Other Factors

By Steven B.

A man clutches his chest. He’s having a heart attack.  He collapses and his heart stops. His wife calls 911. A highly trained team of paramedics arrive and start lifesaving procedures. They administer pharmaceuticals synthesized by chemists and tested with the scientific method. They use equipment developed by scientists and engineers. He is rushed to a hospital and met by a medical team who continue to work on the patient. They are able to restore a heartbeat and blood pressure. He’s stabilized and transferred to the Intensive Care Unit. The lead physician goes to talk to the wife and tells her that her husband has been stabilized and has survived his heart attack. She says, “Oh, thank God”. Perhaps God was responsible for this man’s survival, but might there have been other factors involved?

From Chapter Five of the Big Book:

b. that probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism

c. That God could and would if He were sought.

Perhaps God is responsible for sobriety in people, but might there be other factors involved?

It’s been my opinion that religion or spirituality has little to do with sobriety. It can have some marginal benefits like thinking, “I can sneak a drink past my spouse but I can’t sneak one past God” — if you really believe you have a 24/7 monitor. But for the most part I think other factors are involved.

First and foremost of the other factors is the Fellowship. To understand the benefit of fellowship it helps to understand the concept of Rat Park. The Rat Park experiments were done many years ago by Bruce K. Alexander and colleagues. Basically they showed that rats who were living in small cages with nothing to do were prone to drug use and rats that were in “Rat Park”, a large cage with other rats and an enriched environment, were much less likely to use alcohol or other drugs.  (Use your search engine of choice if you wish more details of Rat Park.)

Many alcoholics have devolved into a very small cage. They’ve lost friends, family, jobs, etc. AA may just give them the opening to reintegrate back into a worthwhile life. The importance of acceptance into a group with people who have been there is inestimable. Many freethinkers will suppress their disagreements with the group and go along because they don’t want to risk rejection. I know. I was one of them. It often seemed that AA dogma functioned more to filter people out rather than to draw them into the Fellowship. I think many an atheist or agnostic in AA can identify as belonging to a group of rejects within a group of rejects.

If all goes well as your recovery progresses, you enlarge and enrich your cage and lose the desire to sabotage the good life you’ve built for yourself. At some point you may not need the Fellowship of AA. I think it’s a myth that leaving AA makes relapse inevitable. You have several options: You can stay in AA and keep your opinions to yourself. You can stay in AA and challenge the dogma, hoping to help other non-believers get sober. You can limit yourself to We Agnostic type meetings. Or you can leave AA. There are other alternate forms of Recovery such as SMART, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, or LifeRing. Find your own path. After all, Dr. Bob’s program was different from Bill W’s. To thine own self be true.

Another very important factor is accountability. Just maintaining sobriety in order not to let the group down is important. Accountability also comes in other forms, such as commitments. Just being responsible to make coffee or handle literature can be important. Being a secretary can keep you coming back week after week. Also being accountable to a sponsor or to sponsees adds a personal touch that discourages people from failing. After the irresponsibility of active drinking, relearning responsibility is essential.

three-stepsThe Steps can be useful. In my view they can be reduced from 12 to 3.

  • Don’t drink (AA Step 1)
  • Don’t be a jerk* (AA Steps 2-11)
  • Help other alcoholics (AA Step 12)

AA Steps 2-11 do give you a method for self-improvement through religious and secular routes. The alternate Steps you see in AA agnostic literature emphasize the secular route and diminish the importance of the religious route. The Steps stress the value of confession, which was important in the Oxford Group philosophy of salvation. Atonement can help people feel better about themselves. In my view though, the Steps are a mixed bag. Dwelling on past wrongs and character defects can be detrimental. Approach the Steps with caution. Don’t feel obligated to work them. A more direct route to self-improvement is with cognitive behavioral therapy.

These factors are within the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. There are other factors outside of the program that help sobriety. One of the most important is the legal system. I’ve met many sober people who started their stays in AA on a court card. One man I know had no intention of getting sober until a judge told him he couldn’t drink for a year. After 7 or 8 months of sobriety he decided he liked it and was staying. He now has 18 years.

Many people will stay sober from fear of losing their jobs or licenses. Some will stay sober to avert a divorce. I know of people who have lost their children and got sober to regain custody.

Health problems can also help people get sober. Fear of the pain of pancreatitis can be a strong incentive not to drink. Two people I know are on liver transplant lists for cirrhosis; if they drink they are off the list.

Recovery is a mystery to me. I admit I only know a little. Most people come into recovery with a mixture of a desire to live a better life and a fear of negative consequences of continued alcoholic drinking. In a sense many people come to AA without regard for the Third Tradition. Their initial goal is not to stop, but rather to enjoy “moderate drinking”. And then, with the Fellowship of AA, they learn they can have a great life without alcohol.

* Idea stolen from comedian Jim Jeffries. He joked that the Bible doesn’t need 10 commandments. It just needs one: Don’t be a jerk. (Although he used a word other than jerk.)

About the Author, Steve B.

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, and in January 2016, he wrote an article for AA Beyond Belief titled, Why I Stopped Going to AA and Why I Feel Guilty About It , and he participated in our podcast Talking Smart with Steve.

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.

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  1. Ed O May 31, 2016 at 10:23 am - Reply

    Try this experiment: Stand on a street corner (I was a street-person — though I prefer the term “Urban Wanderer” — for 10 years) with an open bottle of booze and ask god to help you not drink.  Ha! // Then get a fellow sober alcoholic and stand with him or her on that same street corner with that same open bottle.  I’ll give you odds whatever crazy, invented deity will be no help at all, while two alcoholics will start talkin’ so friggin’ much they’ll forget they even have an open bottle. // Very few, if any, ever got to god first then AA.  They got to our community first then invented a deity.  — Just my wanderin’ atheistic thoughts.  — ‘Ol Ed O (From Auburn, CA.  39 yrs. sober without the help of a nutso deity, but with the help of “community”.)

  2. Rajiv B May 30, 2016 at 1:09 pm - Reply

    Thanks Steven for this wonderful article, and also Jeb Barrett for your comment on the Appendix II: Spiritual Experience.

    But are you all aware that STEP 12 in the original 1939 Big Book was “Having had a *spiritual experience* as the result of these steps, we…”? In the 2nd printing of the 1941/42 Big Book the Step 12 was changed to say *spiritual awakening*. That’s why the Big Book since then carries the garbled version of Step 12, and the Appendix II. Otherwise the spiritual experience had already been defined on page 27 as a psychological experience of “huge emotional displacements and rearrangements”

    And “God”, which is also called “a power greater than ourselves” “the Great Reality” etc. in the Big Book, has been defined on page 55 as a power that lies “deep down within us”, this power being obscured, or blocked off, among other things, “by worship of other things”. This mans that in the 12 Steps and in the whole of the Big Book, we must understand “God”, which/who helps us live a manageable life, ONLY as the power that comes from within us, and NOTHING ELSE. And if we worship or pray to anything else — i.e., also the God of one’s religion — we will not be helped by the power or “the Big Book’s God”. This has to be kept in mind when we read this from Chapter Five of the Big Book:

    b. that probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism
    c. That God could and would if He were sought.

    So I hope you can see that our original 1939 Big Book path was a simple psychotherapy/analysis path. But in 1926 the New York State, where the Big Book was being written, had passed a law making the practice of analysis or psychotherapy by non-doctors illegal (See: http://counsellingresource.com/therapy/types/history/ — The Medical Vs Non-Medical Split section) So, if Bill W had written about their psychotherapy/analysis path in the Big Book, he could have landed behind bars in New York. This was the reason why in December 1938, Bill wrote the “suggested” 12 Step program with God in every other Step to circumvent the 1926 NY State Law.

    From all this, I hope it is quite clear that the original AA path is a path for agnostics, and not a God program. And also in the chapter Working With Others, page 93, Bill clearly warns members not to use the God word when helping an atheist or an agnostic, by saying, “When dealing with such a person, you had better use everyday language to describe spiritual principles.” I sure hope all of us point this out to the religious members of AA and ask them to stop talking about God in the meeting rooms when any one of us is present.

  3. Joe C May 30, 2016 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    Great essay Steve; I’ll be sharing it often.

  4. Jeb B May 29, 2016 at 4:27 pm - Reply

    Wonderful personal sharing puf experience, strength and hope. The tendency to “hide behind the Big Book,” which is someone else’s story, rather than sharing our own experience is even warned against in Working With Others. Since the 12 Steps as Bill tried to summarize the process of what people were doing hides the actual cognitive-behavioral process he somehow put together on pages 60 through 88, it was important for me to set least try to follow that “course of action” to achieve the results described in several places, including The Doctor’s Opinion and Appendix II: Spiritual Experience. The latter, of course, was added in the 1941 second printing of the First Edition. Learning to follow the directions in the use of any tools seems like a no-brainer, but is an essential discipline for me. The actual process of “self-examination, confession of short-comings and leveling of (my) pride” continue to be essential to self-honesty and getting rid of the “stinkin’ thinning” beginning to learn from my experience.

    It is unfortunate that Bill and others’s fear of what religious leaders would do if they made AA sound like an alternate to their makebelieve religiosity. However, he did manage to sneak in that many of that small beginning group “lived in spiritual makebelieve until they realized the childishness of it all,” and that “in the last analysis” the only place we are going to find the power we are looking for is deep within.

    “Don’t be a jerk” is a great summary of what learning to pay attention to inner wisdom and how my words and behavior affect others. Many thanks!

  5. Jon S May 29, 2016 at 3:59 pm - Reply

    Hi again Steve. I really enjoy your writing and your blog. I don’t know if you’d be interested but I’m sure the host of Alcoholism Recovery Radio would be interested in a pod cast interview. No worries if not but I’ve done a few with him and would be happy to put you in touch. I’ve also blogged on alternatives to AA (without wanting to criticise the fellowship that got me sober in the first place) and would be keen to exchange ideas and feedback. My email is on my blog essay: “Leaving AA Staying Sober” http://jonsleeper.wordpress.com

  6. Jon S May 29, 2016 at 3:50 pm - Reply

    Fantastic piece, Steve. Thank you for sharing it. Jon S

  7. Micaela S. May 29, 2016 at 2:58 pm - Reply

    Excellent article.  I adore my atheist/agnostic articles.  Thank you for my refreshing reading of the day.

    Micaela S.

    Atheist with 10 years sober.

  8. Bill P. May 29, 2016 at 2:46 pm - Reply

    Great article, Steve! Thanks. I agree that it is a myth that if a person no longer feels the need to attend AA meetings once or twice or more a week he or she will eventually drink. I started to attend them only sporadically 19 years ago and have been sober for nearly 28 years. And I doubt that AA should merit a copyright on age old wisdom, some of it from the Far East, such as “One step at a time”, “Easy does it”, “Don’t try to change stuff you can’t change”, “Live in the present. You can’t change the past. You may be able to modify the future but it hasn’t happened yet.” “Stop thinking only about yourself; help others”, “Be moderate or modest in possessions, wealth, “career”, life style”, “know thyself”.

    A lot of this goes back to 500 B.C. And from what we now know of the Universe, there are literally trillions of stars not only within our Galaxy but in the trillions of other galaxies or even “alternate universes”. This puts in perspective the idea that, to keep sober one must get out of bed in the morning, fall on your knees and ask God to keep you sober “one day at a time.”

  9. Frank M. May 29, 2016 at 1:51 pm - Reply

    Very nice, Steve. Thanks. And great to hear from you. I still miss your posts in AAAA.

    Warmest regards,
    Frank M.

  10. Anton D. May 29, 2016 at 11:17 am - Reply

    “I think many an atheist or agnostic in AA can identify as belonging to a group of rejects within a group of rejects.”  That is certainly true for me.  While I still remain grateful that AA exists, I have become increasingly allergic to its generic, nondenominational, religious underpinnings.  Currently, my interactions within the organization consist almost exclusively of one service commitment to setup a meeting, and partial attendance at another.  My personal hope is that some agnostic oriented meetings (identified as such in the area directory) will spring up in the community I’m in.  Alternately, if another organization, like SMART Recovery, were to begin establishing a presence, I would, with regret, bid goodbye to AA.

    I have no problem with others attributing their sobriety, along with all other good things in their lives, to an invisible, superhero friend.  But too many of them become insistent on evangelizing and ‘exporting’ their hallucinations onto others in order to “carry the message”.  And that is an offense I will no longer “go along to get along” with.

  11. Oren May 29, 2016 at 10:57 am - Reply

    Thanks, Steve. Great article.

    Fellowship, and the “3-step program”–you’ve pretty much nailed what has kept me sober since 1973  (and if  you add physical exercise, meditation, reasonably good nutrition, some loving relationships, and a number of lucky breaks, you have the story of my recovery).

    I’m still working on “Don’t be a jerk,” but there is progress.

    I’m grateful that AA Beyond Belief and AA Agnostica exist. They are the right “Rat Parks” for me.


  12. Herve L May 29, 2016 at 10:39 am - Reply

    Funny coincidence, or not, as we just had AA friends over for dinner on Thursday and the rat park experiment was a topic of our discussion along with the Sinclair Method and the use of CBT rather than the steps. It won’t come as a surprise that our little group came to the same conclusions as you do  Although I must admit it wasn’t as well articulated as your piece 🙂 even though 2 of the people at the table have 40 years of AA.

    Thanks for the steps….

  13. John S May 29, 2016 at 10:36 am - Reply

    Thank you for your well-written contribution Steve. I’m an atheist and as such, I have absolutely no belief in a deity. However, I take it a step further and I reject any and all supernatural claims. In my view, everything is or can be explainable through science.

    There are people who have turned their lives around by joining a church and actively participating in it. Perhaps, these people attribute their new found happiness to divine intervention, when in fact, it’s the socialization with others at the church that really made the difference. The support of peers helps encourage changing behaviors.

    I suppose the same can be said for AA. Certainly in my view, ,it can be said of those who believe a supernatural being has something to do with their not drinking. They may believe that is the case, but believing something doesn’t make it so. It’s more likely it’s the people in the rooms and the actions they are taking, that are really doing the trick. However, if they think God is doing it, more power to them, as long as they don’t try to push that view on others.

    The steps in my opinion are valuable tools that can be used to improve one’s life. However, they aren’t magic. These are practical actions. I think the three steps mentioned in your article are not intended to be taken literally. Had, I be given the instruction to “not be a jerk”, it wouldn’t have been at all helpful. I needed to understand why I was a jerk, to whom I was a jerk, change those behaviors and help other jerks. Of course, what I have just written was tongue in cheek. We aren’t really jerks, we were just people with an addiction, and we needed some help.

    Good stuff to think about. Thank you for providing something stimulating to mull over on a quiet Sunday morning.

  14. John L. May 29, 2016 at 10:32 am - Reply

    Great article, Steve.  You nicely debunk the notion that only “God” can relieve our alcoholism.  Yes, we need other people, technology, science.  This is why I love the slogan of this year’s WAAFT conference: Human Power!

    I also have had a passion for comic books, ever since I was a little kid.  I recently read all 26 volumes of The Spirit archives in a library.  In my home library I have complete re-issue runs of Batman and Terry and the Pirates.  As a teen I had a large walk-in closet filled with comic books.  One day I came home from school to find that they were all gone.  Not even a Donald Duck was left.  My mother had read a book, Seduction of the Innocent, which persuaded her that I was being corrupted and perverted by comics.  Many years later I mentioned to her that if I still had my comic book collection — many hundreds of golden agers — they would be worth millions.  She hesitated and then said she thought she would still do it.

  15. Rich May 29, 2016 at 10:15 am - Reply

    Thanks Steve , exceptionally well written post. Regarding dwelling on the past , there is a good reason why a rear view mirror is smaller than the windshield. As far as the steps are concerned , they are , IMOH , nothing more than a good ” model ” of behaving. It  helps in recovery by addressing ” stinkin’ thinking “. Wrong thinking ( our will ) = wrong decisions / judgements = wrong action. Quite easily done , one day at a time.

    Once ” practiced ” it leads to a paradigm shift , again my opinion,in our thinking  that is sometimes referred to a ‘ psychic – change or a ” spiritual experience ” ( refer to pages 567-568 of BB ). That shift or change , if you prefer , effects our thinking. Thought proceeds actions. If we  correct our thoughts , correct action logically follows. This is not rocket science nor mysterious magic. It’s an inside job , cleaning up a sloppy mess from possible years of incorrect thinking . Acceptance of life ( reality ) on life’s terms is not a radical idea. Conquering the extreme instincts of  the ego , is nothing more than application of common sense . We guard our thoughts. There are many paths to the top of a mountain , the  steps are simply one path to get there.

  16. Tony L May 29, 2016 at 8:53 am - Reply

    Thanks Steve I can relate to what your saying. For example, I have been active as a member of my traditional AA group for 10 years this August, I took over the treasures job after 12 months sobriety, and I went on the 12 step list at the same time. Pretty soon after that, I took the training to do phone service & enjoyed a five year weekly 4 hour shift with a lovely lady on that shift. I learned a lot about addiction to alcohol in that time speaking to folks who were on the brink of thinking of stopping drinking

    Five or or six years ago, I took to re opening the meeting up & getting tea, coffee, etc. for meeting. Not because I wanted to monopolize the  jobs, but not many people were offering to do stuff.

    These were all things I felt I could help with. Never really been interested in the steps apart from the first & I like your summery of the rest. Don’t be a jerk.

    I hear a lot of higher power talk at the meeting but can’t help thinking sometimes, yeah but what about a bit of higher purpose like the practical stuff that I mentioned?

    However that stuff that I do has helped me stay sober coming up 10 years in August, so maybe I’m lucky I like to help out

  17. Thomas B. May 29, 2016 at 7:48 am - Reply

    Thanks, Steve, for an excellent article, which is well-written and makes much good sense. I especially like your distillation of the steps into three simple dictums that I suggest cofounder Dr. Bob especially would have appreciated.

  18. Manoel H May 29, 2016 at 7:24 am - Reply

    I’ve been a member of a local branch of The Rat Pack for a little over a year now. It works to be among other rodents who have chewed from similar rotten stuff. It helps because  – only one of many lessons – we learn that what is filthy and poisonous for me is not necessarily horrible to the guy next door.

    Most important: being part of the a local branch of the Rat Pack gives me choices. A very important one is that I can choose to be by myself whenever I want, not needing to feel guilty or ashamed when wanting to be alone ( which , by he way, gives a  special flavour to my visits to the Club).

  19. Andy Mc May 29, 2016 at 7:14 am - Reply

    Thanks Steve, I rarely make the time for reading AAA articles, but for some reason I did today. So refreshing to read someone else’s perspective similar to mine.

    “Don’t be a jerk”…..my wife’s favourite line when dealing with me when compromise is the last thing on my mind. I like you, I believe it’s all about relearning that which I should have remembered from the kindergarten “pack”….be good to one another and life(sobriety) is easy, be a jerk and life becomes more painful making it easier to seek solace artificially.

    Thanks again Steve,

    Happy travels,


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