This is going to be short and sparsely sourced because it was just going through my mind and I wanted to get it off my chest. There was an article in The Atlantic Monthly about addiction treatment, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous.” The subtitle reads, “Its faith-based 12-step program dominates treatment in the United States. But researchers have debunked central tenets of AA doctrine and found dozens of other treatments more effective.” Some people have called it a “hatchet job,” but that’s not what I saw. I’ve seen all these concerns raised about AA in the past. Now, I am quite far from having a drinking problem and have no first hand knowledge of this organization or any other, however our understanding of psychiatry and the workings of the brain have come so far since 1935 it seems almost odd to me that people are still using a method that old without any significant alterations.
I did, many years ago, have a boyfriend who had, years before I met him, had a problem with the law. Something small, like drunk and disorderly conduct. He was effectively sentenced to AA. Also, he was an atheist, which is why I’m bringing this up. As many people know, one of the ideas of AA is that you are supposed to turn your life over to a “higher power.” The better known of the two founders of AA, Bill Wilson, was active in a Christian fellowship known as the Oxford group and he credited becoming sober to a religious experience he had. The original book, Alcoholics Anonymous, had a chapter specifically addressed to agnostics. They acknowledge that agnostics and atheists might not like the ideas behind the method.
Lack of power,that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be A Power Greater Than Ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this Power?
Well, that’s exactly what this book is about. Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself, which will solve your problem. That means we have written a book which we believe to be spiritual as well as moral. And it means, of course, that we are going to talk about God. Here difficulty arises with agnostics. Many times we talk to a new man and watch his hope rise as we discuss his alcoholic problems and explain our fellowship. But his face falls when we speak of spiritual matters, especially when we mention God, for we have re-opened a subject which our man thought he had neatly evaded or entirely ignored.
After acknowledging some of the thought that might lead one to doubt the existence of a supreme being, the book continues:
We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results, even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God.
Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with Him. As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, A Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction, provided we took other simple steps. We found that God does not make hard terms with those who seek Him. To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding. It is open, we believe, to all men.
This seems to me to be fairly obviously religious, although of a pluralistic sort. Some agnostics might find this satisfying. Defenders of AA seem to be unwilling to acknowledge the burden this puts on atheists.
I was reading the comment thread under the article and I couldn’t help noticing a recurring theme:
This useful concept is so open ended, it really shouldn’t give atheists problems if they can keep an open mind (and disregard the opinions of some of their fellow AAs). I started out as an atheist. Now I would consider myself a skeptical agnostic. I recognize there is a higher power than myself. It reveals itself to me through physical laws, like gravity or the second law of thermodynamics.
People are generally encouraged to find a higher power of their own understanding, and in the case of atheists or agnostics (of which there are many) they generally lean on the collective wisdom and experience of the group as their higher power. Many people return to the religion of their upbringing as well, and there are all varieties of faiths among members.
Trust in God, is all that’s asked. That’s not “religious”, that’s what happens when you assume enough about tomorrow , to fill out your calendar.
You have faith, if you believe tomorrow will come.
Yes, AA is based on many principles drawn from religion. That’s a feature, not a bug, to the vast majority of humanity not afflicted with spiritual autism.
AA is not faith-based program. It does not come under the aegis of any religion. Those who complain about “god” in the Steps are leaving something out: “as we understand him”. That may be the most important phrase in AA. It was inserted at the insistence of an Atheist in the first New York AA Group (see BB story “That Vicious Cycle”). God as we understand him covers a lot of territory, including Agnostics and Atheists, of whom there are many in AA.
Overall, the impression I got was that the theists just wanted the atheists to shut up an pretend to go along. Well, I’m glad I don’t have a drinking problem because I would sure hate to go to AA.