sacred’ text Thumper. It helps. It helps newcomers who are being told that there’s only one thought pattern effective in achieving sobriety, to hear that belief in the supernatural is NOT a requirement. It especially helps when the response comes from one with more than thirty years of successful sober life without the brain being fogged up by either chemicals or conditioned fantasies. I am much more at home in SOS or formally Secular AA meetings, and do not feel like a traitor in saying that aloud. Those meetings are invariably more focused on a fact based rather than faith based sober life.

    • Gordy, it’s great that you’ve reached a point where you enthusiastically advocate for your beliefs and offer alternatives to the party line. Some folks simply choose different approaches, like avoidance. Either way, it’s about getting what you need and feeling good about it. Kudos to you.

  15. Kathy says:

    An old adage I’ve heard says that harboring unrealistic expectations is like going to the hardware store to buy a loaf of bread.

    That’s how I feel when I go to AA meetings in my area for help staying sober in these trying times. As the only agnostic and in many cases the only woman at the tables I feel more and more isolated. I continue attending, electronically now, out of gratitude for the sober life I have and to support newcomers, especially the occasional woman who walks through the door. I know how it feels to walk into a room where there are only men. The constant God talk and being told they MUST read a book that in antiquated language disrespects women, I’m afraid, is part of the reason many women don’t keep coming.

    This website has become a lifeline for me.

    • Kathy, I have heard that adage and agree it. Another similar things I’ve heard is that unreasonable expectations equal premeditated resentments. Whatever the issue, nobody appreciates being told what to do, especially when they didn’t ask for advice. Those of us came to meetings because we were “badly mangled.” We need to be validated and affirmed, not judged and shamed.

  16. Doc says:

    I realize that for people who feel that sobriety is only possible with some sort of supernatural intervention those of us who have long-term sobriety without a belief in some kind of deity is threatening to their world view. I see the god-concept as having a similar function as the color yellow on a life raft — it helps people see it, but doesn’t make it float. While I make it clear that I am an atheist, I don’t insist that others share this view.

  17. Kimberley says:

    Great article David. Just what I needed to read to help put my own feelings, at this crazy time, into words. Recently I attended a traditional or mainstream online AA meeting for the first time in several years. I did this because a friend in mainstream AA asked me to. I only attended secular AA meetings now, because I felt so sad in mainstream AA. In the meeting I shared that one of my children, who lives in another country, had a health crises as the virus was descending on the world. Although it is serious, I was grateful that she was diagnosed with epilepsy and not a brain tumour etc. A women, knowing I’m not a believer, disregarded who I am and what my values are and replied it was my higher power working for me. I too am tired of taking the high road and ignoring these comments. I would never cross talk someone in a meeting and flaunt my opinion in their face. My boundaries have been strained for a long time. That’s why I backed away from mainstream AA. Thanks for giving me the word to express what am feeling.

    • Thank you Kimberley. I’m glad you found it of value. And I certainly understand and applaud you laying down the boundary of not allowing folks to hurt you, even if it means avoiding those people. It is emotionally exhausting to defend yourself from unsafe environments – people, places, and things – and you experienced exactly that by feeling sad. Seems you have as much evidence you need to – no need to experiment with those other groups anymore.

  18. John the Drunkard says:

    I really want to suggest that we stop calling authoritarian, conformist, religious strains of AA ‘Traditional.’ As the author notes, the incursion of certain types of religion into AA is very much a current thing. A factor in the general resurgence of several strains of fundamentalism in American life.

    • Marty N. says:

      Kimberly used the word “mainstream”. I like that better. Until I can think of another word that describes, for me, non-secular AA, I will use. that. Oh. how about we use the term non-secular AA meetings etc.. That would put us on an equal footing, wouldn’t it?

      • Marty, I agree that these groups are “mainstream” in the sense that their messages are virally communicated socially. That does not mean, however, that any one member or group can speak for anyone else.

    • Mark C. says:

      I tend to use the term “conventional” when talking about garden variety AA. The state of affairs today… is what it is…

      The rise of right wing religious authoritarianism that is soooo-in-our-faces today… was a “trend” Wilson saw as early as the late 1950’s, and by 1965 his message was to attempt to steer things away from those strains of dogmatism… which is NOW the rule of the day.

      That sort of religious noise got First Place impetus as the American response to the Cold War and those Evil Atheist Communist bastards… nothing quite inspires people like a Holy War of some sort or other…

      • Mark, this is certainly a conundrum. If there are many pathways to recovery, all of which are culturally and contextually specific, there really shouldn’t be a “conventional” way to recovery, should there?

    • John, so long as the fellowship relies upon its “conference-approved” texts, the “tradition” will be perpetuated. As it says in the AA Big Book on page 45, “Well, that’s exactly what this book is about. Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem. That means we have written a book which we believe to be spiritual as well as moral. And it means, of course, that we are going to talk about God.”

  19. Larry Z. says:

    My sister texted me a “He is Risen” image on Easter Sunday even though she is well aware of my lack of belief. Like David, I was sorely tempted to reply with a sarcastic response but decided it was pointless since no one’s mind would be changed. But I find it annoying and patronizing and it is one more reason I’m not a Christian. Good article, thanks.

    • Larry, it seems very personal when someone we known unsolicitedly communicates their beliefs to us, yet I need to remind myself that it isn’t about me despite the fact that it feels like it is. It’s about that person sending the message. How do I know? Because that person is likely communicating their message to many people whether they asked it or not. That means that I’m not unique, just unfortunate to be the recipient!