Saturday, September 27, 2008


How Does An Atheist Navigate Alcoholics Anonymous?
Part II Working Within the A.A. Idea
Continued From Atheist Survival and Recovery in God-driven Alcoholics Anonymous

(All phrases you will read that are between " " are phrases written in approved A.A. literature. Any phrase you see in italics are phrases used in A.A. but are not necessarily part of any A.A. approved literature--like One Day At A Time, Easy Does It, or Keep Coming Back 'Till You Want to Come Back. I will supplement the official phrases with references, or with live web links from the Big Book, so you will be able to read it for yourself. The Big Book is online free, by the way, and you can--and should--look at it, either online or in a book.
However, as authors will do, some of what you see in italics are my own writing of things I wish to set apart from the rest of the text.)

In AA we have "12 Traditions" as well as "12 Steps". Tradition One is "Our Common Welfare should come first; personal recovery depends on AA unity."

Entering an AA group, knowing people in that group are going to talk about God, higher powers, and spirituality, is for most atheists an unsettling experience. It was not unsettling for me--not in the beginning. I was familiar with A.A. through AlAnon, which is for people who have friends or family who are alcoholics.

Just being with that group helped keep me sober day by day, so that I did not drink in front of the person I was trying to understand and to help.

How do you become a member of a group? Tradition Three states: "The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking." That is important to remember for the atheist. It says nothing about membership requiring a "belief in God." It does not say membership requires a belief in a "higher power." But as I explain later, a "higher power" does not have to be supernatural, and having one actually does assist in staying sober.

I have heard many people say they came to their first A.A. meetings with a closed coffee mug full of booze; or that they went to a meeting every day without fail, then left the meeting to go get drunk with their friends.

But they had a desire to stop drinking. They simply didn't know the way, which is to listen, to learn, and to act on what you learn. If you get sober at an in-house clinic somewhere, they will probably use parts of the A.A. program, initiate you in it, and then on your way out the door tell you that the only way to remain sober is to keep going to A.A. meetings!

I was not unsettled by the religious people, at the first A.A. meeting that I went to for my own alcoholism, because I have no problem with religious people who don't try to preach. A.A., when done right, does not preach, but the moral messages it tries to inculcate can have many different personal applications.

At A.A., we take those parts of the messages we hear, the parts we need, and we leave the rest without concerning ourselves with it. That is why the "common welfare" of the group is so democratic that no one person can dominate it, no one person's idea(s) can dominate it, and all members' ideas must be tolerated, even ours, the atheists.

But I realized that I had to work the "12 Steps," and that they were steeped in "god." I had to work them or I would be in danger of slipping back into my old ways, feeling the old fears, the old dependencies for alcohol or drugs, whenever I might find myself in a familiar old situation that triggered the desire.

I knew I had to do the Steps because for five years I was in AlAnon. I saw my friend and many other people I met there become sober, civil, productive people again. I had no trouble accepting that A.A. does work.

How does it happen that we atheists can get away from this danger of feeling overwhelmed by god-driven fanatics who we think want us to believe in a higher power? We do it the same way everyone does--by listening to all the things said by other members, and then from those things we hear, by taking what we need and leaving the rest.

The AA Bible is called the "Big Book." That is not its name. Its name is "Alcoholics Anonymous." It has this to say about the change that we can effect in ourselves to prevent slipping back into the old needs, desires, habits and "character defects":

"The terms 'spiritual experience' and 'spiritual awakening' are used many times in this book which, upon careful reading, shows the personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism has manifested itself among us in many different forms."
[italics added] Appendix II, Spiritual Experience

So how do we atheists get past god and the spiritual stuff? Well, that's the heart of the matter. It has many answers, because we are individuals, and for each of us there is a different set of criteria preventing us from a belief in god. A.A. knows that each of its religious believers is an individual, different in his or her beliefs, and no denomination is favored over another. Yes, there are Jewish A.A. groups, Islamic groups, Buddhist groups, and organized agnostic and atheist groups (very few and far between.)

But the majority of the groups are Christian-based. Yet, the Babtists don't force themselves on the Methodists who don't force themselves on anyone because no denomination in a general group can take precedence over another. A Catholic may speak from his or her experience as a Catholic and even state he/she is Catholic. This is good. It gives you something to reference within that speaker's words.

I have seen people in my home group accept what I have to say about some things, because I can see their eyes light up, or a smile come across their face, or I see them nodding in affirmation and sometimes I even hear someone say "Amen!" to my comments! If that is not acceptance, if that is not acceptance for the "common welfare" to let me speak in a god-based meeting, and if that is not acceptance I see and hear and feel from my fellow members, then I don't know what is.

Without describing each of the categories, there are "weak" atheists and "strong" atheists--so say many atheists. I don't say that. To me an atheist is an atheist, someone who thinks, believes, or knows there is no god.

But the differences exist between us apparently because some atheists can actually believe god exists, but have no belief in it/him. These kinds of atheists can actually have beliefs in other supernatural things like ghosts, card and tea-leaf readings, and astrology.

Then there are those atheists who believe god does not exist, but don't know and don't care. Do you see the quicksand we could get into trying to figure it all out? It isn't important in this context. If you want to know more there are books, and websites devoted to the subject. But the cause of the quicksand is the cause of the problem of how each individual atheist gets over the "god thing," he/she finds in A.A. I'll tell you what I've discovered: A.A. says it only has to be a "god of your understanding." [Steps 3 and 11]

Notwithstanding the use of the word god, you and any other atheist who wants to get sober can find something that is a "power greater than himself." [Step 2]

So it turns out it is really up to you to figure that out for yourself. I've been a die-hard "there is no god" atheist all my life, yet I can now easily talk about my realtionship to a higher power when I am in the group, and I can even reference the god that everyone else believes in. I know that because of my willingness to sit in a meeting and discuss how I stay sober using A.A. while at the same time remaining atheist, at least one other atheist, possible more, have joined my group.

This is because my group is comfortable with me, and I am comfortable with them. One of the other atheists said her former home group made her feel uncomfortable. When ever any group makes you feel uncomfortable for any reason, not just religious reasons, it is probably better to find yourself another regular group, which is what a home group is. Your home group is the one you attend most often, but not necessarily all the time. You attend it because it feels like home, in a way.
Unless you believe the soul absolutely does not exist, [see Part I for a more complete description of this phenomenon] not even as something that dies with you, then you will come to discover the reason that group feels like home is a spiritual reason.

By using the group, not god, as your "higher power," you will begin to make "conscious contact" with "God as you understand him." My own such understanding is simply that within my understanding, god is just the power we call the laws of nature. But one of my sponsors told me that if I can have a spiritual experience while contemplating nature, such as during the stereotype of laying on the ground staring into space, then I have conscious contact with the "god of my understanding." Since he is a very religious man, I accepted his advice to use that as my understanding.That might have been the best advise I ever got from a sponsor.

But it's a good thing while trying to understand A.A. to ask a lot of questions from someone you trust who is already in A.A., rather than trying to figure out by yourself what the statements in the books mean. This is because taken at face value they often mean something other than when another chapter, paragraph, sentence, phrase, or Step is taken into consideration. Everything in life has "contextual meaning," and the words of the Big Book are no exception. It took a religious man to tell me that as an atheist I already had my own "conscious contact with the god of my understanding."

Whether you like the idea of being in a "god" group or not doesn't matter. One of the truths of being in a group is stated in an informal A.A. slogan. It says, I get drunk; We stay sober. In other words, there is power in belonging to a group.

When we don't have a reason not to not get drunk, we won't. You may think you can't help it, that you try to drink just one beer, wine, or mixed drink, but then you find yourself unable to stop.

You're right. You can't help it--alone. The second part of that phrase, We stay sober, means that when you have a support group made of people who are just like you because they can't stop getting drunk when they only want one drink, then as part of a group, "we" stay sober.
There is another informal saying in A.A. that is very appropriate for the atheist. It begins in the form of a question that millions of people have actually asked when they start going to meetings. The informal saying is the answer.

Q: How long do I have to keep going (coming) to A.A.?
A: Until you have the desire to want to come to A.A.

I am not the first atheist who accepts that A.A. can work for him/her. I am not the first atheist who had to negotiate the tricky propostions of the god problem. I will not be the last, and I hope you will not let the god problem stop you from seeking help.

Your life may depend on it; you may have been sentenced by a court to attend; your family may have begged you to go; you may be losing your home, your job, everything that is valuable to you. Don't let a little thing like an idea you don't like stop you from selfishly using an A.A. group to lean on. They won't mind it if you don't bash their god-ideas. And if they bash your no-god ideas, find another group, or talk to someone in that group you trust.

Look for Part III late next week.
For some outside perspectives, read the Comments on the link below.