Can an Atheist Get Sober in AA?

Apologies at the outset if this seems a slightly patronising question (which it is) but it is one that a number of people do ask, and is generally around the so called issue of the God question in AA.

The history of AA largely revolves around the experience of people’s understanding and interpretation of God, and at the same time the freedom to experience this in anyway they do.

Part of this experience has always been a thread of underlying pressure for people to at some point come round to a belief in God in some way, shape or form.

People who would consider themselves atheists often feel they are being sort of being tolerated, with an expectation that at some point they will come round to the God view.

Right to Believe

Society as a whole has in many ways had the same problem for decades and centuries, reinforced by the institutional nature of organised religion.

Whilst AA doesn’t have any organised religious involvement, it does have a degree of being institutionalised, which can manifest itself in a degree of rigidity, both structurally and individually.

This often leads to people being referred to either as believers or non-believers, or believers or atheists.

Labels

It is almost a bit too obvious, but it does need saying, that labels of all sorts carry an inherent risk. They run the risk of putting people in a box, and categorising them from the outside in.

People sometimes like labels because it gives them a sense of external identity, something to hang onto, something to belong to, a sort of tribalism.

Understandable though this is, it also means that labels in effect carry very little meaning. Describing someone as a believer or an atheist in reality means very little if anything.

Arguments

There are so many different arguments that people seem to want to go with about whether or not God exists as to drown out the real issue.

Most of the arguments seem to centre around a theoretical idea, and people’s ability to prove it or not. This is certainly the case with a lot of organised religion, and one of the reasons it is so divisive in its nature,

Theoretical Beliefs

Theoretical beliefs are in effect a form of ideology, and wherever they have come from, they tend to become very tribal in nature, and normally end up being a rallying point for most types of fundamentalism.

Religion has probably been saved, not by its ideology, but by the fact that there are numerous people who have had some type of spiritual experience that manifests itself in Christianity and other religions.

Experience

Going back to labels, and why they are potentially very dangerous. People may come to a label, whether it is that of believer or atheist, because it seems to give them cover for where they are coming from.

This quickly can become something of a trap, as changing your ideas or beliefs then removes you from that label, and the sense of safety that may go with it.

On the whole, labels should really be avoided, and in effect replaced by the individual’s sense of self, and their ability to trust in their own experience.

AA as a Body of Experience

People sometimes forget that the book Alcoholics Anonymous was written to preserve the body of experience of the early members of AA, and to share that experience with anyone who wanted to read the book.

At the time the book was written, AA had two groups, one in Akron and one in New York.

Part of the purpose of the book was to share this experience with the whole world, and allow anyone who wanted to, to use the experience in the book to get sober and stay sober.

This principle was quickly established as the root of AA. That AA was essentially a body of experience, that anyone could use in any way they wanted to in order to get sober and stay sober.

This dual thread of AA was and is still core to its very existence. The structure of AA has continually reaffirmed the literature of AA as being deemed to be the experience of AA from its start to the present day, worldwide.

This experience is open to anyone who wants to use it. This gives people a freedom to interpret the experience of AA in any way they choose. Period.

Experience and Belief Systems

It is likely that now always been to be people who belief systems about God, whether for or against believing. What AA can offer is a way through this.

AA gives people the benefit of its experience, and at the same time freedom to use that experience, or any part of it as they see fit.

Whilst in theory this is the best of both worlds, in reality this freedom is often hugely abused. People often see other people’s freedom as a threat to their own identity or belief system.

This sense of a threat often leads people to try and curtail other people’s freedom, either through some type of bullying, or through the well practised fear factor.

AA, and the 12 step movement generally, should have nothing to do with either. Bullying and fear factors have no place in the world of recovery.

Happy Joyous and Free

This phrase of  happy joyous and free from the book Alcoholics Anonymous is often one of the most quoted. It is often used as a sort of symbolic embrace of the AA 12 step program, and what it can offer.

The bit that is perhaps most important is the word free. In large part this because this freedom, the sense of being free is a precondition of the other two.

The reality is that many people in AA do not experience this freedom, not because they cannot, but because it is often curtailed by other people, intentionally or not.

This curtailment of freedom can take many forms, but is perhaps most common around the issue of the God question.

The issue is not really that belief or unbelief, God or atheist, but around people’s ultimate freedom to be themselves, and the right to have their own experience whatever that may be.

This right is paramount and absolute.

Depriving people of this right may ultimately deprive them of the freedom to attend AA or use its literature, which ultimately is about that right to recover from alcoholism, and potentially about their right to life itself.


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