Asking Richard Wade About How Atheists Should Respond to Alcoholics Anonymous, and How Personal Values Influence Professional Therapy

In three previous posts, the Friendly Atheist’sadvice columnist Richard Wade and I have discussed the origins of his “Ask Richard” column, the nature of family conflicts over atheism, and whether atheists should replace religious identities with self-consciously atheistic ones. Along the way, Richard compared religion to heroin.  In what follows I take that as an opening to transition the conversation to the topic of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Daniel Fincke: Speaking of drugs and religion—during your career as a therapist you specialized in addiction medicine.  What would you advise an atheist to say if half way into a heated debate about the existence of God her interlocutor were to get emotional and insist that he just needs to believe in an AA-conceived “higher power” because otherwise he’d wind up in the gutter? Should we push rationalism and skepticism with such people or treat their religious belief like the methadone to their heroin in this case, i.e., not recommendable in general but necessary for some addicts?

Richard Wade: I often had this issue come up with patients of mine. The chemical dependency clinic where I worked relied heavily on 12-step concepts, and I had to do a lot of interpretation for patients’ specific needs. My personal method was intensely pragmatic: Find whatever works to keep you alive, and don’t worry about whether or not you are perfectly following your philosophical principles, if indeed you have even clarified them for yourself. So if believing in gods keeps you sober, fine. If that doesn’t work, find whatever will work!

The main problem is that AA and its 12-step cousins are everywhere, and there are very few secular support groups in between. When an agnostic or atheist asks me what the heck does he do with all that “God stuff,” I tell him to shrug and use the group of human beings he’s with as his “higher power.” Just as five men can lift a fallen tree out of the roadway while a man alone cannot, so five caring people who are right there to support him in his pain and doubt are more likely to successfully get him through it than he would by himself.

From an atheist’s viewpoint, that’s what’s really happening when 12-step program members succeed in recovery. The “higher power” was the camaraderie and encouragement they got from each other, even though they wanted to attribute it all to a deity. I hope that secular programs continue to grow and become more available, because addiction is like a plague. Millions of people are dying in slow and awful ways, and even the best methods are miserably ineffective. It’s dismal. It’s very unfortunate in the rare instances where the “God stuff” in AA is used to proselytize religion, and it’s usually corrected by group members. It’s just that I have seen so much abject misery  and so much death from addiction that I just don’t care that much about sticking to esoteric or abstract principles. Just do whatever works, stay alive, and later you can sort out your philosophy.

Daniel Fincke: What do you mean about group members correcting against the “AA” stuff being used to proselytize—are they explicitly warned against trying to persuade each other into sectarian interpretations of God?

Richard Wade: In most 12-step meetings, there are rules and customs that they follow, and while many members will refer to God when they share their thoughts to the group, overt proselytizing is strongly discouraged. They talk about themselves, not each other. So they don’t say YOU should find God, even if they attribute God to their own recovery. They insist that it’s a “spiritual” rather than a “religious” program, but that’s where the ambiguity of that term spiritual can still be a problem. It has so much religious connotation. When sponsors work individually with new, struggling members, they are not observed by the group and they may abuse their influence with someone. Usually if a new person has strong objections to that, he or she can seek a different sponsor, but it’s tough when they’re desperate, scared, ashamed, and hurting very badly. They’re so vulnerable and not necessarily very assertive even when they’re at their best.  I really can’t overstate how difficult early recovery from addiction is.

Even if they think “group” when they hear “God,” for atheists there still are serious problems with the 12 steps themselves, because they are very heavily influenced by Christianity. The surrender to a higher power, the abdication of self will, the prayer and meditation, the confession; so many things. I’ve seen some secular versions of the 12 steps written, and some of them are clever and offer a possibly useful angle on it for an atheist, but I think an entirely different method might need to be invented, even if it uses the parts that work in AA.

Again the problem is the huge scope of the plague of addiction. With so much suffering, there’s a tempting mass of victims for unscrupulous predators peddling cures. Somewhere in there might be someone with a legitimate idea, but it’s tough to get the support they need when they have to first show that they’re not con artists, and they have to get past others’ belief  that 12 Step programs are the only thing that works.

Daniel Fincke: Yes, this is brutally tough, because human ennoblement and civilizational progress in the last centuries has come through people’s increasing political, moral, and intellectual autonomy.  Yet the addict bears naked the limits of human autonomy.  Many religious people want to characterize all humanity as being as desperate and in need of abject submission to something outside themselves, and therefore the addict saved by God has become a major modern conversion myth.

Richard Wade: Yes, exactly.

Daniel Fincke: Now, this raises a broader question.  When asked about your own perspectives on truth and ethics, it’s clear you have well-worked out ideas that you are passionate about and willing to persuade others of.  Yet, I was taken aback when you said that before writing your “Ask Richard” column, you had never actually given advice but had only helped people find their own solutions.  So, I hear a little tension there.  Do you feel queasy about encouraging people to adopt your own strongly held values in a therapy context?  Do you separate your own confidence in your own values from an interest in people finding their own path?  Is it not just the alcoholic that you would be willing to meet on his or her terms like that?

Richard Wade: The advice column is not therapy. I use some of the knowledge and skills that I employed when I was a counselor, but it’s a very different thing with a different purpose. In the column, someone describes a dilemma, and I offer one or two possible suggestions. I also hope that others reading it will find some useful insight or encouragement, and that others commenting will offer ideas I didn’t think of.

On the other hand, therapy is a complex, back-and-forth relationship that is constantly changing and evolving. The goal is not just to solve a particular predicament, but to help the client to develop predicament-solving skills, and a self image that includes “I am able to solve my problems both by drawing upon my own abilities, and by searching out skilled allies.” So if I were to quickly give advice to a therapy client for his presenting problem as I do in the advice column, I would not be helping him to grow both outwardly and inwardly as a successful problem solver.

As a counselor, I always saw the purpose of my job was to work myself out of a job, to become no longer needed by my client.  It’s sort of like teaching them to fish rather than feeding them a fish.  My own method of fishing might become apparent to the client during the therapy process, but I’m mostly interested in helping him experience the empowerment that comes from inventing his own method of fishing. If it’s something like mine, I still want him to take full ownership of the method that he’s putting together. If it’s not like my method a all, I have no ego investment in that, that’s fine with me. If his way works to his satisfaction and I’m convinced he’s really looking at it, great! His taking full responsibility for his successes and failures is absolutely essential.  Several times former clients have come up to me in a store or on the street years later and told me that I saved their lives.  I always reply that while I’m delighted that they’re still alive,  I didn’t do that, they did.

Daniel Fincke: Wow, that’s terrific, I never realized how much being a therapist was like being a philosophy professor before, but we (or at least I) have a similar attitude about teaching critical thinking to students.  It’s not about our own ideas but about working with the students to develop their own critical approaches to philosophical questions.

Richard Wade: Ah wonderful. What a fun job that sounds like.

Daniel Fincke: Yes, it is great.  And it depends, for me anyway, on incorporating something you do also, which is to provide lots of affirmation.  I think half the secret of getting students to open up is to validate them—not by humoring them into thinking every idea they have is perfect, or perfectly realized, but by making clear to them that their ideas catch the scent of the truth and are worth exploring.

Richard Wade: “We be of one blood, thou and I.”

Daniel Fincke: Yes, that’s been my impression!

Read the other 7 parts of the interview, in which I ask Richard about:

The Origins of the “Ask Richard” Column

Anger In Families Divided Over Religion

Atheism and Religions As Bases For Identities

The Ethics of Lying To Stay In A Protective Closet

How Atheists Should Confront And Replace Religions

Whether Believers and Non-Believers Should Avoid Marrying Each Other

Whether Believers Are Literally Deluded

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • lu

    interesting interview.ive known addicts and gone to many meetings with them for support, and I always felt like I was going to church-the od content was was heavy. I was always respectful, as I wasnt there for me but my friend, but it was still awkward for me. I have heard of a group that isnt based on god concepts called SOS, but obviously they are few and far between so I have never actually been to one.im looking forward to reading the rest of the article :)

  • Laurance

    AACCKKKKK!! That’s me screaming my head off.

    I wish the Atheosphere would get Alcoholics Anonymous on their radar and realize that despite the hypocritical claim that it’s “spirituality, not religion”, it is, in fact, a stand-alone religion; and despite the hypocritical claim that it’s based on “attraction rather than promotion”, it relies heavily on coercion; and despite AA members’ complaint about those horrible courts that send coercees to AA against AA’s will, AA’s official policy is that members should go to courts, talk with officials, and ask that the court officials send coercees their way.

    I wish the Atheosphere would take a hard look at the issue of coercion into what is a religion. This is a violation of the First Amendment. Whenever the matter has been taken to court, the coercers have lost, and the religiosity of AA has been confirmed.

    Richard, I’m dismayed. You tell us, “When an agnostic or atheist asks me what the heck does he do with all that “God stuff,” I tell him to shrug and use the group of human beings he’s with as his “higher power.”

    Yes, that’s what a lot of us do/did. But I can tell you it’s so destructive to constantly have to “interpret to mean”, and play weasel word games, to constantly have to compromise our integrity to keep our fellow steppers from abusing us.

    Don’t you believe it when steppers tell you that god can be whatever you want. Baloney!

    I quickly caught on that there were two things I could do:

    I could roll my eyes heavenward and murmur, “Gaw-w-w-d,” while silently thinking to myself and making “god” mean something else entirely.

    Or I could give “god” any name I wanted to – A Higher Purpose, A Spiritual Principle That Keeps Me Sober, A Power That Makes For Righteousness – or something mundane. I was told that the ashtray or styrofoam cup could be my higher power, as long as it wasn’t me. Nowadays it’s the Doorknob that is popular.

    I could give it any name at all as long as what I described was the very specific god of AA (and yes, there is a god of AA, despite claims to the contrary). This god, by whatever name, expects us to turn our wills and our lives over, to confess secrets to him, to ask him to remove ALL our character defects on demand, and seek through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with the Doorknob, uh, god.

    Whichever tactic I chose, what I had to do was give the people the false impression that I agreed with them, that I believed, too. I had to be intellectually dishonest, I had to compromise my integrity to get along.

    Yes, I expect any number of atheists to write in and say I’m full of it, that atheists can get sober in AA. Shucks, I used to say the same thing! I was totally squeaky clean, and lasted 12+ years in AA before I’d had it, was full to overflowing with the same old stuff and sick and tired of playing evasive games in what is a blatantly religious setting.

    While few steppers may seek to actively convert others to their personal religion (and I was on the receiving end of proselytizing attempts), there is a lot of subtle and not so subtle abuse and cruelty directed at those who don’t believe in the AA god. I got plenty of that. Play the god game or get hurt.

    Why did I stay so long? Why did I get sucked into what I consider a cult? Why did I twist myself into a pretzel and play those verbal games so as to not offend my fellow steppers who would belittle and badmouth and shun those who did not conform?

    Nowadays there are other options.

    SMART Recovery ( http://www.smartrecovery.org/ ) is giving AA a run for its money, and is growing. SMART makes sense to me.

    And there are SOS, LifeRing, Women For Sobriety (which skeeves me even more than AA, but some women do like it and get something out of it), there’s Rational Recovery – AA is still the dominant paradigm, but it’s losing ground while other groups, particularly SMART, are gaining.

    Don’t forget Moderation Management and HAMS – Harm Reduction.

    As for those groups which re-write the steps, I wonder why on earth they go to the trouble of trying to make the steps palatable. Why bother? Dump them entirely!

    Richard, I hope you’ll re-think this business of atheists trying to make AA work for them by interpreting god to mean the group, or some such thing, in order to remain in a frankly hostile (yes, I’ve been on the receiving end) organization. Were steppers nice to me? Yes, of course most of them were – but it was because of all sorts of contortions and accomodations and verbal games on my part. Read the Big Book and the Twelve and Twelve, and you’ll see that AA is not kind to atheists at all.

    • rosehill

      I can totally relate. And–who in their right mind would even consider making a ‘group of drunks’ any kind of higher power?

  • Maria Levenson

    Please advise if there are any other groups such as smartrecovery.org. The closest one to me is at least 50 miles away.

  • raysny

    Maria,

    If there isn’t a SMART meeting locally, maybe there’s an SOS meeting:
    http://www.sossobriety.org/meetings

    Don’t be surprised if there isn’t though. Both groups tell folks to stay only as long as they feel a need, then get on with their lives. Both have online support.

    The problem I see with alternatives is that they give AA an air of legitimacy. You don’t NEED a group to get sober, but that has been drilled into the general consciousness for decades. Still, most people don’t believe it. The NIAAA’s 2001–2002 National Epidemiolo­gic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions interviewe­d over 43,000 people. Using the criteria for alcohol dependence found in the DSM-IV, they found:
    “About 75 percent of persons who recover from alcohol dependence do so without seeking any kind of help, including specialty alcohol (rehab) programs and AA. Only 13 percent of people with alcohol dependence ever receive specialty alcohol treatment.­”

  • Dr Tex

    I feel deeply saddened by our friends bad experience with AA. It sounds like some people were mean to him/her and they quit AA. I enjoyed the color of the rant on the other hand but there are some serious flaws in the logic calling AA a religion. If having the court send people, coerced people, to the group and that makes it a religion then prisons are religions, police cars are temples and picking up trash on the side of the road is a form of religious worship. I guess that would also make the electric chair a most holy cathedral.

    I am happy that this generated a list of alternative treatments for addicts and alcoholics. There is a whole section of the book of alcoholics anonymous that was written for the agnostic or atheist.

    In a group of drug addicts I am not surprised that one has some negative experiences with people in that group. I just hope future readers that have alchohol or drug issues would try AA for themselves before listening to one drop out.

    There are also groups for atheists if this God thing is so offensive then you don’t have to hear it as much. I happen to be a believer but I am struck by the tenacity for which people who don’t believe in God spend so much energy on not believing. I don’t think the Easter bunny exists and I am pretty sure I am not going to rally like minded individuals to my cause. I do find atheists remarkable because if you believe that you die and it’s game over or your worm food that itakes some conviction or in my world view “faith”. If I thought this life was followed by nothing I think I would dedicate more of my life to anything other than blogging about something that does not exist. Hey you folks only live once right?

    • Laurance

      Well! You did a good job of belittling me. “It sounds like some people were mean to him/her and they quit AA.”

      It sounds as if somebody said something unkind, and I went stomping off in a huff. No, sorry to disappoint. I was deeply involved in AA for 12+ years, during which time I experienced both good and bad and indifferent things. I finally left because of intolerable boredom.

      there are some serious flaws in the logic calling AA a religion. If having the court send people, coerced people, to the group and that makes it a religion then prisons are religions, police cars are temples and picking up trash on the side of the road is a form of religious worship. I guess that would also make the electric chair a most holy cathedral.

      Are you being deliberately abusive and sarcastic? Did you really miss what I said? Nowhere did I say that coercion makes AA a religion. I was saying that since AA is a religion, it’s unconstitutional to force people to join a religion against their will.

      I do find atheists remarkable because if you believe that you die and it’s game over or your worm food that itakes some conviction or in my world view “faith”.

      Yeah. The argument, “I can’t be an atheist because it takes too much faith, and I don’t have that much faith. I believe in god.” I’ve heard that one.

      Atheism is about LACK of faith.

      There is a whole section of the book of alcoholics anonymous that was written for the agnostic or atheist.

      Progree and Rosehill have already responded to that one. The “We Agnostics” chapter is outrageously abusive and condescending.

      Now on to responding to Richard.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Laurance,
    I’m very, very glad that you’re alive to be able to scream your head off. Thousands of my former patients are not.

    By the time they got to the clinic where I worked, they were in the late stages. I first met most of them in their hospital beds in detox. Their physical and emotional suffering was appalling. They were far beyond struggling with staying married or getting divorced. They were far beyond struggling with keeping their job or being fired. They were struggling with living or dying right now.

    So I was very, very pragmatic.

    Neither they nor I gave a rat’s ass about being intellectually dishonest, or having to compromise integrity to get along. We knew that at this point it was about continuing to breathe. You can’t stick to your principles if you’re dead. I didn’t like having to send my patients to AA when they had this conflict and objection, but that was the only thing floating in the water. Most of them were able to make the adjustments in their heads and take advantage of the human support. Once in a while I heard about abuses similar to those you experienced, and it really pissed me off. All I could do was to advise them to stay in the program, but to find different people who did not try to take advantage of them in that way.

    When I left the field many years ago, there simply were no secular support groups available. “Rational Recovery” was a book that had just come out.

    Since then I have been very pleased to finally see more methods and more resources for non-believing people slowly emerging and proliferating, BUT they are still too few and far between for many people who are trying to recover. If I were still practicing in the field, I would be very happy to have more appropriate resources to suggest, but I would still be pragmatic. If the secular programs were not close enough, I’d still recommend a 12-step program, because a poorly fitting life jacket is better than none at all.

    Laurance, please keep voicing your objections to the abuses of non-believers by 12-steppers that you actually know about, and please keep spreading the word about secular alternatives. As raysny has pointed out, most people with chemical dependency don’t need programs, therapy or groups to stop, but for those who do, please be careful to not inadvertently give them the message that they should use nothing at all unless they can find the perfect program for them. Regardless of the means they used, well suited or poorly suited, I admire and salute all recovering people, the few survivors of a chronic twelve thousand year old global disaster, and I admire and salute you in particular right now. Please use your clarity to help others.

    • Laurance

      Richard, I hope you’re still reading this blog and the responses. I hope we can have some conversation here, and I hope my CyberBuddy raysny will check in again. He has valuable experience and some useful things to say.

      By the time they got to the clinic where I worked, they were in the late stages.

      Thanks for clarifying. You were working with the people who are really far gone, at death’s door.

      I, on the other hand, was a desperately unhappy housewife drinking in the kitchen. I suddenly went into spontaneous remission and just stopped. I went to AA *after* stopping drinking because I had this notion that it’s good to be in a support group. I knew nothing about AA, and didn’t realize I was getting into a high demand religious group. I stayed, not because I needed help staying “sober”, but because I was so horribly depressed and lonely (really crappy marriage), and it was intoxicating and appealing to have people actually listen to me, actually realize I was there, as long as I said, “Easy does it, one day at a time, keep it simple, read the big book and go to meetings.”

      So we’re talking about very different kinds of people. All sorts of people come to AA, but it’s One Size Fits All.

      I felt a kind of pressure to identify with the people you were treating, to see myself as the same as them. There is a pressure to amplify your story and bring it into line with the rest of the people’s stories there. I couldn’t do it.

      Neither they nor I gave a rat’s ass about being intellectually dishonest, or having to compromise integrity to get along. We knew that at this point it was about continuing to breathe. You can’t stick to your principles if you’re dead.

      This is something I thought about frequently. It seemed to me that there some people for whom it was the lesser of two evils, about the only viable alternative they had.

      My grandsponsor was a bright and creative college professor. But Richard, he’d say the most outrageously stupid things! I’d think to myself, “Does he have only two alternatives? Either death in the gutter, or utter mind-rotting stupidity??”

      I saw other people in AA, people who were not particularly bright, and I’d think, “Well, maybe this is as good as it gets, and it’s better than dying drunk.”

      As raysny has pointed out, most people with chemical dependency don’t need programs, therapy or groups to stop, but for those who do, please be careful to not inadvertently give them the message that they should use nothing at all unless they can find the perfect program for them.

      I’m not in a place where people will ask me what they should do about a drinking problem. Nor am I a counselor involved with the really hard-core serious cases.

      If I were asked I’d suggest SMART via the computer, since there’s no face to face meeting around here. As for AA, I would suggest that people inform themselves about it before going, be aware of pitfalls. I wouldn’t tell someone not to go. I would just tell them to be careful and not accept just anything anybody tells them.

      But then, as I said, I’m not talking with the people you were talking with. I don’t know what’ I’d do with someone who was really is danger of dying from extreme, terminal alcoholism.

      Nor do I know if AA helps all that much, or what percentage of far-gone people it actually helps. I do know that most people who come into AA will leave before the year is out.

      Nor do I know whether the help from AA will outweigh the damage in the case of the hard-core sufferers.

      As for people who leave, I do know there’s a whole category of people who drink too much, put on the brakes, come to AA and stick around for a few months and then leave without having been sucked into AA dogma or fanaticism. If you’ll ask them, they’ll tell you that AA got them “sober”. And that’s it. They’ve moved on.

      There’s another bunch I see as co-listowner of the yahoo group, EFTCoaa (Escaping From The Cult of aa) which I inherited several years ago.

      These are the people who have been really HURT, HURT BAD in AA. They come tumbling in, frightened, demoralized, confused, their brains loaded with slogan-speak and the fruits of “ego-deflation at depth” which AA practices (as if most demoralized alcoholics need to have their egos deflated – the last thing I needed as a dreadfully depressed and demoralized woman was to have my already broken ego deflated even more).

      AA utilizes all eight of Robert Jay Lifton’s mind control practices.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thought_Reform_and_the_Psychology_of_Totalism

      I was there for 12+ years, and I experienced them all.

      I’m running out of steam right now. (I’m tired and my car broke down.) I hope you’ll have a response. I’d like to have a good discussion, and I thank the Camel with Hammers for this blog topic.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Dr. Tex,
    If you’re a recovering person, I’m glad if you are doing well.

    However, you just demonstrated an example of the abuse that Laurance was complaining about. In your last paragraph, you opportunistically used this discussion to express your disdain for atheists, and it was all based on ignorance.

    You clearly do not know what atheists think, feel and do. You are drawing upon your IDEA of what atheists think feel and do. It sounds like you are either parroting the stereotypes spread by some other misinformed person, or you’re imagining what YOU would think, feel and do if you were an atheist.

    That is not the way to understand them. You have to actually get to know several atheists closely, in trusting, respectful relationships. Unless and until you have such experience, as a self-described “believer” you would better represent your belief by adopting an attitude of sincere goodwill and open-minded curiosity, rather than your air of thinly-veiled scorn and superiority.

  • Progree

    Dr. Tex,

    Yes, there is a whole chapter in the Big Book, dedicated to telling the Agnostic (and Atheist) that they are

    “Cynically Dissecting Spiritual Beliefs” (p. 48), “Handicapped By Obstinancy” (p. 48), “prejudiced” and “unreasoning prejudice” (p. 48) “Rather Vain” (p. 49), “No Reasonable Conception Whatever” (p. 49), “Biased And Unreasonable” (p. 51), “Prey To Misery And Depression” (p. 52), “Couldn’t Make A Living” (p. 52), “Full of Fear” (p. 52), “Our Ideas Did Not Work” (p. 52), “We Couldn’t Quite Step Ashore” (p. 53), “Leaning Too Heavily On Reason” (p. 53), “Abjectly Faithful To The God Of Reason” (p. 54), “Whirling On To A Destiny Of Nothingness” (p. 54), “Fooling Ourselves” (p. 55), and on and on.
    Or from the 12 X 12: “belligerent” (p. 26), “savage” (p. 26), “prideful balloons” (p. 29), “far too smart for our own good” (p. 29)

    Dr Wade – virtually all groups emphasize working the 12 Steps. How do you tell agnostics to work Step 11 – Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with The Group as we understand The Group, praying only for knowledge of The Group’s will for us and the power to carry it out?

  • rosehill

    Pogree–you nailed it. That section of the Big Book is extremely patronizing and condescending and assumes that, at the end of the day, one will see the light and accept the AA gawd. Did you know that this AA gawd is even capable of creating a much needed parking space for you if you are ‘working’ a good ‘program’? What rubbish.

  • Daniel Fincke

    My curiosity piqued by these discussions of the “We Agnostics” section of the “Big Book” (essentially AA’s bible), I decided to look it up and reproduce it for everyone reading along who is also not familiar with it:

    IN THE PRECEDING chapters you have learned something of alcoholism. We hope we have made clear the distinction between the alcoholic and the non-alcoholic. If, when you honestly want to, you find you cannot quit entirely, or if when drinking, you have little control over the amount you take, you are probably alcoholic. If that be the case, you may be suffering from an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer.

    To one who feels he is an atheist or agnostic such an experience seems impossible, but to continue as he is means disaster, especially if he is an alcoholic of the hopeless variety. To be doomed to an alcoholic death or to live on a spiritual basis are not always easy alternatives to face.

    But it isn’t so difficult. About half our original fellowship were of exactly that type. At first some of us tried to avoid the issue, hoping against hope we were not true alcoholics. But after a while we had to face the fact that we must find a spiritual basis of life—or else. Perhaps it is going to be that way with you. But cheer up, something like half of us thought we were atheists or agnostics. Our experience shows that you need not be disconcerted.

    If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago. But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how much we tried. We could wish to be moral, we could wish to be philosophically comforted, in fact, we could will these things with all our might, but the needed power wasn’t there. Our human resources, as marshalled by the will, were not sufficient; they failed utterly.

    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.

    We know how he feels. We have shared his honest doubt and prejudice. Some of us have been violently anti-religious. To others, the word “God” brought up a particular idea of Him with which someone had tried to impress them during childhood. Perhaps we rejected this particular conception because it seemed inadequate. With that rejection we imagined we had abandoned the God idea entirely. We were bothered with the thought that faith and dependence upon a Power beyond ourselves was somewhat weak, even cowardly. We looked upon this world of warring individuals, warring theological systems, and inexplicable calamity, with deep skepticism, We looked askance at many individuals who claimed to be godly. How could a Supreme Being have anything to do with it all? And who could comprehend a Supreme Being anyhow? Yet, in other moments, we found ourselves thinking, when enchanted by a starlit night, “Who, then, make all this?” There was a feeling of awe and wonder, but it was fleeting and soon lost.

    Yes, we of agnostic temperament have had these thoughts and experiences. Let us make haste to reassure you. 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 too hard terms with those who seek Him. To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding to those who earnestly seek. It is open, we believe, to all men.

    When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, too, to other spiritual expressions which you find in this book. Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you. At the start, this was all we needed to commence spiritual growth, to effect our first conscious relation with God as we understood Him. Afterward, we found ourselves accepting many things which then seemed entirely out of reach. That was growth, but if we wished to grow we had to begin somewhere. So we used our own conception, however limited it was.

    We needed to ask ourselves but one short question. “Do I now believe, or am I even willing to believe, that there is a Power greater than myself?” As soon as a man can say that he does believe, or is willing to believe, we emphatically assure him that he is on his way. It has been repeatedly proven among us that upon this simple cornerstone a wonderfully effective spiritual structure can be built.*

    That was great news to us, for we had assumed we could not make use of spiritual principles unless we accepted many things on faith which seemed difficult to believe. When people presented us with spiritual approaches, how frequently did we all say, “I wish I had what that man has. I’m sure it would work if I could only believe as he believes. But I cannot accept as surely true the many articles of faith which are so plain to him.” So it was comforting to learn that we could commence at a simpler level.

    Besides a seeming inability to accept much on faith, we often found ourselves handicapped by obstinacy, sensitiveness, and unreasoning prejudice. Many of us have been so touchy that even casual reference to spiritual things make us bristle with antagonism. This sort of thinking had to be abandoned. Though some of us resisted, we found no great difficulty in casting aside such feelings. Faced with alcoholic destruction, we soon became as open minded on spiritual matters as we had tried to be on other questions. In this respect alcohol was a great persuader. It finally beat us into a state of reasonableness. Sometimes this was a tedious process; we hope no one else will prejudiced for as long as some of us were.

    The reader may still ask why he should believe in a Power greater than himself. We think there are good reasons. Let us have a look at some of them.

    The practical individual of today is a stickler for facts and results. Nevertheless, the twentieth century readily accepts theories of all kinds, provided they are firmly grounded in fact. We have numerous theories, for example, about electricity. Everybody believes them without a murmur of doubt. Why this ready acceptance? Simply because it is impossible to explain what we see, feel, direct, and use, without a reasonable assumption as a starting point.

    Everybody nowadays, believes in scores of assumptions for which there is good evidence, but no perfect visual proof. And does not science demonstrate that visual proof is the weakest proof? It is being constantly revealed, as mankind studies the material world, that outward appearances are not inward reality at all. To illustrate:

    The prosaic steel girder is a mass of electrons whirling around each other at incredible speed. These tiny bodies are governed by precise laws, and these laws hold true throughout the material world, Science tells us so. We have no reason to doubt it. When, however, the perfectly logical assumption is suggested that underneath the material world and life as we see it, there is an All Powerful, Guiding, Creative Intelligence, right there our perverse streak comes to the surface and we laboriously set out to convince ourselves it isn’t so. We read wordy books and indulge in windy arguments, thinking we believe this universe needs no God to explain it. Were our contentions true, it would follow that life originated out of nothing, means nothing, and proceeds nowhere.

    Instead of regarding ourselves as intelligent agents, spearheads of God’s ever advancing Creation, we agnostics and atheists chose to believe that our human intelligence was the last word, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end of all. Rather vain of us, wasn’t it?

    We, who have traveled this dubious path, beg you to lay aside prejudice, even against organized religion. We have learned that whatever the human frailties of various faiths may be, those faiths have given purpose and direction to millions. People of faith have a logical idea of what life is all about. Actually, we used to have no reasonable conception whatever. We used to amuse ourselves by cynically dissecting spiritual beliefs and practices when we might have observed that many spiritually-minded persons of all races, colors, and creeds were demonstrating a degree of stability, happiness and usefulness which we should have sought ourselves.

    Instead, we looked at the human defects of these people, and sometimes used their shortcomings as a basis of wholesale condemnation. We talked of intolerance, while we were intolerant ourselves. We missed the reality and the beauty of the forest because we were diverted by the ugliness of some its trees. We never gave the spiritual side of life a fair hearing.

    In our personal stories you will find a wide variation in the way each teller approaches and conceives of the Power which is greater than himself. Whether we agree with a particular approach or conception seems to make little difference. Experience has taught us that these are matters about which, for our purpose, we need not be worried. They are questions for each individual to settle for himself.

    On one proposition, however, these men and women are strikingly agreed. Every one of them has gained access to, and believe in, a Power greater than himself. This Power has in each case accomplished the miraculous, the humanly impossible. As a celebrated American statesman put it, “Let’s look at the record.”

    Here are thousands of men and women, worldly indeed. They flatly declare that since they have come to believe in a Power greater than themselves, to take a certain attitude toward that Power, and to do certain simple things. There has been a revolutionary change in their way of living and thinking. In the face of collapse and despair, in the face of the total failure of their human resources, they found that a new power, peace, happiness, and sense of direction flowed into them. This happened soon after they wholeheartedly met a few simple requirements. Once confused and baffled by the seeming futility of existence, they show the underlying reasons why they were making heavy going of life. Leaving aside the drink question, they tell why living was so unsatisfactory. They show how the change came over them. When many hundreds of people are able to say that the consciousness of the Presence of God is today the most important fact of their lives, they present a powerful reason why one should have faith.

    This world of ours has made more material progress in the last century than in all the millenniums which went before. Almost everyone knows the reason. Students of ancient history tell us that the intellect of men in those days was equal to the best of today. Yet in ancient times, material progress was painfully slow. The spirit of modern scientific inquiry, research and invention was almost unknown. In the realm of the material, men’s minds were fettered by superstition, tradition, and all sort of fixed ideas. Some of the contemporaries of Columbus thought a round earth preposterous. Others came near putting Galileo to death for his astronomical heresies.

    We asked ourselves this: Are not some of us just as biased and unreasonable about the realm of the spirit as were the ancients about the realm of the material? Even in the present century, American newspapers were afraid to print an account of the Wright brothers’ first successful flight at Kitty Hawk. Had not all efforts at flight failed before? Did not Professor Langley’s flying machine go to the bottom of the Potomac River? Was it not true that the best mathematical minds had proved man could never fly? Had not people said God had reserved this privilege to the birds? Only thirty years later the conquest of the air was almost an old story and airplane travel was in full swing.

    But in most fields our generation has witnessed complete liberation in thinking. Show any longshoreman a Sunday supplement describing a proposal to explore the moon by means of a rocket and he will say, “I bet they do it—maybe not so long either.” Is not our age characterized by the ease with which we discard old ideas for new, by the complete readiness with which we throw away the theory or gadget which does not work for something new which does?

    We had to ask ourselves why we shouldn’t apply to our human problems this same readiness to change our point of view. We were having trouble with personal relationships, we couldn’t control our emotional natures, we were a prey to misery and depression, we couldn’t make a living, we had a feeling of uselessness, we were full of fear, we were unhappy, we couldn’t seem to be of real help to other people—was not a basic solution of these bedevilments more important than whether we should see newsreels of lunar flight? Of course it was.

    When we saw others solve their problems by a simple reliance upon the Spirit of the Universe, we had to stop doubting the power of God. Our ideas did not work. But the God idea did.

    The Wright brothers’ almost childish faith that they could build a machine which would fly was the mainspring of their accomplishment. Without that, nothing could have happened. We agnostics and atheists were sticking to the idea that self-sufficiency would solve our problems. When others showed us that “God-sufficiency” worked with them, we began to feel like those who had insisted the Wrights would never fly.

    Logic is great stuff. We like it. We still like it. It is not by chance we were given the power to reason, to examine the evidence of our sense, and to draw conclusions. That is one of man’s magnificent attributes. We agnostically inclined would not feel satisfied with a proposal which does not lend itself to reasonable approach and interpretation. Hence we are at pains to tell why we think our present faith is reasonable, why we think it more sane and logical to believe than not to believe, why we say our former thinking was soft and mushy when we threw up our hands in doubt and said, “We don’t know.”

    When we became alcoholics, crushed by a self-imposed crises we could not postpone or evade, we had to fearlessly face the proposition that either God is everything or else He is nothing. God either is or He isn’t. What was our choice to be?

    Arrived at this point, we were squarely confronted with the question of faith. We couldn’t duck the issue. Some of us had already walked far over the Bridge of Reason toward the desired shore of faith. The outlines and the promise of the New Land had brought lustre to tired eyes and fresh courage to flagging spirits. Friendly hands had stretched out in welcome. We were grateful that Reason had brought us so far. But somehow, we couldn’t quite step ashore. Perhaps we had been leaning too heavily on reason that last mile and we did not like to lose our support.

    That was natural, but let us think a little more closely. Without knowing it, had we not been brought to where we stood by a certain kind of faith? For did we not believe in our own reasoning? did we not have confidence in our ability to think? What was that but a sort of faith? Yes, we had been faithful, abjectly faithful to the God of Reason. So, in one way or another, we discovered that faith had been involved all the time!

    We found, too, that we had been worshippers. What a state of mental goose-flesh that used to bring on! Had we not variously worshipped people, sentiment, things, money, and ourselves? And then, with a better motive, had we not worshipfully beheld the sunset, the sea, or a flower? Who of us had not loved something or somebody? How much did these feelings, these loves, these worships, have to do with pure reason? Little or nothing, we saw at last. Were not these things the tissue out of which our lives were constructed? Did not these feelings, after all, determine the course of our existence? It was impossible to say we had no capacity for faith, or love, or worship. In one form or another we had been living by faith and little else.

    Imagine life without faith! Were nothing left but pure reason, it wouldn’t be life. But we believed in life—of course we did. We could not prove life in the sense that you can prove a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, yet, there it was. Could we still say the whole thing was nothing but a mass of electrons, created out of nothing, meaning nothing, whirling on to a destiny of nothingness? Or course we couldn’t. The electrons themselves seemed more intelligent than that. At least, so the chemist said.

    Hence, we saw that reason isn’t everything. Neither is reason, as most of us use it, entirely dependable, thought it emanate from our best minds. What about people who proved that man could never fly?

    Yet we had been seeing another kind of flight, a spiritual liberation from this world, people who rose above their problems. They said God made these things possible, and we only smiled. We had seen spiritual release, but liked to tell ourselves it wasn’t true.

    Actually we were fooling ourselves, for deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God. It may be obscured by calamity, by pomp, by worship of other things, but in some form or other it is there. For faith in a Power greater than ourselves, and miraculous demonstrations of that power in human lives, are facts as old as man himself.

    We finally saw that faith in some kind of God was a part of our make-up, just as much as the feeling we have for a friend. Sometimes we had to search fearlessly, but He was there. He was as much a fact as we were. We found the Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found. It was so with us.

    We can only clear the ground a bit. If our testimony helps sweep away prejudice, enables you to think honestly, encourages you to search diligently within yourself, then, if you wish, you can join us on the Broad Highway. With this attitude you cannot fail. the consciousness of your belief is sure to come to you.

    In this book you will read the experience of a man who thought he was an atheist. His story is so interesting that some of it should be told now. His change of heart was dramatic, convincing, and moving.

    Our friend was a minister’s son. He attended church school, where he became rebellious at what he thought an overdose of religious education. For years thereafter he was dogged by trouble and frustration. Business failure, insanity, fatal illness, suicide—these calamities in his immediate family embittered and depressed him. Post-war disillusionment, ever more serious alcoholism, impending mental and physical collapse, brought him to the point to self-destruction.

    One night, when confined in a hospital, he was approached by an alcoholic who had known a spiritual experience. Our friend’s gorge rose as he bitterly cried out: “If there is a God, He certainly hasn’t done anything for me!” But later, alone in his room, he asked himself this question: “Is it possible that all the religious people I have known are wrong?” While pondering the answer he felt as though he lived in hell. Then, like a thunderbolt, a great thought came. It crowded out all else:

    “Who are you to say there is no God?”

    This man recounts that he tumbled out of bed to his knees. In a few seconds he was overwhelmed by a conviction of the Presence of God. It poured over and through him with the certainty and majesty of a great tide at flood. The barriers he had built through the years were swept away. He stood in the Presence of Infinite Power and Love. He had stepped from bridge to shore. For the first time, he lived in conscious companionship with his Creator.

    Thus was our friend’s cornerstone fixed in place. No later vicissitude has shaken it. His alcoholic problem was taken away. That very night, years ago, it disappeared. Save for a few brief moments of temptation the though of drink has never returned; and at such times a great revulsion has risen up in him. Seemingly he could not drink even if he would. God had restored his sanity.

    What is this but a miracle of healing? Yet its elements are simple. Circumstances made him willing to believe. He humbly offered himself to his Maker—then he knew.

    Even so has God restored us all to our right minds. To this man, the revelation was sudden. Some of us grow into it more slowly. But He has come to all who have honestly sought Him.

    When we drew near to Him He disclosed Himself to us!

    That’s a whole lot of unambiguously religious sophistry and preaching right there.

    • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com/ George W.

      What the hell is that doing in any kind of recovery program? Holy Shit!
      I’m blown away. Flabbergasted. Angry even.
      Can every ounce of positive karma one has mentally built for an esteemed organization be pissed away in one single tract? Me thinks yes….

    • Daniel Fincke

      I feel very similarly, George. I always thought the question of whether this was a religious organization was much more open than I do now.

    • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com/ George W.

      I don’t know if I ever mentioned this to you before Dan, but I had my own issues with substance abuse in the past. I think that experience and my subsequent sobriety make me all the more angry to read something like that.

      That people are helpless without religion is unhelpful to anyone’s journey to sobriety, especially for those who struggle with substance abuse and the inability to relate to a personal conception of God. It also, I feel, leaves someone philosophically open to the idea that they don’t own their achievement of sobriety.
      I think any person could imagine the negative ramifications of that belief…..

  • http://www.mountaintrail.us Joel Justiss

    “thought we were atheists or agnostics”

    That sounds as condescending as anyone can get. It says, “We don’t know you, but we understand you better than you understand yourself.”

    Thanks for posting it, Daniel. It’s revealing and fascinating as well as revolting.

  • http://rockymountainoutpost.wordpress.com/ Kyle

    Wow, just wow. Their cornerstone quote must be from Psalms “The fool says in his heart there is no God”.

    “I don’t care what else is true about you. You don’t believe in (MY) God, therefore you are a fool, and hopelessly lost.”

  • kevin cody

    Richard wade:

    Most of them were able to make the adjustments in their heads and take advantage of the human support.

    I challenge this statement…but maybe just maybe your numbers suggestin over 50% sounds like an assumption because clinical statistics say at best 5% stay sober through using the the fringe religious cult (XA).

    peace.kc


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