Atheists Chime in on Alcoholics Anonymous (Continued)

Continuing the previous discussion:

One reader feels that atheism and Alcoholics Anonymous are incompatible… but there may still be a way to merge the two worlds:

The “Big Book” is most alcoholics’ go-to reference, and some might even say that a Higher Power is essential to the program. Most talk about a Higher Power is usually in the triple “O” terms (Omnipotent, Omnipresent, and Omniscient) during meetings. God is all over this program, and many times the “Big Book” talks in terms that seem very cult-like. Also in my experience, many of the practices and traditions seem very dogmatic.

When you speak out against these things, you hear a lot of, “Oh, you’re just in denial,” “Just give in to it and everything will get better,” “I was that way, too, but you’ll see, God will prove himself.” A lot of times, I feel like people are implying that this program has supernatural powers or, at least, that their Higher Power does, something that I object to.

Such things are very troubling to me, and I have yet to find significant workarounds. However, many times, I have been told by other members to “take what you need and leave the rest.” To those skeptical about the program, I will say that from my experience, the social aspect of the program and the support it provides might possibly be enough on its own to help non-believers stay sober. Just like everything else in our religiously defined society, you can probably take use of the program without compromising yourself.

Another strongly disagrees:

I have been a sober “god-free” member of Alcoholics Anonymous since 1988. I have NEVER had to pretend to believe and only occasionally have I needed to pipe up in defense of a godless world view.

If the language of the Twelve Steps is unacceptable to you, guess what? You don’t have to accept it, or pretend to. Don’t drink, take things a day at a time, and share your experience with other alcoholics. If you are sober as long as I am, you see scores of “true believers” relapse while we stay sober on the simple basis of honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness.

In recent years, I have noticed a tendency for meetings to become more conformist and uniform in their conduct and language. This seems to be driven by the practices of treatment facilities (“Spin Dries”), odd trends in Narcotics Anonymous and Al-Anon, and the determined infiltration of the Religious Right.

Another adds that it’s the community interaction that supersedes any notion of God:

When another AA member comes in who is also vocal about being an atheist or even wondering if they can talk about their doubt, they are sent to me and I say there are lots of higher powers: gravity, the IRS, the DEA, and so on. And in steps where it says “God,” it always adds: as we understood him. I tell them I understand. God to me is man-made, but it is a concept that is used in nearly all cultures and times, and what is important is what the word “God” means to you. Group of Drunks? Good Orderly Direction? Whatever works for you.

If I am at an AA meeting and someone says they are atheist or agnostic, I always seek them up and give them hope and my phone number and tell them a lot of what I listed above.

If there is any tool for recovery that is very useful, at least for me and most of the addicts I know, it is to not be alone and to hang out with other recovering addicts a lot, at least at first.

Finally, a reader shares her incredible history with AA-like organizations:

My mother is an alcoholic, and she’s been in AA since I was a toddler. My parents divorced soon after that, and I grew up with her. So, I was raised in the program. I sat outside of meetings with a Happy Meal and listened to the group recite the 12 steps, 12 traditions, Serenity Prayer, opening and closing statements, slogans, and the Lord’s Prayer. I had everything memorized by the time I was 10, and I took all of it as gospel I remember my mom explaining to me how even though she loved me so much, I really had to come third in her life. God was first, and her sobriety was second. Around that time, people in the program started pressuring her to send me to Alateen, a group for children of alcoholics. So, I started going to meetings with her and even AA conferences — where thousands would meet to listen to people share their experiences. I hated the meetings, I wanted to hang out with my friends instead, and after a while my mom gave up and stopped forcing me to go as often, though she still continued to pressure me.

The meetings taught me I wasn’t in control, and that I should give up my will and my life to God instead. I was told that alcoholism was a family disease, that it was genetic, and that I didn’t Cause it, couldn’t Cure it, and couldn’t Control it. If I didn’t get a sponsor and start working the 12 Steps now, I would either become an alcoholic or marry one, and then I would go insane and die. That really scared me, and that’s what got me to come back later. It made me believe, as a preteen, that I was destined to fail. I saw every failure and every bad day as proof that my will and my decisions were flawed, that maybe I did need the program to run my life. I didn’t want to risk being wrong and end up destroying my life.

Inevitably, I had one too many bad days and I started earnestly going to Al-Anon meetings (for families of alcoholics) when I was 15. I got a sponsor, whom I called every day for years. I would go over my day with her, and she would guide my decisions and point out everywhere I didn’t do something as well as I could have. Growing up with an unpredictable mother, I was a huge perfectionist. Having someone point out my flaws daily and give me a new set of rules to follow was a big deal. I followed every single rule exactly, and I slowly lost all of my self confidence and my sense of self. All throughout my teenage years I had no privacy — my sponsor knew everything. She also had rules for me outside of Al-Anon. No sex until marriage. No asking boys out on dates — they needed to ask me. It was a requirement to wear skirts on dates, and I wasn’t allowed to pay for anything. And this was all less than 10 years ago! I started dating my husband while I was still in the program and Al-Anon nearly ended our relationship many times. I told my sponsor every detail of our relationship, so he justifiably had a hard time trusting me or opening up to me. My sponsor did not want me dating him because he wasn’t part of a 12 Step program, and often encouraged me to break it off with him. He watched my personality fluctuate as I struggled to suppress my will and follow the program.

A huge part of Twelve Step programs is passing on the message. So, soon after I started I was working to indoctrinate other teenagers, too. I went to all the public high schools in my city and promoted Alateen (just like the post a few days ago about Overeaters Anonymous). I sponsored these kids and drove them to meetings when I had my license. I ran meetings and started new groups shared my experience at AA events. I was like a poster-child for Alateen in my area. My mom would have me talk to other AA members to convince them to send their kids to Alateen. I would make friends with all the other kids sitting outside the AA meetings, trying to get them to come to Alateen too. I was encouraged to go to two weekend conferences a year, three meetings a week, and every day I called my sponsor, took calls from my sponsees, read the Alateen Al-Anon and AA literature, worked the 12 Steps, and prayed for God to take away my will so I could better follow His will. This became my whole life. Everyone my sponsor sponsored was my “sister.” We created an entire family tree out of this, called a sponsorship line. We would celebrate our Al-Anon birthdays with lots of rituals and traditions. We would throw big pot-lucks for our whole Al-Anon family to celebrate, and we lined up in our “pecking-order” (how much time we had in the program) in order to get the food. It was weird and pretty creepy, but it made me feel included. I felt like my life had a purpose. The people with the most time in the program were really looked up to. When we went on these weekend conferences it was a tradition to really pamper your sponsor and all the people who had been around longer than you. We would sneak gifts on their pillows and bring them coffee or carry their things. I envied them, and I really saw myself staying in the program my whole life. I wanted that kind of treatment, too.

I finally quit when I was in my senior year of college. Once I got away from my 12-Step-oriented family, I started to realize people were living their lives just fine without the program. I was also having a hard time balancing the demands of school with the demands of the program. There weren’t any meetings near my school, so I spent hours carpooling and taking buses to the nearest meetings. My sponsor suggested I drop some of my course load so I could work part time and afford a car. Instead, I dropped Al-Anon. It was really hard. Al-Anon was a huge part of my identity and my pride, so it was really painful and scary to leave it behind, but at this point it was just as painful to stay. I also lost all of my “family” in Al-Anon. After sharing so much and spending so much of my life with them, they really were family. They all confronted me, told me what a mistake I was making, how my life would be ruined, how much they loved and cared and were worried about me, etc. But when I left the program, they left me, too.

Fortunately, my life has been much better and happier without Al-Anon. In the years after I left, I was able to build my own confidence and personality, as I should have as a teenager. AA really was my religion, and seeing that I could leave it without destroying my life shattered all my other views. I started looking at everything else I believed. This was how I was able to question God and become an atheist.

The post that started this whole thread is right here.

You can also send along your own experiences to me (anonymity guaranteed).

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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