By Galen T.
My conversations with people about “the God thing” in AA are usually kicked off by my non-recitation of the Lord’s Prayer after meetings. I try to be obvious about it. I don’t discretely bow my head to examine the flooring tiles, but instead look around the room to see who else is joining my silent protest over including a Christian prayer at the end of a non-religious meeting taking place under the umbrella of an explicitly non-religious organization. There are usually a few. And occasionally somebody who is praying will notice that I am not and walk over to me as the circle is breaking up.
Some people assume that I dislike the prayer per se. The prayer is fine, I tell them, but it belongs in Sunday worship services and in private prayers, but not in AA meetings, where most people aren’t Christians or even conventionally religious. I remind them that despite all the talk about God in our literature, AA is intentionally non-religious. Even our two pieces of primary literature are not religious, but theistic. Theism is a theological belief in a God who created the universe and continues to intervene in human lives. Religion goes further to stipulate mandated doctrines, such as the divinity of Christ, and promote rituals of worship such as the reciting of creeds and communion.
The use of the Lord’s Prayer not only implies theism, but is a religious act that violates AA’s primary purpose. The most disturbing consequence of this violation is that alcoholics in need of help try AA and don’t return because they are alienated by the Prayer and perhaps by members who insist that believing in God is a prerequisite to sobriety.
It is surprising how many people are not aware that the Lord’s Prayer is specifically Christian; they think of it as harmless generic expression of togetherness and solidarity. We can point out that Jesus taught the prayer to his disciples. The evidence for this is in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Ever since the writing of the New Testament, the Prayer has been inextricably tied to the Christian Church. The Church has not always been a wellspring of tolerance and love for all humanity, and some people associate it with repressive teachings and rigid judgmentalism. Or, they simply don’t believe in God.
The post-closing circle exchange often ends here. Occasionally, though, somebody will sidestep the main issue of AA’s primary purpose by veering off into making a case for God’s existence. The most popular of the classical proofs for God is the argument from design. The short version goes like this: the universe shows itself to be perfectly designed to produce human life on earth. Such perfect design could not be mere luck, so the universe had a designer, who is God.
Although this is traditionally called the teleological proof, it is less a proof than a deduction. But is the first premise – which is an empirical assertion about the universe – true?
The universe is indeed orderly in certain ways, but it also contains disorder, black holes, for example. This is just one problem with the argument from design. Through the middle ages it was assumed that the earth was the culminating purpose of creation. But we now know that we inhabit an infinitesimal speck in the backwater of a cosmos that contains billions of constellations, galaxies, solar systems, and spheres like earth. Furthermore, both the enormity of the universe and its constant expansion prevent us from knowing the entirety of creation and thus being able to gain assurance of its orderly design.
There is also a logical problem or two. First, we will never know the entirety of the universe. The question will always arise as to what lies on the other side of what we know. The only possible answer to this question is that we don’t know, a response that invalidates any argument that the universe is entirely orderly.
Second, even if the universe is well-ordered, that is to say, perfectly designed, this does not prove the existence of an ordering creator any more than it does the workings of random chance. To cite what we often say to one another: “It is what it is.” It is logically impossible, or perhaps we should say invalid, to induce from empirical observation, tests, and measurements, the existence of an entity outside of our empirical reach.
This is why religious belief has long been held to be a matter of faith in what can be neither proved nor disproved. So why should it be necessary to sobriety?
In this by now hypothetical conversation, this is the juncture at which the mandating role of tradition is often brought into play. Most people who defend the use of the Lord’s Prayer and the necessity of God to sobriety are less religionists than traditionalists. Sobriety was done in a certain way in the beginning, so the argument goes, and it is therefore the way it should be done now. Well, we need to ask, why is this? How does “what was done in the past translate into “what must be done today”?
History tells us, say traditionalists, that back in the 1930s when everybody in AA believed in God, AA’s success rate was close to 80%, while today it hovers pathetically around 7%. This proves that AA must recommit itself to faith in God as the only reliable basis of recovery from addiction.
But this comparison does not hold up under examination. First, we don’t know how many people got sober through AA 80 years ago, and we have no reliable way of measuring how many do today. Even if the percentage rate of success was higher in the 1930s than today, it stands to reason since during AA’s early years newcomers were virtually kidnapped by freshly sober alcoholics and indoctrinated in sobriety-by-conversion teaching. Interestingly, Bill himself was not brought to abstinence by faith, but on the other side of a sudden, possibly belladonna-induced, white light epiphany. Dr Bob, on the other hand, was a Christian for many years, during which his drinking problem worsened.
Eighty years later, how do we estimate the number of AA members who achieve success? First, what is success? Is it 90 days sober? A year? Longer? Even more tricky, how do we determine who qualifies as an AA member? Is it the person who attends one meeting a week but never practices the program? Or should we consider the twice-a-week attendee who has a sponsor but never calls her? How about somebody who goes to a meeting every day, uses her sponsor, but wants nothing to do with step work? And on and on. You see the problem. How can one decide the sample of the diverse AA population to track? Even if this were figured out, good luck coming up with a system of keeping track of them.
So, enough with these percentages of success. It’s guess work. But what we can be sure of is that many people achieve lengthy and permanent sobriety in AA apart from any relationship with the almighty. The crucial element in AA’s success is not faith but the fellowship. It is one alcoholic talking to another.
AA is commonly said to have begun on the occasion of Dr. Bob’s last drink, ironically administered to him by Bill W. in order to steady the good doctor’s hands prior to a scheduled surgery. A person’s last drink marks the beginning of their sobriety. But as an organization grounded in the principle of one person speaking and listening to another, AA itself began with the six-hour conversation between Bill and Bob that took place several months earlier at the home of Henrietta Seiberling in Akron, Ohio. Henrietta was a friend of Bob’s through the Oxford Group in which Bob was trying to stop drinking. The Oxford group was a potent religious and moral rejuvenation movement begun by a Lutheran minister in 1921 and it held regular meetings in Akron. But the meetings did not afford Dr. Bob contact with other alcoholics, at least none identifying themselves as such.
Unsurprisingly, the Oxford’s group’s religious and moral doctrines worked no better for Bob than did Bill’s immediate post-conversion exhortations for the addicts he encountered on the street. Bob continued to go downhill and his friend, Ms. Seiberling, was growing desperate. So when an equally desperate Bill Wilson turned up looking for another alcoholic, Seiberling leapt at the opportunity to broker a meeting between the two men. Bill was already at her house when Bob appeared at the door looking hung over and disgruntled. Bob’s wife had him in tow, the physician having reluctantly agreed to the meeting on the condition that it would last no more than 15 minutes.
The two men repaired to a private room and emerged around five hours and forty-five minutes later than Bob had planned. These two alcoholics exchanging stories about their alcohol problem was the origin of AA, irrespective of whether Bob slipped at a medical convention a few months later. The mutual story-telling and identification kept Bill sober and, aside from that one slip, sobered up Bob, and it is what makes AA still work today.
The plain evidence tells us that the foundation of AA’s success is not faith but the fellowship. Some will be helped by a belief in God while others will not. At the heart of AA is not faith but one alcoholic talking to another alcoholic. AA is a fellowship of people who are all devoted to the same goal – getting sober and recovering from the damage we did to ourselves through our addiction. This essence of AA is enshrined in its founding event.
Another look at early AA history helps to confirm that theistic belief has never been the only basis for sobriety. Jim B. and Hank P., both present at creation, were agnostic-atheists and made no secret of it. Together they watered down the God-talk in the Big Book and Jim succeeded in inserting the “as we understood him” into the steps. Sadly, Hank returned to drinking, but Jim remained both sober and an influential presence in AA until his death in 1974.
Jim’s spiritual descendants, so to speak, are alive and well in AA. How do we know that agnostic and atheist members can get sober in AA? Because they have been doing so throughout AA’s 80 years of existence and are doing so today in greater numbers than ever before. In this case, what “is” proves the point that neither God nor belief in him is a precondition for sobriety.
The tenacious hold of tradition over traditionalists can be baffling. For many, it may be less the principle of the matter than uneasiness in the face of change. When talking to rigid conservatives in AA it helps to remember that people can be wedded to tradition without any legitimate rationale. Resistance to change is often fueled by fear, even if it is unconscious. Change reminds us that everything in life in impermanent, including life itself.
But the way things were done yesterday can’t dictate to us what should be done today. Slavery, for example, was once a tradition in this country, one grounded in private economic self-interest while justified by racial hatred.
Tradition can be a positive unifier – a glue that binds people together around common goals and understandings of what makes living worthwhile. But it is not, in and of itself, a justification for policies and practices that hold sway over an organization that needs to change in order to fulfill its mission.
There is no reason why issues of belief and lack of belief about God should divide us, much less cause anger and contentious debate. There is room for all us who are united in the goal of sobriety and recovery. As the lingo current in treatment circles has it, there are many pathways we can trod to the same destination. The empirical evidence, to return to this term, is incontestable. Some people find that faith in God is a key to their sobriety while for others it is both unnecessary and unhelpful. It is not an either/or proposition. But we can all come together in the fellowship and in using our experience, strength, and hope to help each other and the next newcomer who walks through our doors.
About the Author
Galen lives in Hunterdon County, New Jersey with his wife and step-daughter, and his cat, and his step-daughter’s dog. He has a couple of graduate degrees in theology and is lead editor for AABB. If you want to submit an article, or discuss submitting one, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.