You Don’t Need to Believe in Miracles
By Steve T.
At my first AA meeting, in Sydney, Australia, I cringed at the word “God” in the banners and clichés hanging on the walls. What if some of my smart alec university friends saw me here? I could imagine them sniggering.
But the idea that AA might be religious didn’t worry me all that much. I was quite sure religion was for weak-minded people. I had dismissed religion as superstitious nonsense when I was a teenager. I was just here to pick up some tips about controlling my drinking. I’d soon move on.
I’ve seen some surveys done in Australia which looked at sober members in AA and found that 42 to 44 per cent of them got sober at their first meeting. That still amazes me. It took me about 200 meetings over 15 months before I was able to stay stopped.
During that time, I did everything I was told. I joined a group, got a sponsor read all the literature and tried to be a good little AA member. But the longest I could stay sober was a week. I began to see that many of the people with good sobriety spoke of the importance of a higher power in their life.
So, that’s what I’d do: I’d get me some religion. I started going to church. I felt weird but I was determined to believe in God. Fortunately, I was also still seeing a wise psychologist who had steered me into AA. He saw immediately that my newfound religiosity was causing me problems.
“You’re trying to make yourself believe in God, aren’t you?” He asked me one day. “Yes,” I said, “I sure am. I’m determined to do it.” He sighed and said, “But trying to make yourself believe, shows you don’t believe, doesn’t it?
That took a little while to sink in but the truth of it was inescapable.
“Look at that Second Step,” he said, “it doesn’t say, ‘We gritted our teeth, clenched our fists and made ourselves believe,’ does it? No, it says ‘Came to believe’.
“Why don’t you gently explore the issues and keep an open mind? Choose some reasonable, open minded AA members and talk to them about it. Read some books on comparative religions. Most of all, just keep an open mind.”
It was good advice. I let go my determination to make myself believe in Christianity and started looking at various religions and philosophies of religious beliefs. I was particularly interested in Taoism, the ancient Chinese religion/philosophy of life.
I found the sayings of Lao Tzu gave me a great deal to think about and loosened the burden of self that was stalling my progress. Lao Tzu said things like: “The truth is not always beautiful nor beautiful words the truth.’ “If you try to change it, you will ruin it. Try to hold it, and you will lose it.” “The wise man is one who knows what he does not know.”
The more I pursued this path, the more I came to see that for me, the higher power is simply the way the world works. The more I understand how the world works, how it flows without my efforts, the more I realise that my highest calling is to harmonize with this flow. Instead of wanting things my way, I learn to accept the way the world works.
I found I could easily “translate” the Steps into this way of thinking. Practising the Third Step becomes a process of learning how to go with the flow. It simply means asking myself, how can I harmonize with this situation? What is the right thing for a person to do in this situation?
I have never asked this question without the answer becoming obvious to me. Keeping my self out of it makes it obvious what should be done. It’s my way of praying only for knowledge of god’s will for me and the power to carry that out.
However, underneath it all, I had nagging doubts that my “theology” was really a bit lame, a bit half-baked. I dreaded some intellectual sitting me down and exposing it all as poorly thought out claptrap.
* * *
A few years ago, I read several enjoyable books by the historical novelist, Robert Harris. I found one he wrote called Conclave. It was about the election of a Pope set in modern times. It certainly wasn’t my usual reading matter, but I felt Harris was a reliable author and was confident this book would be engaging.
It certainly was, the scheming and conniving of the cardinals was dramatic and exciting. The plot was complex and convincing. The central character was a good, honest cardinal who was torn by the many ethical conflicts he faced during the election.
The fascinating thing for me was that I could translate all his religious dilemmas into my own secular philosophy. Our thinking was, to all intents and purposes, alike. Reading that book was quite a revelation. My way of seeing the world is every bit as practical and useful as a highly regarded theology.
And I don’t have to believe in angels, miracles or transubstantiation.
* * *
Australia is a much less Christian country than the United States. In our most recent census, 30 per cent of people said they had no religious affiliation. In the US, the figure is only 18 per cent. Even when people here say they belong to some religion, generally their level of involvement is low.
On many occasions, when sharing at an AA meeting I have described myself as an atheist or agnostic. I have never had another member come up to me later and complain or try to show me the error of my ways. I’m careful not to disparage my religious friends and I feel plenty of respect for their beliefs.
I remind myself that there are smarter people than me who believe in a religious idea of God and there are smarter people than me who don’t. I’m comfortable with my idea of a power greater than myself. It has kept me sober for 40 years.
I don’t want to be part of a debating society, but I worry greatly about the many people who take a brief look at AA and say, “Sorry, not for me, I’m not religious.” They are repelled by the idea that AA is just another religious group and has nothing to offer them. What a terrible waste. We owe it to them to show them a way around their objection.
Steve T. has been sober since 1980. He describes himself sometimes as an atheist, sometimes as an agnostic. He almost gave up on AA because he thought it was just another religious group. But he stuck around long enough to arrive at a philosophy that allows him to be deeply engaged with the fellowship while keeping clear of religious beliefs. Steve was an Australian General Service Trustee and a World Service Delegate. He is retired and lives happily with his wife of 48 years. They have three children and four grandchildren.