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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.