So we AA’s failed them. Perhaps more often than we think, we still make no contact at depth with those suffering the dilemma of no faith.
“The Dilemma of No Faith” (Bill Wilson, AA Grapevine, April 1961)
When I first came into recovery in 1990 I had a higher power. The higher power was making me pee in a cup randomly. I don’t know if I could have stayed sober without my higher power. I also had the dilemma of no faith. I had a de-conversion experience in my high school years, long before I got into trouble with alcohol and drugs. I was very unhappy at that time and I decided to listen to these people in the recovery community.What I was doing wasn’t working. I wasn’t sure if I was a powerless alcoholic, but I did accept the second half of the first step and I made a sincere effort to work steps 2 and 3.
They said I needed a spiritual higher power to stay sober, so I made a rigorous effort to reconcile my worldview with the AA philosophy. I read numerous books on theology and studied religious history. At that time, when I did the second step, I embraced Taoism. I later came to believe that the motivation for that was just to be compatible to the AA program, and that was the least unpalatable option I could come up with.
Somehow I muddled along in the program and stayed sober. I never went beyond step 2 and never sponsored anyone. For a dozen or so years I continued in 12 step. Never enthusiastic about it, or in the center of the pack, I stopped going around 2002 and remained sober for 5 more years.
In 2007 I returned to AA after relapsing. My life was not as out of control as it was in 1990, but I wanted to return to the program before I spiraled further downward. I found a “We Agnostics” meeting. It was over 40 miles away, but it was worth the weekly drive. I live in a conservative county with over 1,200 weekly AA meetings, but even now, there are no agnostic oriented meetings. It was so refreshing to go to meetings and discuss staying sober while also staying true to my worldview. I realize now there were secular AA meetings in the ‘90s, but I didn’t hear about them or even know they existed. I might have stayed in AA if I’d known there were.
I believe that the benefit of the AA is the fellowship. The benefits of belonging to a church come from being involved in a community, not from worshiping a deity. The community of alcoholics is a vital component of recovery for many a suffering drinker. Supernatural beliefs are a secondary, less important component of recovery. Of course many a Big Booker will tell you the opposite is true.
I continued going to local, mainstream AA meetings. Increasingly I found myself sharing a message of secular recovery in AA. I would advocate for having a secular higher power, such as Group Of Drunks, or no higher power at all. Surprisingly many would come up to me after the meetings and say they are also atheists or agnostics, but don’t talk about it at meetings — even some old timers.
Whether or not you believe in a supernatural higher power, AA can be of benefit. Oddly, the atheist is more likely to believe the fellowship is more important than the spiritual aspects of recovery, but is also more likely to be ostracized from the community for thinking so. Making contact with those suffering from the dilemma of no faith, as Wilson put it, became a rewarding aspect of AA meetings for me. Over the years I have seen many people go to a meeting or two and leave because of the “God stuff”. Hearing a voice of secularism amidst the prayers and God soaked 12 steps might just keep someone coming back to the meeting. I would often be rewarded by people thanking me for my shares after the meeting. Some people would even consult me to help them when they were sponsoring non believers.
Needless to say, often my shares were not welcomed by all in AA. I would get people reminding the group that although the book says it is to be taken as a suggestion only, if you were jumping out of a crashing plane would you take a parachute that was only suggested? I would often get angry. I would come back with more abrasive shares, like, “recovery is not dependent on superstition and magical thinking“, and “imaginary friends aren’t needed for sobriety“, etc. My anger was fueled by memories of friends past who left the program because of the dogma. Some of them didn’t do well; they might have benefited from the fellowship.
Eventually I had to admit that showing newcomers a program of strife and animosity wasn’t good for anyone, so I left AA. Deciding to stop complaining about AA and do something different, I started attending a local SMART recovery meeting. Eventually I became a SMART facilitator and currently conduct a weekly meeting. Many SMART attendees are averse to AA. As a practical matter I often tell them they need to interface with the 12 step program, since they are the 800 pound gorilla in the recovery field.
I feel guilty about leaving AA because I feel reaching out the hand of AA to those with the dilemma of no faith is vital–not only to newcomers, but vital to the health and diversity of AA. While I may have become a detriment to the local area AA, I believe the increasing presence of the secular movement within the program is essential to its long term relevance. I laud what AAAgnostica, WAAFT and other atheists, agnostics and freethinkers are doing in AA. I know it’s an uphill battle, facing rejection from many AA members, Central Offices etc. But keep up the good work; you will keep AA from becoming irrelevant.
About the Author, Steve Bergier
Steve has been in recovery since 1990. Presently retired and living the good life in sunny southern California, he has a particular interest in the neuroscience of addiction and how this affects treatment programs. He is also interested in the neuroscience of religious beliefs and non-critical thinking.
In May 2013 he wrote an article posted on AA Agnostica: God and Diet Pills. Today, Steve is a certified SMART Facilitator and runs a weekly meeting. He’s the webmaster of the local SMART website, OC SMART and blogs at the Sunday Irvine Meeting Blog. Another one of his passions is comics, from the Golden Age to contemporary off the shelf.