Finding Humanist Spirituality in AA
By Chad Minteer
I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness and stayed until I was almost 30, about the time I started on my recovery path. I was a good little boy and young adult, studious and well spoken, and I quickly made progress as I reached out for privileges and responsibilities. I had no idea then that so many of those behaviors of people pleasing, finding worth in accomplishments and external accolades, perfectionism, and workaholism were due to growing up in alcoholic dysfunction. My Dad was an alcoholic who left us and the religion when I was little. (He has now been sober for more than 25 years and we have a great relationship.)
My parents divorced when I was 6. My Mom was a single parent until she married another alcoholic when I was 11. He was a belligerent domineering drunk. When I was a teenager and young adult, it was my religion that saved me from that. Being a “spiritual” person formed a core part of my identity. But by the time I came into AA, overloaded with commitments, no idea what self-care meant, in a broken marriage I felt I couldn’t leave, and in the early stages of serious alcoholism myself, I was completely disillusioned with my own religious belief system and my experiences within that religious community, especially when it came to dealing with my family and relationship problems.
When I started AA, I was neck-deep in comparative religion, Eastern and Western philosophy, and all kinds of academic pursuits related to theology, philosophy, psychology, and sociology – all the things I wasn’t allowed to explore growing up. I was in the process of deconstructing all of my former beliefs, trying to get behind and beyond the intense feelings of guilt and shame that I was experiencing as I found myself unable to believe, trying to detach from all the things I used to do as a believer and not realizing how much loss I was experiencing, and finally embracing the dissonance and the questioning and discarding certainty.
I became a heretic, an apostate, according to my former religion. I wore the label proudly, in the mood of Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary: “Apostate: a leech who, having penetrated the shell of a turtle only to find that the creature has long been dead, deems it expedient to form a new attachment to a fresh turtle.” I didn’t want a fresh turtle, I wanted to know what turtles were made of and whether there was anything real beyond more dead turtles. When I left my former religion, I never seriously considered joining some other religion, and I didn’t gravitate towards any “anti” group of former members of the one I had left. I also didn’t feel like a joiner with secular humanist groups or the more committed anti-religion atheists. I found AA plenty tolerant and open, though a few individuals could get a tad preachy for my liking. I mostly ignored them, recognizing in them much that seemed familiar from the thought world I had just left.
I brought a flippant, judgmental, but also intensely curious and serious energy into my AA recovery journey. I wasn’t even aware yet of the grief and loss I was about to go through leaving the worldview and community that I was raised in. The religious family trauma that happened then and continues to happen now is a mainstay of why I need recovery and the recovery community. It’s the ground I walk on, the air I breathe. So keeping AA open, welcoming, tolerant, and loving to all believers and unbelievers is important to me.
At the time I was coming into AA, words like “spiritual” were just… fraught. Loaded. There was a valence on them, a charge. Today they might be called “trigger” words. They were slippery. They meant too many different things. So, when I thought, and when I talked, I avoided them. I had heard a quote around that time by Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” I took that to mean that if I wanted to think beyond the boundaries of the little world I had been raised in, I needed to expand my language, and use different words than I was used to using to say what I meant. (I didn’t know that Wittgenstein might have meant that if you can’t say anything about something because it’s beyond language, then say nothing, because saying anything might just be nonsense.)
I needed to say what was worth saying in such a way that the completely uninitiated unbeliever and the devout believer would understand me. I didn’t realize then that I wasn’t actually doing that for other people, I was doing that for me. I needed to get to the heart of the matter with why AA worked for some people and not for others, because clearly (to me) that couldn’t be “God” in any conventional sense, unless I accepted that God was arbitrary and inconsistent and almost passive-aggressive and opaque. I didn’t accept that.
If there was some reality out there that some people referred to as “God” in the practice of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, I wanted to be able to describe it and think about it in specific ways that didn’t need the extra ingredient “God”. I still had plenty of awe and wonder even so. It was at this time I discovered the book The Spirituality of Imperfection, by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, and that book made it possible for me to work the 12 Steps, including the ones with “God” in them, with a sponsor, and that changed my life.
When I listened to others, I did a lot of translating. That made me work harder to find meaning for myself, to pay attention to and honor the person’s experience as they shared, or to relate the deeper meaning or intent or principle that was being expressed to some other concept that made more sense for me. It became more and more clear to me that much of the religious language that people use is just shorthand for our shared, lived, human experience. It can be a way for people to express themselves in a way they think others will understand. I was healed from some of my loss and religious pain by getting other believers’ perspectives, because it showed me that many paths and many options were available, both within a given belief system, and outside of it.
I love the word spiritual, even though it’s a term I had to redefine for myself, and it’s a term that some of my friends in humanist circles dislike. Here’s what spiritual currently means to me as a mystical atheist, or whatever I am.
Connection with others based on honesty, openness, vulnerability, and mutual respect. To me, this is the heart of recovery. All the actions, all the friendships, all the community, everything works better when it’s coming from a place of openness and honesty. Getting real. Going deeper. This reminds me, constantly, that there’s something beyond me, whether that means beyond my ego and the stories I tell myself, somewhere deeper within my own consciousness and my own being; beyond my own individual understanding and resources and wisdom; or beyond my own denial, wishful thinking, or skewed picture of reality towards something more real, more whole, more accurate, more objective out there. That feeling of connectedness, and the results of actions that come from practicing it in my life, I will gladly call that spiritual.
Perennial cultural wisdom and the truth of experience. Recovery samples ‘the wisdom of the ages’ and sages right next to the wisdom of John, and Cathy, and Judy, and Dennis – or whoever happens to be there. The cultural wisdom of lived experience keeps recycling itself in settings where people famously use the word ‘God’ in one sentence and the word ‘fuck’ in the next. My experience in recovery constantly reinforces to me that this wisdom is not found exclusively in religious texts or movements, as I was taught growing up – but neither is it found exclusively outside of these sources, as I thought when I was leaving mine. Religion and religious beliefs work for some people. They just don’t work for me anymore, not in the same way. But hearing the truth of my life out of someone else’s mouth, that deep recognition and identification, and becoming aware of options and context and perspectives that I wasn’t able to get to all on my own – that I will gladly call spiritual, even if it’s purely psychological, purely social. Man is a social animal, and it turns out that wisdom can be found around other people, even a group of drunks.
Awareness of finiteness, limitation, temporality, and mortality. “Life on life’s terms” seems to me the best brief encapsulation of this. Hearing thousands of shares at hundreds of recovery meetings reminds me of the shared human condition. I am not helpless or hopeless, nor am I unique. I am like other people. And I am not in control of everything. Some people call this state of mind “humility” but that is also a loaded word for me. Sometimes this kind of awareness is a cause of childlike wonder and curiosity, openness, gentleness. Sometimes it’s terrifying, like when someone learns they have cancer. Sometimes it’s frustrating, annoying, disappointing. Sometimes it brings fear and anger and the desire to escape. But at the end of the day, this is what makes us human, this is what makes us more like each other than not, and this is the basis for compassion as well as an appreciation for beauty, for good, for joy, for serenity.
Human qualities of the heart, such as honesty, hope, courage, integrity, willingness, forgiveness, perseverance, and compassion. All of the best of human nature can be found in the human stories in the rooms, right alongside the worst. Our best and highest selves are always available, always something to reach for, to aspire to. To me they’re actually nearer the surface in a real place with real people having real struggles. As Leonard Cohen sang it, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
That’s mostly what I mean by spiritual experience or spiritual energy. I’ve also come to appreciate that all the “profane” ordinary things count too – nature, exercise, sports, nutrition, and so many other things that keep us relatively healthy and whole.
Once, after a particularly dark period in my life, in sobriety, I heard a voice say clearly and distinctly “you are stronger than you think.” I’m not one for hearing voices. It wasn’t God. It was my own inner resources, the ‘god within’, a part of my psyche. But it was still a spiritual experience. Recovery and everything that has come into my life since starting it have helped me become more and more aware of my own precious worth, and my own abilities and responsibilities. It’s up to me to apply what I’ve learned, ask for help, and do my best to create the life and world that I want to have for myself. It’s up to me. But I’m not alone. Recovery has helped me know that I can do it, that I am doing it. That’s a spiritual awakening, a coming into the fullness of life that I didn’t think was possible when I got here.
Thank god. Or as George Carlin used to say, “Thank Joe.”
Chad Minteer got sober in Twin Falls and Jerome, Idaho. He’s an aspiring writer and part-time blogger, when he’s not doing his day job managing mobile GIS software development for mosquito control field operations. He identifies as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, but also is at home in Al-Anon, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA), and Codependents Anonymous (CODA).
Chad writes a recovery and travel blog at www.recoveringallofme.com, covering unpopular emotions like shame and anger, heterodox recovery, and any book, event, group, or program that supports free thought and emotional freedom connected with recovery. You can contact him through his website or at email@example.com. He’d be happy to consider covering your event or reviewing your book and writing about it or publishing your blog article on similar topics.
The featured image for today’s article is a photo taken by Robin J Ramage in Port Dover, Ontario.
Thank you – spot on descriptions of how I think of spirituality as well.
Thanks Jeanine. Whenever someone says “spot on” I assume they:
– like and understand words
– read a lot
– aren’t from the US
But I could be wrong. 😊
“I brought a flippant, judgmental, but also intensely curious and serious energy into my AA recovery journey.”
I would recommend this approach to anyone who is sober-curious. No one should take any recovery tenants as essential without judging/exploring them first. I try to stay curious. And addiction is serious – serious like a pandemic. A casual approach could turn out badly. So you pack a lot into that one description. I won’t go into the same detail with every other sentence except to say it is/was provocative and captivating.
Until next time, thanks Chad.
Thank you Joe! If there’s one thing I just felt intuitively was true it was that I needed to “just keep coming back.” I noticed I experienced growth despite myself. And resistance and denial were part of the process. But I never seriously considered abandoning AA recovery once I got here, even if I wrestled with things. There was no denying how much more capable I was of dealing with my reality once I finally stopped drinking for real.
Anyway thanks for your comments. I find so much of what I read here on this site to be just like you describe – captivating and thought provoking. I feel alive when the things I think and feel are there in print before me. A lot of the articles here are like someone’s been reading my mail for 30 years. I’m finding that I too can do that for me by writing what I notice. But it’s always nice when someone else gets something out of it. 😊
Hey Chad, nice article. We have similar early life religious experiences. By age 30 I had been labeled heretic/apostate/possessed by devil spirits. I got out physically by age 30. That was the easy part.
It’s been much harder getting that religious mess out of me. Many things have helped. No one thing, including AA recovery, has been the total answer. As a matter of fact various experiences in AA have been deeply triggering of that mess. Thank goodness the cultish part of AA has mostly been held in check by the right of each to have a hp of our understanding. I’m also grateful for the traditions as they keep that mess in check. Though some still push their mess too far. I’m like you I just ignore them.
Fortunately I found my agnosticism in another 12 step program. Speaking my path out loud at AA meetings has rattled a few folks. Makes me smile. I share out loud to let other free thinkers know it’s okay. If enough of us share out loud I hope it will help continue to shift group norms. Our growing numbers will continue to create a context for change in traditional AA.
Thanks Larry. I agree with you about sharing out loud to let other free thinkers know it’s OK. My tolerance, understanding, and eventually respect for religious folks has increased over the years. Their respect for my agnostic or mystical atheism or whatever it is has increased too, and some newcomers especially have appreciated knowing that not everyone thinks the same.
It’s also been true for me that other 12 step programs and other things in addition to AA recovery have been needed and helpful for untangling all of this. For me it’s not just intellectual, it’s relationships, family, friends, grief, etc. It affects everything in my life.
Thank you, Chad, for sharing your story here. I have had a similar journey. During my recovery from alcoholism I have found myself recovering from the toxicities I experienced while growing up Catholic. I feel fortunate to have found connection with others enough like me in the rooms of AA. Like you, they gave voice to experiences and feelings that resonate in me. I still get ticked off when I hear the word “God” too much, but my tolerance is increasing over time as my heart opens and heals.
Thanks Maureen. It occurred to me that I felt comfortable AND uncomfortable with the word “spiritual” and “spirituality” because growing up these were held up as incontestably good things. It was a good thing to be a ‘spiritual person’. I didn’t grow up with, let’s say, a committed atheist or humanist parent consistently giving negative messages about the word or the concept. So there’s that.
The problem for me became how spiritual was defined, because it was defined so specifically, and so narrowly, within the religion I was raised in. I couldn’t be “spiritual” in that way, which meant I was a bad person. Feeling shame, feeling like a failure, like I didn’t fit, wasn’t good enough, feeling less than, not a part of – that fueled my alcoholism, and all of that began to find a cure within the fellowship and program of recovery in AA, for me. What I found is that I could recover some of the values that I had grown up associating with the word “spiritual”, as well as all the new resources I was finding in AA and elsewhere in my searching.
As you say, I also found increased tolerance as my heart continued to open and heal. For me that has meant not throwing out every baby with all the bathwater, so reclaiming this word has been part of that for me.
Wonderful essay. I hope you keep on writing.
Thanks Angeline. I will! I’ve been writing for a while for me, which has been good for my recovery. What’s new is having anyone read it or have anything to say about it one way or another! 🙂
Thanks Chad, I needed this.
At my last meeting where I shared my humanist views I had one participant say something about focusing on “differences” insinuating that I was focusing on differences. Sometimes I think I shouldn’t speak at all but then I lose that connection that comes with being genuine. Readings from the big book can give me the creeps. It’s post Catholic PTSD, I know.
Once again thanks for your article. I will keep your idea of spirituality in mind to translate what others say.
Thanks Sue. Others’ reactions are about them, and mine are about me. Religious trauma is a real thing, and some programs including ACA help deal specifically with that. I did find that “translating” helped me understand what my non-Witness family members must have had to do for years with me. Anyway, I’m glad I never let anything someone said keep me from continuing with AA.
Chad, like so many alcoholics including myself, you think too much.
Hi Thomas, I’m trying not to focus on this one negative comment and ignore all the other positive comments. If I knew you, and liked you, I’d probably take this as kidding or giving me a hard time. But I don’t. Reminds me of other times I’ve been told I think too much – like when I was questioning my religion. I drank a lot, to try to stop thinking. Didn’t really work. In other words, were it possible, I would have thought less. Maybe I’d still be a Jehovah’s Witness. Maybe I’d still be a drunk. Personally, I’m thankful for my mind, just as it is, thank you very much.
That said, I’ve also learned a lot about “utilize, don’t analyze.” Taking the actions is what matters most (for me). So while I like to understand things, and I think words and concepts are important, I’ve benefited most from taking action and not quibbling over differences of opinion or belief.
Chad, I find it interesting you have determined my observation to be negative.
Be well, Thomas.
Hi Thomas, I’d love to continue this conversation. You didn’t respond to anything I wrote, you didn’t share your own experience. You said “you think too much.” The “too much” part is a judgment, and the “you” part is directed at me. Is there some other way to take it other than as a criticism?
You’re right about one thing though, because I’ve been *thinking* about this exchange ever since. So why did I perceive it that way and why did it get under my skin?
Like I said in this article, I grew up in a religion where freethinking was not encouraged. There were several key junctures in my life where people told me I thought too much, including my Mom. Right before she stopped talking to me. People telling me to not be curious, not ask questions, check my brain at the door, was part of my experience as I started having doubts and began my journey out. Thinking was bad, unspiritual, and dangerous. I ended up having to say “fuck it, I’m going to think.” You know, follow the truth, no matter where it leads. And there’s a lot of loss associated with that.
So there it is.
My first thought when I read your comment was ‘well why don’t you write your own blog article where you don’t think enough and I’ll tell you what I think of it.’ Then I was annoyed with myself for letting it bug me. I remembered something I heard at one of my early AA meetings where somebody said something about walking into a room of 100 people and one person doesn’t like me, and that’s all I can think about.
I’m curious, what is that makes you believe you think too much? And maybe you meant that as a good thing? 😊
If you’re ever in Jacksonville FL let’s grab a coffee and laugh about this. Cheers!
Thanks for the positive insights. I view the concept of “god” like the color yellow in a life raft – it helps some people find the raft/sobriety. The color yellow, however, is not what keeps the raft afloat just as the idea of god doesn’t maintain sobriety.
Lovely, I like this. Very useful concept, thank you for that. 🙂
The thoughtfulness of your essay is reflected by the care with which you choose your words. In other words, it’s clear that you have appropriated the word “spiritual” to become something conceptually personal and deeply moving for you. You outline so well the dimensions (including the limitations) of your spiritual reality which pretty much captures what I call the “existential” in my own word-world —“Getting real. Going deeper,” as you say.
What we call something is never as important as the authentic experience we give fuller expression to. It’s then up to us to explain ourselves.
Glad I was able to read something this fine sunny day on the West Coast that was so well worked out and considerately presented.
Thank you John. 🙂 I got a lot out of existentialism when I first was leaving my religion. I thought it had a lot to say about the choices we still have and the commitments we still make even if there is ultimately no ultimate purpose in the universe. I’d love to hear more about what you mean by “existential” too! Feel free to hit me up on email.
Chad – your first paragraph on your definition of what spirituality means to you reminds me of what Kurtz says about the meaning of our identification of ourselves as alcoholic in his book Not-God: “The therapeutic power of this process of identification arose from the witness it gave, a witness to the healing potency of the shared honesty of mutual vulnerability openly acknowledged.”
Like you, recovery has led to the reawakening of some powerful inner resources that alcoholism had forced into hibernation. Of course, those personal resources sometimes need some restraint imposed by the wisdom of others. Excellent essay, thank you.
Always loved this sentence from Kurtz, John. The “ healing potency of the shared honesty of mutual vulnerability openly acknowledged.”
Thanks John. I just got the book Not-God and am looking forward to reading it. Kurtz’ book The Spirituality of Imperfection helped me a lot early in sobriety. It made it possible for me to work the steps with a sponsor and get past the “god” word.
I like what you mention about the need for some restraint imposed by the wisdom of others. For most of my life I’ve shut down the emotional-intuitive side of myself, so a lot of my recovery the past year especially has been about getting back in touch with that. But, I also do appreciate that there is great value in learning from the collective experience of people before me – it’s pretty easy to get out into some pretty wacky territory (for me) where there doesn’t seem to be any solid ground.
Thanks, Chad. A very thought-provoking essay. You have my wheels spinning, and they may get some traction. I hope to read more of your explorations.
Awesome! I hope they keep spinning and I’d love to hear more about what gets stirred up!