My name is Adam. I am an alcoholic and a drug addict. I am also an atheist, which means I do not believe in any gods. I just came from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I left feeling utterly disillusioned and depressed. God was mentioned many times, as was Jesus and the bible. If that were my first AA meeting ever, I would have done a U-turn and never come back. My sponsor tries to tell me it’s not that bad here in my sunny little hometown on the central Californian coast. But I suspect he either naps or can’t hear them. All of this god talk makes me very uncomfortable. I am afraid it will drive me to drink.
Today I am sober because of many things. I live a principled, unselfish and kind life, so I am more or less OK with myself. I check with level-headed persons, like my sponsor, my sister, my wife, when I am in doubt, because I know my thinking is sometimes off track. I get regular exercise and try to live a relatively healthy lifestyle. I stay honest with myself about drugs and alcohol and what they have done to and for me in my life. I read recovery oriented literature which is very helpful, even though most of it is not ‘conference approved’. I stay busy and fill my life with rewarding pursuits. That is an important component. I am careful about people, places and things. I do not place myself in situations where I might be tempted to stray from the healthy path. Last but probably not least, I try to keep up my association with the fellowship of AA and other recovering folk, even though at times it makes me want to run away screaming, straight to the nearest bar or drug dealer. Just so that I can differentiate myself from these ridiculous people and their ridiculous medieval beliefs.
Today I am sober because of many things. But none of them is god. Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are not ‘doing for me what I cannot do for myself’. God is not needed to explain the miracle of my sober life. In fact, anyone who talks about god is merely adding imaginary, speculative elements to the process.
Courage to change
Somehow, nonetheless, in spite of this problem I have with AA, I “keep coming back”. When I started this sobriety thing there were really no alternatives. So, over the decades, AA has become a central part of my life. Also, a whole lot of what goes on in AA is excellent, perfect stuff for anyone seeking sustainable recovery from alcoholism and addiction. So, I am hooked. I am an AA guy. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, after many years of coming and coming to, I have never come to believe. A few years back I finally accepted that I was an atheist, that this wasn’t about to change anytime soon, and, most importantly, that this was completely and totally fine. I was not going to get struck drunk or be kicked out of the fellowship.
Since having my own awakening I have become more conscious of how, as a godless person, I practiced ‘interpreting’ the religiously laden language of AA in order to survive. In this way I accepted AA as it was, and adjusted myself accordingly. But, we are also supposed to find the courage to change the things we can. And so, today, in addition to accepting AA as it is, I also strive to change Alcoholics Anonymous. Yes, that’s right. I said change AA. Blasphemy! Burn the infidel! AA is not perfect, and it needs to change. There. I said it. I have found the courage to say this because I have encountered others who have said this. So I know I am not alone, and I am not crazy. We all share a vision of a better AA, a fellowship which is more all-inclusive, which is successful with more than a mere 10% of alcoholic and addicts, and many of us are taking steps to bring this alternative reality to fruition.
So, exactly what does my imaginary fellowship of the future look like? Somewhat surprisingly, not that different from the one we have today. But there will be one noteworthy difference: one’s religion, spirituality, or lack thereof will be an outside issue, exactly analogous to the manner in which we currently handle one’s political affiliation or, ideally, ones sexual orientation. In this AA of the future, religious faith or spirituality will be relevant to some individuals, and totally irrelevant to others like myself. It will be a matter of personal choice. Its role in your recovery program will be outside the purview of AA altogether.
In some respects, in some places, we are not too far from this point. Where I live, I have found some meetings in which this relatively healthy version of ‘live and let live’ is embodied by most members. Most of the time. Maybe today was just a bad day. But generally, when I say I am an atheist, no one says anything about it. No one cross talks at me. I am not attacked after the meeting. Sure, there are probably many members who think I don’t really get it, that eventually I will either “come to believe” more or less as they do, or I will end up drunk. Plus there are always a great many members who have never really thought much about these issues, or even those who have no idea what being an atheist really means. Nonetheless, I have a number of AA buddies, some of whom are atheist, more agnostic, and many more who are traditional AA ‘believers’ on some level or other. We all tolerate the diversity. It remains, by and large, a personal issue. We are able to focus on our common ground.
Yet all is not rainbows and unicorns. Consider, for example, the fact that the Big Book version of the twelve steps, with eight references to divine intervention, is prominently displayed in every meeting room. At most meetings some portion of our inspired yet archaic Big Book are read at the outset. For example, the first pages of Chapter 5, deceptively titled “How It Works”, serves as an introduction to Alcoholics Anonymous for nearly all newcomers by virtue of being read at the outset of most meetings I know of. This section alone, this simple 5 minute reading, contains a total of 17 references to supernatural forces, deities and divine intervention. It then culminates in the hideously antiquated line “God could and would if he were sought”. As if that were not enough, this latter is often chanted in cult-ish unison, no doubt adding a most chilling effect to the startled newcomer. We could not turn away the thoughtful and the freethinking any better had we hung a swastika above the entrance or burned a cross at the start of each meeting.
Today there are AA groups for women and men, gay men and lesbians, doctors, celebrities, and all sorts of other specialty groups. In the future it may be just so: there will be Catholic AA meetings, or Jewish ones or Buddhist or Muslim meetings. These will present opportunities for members to discuss their recovery in light of their particular faith, and to connect with other ‘double winners’ in that regard. But AA, as a whole, will and must ultimately be a-religious in order to be of maximal service to the alcoholics and addicts of our increasingly diverse and secular world. Other than that, surprisingly, not a whole lot needs to change.
One of the fellowship’s great strengths, for better and for worse, is the power of socialization. Tribal nature, peer pressure, group support, teamwork, whatever you want to call it, being a part of the herd is a very important attribute of recovery. So, when you come into AA all desperate and beaten up, you do what the tribe does to stay sober, you mimic, you do as we do. Which means you see things in religious ways, and talk about things in religious language: spirituality this, higher power that. You pick up the lingo, you parrot.
Once secularism becomes a more popular, viable option, many current members who have been sheepishly religious may begin to trust their own thinking just a bit more, may practice a little free thinking of their own, and our fellowship will be all the better for it. In essence, my story is a true story about religious indoctrination, and eventual liberation from that indoctrination. It is a ‘coming out’ story. I believe that there must be other members like me, people who are only parroting the religious language because that is what the tribe does, and being a part of the herd is really important to we humans. Especially where our lives appear to depend upon it. If so, then another advantage of a more secular AA is that many more people will realize that ‘coming out’ is an option.
Does ‘coming out’ sound familiar to you? We atheists, agnostics and free thinkers need to borrow a recent historical page from the LGBT community. Our situation is analogous with the LGBT, or, if you prefer, gay rights movement of recent history, if not as severe. Today, after great struggle and considerable sacrifice, being homosexual has moved significantly closer to being ‘normalized’, by which I mean acceptable to the larger society. It is no longer the scary, threatening mystery it had been. The process of individuals publicly proclaiming their previously secret status is a very important part of our future. We need to normalize atheism, agnosticism and free-thinking, both within AA and within the broader culture as well.
Whereas before LGBT’s all had to remain hidden, now it has become safer and easier to be ‘out’ amongst us as our friends, cousins, brothers, daughters, co-workers, teachers, senators, employers and employees. I think we need the same kind of process to ‘normalize’ atheism. One important part of this inevitable process is for individual free thinkers, agnostics and atheists to speak up and self-identify as such, to themselves and to their fellow alcoholics in recovery.
Come out, come out, wherever you are! This is one step we can take to change Alcoholics Anonymous. Stop being ashamed, keeping it a secret, feeling like you’re doing something wrong or suffering from “intellectual pride”. AA needs us. It needs us to come out, to challenge the static status quo, to start the change, in order to be more effective to a wider range of people over a longer period of time, around the world and into the future. My sobriety, along with that of my fellow “non-believers”, serves to testify to the fact that god is really just a great big, spruced up placebo effect which has very little to do with the true operative principles which bring about recovery. I firmly believe that, with god, religion and spirituality entirely removed from the picture, there are very clear, definable, real world principles of recovery. There is nothing mysterious about them. They are not ineffable or beyond our comprehension. So come out and help us shift the focus away from make-believe entities and on to evidence based, knowable tools for recovery.
So far I have argued that
- Religious or spiritual status should be considered an ‘outside issue’.
- When AA becomes more secularized it will be more accessible to many more suffering alcoholics and addicts.
- When AA becomes more secularized many of its members, who have simply ‘gone along to get along’, will join the ranks of the freethinking.
- We should borrow a page from LGBT history, and all practice ‘coming out’ as agnostics and atheists.
Nothing supernatural here
Another difference in the new AA has to do with the importance of being open to learning and growing. Religious institutions are notoriously opposed to curiosity, critical inquiry, the use of reason, and change. To the degree that we can remove religious thinking from AA, we will find it more amenable to evidence based additions to its toolkit. The inclusion of empirical findings, of evidence based thinking, and the demise of the reason-rejecting, anti-change and anti-evidence mindset that currently predominates in our quasi-religious fellowship will be the foundation for our longevity and greater success.
Let’s get specific. I will offer up an example of exactly what I mean. Let us consider habit formation, or more specifically habit reformation, in order to highlight the topic at hand. Pretty much everyone with a brain recognizes that cigarette addiction is a very serious addiction that is very hard to change. Some alkies I know say giving up the smokes was even harder than giving up the booze. But people do break the habit. I have. You may also have, or know someone who has.
Here is a description of how it goes for most of us. At first, it is hard. It is very, very hard. We think about the cigarettes a lot, we miss them a lot. We apply a handful of tools. I had some distracting activities, admittedly substituted food and chewing gum, literature (in this case from the American Lung Association), the support of an impromptu fellowship of 5 people who all quit together, hanging together and bitching about it, calling each other when cravings hit. I had a tool kit, and I used it.
Over time, if we can get through these moments without re-igniting (pun intended) the addiction, this craving starts to fade, slowly but surely. We find that only occasional moments are characterized by the craving, the thoughts and the desires. What happens next? If we hang on long enough, we get to a point where, through the rear view mirror as it were, we suddenly realize that hours, days, maybe even weeks or months have gone by without an urge or a battle or maybe even a thought. As long as we maintain the right conditions to sustain this newfound freedom, we use that tool kit, it is a genuine and lasting freedom indeed. For example, I rarely think of cigarettes now, even though I thought of them every minute of the first day I quit. Occasionally I’ll catch a whiff of one as I’m walking down the street and I get wafted along, like Popeyes’ Wimpy smelling hamburgers. But I come back quickly, utilizing some technique or other. Think it through. This to shall pass. Talk about it. Soon the thought or urge passes.
Any number of addictions can be described exactly in this manner. This, while simple and unadorned, with the exception of irrelevant personal or painful details, describes in a nutshell the process of habit transformation in which we humans go from hooked to unhooked. Right?
There is a crucial, pivotal point in the Big Book, right before it makes that ever infamous claim that all we have is a “daily reprieve contingent upon the maintenance of our spiritual condition” (85), and offers up the ever delectable promises. Right before these key moments, it delivers what all of us really came to AA for in the first place: It describes how “sanity will have returned”, how we are now “seldom interested…. If tempted, we recoiled… as from a hot flame….We are not fighting, neither are we avoiding temptation.” Quite simply, “the problem has been removed”.
This may be the most important, underrated line in the whole Big Book. The problem has been removed. It is simply gone. Poof! I have gone through this process more than once. Given time, the old habit dies, and with it the old thoughts, cravings and obsessions fade away. The brain re-writes itself according to the new life. The synapses that fire together, wire together. And this simple brain chemistry can be about habit formation, or about habit re-formation just as easily. Nothing supernatural about it, no matter how ‘transcendental’ or ‘miraculous’ it may seem.
I suggest that this process is pretty much the same for most, perhaps all, addiction. This is a process of habit re-formation behaviorally. Or, in the language of neuroscience, a process of neural path renovation, if you prefer. Long enough away from the cigarettes and the problem is removed. Long enough away from the booze or heroin, likewise. Drag the body and eventually, sooner or later, the mind follows. Of course the analogy is not exact. For example, in my case the booze and narcotics involved deeper psychological and social issues, at a deeper level, than the cigarettes ever did. So a tool kit which addresses these deeper issues was needed. But the analogy still stands, I believe.
The main point is that there is absolutely nothing supernatural going on here at all, and saying that there is something supernatural involved only serves to disempower us, to denigrate us, and to unnecessarily confuse matters. On the other hand, thinking in terms of neuroscience or the nature of habit formation, in short, evidence based thinking, sheds considerably more light on both the process and on what I need to do than does “God could and would if he were sought”.
We gain absolutely nothing by describing the above process in terms of supernatural powers. In fact, by so doing, we shut the door on our natural curiosity and, perhaps more importantly, on the kind of learning, uncovering, and growth in understanding, in knowledge, that is quite plausibly humanity’s greatest asset. The quasi-religious mindset which predominates in Alcoholics Anonymous perpetuates this worship of ignorance. Dodging explanations through the ascription of ‘higher powers’ at work simply shuts down the all important pursuit of knowledge, and thereby brings to a halt any progress or improvement in our ability to intelligently address the devastating scourges of alcoholism and drug addiction.
We are A.A.
So, having advocated for this small yet radical change, let me back pedal and demonstrate my genuine allegiance. Alcoholics Anonymous has many great attributes. First of all, growth and change are not totally new and unheard of. The Serenity Prayer; the Twelve Steps; Dr. Paul’s story, currently titled Acceptance Was the Answer; the cheesy yet cool recent emphasis on ‘diversity’ in the Big Book stories; Al Anon, NA, MA, CA. All this and more happened subsequent to June 10th, 1935. So advocating for a little more growth and change is not outright rebellion.
I also like to note that the more we learn, the more we can begin to understand the connections between AA’s folk wisdom and the findings of contemporary science. For example, it looks a lot like people who say ‘fake it till you make it’ are talking about more or less the same thing as neuroscientists who assert that ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. This sort of approach is what I advocate for, in that it emphasizes synthesis. Rather than rejecting religion, or AA as a religious institution, I argue that we strive for a synthesis of what works from the past with what works now, without prejudiced rejection of past techniques simply by virtue of their being antiquated or associated with Christianity.
But, very importantly, I want to point out just a few of the things which AA as it is offers to our growing body of knowledge. Just a few of the many excellent traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous include its emphasis upon rigorous personal introspection and growth; the importance of identifying, confessing and genuinely becoming willing to be rid of our most glaringly troublesome character traits; the emphasis upon confession and restitution, the central role of such all important psychological and pro-social values as humility, willingness to change, open-mindedness, love and tolerance; the intense importance of gratitude; the central role of regular fellowship and mutual support; the egalitarian structure of our fellowship; the importance of personal honesty and the sharing of personal stories; and the central importance of selflessness and service to others. These are just a few of the brilliant and essential things that AA has hit upon which make it the most supremely excellent force for recovery in our times. And while I hold that religion itself no longer serves more than a placebo’s worth of value, its importance as the source of many of the above mentioned essential attributes is beyond question.
Let us blend these wonderful attributes with the best our modern times have to offer. Addiction Studies should bring our rapidly growing understanding of the mind, of the bio-chemical nature of addiction, into the picture. Let us learn more about the healing power of groups, tribes and peers through studies in Psychology and Social Psychology. Let us discover more and more about the nature of habit formation and re-formation through neuroscience and the Cognitive Sciences. Importantly, we need not blend with only the sciences. We can blend with whatever empirical data comes to hand, once we realize that this is not a supernatural process, but a very real, tangible, measurable process that we can learn about, strengthen our understanding of, and improve upon.
I do not think we benefit by teaching people to be skeptical about science and learning. It is inevitable that we will learn more and more about how addiction works, its nature as a cluster of phenomenon, genetics, environment, psychology and chemistry, all with varying manifestations in differing people. We will learn about exactly how to diagnose individual versions. We will learn more and more effectively how to detoxify people. And finally, most amazingly, most transcendentally, we will learn how to keep us clean and sober for the rest of our lives, without need of faith healing, 20th century variations on faith healing, placebo effects, witchcraft or the wishful thinking which works for a small percentage of those in need. This is all inevitable. If Galen or Saint Augustine could see us now, they would think we were miracle workers. Let us not delay the upcoming and inevitable ‘miracles’ through over-reliance on parroting, obedience, blind faith and the worship of ignorance.
AA is a remarkable phenomenon, one which I am exceedingly grateful, and even proud, to be a member of. I genuinely believe that it has contributed hugely to our learning about the treatment of alcoholism and addiction. Some of the knowledge and useful experience came handed down from religion and the Oxford Groups. Some of it came from Ebby and Bill and Bob and Jimmy Burwell and all the good old timers who knocked this thing together in the early days. Some of it has come through our group experience in the ensuing years. All of the stuff that really matters needs to be kept alive, synthesized with what we know today is truer, and gently redesigned to meet the future, the upcoming eras beyond faith healing, the needs of the twenty-first century and beyond.
There is nothing miraculous about recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction, although the transformations they can accomplish sometimes appear so to human eyes. But the true, core, operative principles of recovery are no big secret. In fact we all live them every day. They are fully within the realm of the humanly knowable. They can easily withstanding the light of rigorous scrutiny. It’s the imaginary gods and spirits that wither and die when the light of reason is turned on.