Atheist Big Book Study: Into Action Part 1
A lot of territory is covered in this chapter, steps five through eleven which involve the confession of shortcomings, an appeal to a deity for the removal of those shortcomings, making amends, continuing self-examination, meditation and prayer, all with the end result of a spiritual awakening.
It may seem like an impossible task for an atheist or agnostic to accept any of this, but it’s not so difficult. It just takes a little interpretation. Let’s divide this chapter into three parts to make it easier to digest. In part one we will examine steps five through seven, in part two we will take a look at steps eight and nine, and we will conclude the chapter in part three as we learn about steps ten and eleven.
In earlier chapters, alcoholism was characterized as a mental obsession to drink followed by a physical compulsion, making it impossible to drink alcohol with any measure of control. Compounding the problem is that the thinking of the alcoholic becomes distorted, locking the sufferer in a vicious cycle of addiction.
In order to recover, alcoholics must experience a transformation in their thinking. Old ideas and attitudes must be cast aside and replaced with an entirely new set of beliefs. Theists refer to this transformation as a spiritual awakening or spiritual experience, and attribute it the power of God. We agnostics, freethinkers and atheists view this change of behavior within the context of psychology. Call it a spiritual experience or psychic change if you must, I prefer to define it simply as “change”. In order to recover from alcoholism, we need to change and the steps help bring this about.
Admitted to ourselves and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.
The original wording of Step Five includes admitting our wrongs to God in addition to ourselves and another human being. Of course as an atheist, there is no use for God in this step. It is perfectly sufficient to admit these things to oneself and another person. But why do we do this at all?
In the Big Book, the reason given is that we may drink again if we skip this step, and that we “won’t learn enough of humility, fearlessness and honesty” (Alcoholics Anonymous p 72-73). I’m not sure that I believe we will drink again if we don’t take this step, but I do think it’s a humbling experience and one that’s worth having.
When I completed the Fourth Step inventory, I felt that I had a better understanding of myself and why I reacted to life as I had, and I thought that this new understanding would help me make better decisions going forward. It was truly a valuable exercise, but the real power of Step Four was experienced after taking Step Five and sharing my inventory with another person.
As I read my inventory to my sponsor, he would periodically stop me and relate similar experiences from his own life. This helped me realize that I wasn’t so different from others, and that I had the same fears and insecurities as any other person. The guilt and shame that I had been carrying for so many years was if not removed at least lessened. I experienced an actual shift in my attitude that I carry with me to this day.
The primary concern involved with Step Five is who to choose as the person who will hear our story. The authors of the Big Book suggest that we take our time when choosing this person to make certain that it’s someone we can trust to hold a confidence. Most of us in A.A. do this with our sponsor if we have one, but anyone we trust will do.
When we finish sharing our fourth step with another person, it is suggested that we find a quiet place to review all that we have experienced in A.A. up to that point and to think about what we have done and if there is anything we left out or any weak spots. I found this to be a satisfying conclusion to Step Five, and as I looked back of all that transpired from my first meeting to that moment, I believed that I had done well and was on the right track.
Steps Six and Seven aren’t given much attention, there’s only one paragraph devoted to each step. This makes perfect sense because these steps as written require only that we become willing for God to remove our defects and then to pray that he removes them all. Abracadabra that’s it, poof all character defects are gone. Of course, I have never met anyone who actually claims that God removed all of their character defects. The general consensus is that working towards the total removal of all character defects will be a lifelong process.
It makes no sense that these two steps haven’t been rewritten since we now know from experience that God won’t remove all of our character defects. Maybe it’s because none of us are willing, or maybe it’s because there’s no God. I go with the later explanation.
My interpretation of these steps seems to match the reality of how the steps are actually worked. There’s no magic involved, no God to do the work for us. All of the responsibility rests with us.
Step 6: Were entirely ready to be rid of these defects of character.
Step 7: Humbly and persistently worked for the removal of our shortcomings.
We learned a great deal about ourselves in steps four and five and we have a better understanding of our shortcomings. This places us in the position to begin building character and that’s what these two steps are all about.
In Step Six we recognize that although we have experienced a lot of change, there is still much work to do. We recognize our fears and insecurities and how these have held us back in life. We understand the danger of harboring resentments and the destructiveness of self-centeredness. We were ready to be rid of these characteristics and to become better people.
Step Seven requires the humility in admitting that we need help to overcome our shortcomings and we recognize it won’t be an overnight job, in fact it may require a lifetime’s work. This step requires that we seek help whether from a therapist, a psychiatrist, psychiatric medication, A.A. meetings, or simply confiding in a close friend. There are a variety of ways to seek help and in this step we go to any length to get the help we need.
I consider steps six and seven t both to be character building steps. Once we learn the truth about ourselves both the good and bad, we find it possible to begin to form ourselves into the person we would like to become. It will take persistence and determination and a lot of help, but over time we can change and come ever closer to the ideal we set for ourselves.
All the steps prior to six and seven called for us to give something up, we gave up drinking, we gave up self-sufficiency, and we gave up self-centeredness, resentment and fear. Having done that, we are now ready to begin the process of building upon those characteristics that are worth keeping.
In my view, it is much more meaningful and makes more sense to remove a supernatural power from this process. Relying on a supernatural power to remove our character defects requires nothing on our part other than willingness and asking the deity to do it. There is no real responsibility for the individual to do the hard work of character building. However, from a secular point of view a person finds many practical avenues to explore for building character.
In part two we will take a look at the amends steps, eight and nine.