Traditional AA, Repression, Oppression, and Alienation

How’s that for a title?

A discussion of a traditional AA fellowship’s repetition of God language turned up today on Facebook. The poster was upset by the repeated references, and not only references but worshipful statements, about God, Jesus, etc. (not to be confused with the Wilco song “Jesus, Etc.”). Some of the comments struck me as dismissive – the poster was told that they needed to keep going in order to counter this discourse, and that although this is annoying, the benefits of staying in meetings is worth it. I needed a minute to understand why I felt as upset about the dismissive responses as I did. (Reading Herbert Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance” later in the day has helped me clarify it further still.)

The problem of God-discourse in AA meetings is not the personal problem of an individual non-believer. It is not merely something that individual must cope with in some way. That is because the God-discourse is part of a religious ideology that is dominant and can overtake meetings thoroughly. No matter how much it is repeated that AA is a “spiritual program, not a religious program,” this ideological discourse sets up a division in the fellowship, between those who believe in or at least comply with the ideology and those who cannot. In the dominant ideology of AA, believing or complying are called necessary for sobriety and recovery. Members are exposed in every traditional meeting to a main text, a set of steps, a set of traditions, and innumerable documents and utterances that refer to God or Higher Power. Moreover, members are called upon to follow the program. There is a coercive atmosphere surrounding the 12 Steps, the book of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the sponsor-sponsee relationship – all of which demand “strict adherence.” That is the context in which the word “God” is spoken.

It is not plausible in this situation that an individual non-believer would incur no social penalty or cost for maintaining and expressing their non-belief. A non-believer is immediately unlike the group. A non-believer who expresses their non-belief stands against the ideology; the non-believer is alienated by non-belief. That alienation is unavoidable, and has nothing to do with whether the group tolerates or suppresses the non-believer. Every truly traditional AA fellowship oppresses the non-believer, because even in their most magnanimous tolerance, the hegemonic power exerted by the fellowship oppresses the non-believer. The non-believer remains alienated simply because they do not believe.

The problem is political, not moral or personal. The non-believer faces a choice that no believer must face: of finding a way to remain in the fellowship and remaining oppressed, or leaving the fellowship, because of non-belief. Choosing to remain in the fellowship, the non-believer has more work to do, more cost to pay, every meeting and interaction with others in the fellowship. At every moment, the non-believer must choose (what the believer never has to choose) whether to acquiesce, negotiate, resist, or subvert. Each of those choices comes with further social and psychological cost to the non-believer.

Among the costs, one that is particularly hidden is a cost created by the structure of ideological belief. Ideology denies itself as ideology: to the ideological believer, it does not appear to be ideology, but reality. The believer in traditional AA believes that AA is a “big tent,” and that AA welcomes everyone, in accordance with the 3rd Tradition. Any effort by the non-believer to negotiate, resist, or subvert the dominant ideology is met with incredulity, because to the believer, the non-believer’s action is incomprehensible, since there is nothing to negotiate, nothing to resist, and no need to subvert. AA, after all, “never forces anyone to do anything.”

Personally, I have so far chosen to stay in a traditional fellowship. I am open and vocal about my non-belief, including my non-belief in the necessity of the 12 Steps. When I go to meetings, I am prepared to express my non-belief and expose myself to further alienation, and sometimes retribution. I do it because one thing I can profess to is a belief in the goodness of resistance and subversion. My alienation is what makes it clear to me how traditional AA oppresses, and so the experience of alienation is key to understanding that oppression, and the hegemony of religious belief in the fellowship. The greater my understanding, the more I know how to resist and subvert.

This article was originally posted on September 14, 2020 on the website The Anonymous Philosopher.



19 Responses

  1. Juff V says:

    In Australia, the State rehabs made people identify as alcoholics and addicts as they carted them off to 12-step meetings. In cohesion with the rehabs demands, 25 to 35 years ago all rehabs were 12 step. But that didn’t mean the meeting outside the rehab umbrella were at all happy with young deviancy sharing not about alcoholism. All the state rehabs have now moved to smart recovery or evidence based recovery as they call it. I wonder why?

    And the numbers of newcomers at meetings surely show this lack of new blood. And older NA members have moved to AA meetings and it’s show trial of public declaration to approved text and tacky claims of god’s wonders and miracles.

  2. David W. says:

    I think the biggest challenge AA has in evolving is dealing with entrenched intolerance and out and out bigotry that seems to be woven in the fellowship at both the meeting and infrastructure levels. I’m fortunate enough to have gotten sober in secular groups in Toronto where you can pretty much express yourself without the fear of being invalidated or feeling like you don’t dare even open your mouth.

    The frustrating thing about AA is the service structures often don’t seem to have much tolerance or even awareness of diversity. Toronto Inter-group puts out a monthly newsletter that actively promotes a belief in god as a cornerstone of recovery. If you’re an agnostic or atheist you pretty well have to hold your nose while reading it. The last page announcing upcoming sober anniversaries shows a sketch in full colour of an AA meeting that must be from the 1930-40s. It’s a picture of a room full of old white guys. No women, no minorities. I find it so tone deaf and dismissive it’s sickening.

  3. Paul says:

    I agree 100 % with the ideas expressed here – I basically believe people when they say they are tolerant and kind, so initially in any meeting I feel safe to be honest about my belief system (atheist) and my observation of some of the control structures exerted by sponsors (where many of them are on power/ego trips, and effectively they act as the higher power for those they sponsor).

    Of course this inevitably causes passive or direct aggression because part of the modus operandi of people in positions of power is to silence or excise anyone who questions their methods or the structure they have created.

    So in the end I don’t feel safe in meetings to express my honest thoughts and feelings – meanwhile there is a lot of preaching about the absolute importance of complete honesty in order to enable recovery.
    Complete honesty is very hard when one is likely to upset some very strident and uptight AA power brokers.

    There is a reading in As Bill Sees it about whether we are being inclusive or exclusive – and quite a few times he mentions his own journey from being a “bleeding deacon” (which is a mistaken term, the actual terminology is “bleating deacon” – like a goat) to hopefully becoming an “older, sober member”, which references the mistakes he made by believing he had some sort of ultimate truth which all must follow.

    Clearly, many AA members are still in their “bleeding deacon” phase, and unwilling or unable to read a little deeper into later writings of Bill.

    The funny thing is, these bleeding deacons often are disdainful to those with “only” a few years of sobriety – yet the big book, which they solely rely upon was written by a man in early sobriety. Perhaps if they looked at the bigger picture and observed Bill’s later writings they might become “open minded” (another essential trait apparently).

  4. Dan L. says:

    Thanks Roger for finding that for us. For some reason I didn’t feel oppressed or marginalised by the god faction in local AA. I had been a lifelong atheist from a devout Roman Catholic family and the treatment centre where I was introduced to AA was very liberal.

    My main feeling about these people was impatience and a genuine annoyance for their ill conceived and supposedly profound spirituality. Magic thinking ran counter to my newfound devotion to reality and a realistic program. I found their continuous LARP-ing of deep mysticism to be annoying especially coming from persons who thought John Deere and Massey Ferguson were philosophers of note. Anyway I was rescued by local atheists who heard about the belligerent new guy and hauled me in before I got into trouble. I started my new life with AA Agnostica and never looked back.

  5. bob k says:

    AA varies tremendously region to region, and even meeting to meeting in the same locale. That’s mostly good, I’d say.

  6. bob k says:

    I much appreciated the calm reasoning in the piece. No name-calling, or other accusations of mean-spiritedness. The oppression etc. is INEVITABLE.

    “That alienation is unavoidable, and has nothing to do with whether the group tolerates or suppresses the non-believer. Every truly traditional AA fellowship oppresses the non-believer, because even in their most magnanimous tolerance, the hegemonic power exerted by the fellowship oppresses the non-believer. The non-believer remains alienated simply because they do not believe.”

    I liked this a lot!!

  7. Tim says:

    You wrote: “less than 20 years ago if you said you were an addict in a meeting they would stop you sharing.” Like so much of AA, a lot depends on location. When I got sober 35 years ago, identification as “addict alcoholic” or vice versa was common.

  8. Doc says:

    As an atheist, I’m never really a part of the traditional fellowship in AA. For those who believe that sobriety can only be obtained with mythological help from an imaginary friend, my presence in meetings–an atheist with long-term sobriety (51 years)–is a potential threat to their belief system.

  9. Larry g says:

    You begin to describe well some of the subtle and not so subtle coercive dynamics involving theistic belief inside mainstream AA. At best much of AA functions as a religion and at worst a cult of control and dominance, despite their insistence that it is just spiritual. For me and my own personal philosophy, I acknowledge that the foundation of all belief, whether religious, philosophical, spiritual, or political, is a cognitive act of faith. There are no absolutes. Operating from this premise helps me be a much kinder, tolerant, and loving version of myself. Whenever I have become too certain regarding my beliefs I start to become a controlling dominating and judgemental jerk. Thank you for another great read.

  10. Dan W. says:

    Well… I dare ya to come out here to Alberta and try that, lol I’ll go with ya, but we might not make it home!! They are the most reprehensible and bigoted Religious group of cultists I’ve ever seen. Good luck out west!! With that one, just reporting my experience not playing the victim card.

    High fives!!
    Dan W.

  11. Mark C. says:

    Some of you have seen some of my babbling about the “Rhetorical Situation” within conventional AA.

    This article is good “fleshing out” of what I’m talking about with regard to the “Rhetorical Situation.”

    That rhetorical situation is dominated by three characteristics of Religiosity, Conformity, and Authoritarianism. Big Book and other forms.

    We have been putting a dent in those things, and widened the gates for others on nontheistic, non-mystical orientations.

  12. Lance B. says:

    Clear, concise, helpful. Thanks Roger.

  13. Susan B. says:

    This expresses exactly how I felt in A.A. except I couldn’t handle the alienation so I left. My group was trying hard to become inclusive but it only increased the negativity towards non believers and our efforts to remove the religious overtones. I wanted us to come right out and declare ourselves an agnostic group but there was a philosophical difference among the members with the most dominant one determined to change all of A.A. rather than split ourselves off from the mainstream. I couldn’t handle that amount of antagonism so I dropped out, but I greatly admire what you are doing. Please don’t stop.

  14. John L. says:

    Apparently the author of this article is “Anonymous”. To me, the religiosity in AA is harmful not only because it alienates nonbelievers, but also because it obscures the true AA — recovery from alcohol addiction through abstinence and the AA Fellowship. A day at a time we stay away from the First Drink. Our brain and bodies, no longer poisoned by alcohol, begin to heal. The Fellowship gives us moral support to remain abstinent and lead a good life in sobriety.

  15. Andrew says:

    Thanks. I no longer attend Traditional meetings for just that reason plus the tolerance of sexual predators. Due to the Pandemic, Zoom meetings for non-believers have blossomed and I no longer walk away from a meeting more agitated than when I click on.

    I have had many “discussions” (some more heated than others) with believing members before and after meetings and so far their most used assault has been based on personal anecdote which, as far as scientific methodology goes, simply means a person has had an “experience” concerning certain phenomena but by no means indicates said experience is what was really going on. So long story short, religion has extended its tentacles into the fabric of what could have been a positive life altering program but AA, like religion, seeks to twist words and meanings to dominate and enslave ones thinking for the benefit of an ideology that claims to be effective but really isn’t.

  16. Juff V says:

    Dear brethren,

    I loved your thesis on our dilemma, as I can only talk about my area of meetings started sometime in the 50s. The swing to belligerent positions on finding a deity and pontificating your subservient to this made up God in meetings and in their lives will continue and cannot be changed.

    These members which have followed this quite justifiable dogmatic path and plainly one could argue easily the correct following of the program from the literature.

    I especially blame the daily reflections book for inflicting the poison on the community.

    They have strong sponsor networks and dominate meetings of their creation, this is not going to change. There’s a Russian proverb “religion is like a nail – the harder you hit it the deeper it goes”.

    One thing about magical thinking or dogmatic belief in God is that you do not want to have your irrational thinking questioned. And the Secular movement is in delusion if it thinks that the big book is not a pathway to some form of Christianity or devotion to ectoplasm. Faith healing is faith healing.

    We need to stop thinking that we need to convert these people to our rational thinking. Instead grow our numbers by attaching ourselves to where the newcomers coming out e.g. detoxes and rehabs.

    And we will just simply outnumber them as they grow old and fade away or we will be just another special interest group like the rainbow people.

    The saddest thing is that they are instigating the Stockholm syndrome or trauma bonding onto new members whom 95% are agnostic… And I’ve never thought of Divinity in their hedonism. They just want to get sober. “Submit to the power of the Almighty or die and refund your misery at the door.”

    As for our little secular meeting, a few have continually told newcomers not to come to the Brookvale, but when they do sneak in find that our kindness and generosity quietens their poisonous attitude.

    Also one of the oldest and respected female member of the general area comes to our meeting the reason being she sees AA as a fellowship not a program and does not like this “one bit” fixation on adherence to literature.

    But the Traditions are designed for autonomous separation of individual groups which are run by the philosophy and personalities of those founding members and group conscience.

    We really don’t have to worry about traditional AA and their cranky fuddy-duddy religious evangelism or to quote a mate “different strokes for different folks”.

    Secular has grabbed the information age and the digital space. We will continue to grow and find like-minded people through our global inconnectivity.

    Personally I have no interest in going to their meetings or having to humiliate myself in the presence of the Taliban den.

    I could get annoyed that the zoom meetings 70% of the members sharing identify as alcoholic addicts… less than 20 years ago if you said you were an addict in a meeting they would stop you sharing. And it annoys me that secular AA has in someways stolen these people from narcotics anonymous, which was always extremely liberal.

    Isn’t life fun.

  17. John M. says:

    The writer articulates so well our secular dilemma as it currently exists in AA . I was glad that the author did not end the article in despair but gives utterance to a resolve that I can relate to. I always maintained that for me to get and stay sober, I needed to find a passion for recovery that would replace my passion for drinking, and part of my passion for recovery was a commitment to “resist and subvert” AA’s traditional ideology as is said at the end of this essay.

    I, like so many here at AA Agnostica and other secular forums, found an environment where my alienation from the rest of AA felt considerably lessened while at the same time providing me with the surroundings where I could find strength and renewal to continue the good fight, to “resist and subvert.”

    Many thanks to the author for such a clear outline of our secular AA dilemma.

  18. Harry C says:

    ‘God-discourse is part of a religious ideology that is dominant and can overtake meetings thoroughly. No matter how much it is repeated that AA is a “spiritual program, not a religious program”’ …. in a nutshell.

    Up to the meetings closing here about six months ago, I regularly attended a couple of meetings weekly, one more regularly than the other. I feel welcome at either meeting and enjoy the fellowship when there. One is in a Church Hall the other in a Council facility. Neither get caught up in being tagged in any way other than being an AA meeting. You can bet that the ‘religious ideology’ will be shared. It’s the reality of the person sharing, probably because they are thankful to AA for their sobriety, and likely because the ‘religious ideology’ is the reality of AA, and throughout all things AA.

    I always share my atheism and can often be heard sharing my thought: ‘I don’t know what god has to do with alcoholism or recovery from alcoholism.’ I just remain true to myself in AA meetings, and have done so for decades, long before the ‘online’ AA Agnostica came along and brought me into contact with others who had their experiences as non-believers within AA. Very grateful am I. I have free choice within AA to attend a particular meeting or not. Though I have been ‘barred’ from one particular meeting years ago for ‘expressing things that were not good for the newcomer to hear’. That was the group’s written reason given to Intergroup. My reaction was ‘well we now know where god resides in AA as that group apparently know what is good, or not good, for the newcomer to hear!’ They dropped the ‘bar’. The ‘religious ideology’ was there from the beginning, was there when I turned up, and will be there after I’m long gone.

    I don’t go to AA to fight against ‘religious ideology’ but just by sharing my atheism and thoughts at AA meetings, I can get plenty of flack. Sometimes I even enjoy the ‘debate’ after the meeting and I turn up because I go to AA for fellowship today, and I get that in abundance. Some of my new AA acquaintances in my relatively new Town that I moved to are very religious in their lives but I have no sense of being rejected by them for ‘who’ I am; usually the ‘rejection’ comes from people who have no idea of ‘who’ I am, only of my atheism and my willingness to declare it within AA.

    Thanks for the post; I concur.

  19. Dan C. says:

    Roger, Thanks for sharing. Over the years I have witnessed such diverse views. I remember in 1980 I was talking to a friend that was “born-again,” he told me that AA was the work of the devil. He said it was sacreligious to attend AA. About ten years ago I was talking to another guy that was a “pastor” he was Hispanic and had some ancient perspectives. The Christian “right” had an answer for AA as a spiritual program, it was “Celebrate Recovery,” and they’re happy. I believe it is all about perspective, for me it is ceasing to fight everything. Yeah there are some real assholes in AA, I just don’t want to be one and feed one… Thanks Roger…

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