Atheist Big Book Study: There is a Solution
The description of the fellowship found in this chapter is from my experience quite accurate. We are indeed a group of “people who would not normally mix” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 17).
In most A.A. meetings you will find people from all walks of life, the rich, the poor, the young and the old, the powerful and the downtrodden. It’s the shared experience of disastrous drinking that binds us together, a bond I felt from my first meeting when I heard for the first time someone describe themself as an alcoholic.
It stunned me the first time I heard those words, “My name is ______ and I”m an alcoholic”. I had seen it in movies and television and I suppose that I should have been prepared, but those words got my attention. What’s more, these people weren’t telling me that I had a problem, they simply described their own drinking and I could relate with every person in the room.
But is this what holds us together? Is this why A.A. has survived all these decades? I don’t think so. I agree that we have discovered a common solution, but I’m not sure if it’s one “on which we can absolutely agree” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 17)
Either there’s more diversity of thought in A.A. today or it’s become more noticeable due to the improved communications brought about by the Internet. There are those who are very liberal and don’t think it’s necessary to work the steps, and the ultra conservatives who believe the steps must be worked in a very specific manner. There are those who are very religious, those who are spiritual but not religious, and a growing number who are neither religious nor spiritual.
So what is the solution upon which we can all agree?
Before delving into the solution, let’s make sure we have a good understanding of the problem. The alcoholic is an unlovely creature when in his or her cups, to say the least, and the disease isn’t isolated to the sufferer. The alcoholic inflicts pain and suffering and damaging harm to those who are often the closest to him. It’s certainly difficult to have much sympathy for someone like that.
Looking at it from the perspective of a normal drinker, the solution seems simple. Just stop drinking, exercise some willpower, think of all you have to live for and what you have to lose. Do it for your family for god’s sake! These comments were commonplace when the Big Book was written in 1939 and are still heard today.
Those who drink with moderation and control are understandably bewildered by the alcoholic’s obsessive and compulsive drinking. The alcoholic simply cannot control how much alcohol he or she consumes after the first drink.
“He is seldom mildly intoxicated. He is always more or less insanely drunk. His disposition while drinking resembles his normal nature but little. He may be one of the finest fellows in the world. Yet let him drink for a day and he frequently becomes disgustingly, and even dangerously anti-social. He has a positive genius for getting tight at exactly the wrong moment” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 21).
But none of this would matter if not for taking that first drink. This is the insanity of alcoholism, repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result. “This time I’ll handle it”.
I can relate to this. I recall getting off work at 5:00 and telling myself that I would only have a couple of beers to relax, then ten hours later I’m still drinking, and as the book says, more or less insanely drunk. I did this over and over again. I was trapped in an alcoholic hell. I must have known at some level that something wasn’t right. I mean I used to hide money from myself so I wouldn’t spend it all at the bar. That’s not normal!
“The main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body” (Alcoholics Anonymous p.23).
“The fact is that most alcoholics, for reasons yet obscure, have lost the power of choice in drink. Our so-called will power becomes practically nonexistent. We are unable, at certain times to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even a week or a month ago. We are without defense against the first drink” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 24).
“There is a complete failure of the kind of defense that keeps one from putting his hand on a hot stove. It won’t burn me this time” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 24).
As described by Dr. Silkworth, allergy, obsession, compulsion. So again, what’s the solution?
The solution is a deep and effective spiritual experience brought about by following the basic tenants of the Oxford Group; self examination, confession, restitution and service to others.
An appendix was added after the first printing of the book to clarify that the spiritual experience need not be a sudden and dramatic event such as Bill W experienced. In fact, most of these experiences are of the “educational variety, taking place slowly over time”.
Is this scientific you may ask? No, but a well-known psychiatrist and psychologist Dr. Carl Jung prescribed it to Rowland H., the prominent businessman mentioned in this chapter. The treatment Rowland received provided him with new insight into the workings of his mind and a new confidence that he would never again drink. Yet, in just a few weeks after leaving treatment, Rowland found himself drunk again.
Returning to Switzerland for a second visit to Dr. Jung, Rowland asked the doctor why he was unable to remain sober. The news from the doctor wasn’t good. He told Rowland that he had the mind of a chronic alcoholic and pronounced his condition as hopeless. Rowland pressed the doctor to tell him if there was anything at all that could save him.
“Yes, replied the doctor. Exceptions to cases such as yours have been occurring since early times. Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding force of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them. In fact, I have been trying to produce some such emotional rearrangement within you” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 27).
Dr. Jung went on to explain that simply attending church would not be sufficient to bring about this experience. With this information, Rowland joined the Oxford Group where he and another member rescued Ebby T. from commitment to a mental institution. The very Ebby T. who carried the message to Bill.
The chapter concludes with a recommendation of William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience which documents the many ways that “men have found God”.
Okay, so how do I as an atheist make sense of this? I prefer Doctor Silkworth’s description of “entire psychic change” over Jung’s “spiritual experience”. I can understand the need for a “huge emotional displacement”, and a new set of “ideas, emotions, and attitudes”. I can even understand how deep calamity brought on by drinking could set this up. Something has to happen to break through the wall of denial. I just don’t think it comes from a god. Even Dr. Jung said he was trying to create such an experience for Rowland through psychotherapy, so he must have realized at some level that a god wasn’t necessary.
I know that people who believe a god is keeping them sober are quite sincere in their belief and they have my full respect, but for myself I don’t need a god or a spiritual experience to recover. I do however need help from my fellow alcoholic.
The steps have changed me, there is no doubt in my mind about that. It’s just that the change was psychological in nature not spiritual. So, perhaps we can agree on a common solution. We admit we are licked, we ask for help, we decide to change and commit to the program, we clean house and we work with others. This is the common ground we share with believers. The only difference we have is they believe that God is helping them and we believe they are helping us.