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: