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.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    the last woman’s experience is closest to my own. it’s a very cultish group, esp in areas that are heavily religious. there’s a great deal of overlap between 12 step ideas and religious ideas. and it can be very hard to discuss other approaches and treatments with people who cling to the cult as the only way they believe they (and everyone else) can stay sober/not practicing an addictive behavior.

    i was lucky, my family only marginally pressured me to use it. i did a few times, had no real success, and realized that some of the fundamental assumptions it expected members to make were actually damaging to me psychologically. it certainly fucked up my mother, and my father died believing that he was a bad person, when nothing could’ve been further than the truth. all because of a half baked, part religion, part social pressure system, part cult and its need to propagate itself (as all religions do).

    the thing i dislike the most about it, and i said this on the other thread, is the number of “successful” people i know who cheat, or fail to conform to the spirit of the program honestly and fully. people who have essentially exchanged on addictive practice for another, but with “good” substitutes. mood enhancing Rx drugs instead of booze, pot instead of crack, obsession with foods that are healthy instead of fattening, but obsessions nonetheless. the worst are the people who spend so much time telling others they will fail, if they try to control substance use and abuse any other way. sometimes the arrogance is astounding, in addition to being offensive, and cruel to people in times of crisis looking for answers.

    if it is working for you, that’s terrific. i’ve found other ways that don’t involve me acting like a cult member that i prefer. i encourage anyone struggling with addiction to carefully review ALL your options and make a decision based on successful ones for people like yourself. AA’s biggest crime is convincing a whole generation of teachers, judges, doctors and other professionals that it and it alone is the path to success. the numbers, however, do not back this up at all, and a very high number of 12 step program ‘graduates’ slip back into use later in life.

  • Katie

    I also had an experience similar to that of the last woman. My mother was devoted to Al-Anon. My father had years of sobriety in AA. However, those years of sobriety were a nightmare. In my experience, AA is a program that only wants to keep you from drinking. It doesn’t want you to become mentally healthy or address the issues that lead you to self-medicate. It teaches you that you’re helpless and your alcoholism is a disease that you can do nothing about expect never, ever drink. My father has issues but the drinking was only a symptom. Keeping him from drinking didn’t make him happy. He was still a miserable, hateful, cheating abusive asshole. He needed serious counseling from a professional. He abandoned his family for a 19 year-old and went back to drinking when I was eight. From the age of 10, I was forced to go to Alateen meetings where my much older sister was the group sponsor. In fact, she was the Alateen coordinator for the entire state. It’s a cultish organization filled with sick people who aren’t getting real help. They just sit around and confirm how broken they are all.

    At fourteen, I was tired of being forced into social situations with these other kids. I didn’t want to talk about god and complain about my dad who hadn’t been in my life for the past six years. I wanted to be healthy and happy and get on with my life. I sure as shit was tired of being told that I was going to become an alcoholic and ruin my life if I ever had just one drink. I was told that if I ever drank, my life would spin out of control and I would end up just like my father. I was told that I was forever damaged. I was told I was different from all the kids who didn’t grow up in alcoholic families. I started to refuse to attend meetings where I felt the older boys were starting to notice me too much. I didn’t like how everyone was dating each other in the groups. I was happy and didn’t want to be told I wasn’t. My mother and sister would lecture me on how I NEEDED Alateen. When I refused to attend a week-long convention, they signed me up anyway and tried to physically drag me into the van. I was on crutches from spraining my ankle. They took my crutches away and dragged me outside and down the gravel driveway. I fought like they were dragging me to hell. Screaming and kicking and injuring myself further. I wasn’t sick. I was going to have my own path in life. I wasn’t going to stay in that cult of sickness. They gave up and let me stay home but didn’t speak to me for days. There was hostility about my leaving the organization for years.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty
  • MNb

    “I didn’t Cause it, couldn’t Cure it, and couldn’t Control it”
    Ah, some good old-fashioned christian bigotry. Well, my father was addicted and his mother was. His father never drank a drop though, which is the ultimate Control.
    As the uncle from my mother’s side also has been addicted (and overcome it) I know I am genetically doomed. For one thing I have liked alcohol since I was 13 or 14 and I have done some binging as well. As a result my tolerance is pretty high. Still since I had a small problem with my liver I have considerably lowered my consumption; now it’s perhaps two liter beer a week. What’s more, now I’m getting a bit old my stomach gets full pretty quickly. But I plan to increase my consumption considerably when I’m really old, because I enjoy my beer, my port wine and my Surinamese rum. I also enjoy being half drunk.
    All in all I’m the living refutation of AA.

  • A3Kr0n

    I didn’t have an experience like the last woman. I agree that sober drunks can keep each other sober. The meetings I went to don’t push God, but there are still the serenity prayer at the beginning, and the Lord’s prayer at the end. Every meeting, it seems, devolved into a gratitude meeting thanking the higher power whom many chose to call God.. Of course you don’t have to participate, you can stand all by yourself. Alone. That’s not really a fellowship building atmosphere IMO. For many years I just tried to get along but never fitting in with all those who choose God, Jesus, a tree to be their higher power. The district even elected me District Chair Member once so I got to go to Madison WI a lot for the area meetings. That all changed after I saw “Intelligent Design On Trial” several years ago. I was surprised it was still an issue, and when I started looking into it I got very angry, and I couldn’t rationalize AA anymore. I’m still looking for a place to start my own meetings, and I even have another member, maybe two! I was thinking of calling it the Free Thinker’s Sobriety Club until we can come up with another name.

    • Karen

      Check into SMART Recovery.

    • http://twitter.com/spookiewon Pjay (Patti) Pender

      Personally, I don’t believe in “sober drunks.” That seems to me to be just another bit of AA propaganda. I think once you stop drinking and have dealt with what led you to drink in the first place, which could require a professional, you’re not a drunk anymore. This idea that you can’t be “cured” or that “once an alcoholic always an alcoholic” is pure pseudoscientific nonsense and is exactly the result of the “you didn’t cause it, you couldn’t cure it and you can’t control it” mentality. If you can’t control it, no one can.

      • A3Kr0n

        After many years of drinking your body changes in response to alcohol. I’m not exactly sure what changes, but your liver does for sure. There’s no going back, either. Many many people have said when they started drinking again it was like the they never quit, they picked up where they left off. It may sound very much like AA propaganda, but I know with my experience with alcohol that drinking again, even as an experiment would be an experiment in insanity. It would be no different than thinking “the bullet won’t go off THIS time” when playing Russian Roulette. It may not, but eventually it will.

        • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

          quitting drinking successfully is at least three parts:

          1. stop drinking. completely, at least for a while
          2. the “while” is defined by two things:
          a) how much damage you’ve done to your body, which in turn depends on how much and for how long you were a drinker (same is mostly true for drug use and food abuse)
          b) how much help, if any, and for how long, you will need to address the roots causes of your abuse, assuming you agree with the notion that what you were doing was actually abuse and not just ‘a bad run for a while there’ or ‘hanging out with the wrong people’ or something like that, which you are over now.

          pro counseling may help. you may also need to supplement your diet with various vitamins, chemical supplements and other medically based products which address the effects of long term substance addiction/use on brain chemistry. many studies have shown it can be hard to fix that quickly or simply and should be done in conjunction with medical and dietary/nutrition expert assistance.

          correct the damage done to your brain and body, address the root causes for making poor choices, and it’s possible that you could be a ‘regular’ user who enjoys but no longer abuses, once you’ve fixed the problems.

        • smrnda

          Not all problem drinkers are really addicted. Some people have underlying psychiatric problem that, once treated, fixes their drinking and they can even resume occasional social drinking. True addicts probably have to stop completely, at least that’s where the evidence seems to point, but AA doesn’t seem to be concerned with accurate categorization of people with drinking problems. They have one solution and they have to sell everyone on the same solution.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Travis-Dykes/19217851 Travis Dykes

        It depends on how they are defining the “sober drunks” term. When I was in my psych rotation in clinicals, I heard it described in a few different ways. The one that made sense to me is that a sober drunk is someone who is technically sober, but picks up other self destructive tendencies because they have not fixed the underlying problem. For example, a person may quite drinking, but start throwing themselves into their work as a means of escape and working 90 or 100 hour weeks every week, or exercising to the point of passing out every day or multiple times a day.

        The point is, they can say hey look I’m sober, but they still are not well yet.

        Uve heard other far less convincing descriptions of the term though.

        • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

          I’ve been called a “dry drunk” for pointing out AA’s (many ginormous) flaws and that, according to most standards, AA meets the definition of a mind-control cult. And, you know, I have the nerve to *gasp* enjoy a pint now and again.

  • John the Drunkard

    A lengthy message of mine failed to post. I am quoted above, (sober and god-free since 1988) just want to underline what should be obvious points:

    Al-Anon is NOT AA, Al-Ateen is NOT AA. Synanon was never AA, your local holy roller church is NOT AA.

    Since any given AA meeting is made up of whoever shows up, no one can control what any individual encounters at any particular meeting.

    Fringe ‘A’ groups (Al-Anon, SLAA etc.) are often focused on problems quite unlike alcoholism. Old AA cliché: It’s not whose right, it’s whose left. In groups like Al-Anon deranged personalities can find comfort and/or victims. There is no binary check on what these people do. In AA, the weirder, more dysfunctional sorts tend to be selected out by relapsing. There is still the hazard of dominant personalities and/or religious cliques creating parallel subcultures within AA.

    Such cultish groups thrive on an exaggerated reverence for Sponsorship, and its attending weakening of the egalitarian community of AA membership.

    The Big Book contains NO mention of sponsorship, there is an AA pamphlet on sponsorship which specifically deflates any notion of ‘rules’ or authority. There are no AA police to enforce this though.

    Please check
    http://www.aacultwatch.co.uk/
    for an over view of the kinds of characters prowling the fringes of AA, and the fellowship’s vulnerability to abusive groups and individuals

    • ExAnon

      It’s great to see a group working to minimize the cult-like portions of AA. I hope it progresses and is able to impact AA as a whole some day.

      However, in our area, AA is the opposite of how you describe it. The large majority of AA members here have sponsors and sponsor others in very cult-like ways. They are not the fringe of the group in any way. They run all the AA groups, they are the delegates for the GSO, they meet in the thousands at regional conferences where they can listen to their great-great-grand-sponsor speak again and wait in line to give them a hug afterward. If you want to avoid it and still be involved with AA, you will be left out. There are a handful of ‘sponsorship lines’ here which all sponsor each other in similar ways. I met only a few people who weren’t in these lines, and they were all but shunned. We gossiped behind their backs, called them ‘dry drunks’ and wondered when they would drink again or get a proper sponsor.

      Yes, members of AA who aren’t doing well are more likely to drop out of the program than in Al-Anon because of relapse. However, the newcomers who got in one of the big ‘sponsorship lines’ right away were more likely to make it through their first few years. As dysfunctional as they may be, they definitely surround the newcomer with more than enough ‘help’ and ‘support’ to keep them from drinking. Once through their first few years, they were much less likely to drink again no matter how dysfunctional they were, since all of their friends were in AA and most of their spare time is spent with AA.

      I tried to find the AA pamphlet about sponsorship, but the only one I could find from the GSO was this one:
      http://www.aa.org/pdf/products/p-15_Q&AonSpon.pdf
      Nowhere did it deflate the rules or authority of sponsorship. In fact it gives many rules of it’s own – who should be a sponsor, who should be your sponsor, how you should sponsor others, etc. All the people I know in AA who practice the cultish sponsorship would completely agree with this pamphlet.
      In addition to that, they have another article explaining how vital sponsorship is to sobriety:
      http://www.aa.org/en_pdfs/smf-110_en.pdf

      Although the first 164 pages of the Big Book doesn’t say the word sponsor, it definitely talks about sponsorship. I used to attend meetings on the topic of sponsorship, and we would read from Ch 7: Working with Others. From this chapter many of the messed up, cult-like practices can be defended. The pages after the first 164 change every few years, but they definitely talk about sponsorship.

      Although AA is not the same as Al-Anon, Alateen, or other groups, they are all derived from the same materials and 12 steps. As you point out, AA is not immune from the cultish stuff. In my experience, however, it was at least as bad in AA as in the local Al-Anon or Alateen groups – it was definitely not limited to ‘characters prowling on the fringe of AA.’

      • Katie

        That’s how it is where I am, too. I can’t even wrap my mind around the concept of Alateen and Al-Anon being separate entities from AA. In my area, they’re run out of the same central office by the same people. All three organizations have meetings that meet in the same place at the same times. We all knew who the leaders in our area were. Local AA conferences had events for Al-Anon and Alateen.

        I want to be clear that my family was not particularly religious. We went to church on major holidays. But they were wholeheartedly into the cult of 12 Steps. We attended conferences. We had books and literature. My parents were sponsors of other people and had their own sponsors. We had audiotapes of speeches given at conferences that we’d listen to for entertainment. I could rattle off any number of “slogans” which are pretty much just cult-speak in my opinion. Most of them are troubling. “It works if you work it.” “Fake it ’til you make it.” “I can’t. He can. So let Him.” “Let go and let God.” “Stick with the winners.” “AA is not something you join, it’s a way of life.” “Remember that alcoholism is incurable, progressive and fatal.” Very empowering, yeah? No wonder they have such a terrible success rate. And again, I take issue with the idea that “success” is simply never drinking. Most of these families are still insanely dysfunctional, even in sobriety.

        • ExAnon

          Oh, I forgot about the speaker tapes! I would play these non-stop in my car, and so would all of my friends in the program. We all had pretty large collections and would trade them with each other and keep libraries at our meetings to lend them out. One person had their car broken into, but all that was taken was their big CD case of speaker tapes. We all laughed at that and hoped the thief was an alcoholic and would listen to the tapes. We would carpool 8 hours to go to a national conference, and listen to speaker tapes the whole way there. Then we would listen to the same people talk live once we got there, and do the same thing on the way home. There are even a few speaker tapes of me.

          • Katie

            To be fair, they can be pretty entertaining. There’s something to be said for being able to laugh at the mess that was/is your life. I’m afraid if I listened to them now, I’d cringe. However, if I treated them like a really long stand-up routine, that might not be so bad.

  • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ Bubba Tarandfeathered

    Alcoholics and Addicts and Religionists share a common genotype Extremism and they all suffer from some sort of Affective Spectrum Disorder. They delude themselves into believing there was never a past when they were sober or god didn’t exist. In their minds God, AA, NA have always existed. The hypocrisy that exists in AA/NA and religion is hilarious. It’s all just more levels of denial. Atheism is the Recovery Program from Religion. Even our “program” is a delusion wrought with denial. Atheism is just another failing attempt to find meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. Only when you fully embrace the Absurd will you find freedom from Meaning.

  • Ronlawhouston

    People quit addictive behaviors because they want to due to the negative effects in their lives. (The one thing the AA model get right is the “our lives had become unmanageable” part.) Addiction can often be a dopamine disorder and is similar to compulsive behaviors like hand washing. So, often substituting some other more productive compulsive behavior (such as “memorizing and working steps” or simply going to meetings) can help someone get their minds focused on something other than their preferred obsession with drugs, alcohol or whatever they use.

    To say that AA, Jesus, or whatever “cured” their addiction is a fallacious argument. Fundamentally what “cured” them was their desire to end an undesirable behavior and substitute something that is more functional in our society. The compulsion component is why things like cognitive therapy while being effective often aren’t viewed as “cures.”

    As to the effectiveness of AA, you have to factor in the people that can simply quit. Many folks go through series after series of 12-step in patient and outpatient and then one day just quit. Clearly, if AA were so effective you’d think it would have cured them on the first, second or third try.

    I oppose AA not due to any religious or non-religious belief. I just don’t think the evidence that supports AA is anything other than anecdotal evidence. It’s not based on any sound science.


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